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YouTube / MonsterpieceTheatre

"This Way to Sesame Street," 45 Years Ago Today

YouTube / MonsterpieceTheatre
YouTube / MonsterpieceTheatre

45 years ago today, Americans got their first taste of Sesame Street. A half-hour preview episode called "This Way to Sesame Street" aired on NBC (!) on Saturday, November 8, 1969 at 5pm.

The preview episode aired on network TV to introduce the concept of Sesame Street to parents, two days before regular episodes premiered on PBS. "This Way to Sesame Street" was hosted largely by Bert & Ernie, and it included early skits, animated segments, musical numbers, and appearances from Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Gordon, Mr. Hooper, Bob, Susan, and...wait for it...Carol Burnett!

Watching this episode, the main descriptor that springs to mind is "trippy." Imagine what was going on in America when this showed up on TV: Apollo 11 had landed on the moon just a few months before, and Apollo 12 would lift off in a matter of weeks. Nixon was in office. The hunt for the Zodiac killer was hot news. It feels completely appropriate that Sesame Street came to life, this explosion of creativity aimed at very young kids, in the midst of all this.

It's impressive to see how well-formed the show was even in its first episode (technically, two days prior to its first episode). It's also pretty wild to see then United States Commissioner of Education Dr. James E. Allen, Jr. closing the show by saying, in part:

"Sesame Street represents both an historic step forward by the medium of TV and an equally significant innovation in mass education. In plain words, there never has been before a nationwide TV program designed especially to prepare young children for school. Next week, there will be."

45 years on, the innovation continues. If you grew up watching Sesame Street, or you're watching it now, this is a hoot. Enjoy:

Two days later, the show began its regular run. If you're curious what that looked like, check out 10 classic Sesame Street moments we wouldn't show today's kids, examining the early show through video clips. And keep in mind that just one year later, Big Bird was on the cover of Time magazine.

For more Sesame Street goodness, check out: Sesame Street International: 9 Notable Muppets From Around the World; 13 Sesame Street Muppets That Make a Difference; and Sesame Street's Star Wars Parody (and more parodies!).

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14 Things You Might Not Know About The Muppet Christmas Carol
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Walt Disney Studios

'Tis the season to be jolly, joyous, and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. Maybe you know every word to this charming Muppet musical. Perhaps you count it as your favorite Charles Dickens adaptation. But do you know all the secrets behind this holiday classic's creation?

1. IT WAS THE FIRST MUPPET MOVIE MADE WITHOUT JIM HENSON.

A photo of Jim Henson
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The man behind the Muppets passed away on May 16, 1990 at the age of 53. The Muppet Christmas Carol debuted on December 11, 1992 with Steve Whitmire taking over Kermit the Frog for Henson. The film is dedicated to Henson and his recently deceased collaborator Richard Hunt, who'd long performed Scooter, Beaker, Janice, Statler, and Sweetums.

2. IT WAS BRIAN HENSON'S FEATURE DIRECTORIAL DEBUT.


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As the son of Jim Henson, Brian Henson's earliest credits date back to a childhood spent in front of the camera on Sesame Street. He began performing as a Muppeteer on 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, and went on to direct Muppet Treasure Island in 1996. Today, Brian and his sister Lisa run The Jim Henson Company.

3. THE SHOOTING STAR IS IN MEMORY OF JIM HENSON.


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The song "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas" ends with Kermit staring wistfully at the sky as a shooting star streaks by. In the DVD's audio commentary, Brian Henson said this was a nod to The Muppet Movie, wherein a shooting star flies over Kermit. It has since become a recurring element to frame Kermit with a shooting star, as seen in Muppet Treasure Island, Kermit's Swamp Years, It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, and The Muppets.

4. STEVE WHITMIRE GOT HENSON'S BLESSING IN A DREAM.


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Talking to Muppet Central, Steve Whitmire spoke of a dream he had the night before shooting his first scene as Kermit. In it, he found Henson in a gleaming white hotel lobby and confessed his anxiety about taking on the character so identified with its creator. "He stopped, and there was a thoughtful gesture Jim would do where he would take both of his index fingers and put them under his chin, and he did that and thought and he said, 'It will pass,'" Whitmire recalled. "Which is exactly what Jim would have said. You would have to really know Jim to know this, but that’s exactly what he would have said. Then he turned and he said, 'I’ve really got to run …' and he took off out the door. I woke up and I felt great. I remembered this dream and I went in the next day, I did the work, and it was smooth, it worked fine, and I felt great. Just that little bit of encouragement. I really think he showed up for me."

