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Disney/Collage
Disney/Collage

Her Name Was Skeeter: The Mystery of the Missing Muppet

Disney/Collage
Disney/Collage

Michael Frith doesn’t recall who first sketched out Skeeter, the myopic Muppet first introduced in the CBS animated series Muppet Babies (1984-1991). She could’ve been named, he says, by the Muppets's creator, the late Jim Henson. Along with Bob Richardson and Frith, all three producers on the show, Henson recognized a need for a strong female character to help balance the anarchy provided by an infantilized Miss Piggy. As the twin sister of established Muppet Scooter, Skeeter was athletic, smart, and capable—all qualities that the little girls watching the show would want to emulate.

“She was a great character,” Frith tells mental_floss. “She was more extroverted than Piggy and brought all kinds of positive energy to the show. I always loved Skeeter.”

So did viewers. But once Muppet Babies wrapped after seven seasons, she appeared to be one of the few Henson-inspired creations to wind up on the Muppet unemployment line. Over time, her fans began to question why Skeeter never appeared in subsequent movies or television series and specials, or earn even a passing mention by her former cribmates. Was Skeeter persona non grata in the Muppetverse? Was Muppet Babies canonical? Never reproduced in felt form, was she even technically a Muppet? Where had this model of female empowerment gone?

If Frank Oz had gotten his way, none of the Muppet Babies would have been birthed. In the early 1980s, Frith had been keen on the idea of regressing the adult Muppets—Kermit, Miss Piggy, Rowlf, and Fozzie Bear among them—into children for animation. The idea, Frith says, was to use the characters to impart moral and educational messages in ways that would be difficult after they had reached Muppet adolescence.

“Piggy as an adult is not particularly sympathetic to a kid,” he says. “But as a child, she is. Jim loved the idea.”

Oz did not. A longtime puppeteer who performed as Miss Piggy before moving into film directing, Oz was adamant the Muppets not be simplified for a juvenile audience. “He felt it was inappropriate to take characters from one medium with adult characteristics and move them into another," Frith says. "The Muppet Show was intended for families, not just kids.” Sesame Street was Henson’s nod to children; the Muppets were supposed to be slightly edgier.

For a time, Oz got his wish. But during production on 1984’s feature, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Henson found a workaround. According to Frith, Henson casually floated the idea of supervising a segment of the movie. He told Oz, the director, of his plans.

“Sure, Jim,” Oz said. “What’s it going to be about?”

“Well,” Henson said, “I thought it would be nice to do a thing where the Muppets are babies.”

Frith and the rest of Henson’s team got to work on designing and assembling live-action Muppets that appeared as children in a dream sequence. The response to the scene was so strong that CBS began petitioning Henson to do an animated series with the same premise.

Muppet Babies premiered in 1984 to big ratings, becoming a staple of Saturday morning television. But during its development, Frith and the other writers and producers were confronted with a gender imbalance in the cast, something Frith says could be attributed to the heavily male-skewing puppeteers who had worked in the Henson studios since the 1960s.

“We had Piggy and Nanny, strong female characters, but we needed at least one more,” says Frith. “The Muppets evolved around the puppeteers. You can say dispraisingly it was a boys’ club, but no more so than The Beatles were.”

The result was Skeeter, who was bold, brash, and adventurous—the total opposite of her nerdy twin brother. In the show’s many fantasy sequences—which often used clips from film and television shows—she was a problem-solver. (Frith, incidentally, is amused that the clips were perceived as a stroke of genius: They were used because the show didn’t have the budget to be fully animated.)

During the cartoon's run, Skeeter made a little-known but very public appearance as part of a Muppet Babies live stage show. Instead of being designed to fit on a hand, she and the rest of the Babies were formulated into towering, seven-foot costumes worn by performers. It would turn out be the only time she appeared in “person.” Despite several movies and series produced following Babies, Frith says that no one considered using Skeeter as a utility player. During a “home movies” segment for a 1987 television special, the Babies are seen as live-action Muppets: Skeeter is conspicuously absent.

“We never said, ‘Oh, let’s take an old Scooter puppet and put on some long hair and a dress,’” explains Frith. “One of the problems one has with a vast repertory company is accounting for all of the characters and giving them the face time they need. It becomes a handful to try and corral.”

