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.”

12 Festive Facts About A Christmas Story

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Which Oscar-winning star wanted to play Ralphie Parker's dad? Which actor went on to have a seedy career in the adult film industry? Can you really get your tongue stuck to a metal pole? On the 35th anniversary of A Christmas Story's debut, here are a few tidbits about the holiday classic to tide you over until TNT's 24-hour Christmas marathon.

1. JACK NICHOLSON WAS INTERESTED IN PLAYING RALPHIE'S DAD.

Though Jack Nicholson was reportedly offered the role of The Old Man Parker, and interested, casting—and paying—him would have meant doubling the budget. But director Bob Clark, who didn't know Nicholson was interested, said Darren McGavin was the perfect choice for the role.

2. IT OWES A DEBT TO PORKY'S.

What does Porky's—a raunchy 1980s teen sex comedy—have to do with a wholesome film like A Christmas Story? Bob Clark directed both: Porky's in 1982 and A Christmas Story in 1983. If Porky's hadn't given him the professional and financial success he needed, he wouldn't have been able to bring A Christmas Story to the big screen.

3. RALPHIE SAYS HE WANTS A RED RYDER BB GUN A LOT.

For anyone keeping count, Ralphie says he wants the Red Ryder BB Gun 28 times throughout the course of the movie. That's approximately once every three minutes and 20 seconds.

4. THESE DAYS, PETER BILLINGSLEY SPENDS HIS TIME BEHIND THE CAMERA.

Peter Billingsley, a.k.a. Ralphie, has been good friends with Vince Vaughn since they both appeared in a CBS Schoolbreak Special together in the early 1990s. He doesn't do much acting these days, though he has popped up in cameos (including one in Elf, another holiday classic). Instead, Billingsley prefers to spend his time behind the camera as a director and producer. He has done a lot of work with Vaughn and Jon Favreau, including serving as an executive producer on Iron Man (in which he also made a cameo).

5. YES, YOU CAN GET YOUR TONGUE STUCK ON A PIECE OF COLD METAL.

Mythbusters tested whether it was possible to get your tongue truly stuck on a piece of cold metal. Guess what? It is. So don't triple dog dare your best friend to try it.

6. ONE OF THE YOUNG ACTORS MOVED ON TO A CAREER IN ADULT FILMS.

Scott Schwartz, who played Flick (the kid who stuck his tongue to the frozen flagpole), spent several years working in the adult film industry. In 2000, he turned his attention back to mainstream films. His most recent role was as "Disco City Hot Dog Vendor" in the 2017 TV movie Vape Warz.

7. RALPHIE'S HOUSE IS NOW A MUSEUM.

Next time you're in Cleveland, you can visit the original house from the movie. It was sold on eBay in 2004 for $150,000. Collector Brian Jones bought the house and restored it to its movie glory and stocked it up with some of the original props from the film, including Randy's snowsuit.

8. THE IDEA FOR THE FILM CAME TO BOB CLARK WHILE HE WAS DRIVING TO PICK UP A DATE.

Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, and Ian Petrella in A Christmas Story (1983)
Warner Home Video

Director Bob Clark got the idea for the movie when he was driving to pick up a date. He heard Jean Shepherd on the radio doing a reading of his short story collection, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which included some bits that eventually ended up in A Christmas Story. Clark said he drove around the block for an hour until the program ended (which his date was not too happy about).

9. IT PARTLY INSPIRED THE WONDER YEARS.

The Wonder Years was inspired in part by A Christmas Story. In fact, toward the very end of the series, Peter Billingsley even played one of Kevin Arnold's roommates.

10. YOU CAN STILL BUY A RED RYDER BB GUN.

The real Red Ryder BB Gun was first made in 1938 and was named after a comic strip cowboy. You can still buy it today for the low, low price of $39.99. But the original wasn't quite the same as the one in the movie; it lacked the compass and sundial that both the Jean Shepherd story and the movie call for. Special versions had to be made just for A Christmas Story.

11. THE LEG LAMP CAN ALSO BE YOURS.

Peter Billingsley and Melinda Dillon in A Christmas Story (1983)
Warner Home Video

While we're talking shopping: you know you want the leg lamp. Put it in your window! Be the envy of your neighbors! It's a Major Award! You can buy it on Amazon (there's a 40-inch version, as well as a 20-inch replica). If you're not feeling quite so flamboyant, they also make a nightlight version.

12. IT SPAWNED A TRIO OF SEQUELS.

A Christmas Story led to two little-talked-about sequels. The first one was a 1988 made-for-TV movie, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. Jerry O'Connell played 14-year-old Ralphie, who is excited about his first job—as a furniture mover. Of course, it ends up being awful, and it might make him miss the annual family vacation at Mr. Hopnoodle's lakeside cabins.

My Summer Story, a.k.a. It Runs in the Family, debuted on the big screen in 1994. Kieran Culkin plays Ralphie, Mary Steenburgen is his mom, and Charles Grodin is his dad.

And in 2012, the direct-to-video sequel A Christmas Story 2 picked up five years after the original movie left off, with Ralphie attempting to get his parents to buy him a car.