5. GEORGE CARLIN WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE ROLE OF EBENEZER SCROOGE.


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Best known for his searing stand-up act, by the time The Muppet Christmas Carol came around, George Carlin had made memorable big-screen appearances in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, and The Prince of Tides, but he didn't land the role. Aside from the curmudgeonly American comedian, English actors David Hemmings, Ron Moody, and David Warner were also eyed for the part. Ultimately, it went to Michael Caine.

6. THERE'S A SUBTLE NOD TO MICHAEL CAINE'S NAME.


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Two-time Academy Award winner and English acting legend Michael Caine brought a considerable amount of prestige to the production, which was the first Muppet movie to focus on its human characters. Perhaps as a sign of thanks, The Muppet Christmas Carol's production design team added a nod to Caine's given name, Maurice Micklewhite, to Scrooge's 19th-century London. In the film's finale, keep your eyes peeled for a shop named Micklewhite's.

7. CAINE HAD TO WATCH HIS STEP.


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The Muppet Christmas Carol's sets were specially built to accommodate the Muppeteers, meaning they were elevated to leave room for them to walk around below the "London" streets. Planks and platforms were put in place for Caine and his human co-stars to walk on. In a promotional behind-the-scenes video, you can see how crucial careful foot placement was as the Muppets swarmed him singing the opening song "Scrooge." Despite this trickiness, Caine called it "very fun."

8. SCOOTER WAS BOOTED FROM A MAJOR ROLE.

The long-time gofer for The Muppet Show was originally supposed to appear as the Ghost of Christmas Past in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Similarly, Miss Piggy and Gonzo were considered for the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Yet To Come. However, this idea was scrapped in favor of new Muppet creations that could better underline the ominous nature of the story. Piggy was recast as Mrs. Cratchit, and Gonzo as Charles Dickens. But Scooter was cut completely.

9. GONZO WAS RECAST AS A DEVICE TO BRING IN DICKENS'S PROSE.


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Though it added in plenty of zany Muppets and split the role of Jacob Marley for Statler and Waldorf, The Muppet Christmas Carol remains pretty true to its source material. Screenwriter Jerry Juhl wanted to make use of Charles Dickens's graceful narration, so Gonzo was cast as the beloved author. Rizzo the Rat was added to infuse some humor and serve as a Greek chorus of sorts.

10. THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST'S MOVEMENTS WERE AQUATIC.

The girl spirit that guides Scrooge into his childhood has an eerie, floating physicality. To achieve this look, puppeteers were submerged with the Muppet in a tank of baby oil backed by a green screen to record the performance. However, the cost of a tank of baby oil soon stacked up, pushing the filmmakers to switch to water. Though the rod puppet's glues and paints interacted poorly with the water, they got the shots they needed.

11. KERMIT'S FULL-BODIED STROLL WAS A BIG PRODUCTION.

To achieve the "Tis The Season" shot of Kermit walking down a snow-covered street with nephew Robin (playing Tiny Tim) on his shoulder, Brian Henson had to employ 10 puppeteers. A rotating drum covered in fake snow was positioned beneath Kermit's feet, to allow for a natural gait. If you pay close attention, you can see it in action. Behind that was a blue screen and various puppeteers working the characters' limbs and mouths. These were swapped for lit-up London homes in post-production.

12.  "WHEN LOVE IS GONE" WAS CUT FROM THE THEATRICAL RELEASE.

The song sung to a young Ebenezer by his heartbroken Belle (Meredith Braun) was cut from the film's theatrical version because it was considered a bit too slow (and too Muppet-free) to keep the interest of children in test audiences. However, the tune was included in some home entertainment releases and several TV airings of The Muppet Christmas Carol. ABC Family's preferred cut excludes this melancholy melody.