Skeeter did appear in various Muppet Babies-themed storybooks and toy lines throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but always as an illustrated cast member and never as an adult. By the time Disney purchased the Muppets from The Jim Henson Company in 2004, her chances of resurfacing were reduced even further. It would take a die-hard Skeeter fan to help answer the question of what happened when she finally grew up.

Amy Mebberson

Amy Mebberson was one of the legions of girls who sat in front of their televisions admiring Skeeter. A native of Australia, Mebberson moved to the States in 2006 to pursue a career in illustration. In 2009, she was recruited as a penciler for Boom! Studios, which was launching a Muppet Show comic book. It did not take long for Mebberson to make her pitch.

“I consider the Muppet Babies cartoon an integral part of Muppet history,” Mebberson tells mental_floss. “Although Skeeter was made for the cartoon, she left enough of an impact on fans that we were all left wondering whatever happened to her when they [all] grew up. The comics gave us an opportunity to explore that.”

In 2009, Mebberson pitched the comic’s writer, Roger Langridge, on a Skeeter appearance, sketching out how she thought the character might look as an adult. Langridge and Boom!, in turn, had to get Disney’s approval. The company's response helps explain—at least in part—why Skeeter has proven to be such an elusive presence in Muppet lore over the past 25 years.

According to Jesse Post, a former Disney employee who acted as a go-between for licensees like Boom! and the caretakers at The Muppets Studio, Disney shared Frank Oz’s preference to keep the characters aimed toward adulthood. It's an assertion supported by a 2008 piece in The New York Times, which indicated that some children could not readily identify Kermit or his colleagues.

Muppet Babies was verboten at the time,” Post tells mental_floss. Conferencing with Susan Butterworth, then-head of all things Muppet-related, in San Diego one year, Post says she loved the idea of including Skeeter in the comic series, but didn’t want to make any overt associations with the animated series. (Officially, a source inside Disney tells mental_floss that Skeeter hasn’t appeared in any projects because she was never technically a Muppet.)

“The thing with Muppet Babies was, during the time between the [2004] acquisition and the [2011] Jason Segel movie, Disney had targeted the property to adults almost exclusively,” he says, “with some secondary targets among the different children's age groups. The concern was that an [adult] movie might not work out if there's an onslaught of Muppets diapers and baby bottles out in the market, which makes perfect sense.”

The mandate, while not written in stone, was that the Muppets were preparing for a big-screen relaunch that needed adult ticket buyers and didn't need to be referencing a time when they crawled around on all fours, which made invoking Muppet Babies a problem. Initially, Mebberson and Langridge didn’t get a green light to refer to Skeeter by name—that came later. In the four issues in which she appeared, a framing device featuring balcony vultures Statler and Waldorf helped reinforce the idea that the story might be taking place out of continuity. Disney, it appears, is not committed to acknowledging Muppet Babies as canonical. Neither is anyone else.

“It had its own world the same way the Muppets did,” Frith says. “If you try to parse the movies, the shows, you’ll find all kinds of inconsistencies. I don’t know if they’re alternate worlds. Maybe parallel. It’s a bunch of quantum physics.”

Mebberson’s The Muppet Show arc wrapped up in 2010. She’s since snuck in a few fleeting Skeeter sightings when illustrating Muppet storybooks. In the speculative continuity of both Mebberson and Frith, Skeeter is a world traveler, prone to finding herself in far corners of the globe. “People like to depict fraternal twins as polar opposites,” Mebberson says, “so it kind of naturally lends that if Scooter is the homebody who loves his mother, Skeeter would be the wild child who rebelled and ran away to join the circus or something.”

For his part, Frith—who is retired from Muppet-related projects but recently collaborated on an app, Leonardo’s Cat—believes Skeeter is doing some philanthropic work similar to his own: He’s part of No Strings International, a program dedicated to using puppetry to bring some consolation to poverty-stricken children in third-world areas. “I imagine she’s in the Arctic,” he says. “Or in the Middle East.”

