Prop Culture: A Nostalgic Road-Trip

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Marni Hill – Released not too long ago on Disney+, depending on where you are in the world, Prop Culture is a docuseries hosted by Dan Lanigan. The show features one classic Disney-owned movie per episode, featuring famous props and the people who either created them or are the current owners. The final episode of season one is based around a film we all know and love dearly: 1979’s The Muppet Movie. 

We begin the journey with Dan visiting The Jim Henson Company in Hollywood to chat to Brian Henson. Unfortunately, there really was not anything Brian divulged about the location of Muppet Movie props, much to the disappointment of Dan. However, Brian does give some insight into how some props and costumes were reused and adjusted for other purposes. Which, really, is not something to be surprised about. The Muppets were having their hay day at the time and the Muppet Workshop would have been constantly on the move, especially with The Muppet Show still ongoing. Brian mentions that it was mostly his mother, Jane Henson, who would encourage Jim to preserve a few items here and there.

Muppet Movie - Bus in Hollywood

Brian also shares the story about the fate of the Electric Mayhem bus. I did a little digging (and by ‘digging’, I mean Muppet Wiki), to find out a little more. Apparently, after its appearance in Muppets from Space, the bus was sold for $50,000 US, paraded around in charity events, put up for sale again, but went up in flames in 2009 before it could find a new home. Which is a shame all around, as I am sure we would all have loved to see it preserved safely in a museum somewhere.

Dan travels next to Pasadena to meet Drew Struzan, a renowned film poster illustrator who has done work for The Muppets a few times over the years. We see Muppet Treasure Island and Muppet Christmas Carol posters, but of course the main attraction here is the beautiful The Muppet Movie poster. When Drew brings it out, the original looks like it was only freshly painted the day before, let alone over 30 years ago. It’s so vibrant and full of life, I’m not surprised when Drew remarks that Jim wanted only him to paint his characters as Drew drew (sorry, I had to!) the characters the same way Jim felt about them inside. It is just one of many sweet, meaningful stories we hear about Jim and the crew he put together in this episode. 

Next place on the agenda is The Muppets Studio in Burbank, where Dan meets two legends of the Muppet Workshop, Amy Van Gilder and Calista Hendrickson. The props featured here are two famous costumes from Miss Piggy’s big fantasy scene after laying eyes on Kermit for the first time. The renaissance peasant dress was chosen to be featured on Struzan’s poster. The Victorian summer day dress, along with the peasant dress was made with a lot of ‘raw material’ as Calista notes. The level of detail on the costumes are incredible considering how short of screentime they receive. It just builds on my already great deal of respect for the creativity of these amazing people. I’m not surprised when “Not doing it anymore” is the answer to how difficult it is to create costumes for the Muppets. I can imagine how hard it would be to leave such an amazing legacy behind. 

Studebaker

After seeing a few wonderful behind-the-scenes shots taken by Amy, Dan moves on to The Studebaker Museum in Southbend, Indiana. He is accompanied by Joel Hodgeson, comedian, puppeteer and co-creator of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Aside from Dan himself, it is nice to meet someone else who is a fan of The Muppet Movie and see how it had influenced their life. The film encouraged Joel to pursue puppetry, but he didn’t want to seem like he’s merely copying Jim, so the puppet characters in his show were robots and other metallic beings. Joel admires the way the puppetry in the film was pretty much all done in-camera, apart from the shot of Kermit and Fozzie dancing on the stage in the El Sleezo. 

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Dan and Joel are accompanied by museum curator Aaron Warkentin. Fozzie’s Studebaker, apparently a modified Bullet Nose Commander (1951) is noticeably lacking its famous groovy paintjob. The base lines are still there, however much of the paint was in watercolours, making it easy to remove during production. What I found particularly interesting was all the rigging done within the car itself. You can clearly see where Jim and Frank had to lie down in order to perform Kermit and Fozzie. As you would expect, it looks super uncomfortable, but it wouldn’t be a Muppet production if the puppeteers didn’t ignore their self-preservation in some form, now would it? 

As Aaron explains, the “bullet hole” on in the Studebakers grill is where a camera was placed so the driver shoved in the very back of the car could see where he was going. And we meet the son of said driver within a storage unit in Portland, Oregon. Robbie Knott worked in special effects on the film, but sadly passed away long many years ago. According to son Brian, along with his work on the Studebaker, Robbie designed the rig for Kermit’s iconic bicycle scene. The original mechanical rig worked perfectly until they put Kermit on, causing the bike to fall over, so Robbie manually performed the rig instead from above. An outstanding piece of ingenuity.

Elsleezo

The prop featured here is the giant El Sleezo café sign, its paint job very worn, but still recognisable, nonetheless. Brian points out the deliberate imperfections in the lettering, remarking that even the smallest of details was important to his father. The Muppet Movie was what Robbie considered his crowning achievement and in his last days, he would sit and gaze at the big old sign and remember. This story made me tear up a little. For us fans, these props are important. It is interesting to us to see where they ended up and what condition they are in, but to the people who created them in the first place? These props are reminders of their achievements. In Robbie’s case, the sign reminded him of his fondest memories. In Brian’s case, the sign is a symbol of who his father was on the inside. I do not blame him for getting a little misty eyed.