13. BUNSEN, BEAKER, AND SAM THE EAGLE HAD SONGS CUT.

In The Muppet Christmas Carol, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his loyal assistant Beaker pop in on Scrooge seeking donations for the poor. Early on, their plea included a song called "Room in Your Heart." Similarly Sam Eagle, playing a young Scrooge's headmaster, had a ditty called "Chairman of the Board." Both songs were recorded but cut from the script before their performances were shot, as neither added much to the story's exposition. They do, however, show up on the film's soundtrack.

14. FRED SCROOGE DID NOT LOSE HIS WIFE.


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In the final Christmas feast scene, sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed that Scrooge's nephew Fred is present, but his wife Clara is not. In the DVD commentary, Henson shared that he received letters demanding to know what happened to Fred's better half. The simple answer is that the actress playing her (Robin Weaver) wasn't available to shoot that day. It's not meant as some hint that he's on the same rocky, loveless road his uncle once trod.

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10 Fun Facts About The Great Muppet Caper
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When Miss Piggy is framed for thievery, it’s up to Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and their eccentric pals to clear her name in The Great Muppet Caper. Released in 1981, the madcap Muppet comedy was followed up the next year by Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. The latter film is often considered Henson's masterpiece, and the extraterrestrial fantasy is deservedly praised for having some of the most innovative puppetry ever caught on film. By comparison, The Great Muppet Caper is seldom recognized as a special effects tour de force—yet, that’s exactly what it was. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Oscar-nominated Muppet adventure.

1. THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER AND THE DARK CRYSTAL WERE FILMED BACK-TO-BACK.

After The Muppet Movie hit theaters in 1979, Jim Henson wanted to shift gears and dive right into his most ambitious project yet. Three years earlier, he’d discovered the otherworldly sketches of artist Brian Froud. Together, the two men set out to adapt these into a somber, puppet-filled fantasy movie. But the idea was a tough sell. Despite the Muppets’ knack for edgy humor, audiences generally dismissed puppetry as children’s entertainment. Given its serious tone, this new project—dubbed The Dark Crystal—seemed like too much of a gamble for Paramount Pictures, which rejected Henson’s sales pitch. 

Enter Sir Lew Grade. The head of ITC entertainment, he’d been a financier behind both The Muppet Show and the original Muppet Movie. Late in 1979, he struck a deal with Henson. Grade promised to pour $13 million into The Dark Crystal on one condition: Henson had to make a sequel to The Muppet Movie first. The puppet master agreed.

Their plan was to shoot the films back-to-back. Fortunately, Henson had two workshops at his disposal—one in London and another in New York City—and was able to divide the puppet-building labor between the two. The Dark Crystal’s production HQ moved from the Big Apple to London. Meanwhile, the New York venue—where the puppets of Sesame Street were made—tended to most of The Great Muppet Caper’s needs.

2. THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER WAS JIM HENSON'S FEATURE DIRECTORIAL DEBUT.


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Back in 1979, James Frawley had sat in the director’s chair for The Muppet Movie. But this time, Henson called his own number. After The Great Muppet Caper, Henson went on to direct the cult classic, Labyrinth. He also co-directed The Dark Crystal with his longtime collaborator Frank Oz.

3. REJECTED TITLES INCLUDED THE ROCKY MUPPET PICTURE SHOW AND A FROGGY DAY IN LONDON.

Although four writers worked on the script, none of them could coin a satisfying title. So Henson opened the matter up to his Muppet staffers by throwing a name-the-movie contest. One apparent Tim Curry fan suggested The Rocky Muppet Picture Show. Another proposed A Froggy Day in London. Then along came Henson’s 19-year-old daughter, Lisa, who pitched The Great Muppetcapade. Her dad tweaked this into The Great Muppet Caper and the rest is history.

4. DIANA RIGG SIGNED ON FOR THE MOVIE BECAUSE HER DAUGHTER LOVED MISS PIGGY.

Diana Rigg and Miss Piggy in 'The Great Muppet Caper'
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Long before she was throwing shade like a boss as Game of Thrones’s Olenna Tyrell, Diana Rigg had made a name for herself on The Avengers, a British espionage drama. In The Great Muppet Caper, she plays Lady Holiday—an esteemed fashion designer who also happens to be Miss Piggy’s employer. Riggs leapt at the chance to work with this particular Muppet. After all, her four-year-old daughter, Rachel, was “passionately in love” with the character.