Fans who are truly curious may want to pose the question to the source. Promoting ABC’s The Muppets via Twitter in 2015, Skeeter’s brother, Scooter, was asked what became of his sister.

“Skeeter is currently studying overseas,” he said. “And if she ever reaches dry land, she’ll come visit.”

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holidays
Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
iStock
iStock

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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entertainment
15 Things You May Not Know About Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

We are not alone. Here are a few facts about Steven Spielberg’s 1977 UFO classic, on its 40th anniversary.

1. IT WAS INITIALLY A VERY DIFFERENT FILM.

Spielberg’s initial story outline involved UFOs and shady government dealings following the Watergate scandal, which became a script entitled “Watch the Skies.” The idea involved a police or military officer working on Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s, who would become the whistleblower on the government cover-up of aliens. There were numerous rewrites—Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader even took a crack at it, penning a political UFO thriller titled “Kingdom Come” that Spielberg and the movie studio rejected—before the story we know today emerged.

2. IT’S NAMED AFTER LEGITIMATE UFO RESEARCH.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg partly based his idea on the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book who eventually admitted that 11 percent of the study’s findings about unidentified flying objects could not be explained using science.

The title (which is never specifically explained in the movie) is actually derived from Hynek’s own alien close encounter classification system: A close encounter of the first kind is sighting of a UFO; the second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien; and the third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

3. THERE’S A CAMEO FROM THE GODFATHER OF UFO RESEARCH.

Hynek, who also served as a technical advisor on the movie, makes an uncredited cameo in the final scene of the movie. You can spot him pretty easily—he’s the goateed man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens.

4. NOBODY WANTED THE STARRING ROLE.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Columbia Pictures

The director first offered the part of Roy Neary to actor Steve McQueen, who turned it down because he said he couldn’t cry on cue, something he saw as essential to the character. Spielberg then went to Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and James Caan who all turned him down as well before asking his friend Richard Dreyfuss, who previously worked with Spielberg on Jaws, to take the part.

5. BUT IT WASN'T THE MOST DIFFICULT ROLE TO CAST.

Spielberg approached French actors like Lino Ventura, Yves Montand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant to play Claude Lacombe—who was based on famous UFO researcher Jacques Vallée—before settling on director and sometimes-actor François Truffaut. The initially skeptical Truffaut, who was nervous about appearing in a big budget Hollywood movie, accepted the role because he wanted to compile research for a book about acting (he never did write the book).

6. MERYL STREEP COULD HAVE PLAYED ROY'S WIFE.

Many actresses—including a then-unknown Yale Drama School grad named Meryl Streep—auditioned for the part of Roy’s wife Ronnie, but he ultimately cast actress Teri Garr because he saw her in a coffee commercial and loved the way she was able to convey a wide range of emotions in a 30-second clip.

7. THEY SHOT IN A DISUSED AIR FORCE HANGAR.


Columbia Pictures

Spielberg wanted to shoot in real suburban locations rather than studio backlots, but the production had trouble finding locations. The biggest question: Where could Spielberg shoot the climactic canyon sequence with the mothership?

The production looked for huge indoor enclosures that would allow for the massive scale of the scene, though they only found ones with center support dividers that spoiled the openness Spielberg wanted for the UFO runway. The only location producers found without center dividers was a 300 foot by 300 foot disused hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama.

8. THE TEAM BOUGHT A HOUSE FOR THE PRODUCTION—AND SOLD IT FOR A PROFIT.

The Nearys' house, which is located at 1613 Carlisle Drive East in Mobile, was actually purchased by the production for $35,000 so they could do whatever they wanted with the interiors. It was later sold for $50,000 after production wrapped, netting a $15,000 surplus that went back into the film’s budget.

9. THE MEMORABLE 5-NOTE TONES TOOK A LONG TIME TO FIGURE OUT

Composer John Williams worked with Spielberg to come up with the movie’s distinct five-note musical method of communication between humans and aliens—which Spielberg partly based on the Solfège system of musical education—a year before shooting began.

Williams initially wanted a seven-note sequence, but it was too long for the simple musical “greeting” Spielberg wanted. The composer enlisted a mathematician to calculate the number of five-note combinations they could potentially make from a 12-note scale. When that number proved to be somewhere upwards of 134,000 combinations, Williams created 100 distinct versions, and they simply whittled the combinations down one by one until they had a winner.