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Next spot on this great adventure is The Museum of Moving Image in Queens, New York which Muppet fans will recognise for its permanent Jim Henson exhibition. Here we meet curator Barbara Williams, who I am rather envious of as I would love to preserve and teach people about Muppet history for a living. We get a glimpse of a Kermit puppet alongside Jim’s headband with a microphone attached. Barbara, practically taking the words from my mouth, believes that The Muppet Movie is not too dissimilar from Jim’s own life journey, starting from humble beginnings in Mississippi to Hollywood fame and fortune as he creates his vision and brings remarkable people together. 

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The main attraction is the Gonzo plumber statue, missing its plunger and a hand, but still in great condition considering it is built out of biscuit foam, PVC pipe and silver paint. Barbara remarks on how the statue reflects how Gonzo believes he presents himself to the world. Noble, someone to be admired as a…. great fixer of pipes, I suppose? It is also noted that in any other production, the statue would have been made from metal, but that is not how Jim Henson and his crew worked. It is a statue of a Muppet, so it is going to be built like a Muppet. How else?

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Speaking of the long-nosed Whatever, my envy turns from Barbara to Dan as he greets Gonzo in San Francisco, presenting him with the cap and vest he wore in the film. There is an easy back and forth between man and Muppet, as if Dan has been hanging around them all his life. Gonzo tries the hat on again, but not the vest, joking that it may not fit anymore (honestly, he is built to be a little bulkier these days, so I do not blame him). The clothes evidently have less significance to Gonzo then the reminder the film is to him of how Kermit brought their strange family together. The whole interview is extremely sweet and simply shows off the quick humour of Dave Goelz.

And, oh look, there is the man himself! To Gonzo, Dave might or might be his valet, but to Dan (and of course us) he is a living legacy in himself, now the last standing active Muppet Performer from the original crew. It is an absolute delight to see and hear from him. Dave discusses where his characters come from within his personality. Dr Bunsen Honeydew is the scientific type that gets lost in the little details, Zoot is always off in his own world and Gonzo is always trying his best to fit in the world of show business. For Dave, the act of making his flaws lovable ended up being rather therapeutic. Dave remembers Jim collecting people from a variety of different backgrounds. He was a ‘harvester of diversity’, which no doubt contributed to the amazing art created by his team.

paul williams

The final destination for this episode looks vaguely like the studio Kermit sat in before The Magic Store begins. Called back to Hollywood by Brian Henson, Dan walks into a vacant studio to see Paul Williams of all people waiting for him. Now, I went into this completely blind, not even reading the summary, so all these guests came as a surprise. Now imagine my pure joy to see Paul, someone so integral to the icon that is The Muppet Movie. I will admit that I audibly squealed and clapped for joy. Paul and Kenny Ascher (who is sadly forgotten quite often) created what is arguably the most solid Muppet soundtrack for any of their film. Paul has come back time and time again and I have always hoped there would be one more occasion in which he would contribute some great lyrics to their already outstanding discography.

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The episode truly saves the best prop for last, having already been mentioned a few times; Kermit the Frog’s original banjo. As Paul remarks, “Be still, my heart.” The banjo’s last appearance (as far as I’m aware) was sometime during 2011’s The Muppets. As Dan remarks, the strap may have been replaced, but the body is still in great condition, made of balsa/base wood and aluminium. It is easy for Paul to joke about waiting around for Kermit to tune it. Apparently, Rainbow Connection was intended to have a very ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ feeling to it. Jim wanted the familiar Americana-feel only a banjo could bring. Paul also mentions a story of how Jim only really got a grasp on the song after putting Kermit on his hand.

Paul ponders on how there is a spiritual connection between some inanimate objects, their creators and the people who use and hold them. There did not have to be details on the back of the banjo, but there they are anyway. I was not aware of this until seeing the banjo up close, and yet deep down, I always knew it would be there. That is what I have come to expect from The Muppets because the people behind them, the puppeteers, builders, costume designers, set designers, special effects artists, artwork illustrators, songwriters and music composers all have one thing in common. They all have the creative drive and determination that Jim found in them and wanted to bring together. 

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The Muppet Movie is far more than Jim’s legacy. As we saw with Brian Knotts, he carries the spirit his father Robbie instilled in him. Just look at the new generation of creators contributing to The Muppets. Many of them may never have taken this path in their lives if those who worked on The Muppet Movie had not inspired them in the first place. Even look as far as the fandom with its own set of creative types. I certainly would not be writing this very article if I had not fallen in love with the behind-the-scenes aspect of such a legendary film.

I consider myself a decent writer. It is what I want to do with my life and Jim Henson has given me more content and more opportunities to do what I love than anything else in my life. The Muppet Movie means more to me than I could possibly say in colourful words, as I am sure many reading this sentence can agree. A huge thanks to Dan Lanigan for reminding me just how lucky we are to be living in the afterglow of such an amazing production.