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Tales behind the Tails, Part II

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Mister Ed: Total Prima Donna

arn3.pngBamboo Harvester was already something of an equine star before he landed the role of Mr. Ed. Born in 1949, he'd traveled across the United States many times winning top awards in various horse shows (including the prestigious Madison Square Garden show). The Palomino was 11 when he was tapped to play TV's favorite talking horse. Ed (he quickly learned to answer to his character name) lived with his trainer, Les Hilton, on a large ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and was a quick study. He learned how to open and close doors, untie knots, wave a flag and hold an oversized pencil in his mouth while pretending to write. Like most stars, Ed had an understudy "“ a fellow Palomino named Pumpkin. Ed was a dedicated worker who craved the spotlight and the attention associated with it, so Pumpkin was only used on camera twice during the run of the series. Pumpkin occupied the stall adjacent to Ed at the Hilton ranch, and if a visitor spoke to or petted Pumpkin before acknowledging Ed, Ed would pull his stall door shut and sulk. In fact, when fans visited the set, Ed would refuse to perform if they dared to admire Pumpkin, so Les Hilton had to remove Pumpkin from the set when tour groups were scheduled.

Morris Head-butts his Way up the Corporate Ladder

arn2.pngWisconsin native Bob Martwick was a self-employed animal trainer who supplied most of the non-human stars for TV commercials in the Midwest. He regular prowled pounds and rescue facilities in search of photogenic animals, which is how he happened to find an orange tabby in a Chicago area shelter. The cat had been extracted from a fight and had a torn eyelid and was scheduled to be euthanized. Martwick adopted the tattered Tom and named him "Lucky." When the folks at Nine Lives were looking for a spokescat, Martwick sent Lucky into the boardroom alone. According to an attendee, Lucky jumped up onto the table, ambled up to the art director, head-butted him, and then sat back on the table, eyeing the startled exec. The director immediately declared that this cat was the perfect Morris because he demanded to be the center of attention. As Morris, Lucky flew first class and stayed in five-star hotel suites. But Martwick admitted that, like most cats, Lucky had more fun with an empty cardboard box than a four-poster bed.

Green Acres' Arnold, Never Barbecued

arn1.pngNo doubt Hollywood's biggest ham was Arnold Ziffel, the "son" of Green Acres' Fred and Doris Ziffel. On the show, Arnold loved to play the piano, watch old Westerns on TV and play checkers. He also roller skated, drank lime soda from a straw, and won a prestigious prize for his painting "Nude at a Filling Station." In truth, certain camera angles revealed that the actor(s) portraying Arnold were actually female. That's because a succession of pigs had to be used as they literally outgrew the role, and sows tend to gain weight at a slower rate than hogs. Despite the wealth of 4-footers sharing the role, viewers didn't seem to care or notice and Arnold received more fan mail than any other Green Acres cast member. Arnold even appeared as the "mystery guest" on the game show What's My Line? As for the original pig superstar, that Arnold was trained by legendary Hollywood animal wrangler Frank Inn, who refused to have healthy animals euthanized. Inn ended up keeping the original Arnold as a pet once he retired from show business. Oh, and one more thing: those wrap party barbecue stories you may have heard? They're strictly urban legends. Succeeding "Arnolds" spent their golden years on the farms of Inn's friends.

Smuggled Chinese Cockatoo makes good on TV

arn4.pngFred the cockatoo provided some comic relief to the hard-boiled detective series Baretta. The 14" tall bird answered the phone with a human-sounding "hello," hung upside down from his perch to imitate a drunk, and could drink from a bottle. Fred was played by Lala, a cockatoo who was found by Los Angeles customs officials being smuggled inside a cage full of chickens from Hong Kong. He was given to animal trainer Ray Berwick, who named him "Lala" because at first other than intoning "la la la la," the bird only spoke Chinese. However, Berwick discovered that his bird (estimated to be about 20 years old) was a prodigy; he immediately began imitating the cat and dog sounds he heard from his master's menagerie, and he soon learned how to ride a tiny bike and walk on a treadmill. After Baretta went off the air, Lala was a featured performer at Universal Studio's animal show. He lived to the ripe old age of 70.

Want more back stories of TV Animals? Click here to see the Tails behind the Tales, Part I.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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