10. SPIELBERG USED TRICKS TO GET THE PERFORMANCE OUT OF HIS CHILD ACTOR.


Columbia Pictures

Cary Guffey, who plays little Barry Guiler, had never acted before, so Spielberg set up ways to coax a performance out of the 3-year-old. To get a shot of Guffey reacting to the aliens first approaching the Guiler house, Spielberg slowly unwrapped a present for the young actor just off camera, making him smile. Guffey even exclaims “Toys! Toys!” in the final take.

To get the boy to react to the aliens offscreen, Spielberg had Guffey walk up to his mark where—unbeknownst to the little actor—two crewmembers were dressed as a gorilla and a clown standing behind cardboard blinds. When Guffey entered the kitchen, Spielberg dropped the first blind revealing the clown to scare him, and then dropped the other blind to reveal the gorilla, which scared him even more. The gorilla then took off his mask, revealing the film’s makeup man, Bob Westmoreland, who Guffey recognized, causing him to laugh and smile in the final take.

11. THE MOVIE NEARLY FEATURED VERY EARLY CGI.

Spielberg originally toyed with the idea of using computer generated images to create the aliens and their ships, even going so far as to have animator Colin Cantwell create a CGI test of three UFOs floating over a stadium. The single-shot test, which took three weeks to complete and was one of the first computer generated images ever created for a film, proved to be unfeasible for the whole movie—so the idea was dropped.

12. THERE WERE SOME UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR CREATING THE ALIENS.

Spielberg wanted the aliens to be non-human beings that glided instead of walked, and he had a weird idea to pull it off: An orangutan dressed in a specially-made suit. For a screen test, the production team outfitted an orangutan in grey spandex and strapped it into roller skates. The orangutan immediately took off the skates and crawled to its owner, so a full test couldn’t be completed, and the team scrapped the idea. The majority of the small aliens in the final movie were played by local elementary school girls from Mobile in specially made grey suits and masks who were heavily backlit to create the final alien silhouette effect.

13. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FEATURES A PRECURSOR TO E.T.


Columbia Pictures

To create the alien who bids farewell using the musical hand signals at the end of the film, Spielberg enlisted the help of Italian special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who designed a fully articulated steel, aluminum, and fiberglass animatronic puppet that Spielberg nicknamed “Puck.” Puck’s expressions were based on photos of Guffey. The puppet was operated by a crew of seven puppeteers, with Spielberg himself controlling the final articulation before the alien leaves to go to the mothership.

Puck would help inspire E.T. after Spielberg asked himself, “What if this little guy didn’t get back on the mothership?” Rambaldi would also go on to design the character of E.T.

14. SPIELBERG BET AGAINST HIS OWN MOVIE—AND REALLY CASHED IN.

Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas both had new movies coming out in 1977; Lucas’s was a little movie called Star Wars. Lucas thought his ramshackle space movie wouldn’t make back its budget, and he knew his friend’s new movie would break box office records just like Jaws had done, so he offered Spielberg a friendly wager. Both agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of the profits of their respective films. Lucas grossly underestimated his movie, which went on to become the second highest grossing movie of all time if adjusted for inflation (in comparison, Close Encounters is #71). The difference ended up being $40 million.

15. SPIELBERG DIDN'T LIKE THE VERSION THAT WAS INITIALLY RELEASED.

Spielberg wanted to release Close Encounters in the summer of 1978, which would have given him ample time to edit the film and finish its special effects—but Columbia Pictures, which was going through major financial troubles, insisted he have it ready for a November 1977 release, leaving the director with a final cut on a movie he didn’t feel was completely ready. 

Three years later, the company allowed Spielberg to “finish” the movie under one condition: That he show the inside of the mothership, which would give the studio’s marketing department an angle to sell this new version. The director capitulated, adding new scenes and cutting others to create a “Special Edition.” The director was unhappy with the scene, though, and later cut it for the Collector's Edition home video release.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:Blu-ray special features; Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic FilmClose Encounters of the Third Kind Diary.

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