Riggs told The A.V. Club that when Rachel visited the set one day, she “burst into tears when she saw Miss Piggy.” “I think she was more frightened than anything,” Rigg explained. “Because Miss Piggy was huge. They had several Miss Piggys.”

5. THE SWIMMING POOL DANCE NUMBER WAS ESPECIALLY TOUGH TO FILM.

There were indeed “several Miss Piggys.” One scene alone called for nearly 40 interchangeable Piggy heads and seven bodies. We are referring, of course, to that grand, Esther Williams-style swimming number.

“It’s safe to say that no one else has ever done a sequence like this in any other film. At least not with a pig,” Henson said. In every sense of the word, it was a massive undertaking: A custom-made heated pool measuring 50 by 80 feet had to be built on a sound stage. Puppeteer Frank Oz prepped himself with “three days of scuba training.” (“I was under water for a week,” Oz said.) And on top of everything else, the scene called for special, water-resistant Piggy puppets. Unfortunately, these tended to rip easily, hence all the extra body parts.

6. THE DRAIN PIPE SCENE PUT HENSON’S PUPPETEERS IN A DANGEROUS SITUATION.

Pursued by angry dogs, over a dozen terrified Muppets scale a castle drainpipe near Caper’s climax. Executing this scene was no easy task for the puppeteers who performed in it. To lift these guys upwards in rapid succession, 11 tiny elevators had to be made. Since space was tight, each one had a small, wooden platform that was about the size of a dresser drawer. Every Muppet handler involved with the scene had to stand on one of these without bumping into any of his or her colleagues. The tiniest of malfunctions could’ve sent several people crashing to the ground, but fortunately the contraptions ran without a hitch.

7. BRIAN HENSON (JIM’S TEENAGE SON) WORKED ON THE CYCLING EFFECTS.

Wanting to top Kermit’s bike ride from the The Muppet Movie, the director decided that just about every non-human character in the cast would take up cycling for the sequel. In a song called “Couldn’t We Ride,” Kermit, Gonzo, Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang happily pedal through London’s Battersea Park.

Effects artist Faz Fazakas oversaw this amazing display of movie magic. At his side stood Brian Henson, whose father asked him to help figure out the scene’s technical elements. It was a big moment for the younger Henson. A teenager back then, he’d never been given such a large behind-the-scenes project on one of his dad’s movies before. Guided by a love of physics, Brian met the challenge by devising a complex system of rods and marionette wires. Radio-controlled Muppet heads were also used.

8. A FOZZIE PUPPET WAS BADLY BURNED IN THE HOT AIR BALLOON SCENE.

Fozzie and Kermit in 'The Great Muppet Caper'
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Unless you’re a hardcore fan, you probably didn’t notice this, but the end credits list one Amy van Gilder as a “Muppet Doctor.” There’s a story here: The Great Muppet Caper opens with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo flying in a hot air balloon. Then, the trio crash lands onto a busy street. For a certain bear, it was a rough experience. Part of the scene was filmed on location in New Mexico where, at one point, the Fozzie puppet was torched by a propane burner. Amy van Gilder—a veteran puppet maker—came to the rescue and fixed him up on-site. By the way, she and Jim Henson shared a cameo in the movie. At the fancy restaurant, they play the first couple Gonzo photographs.  

9. ONE SONG WAS NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR.

Joe Raposo, the songwriter and composer behind such beloved Muppet tunes as “Bein' Green,” composed eight new songs for The Great Muppet Caper. Among these was “The First Time It Happens,” a love song which earned a nomination for Best Original Song at the 1982 Academy Awards. It lost out to "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)."

10. THE MUPPETS REPURPOSED A JOKE FROM THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER.

Although one’s a frog and the other is clearly a bear, Kermit and Fozzie introduce themselves as identical twins in The Great Muppet Caper. No explanation is ever offered. Growing up, a young Jason Segel thought the gag was hysterically funny—so much so that he later recycled the joke for 2011’s The Muppets, which he co-wrote. This film sees Segel playing Gary, a human being whose brother, Walter, happens to be a Muppet. How’d that happen? The script doesn’t say. Anyway, Segel says that this was inspired by Kermit and Fozzie’s equally weird relationship in The Great Muppet Caper.

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