An earlier version of this story appeared in 2008.

10 Timeless Facts About The Land Before Time

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Five years before Jurassic Park roared into theaters, a gentler, more meditative dinosaur film endeared itself to audiences of all ages. Initially met with mixed reviews, The Land Before Time is now regarded as an animated classic. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Steven Spielberg-produced film, which arrived in theaters 30 years ago.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A DIALOGUE-FREE MOVIE.

Gabriel Damon and Candace Hutson in The Land Before Time (1988)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the mid-1980s, executive producer Steven Spielberg began toying with the idea of a Bambi-esque dinosaur film. “Basically,” he later said, “I wanted to do a soft picture … about five little dinosaurs and how they grow up and work together as a group.” Inspiration came from the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)—a scene in which prehistoric beasts wordlessly go about their business. At first, Spielberg wanted his own dinosaur characters to follow suit and remain mum. Ultimately, however, it was feared that a non-verbal approach might bore or confuse the film’s intended audience. As such, the animals were given lines.

2. DIRECTOR DON BLUTH WAS AN EX-DISNEY EMPLOYEE.

Don Bluth grew up idolizing Disney’s work, and began working for the studio in 1955. Over the next two decades, he did various odd jobs until he was brought on as a full-time animator in 1971. Once on the inside, Bluth got to peek behind the magician’s curtain—and disliked what he found there. “I think [Walt Disney] would’ve seen that the pictures were losing their luster,” Bluth said. Frustrated by the studio’s cost-cutting measures, he resigned in 1979. Joining him were fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Together the trio launched their own company, Sullivan Bluth Studios, and began working on The Land Before Time in 1986.

3. OVER 600 BACKGROUND PAINTINGS WERE MADE FOR THE FILM.

Most of these depicted beautiful but barren wastelands, which presented a real challenge for the creative team. As one studio press release put it, “The artists had to create a believable environment in which there was almost no foliage.” Whenever possible, Bluth’s illustrators emphasized vibrant colors. This kept their backdrops from looking too drab or monotonous—despite the desolate setting.

4. LITTLEFOOT’S ORIGINAL NAME WAS “THUNDERFOOT.”

This was changed when the filmmakers learned that there was a triceratops in a popular children’s book called Thunderfoot. Speaking of three-horned dinosaurs: Cera evolved from a pugnacious male character called Bambo.

5. THE FILMMAKERS HAD TO CUT ABOUT 10 MINUTES OF FOOTAGE.

“We compromised a lot with The Land Before Time,” Goldman admitted. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than on the cutting room floor. Spielberg and his fellow executive producer George Lucas deemed 19 individual scenes “too scary.” “We’ll have kids crying in the lobby, and angry parents,” Spielberg warned. “You don’t want that.”

6. “ROOTER” WAS INTRODUCED AT THE URGING OF CHILD PSYCHOLOGISTS.

In Bambi, the title character’s mom dies off-screen. The same cannot be said for Littlefoot’s mother, whose slow demise goes on for several agonizing minutes. Naturally, there was some concern about how children would react to this. “A lot of research went into the mother dying sequence,” Pomeroy said. “Psychologists were approached and shown the film. They gave their professional opinions of how the sequence could be depicted.” Thus, Rooter was born.

One scene after Littlefoot’s mom passes, the wise reptile consoles him, saying “You’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you as long as you remember the things she taught you.” Sharp-eared fans might recognize Rooter’s voice as that of Pat Hingle, who also narrates the movie.

7. JAMES HORNER DID THE SOUNDTRACK.

The late, Oscar-winning composer behind Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009) put together a soaring score. Along with lyricist Will Jennings, he also penned the original song “If We Hold On Together,” which Diana Ross sings as the end credits roll.

8. THE ACTRESS BEHIND DUCKY PASSED AWAY BEFORE THE MOVIE’S RELEASE.

Judith Barsi’s career was off to a great start. By age 10, this daughter of Hungarian immigrants had already appeared in 70 commercials and voiced the leading lady in Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). For The Land Before Time, Barsi voiced the ever-optimistic Ducky, which was reportedly her favorite role. Then tragedy struck: In July of 1988, Barsi’s father József murdered both her and her mother before taking his own life.

9. IT HAD A RECORD-SETTING OPENING WEEKEND.

From the get-go, The Land Before Time had some stiff competition. Universal released it on November 18, 1988—the same day that Disney’s Oliver & Company hit theaters. Yet, for a solid month, Bluth gave Oliver a box office beating. The Land Before Time enjoyed the highest-grossing opening weekend that any animated film had ever seen, pulling in $7.5 million to Oliver & Company’s $4 million. Since then, of course, The Land Before Time has long been dethroned; today, Incredibles 2 (2018) holds this coveted distinction with a $182.7 million first-weekend showing.

10. THERE ONCE WAS TALK OF A LAND BEFORE TIME STAGE MUSICAL.

“The time has come for dinosaurs on Broadway,” the late theatrical producer Irving Welzer told The New York Times in 1997. Emboldened by the recent cinematic success of Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), Welzer expressed an interest helping Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, and the rest of the gang make their Big Apple debut. Soon, however, the idea faded.

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