Monday, September 27, 2021

The Mystery Muppet Man!

  “Nobody reads those names anyway, do they?” Fozzie Bear asks Kermit the Frog as the pair, along with Gonzo the Great, glide in a hot air balloon across our movie screens while the opening credits for “The Great Muppet Caper” appear and fade. As Jim Henson's own credit appears Kermit answers, “Sure, they all have families.” 

Being a vast receptacle for Muppet trivia has never really come in useful. Sure, it's a neat parlor trick I can use to settle an argument two friends may be having about whether or not certain Sesame Street characters are gay, correcting someone when they wrongly believe Jim's son, Brian took over performing Kermit or setting them straight when they believe all “The Muppet Show” episodes are now on Disney+. (For the record, Bert and Ernie have never been gay, Steve Whitmire took over Kermit in 1990 after Jim's death and Disney+ has an edited 118 out of 120 “Muppet Show” episodes. 

Several years ago, my knowledge (if you can call it that?) would have come in useful when the Center for Puppetry Arts was refurbishing a number of donated Henson puppets that spanned the history of the company. Vito Leanza and Russ Vick had the daunting task of conserving hundreds of puppets, many of which they couldn't easily identify. On the few trips I made to visit them, I just looked around the room and without even thinking about it, named each character and identified the production they were used in (multiple in some cases) as well as their respective performers. Vito and Russ had been combing Muppet Wiki, a sort of search engine for all things Henson related, and had managed to get a lot of information that way. But after my nifty little identification presentation, they all wished I could have come in and saved them a lot of time doing that research. 

Fast forward to 2021. Going about a normal (or whatever passes for normal now) July day, I got a message from Bill Jones at the Center for Puppetry Arts. Bill just celebrated his 20th year there, though now he works in the collections division after moving over from production. “Any idea what Sesame Street character this is?” Attached was a faded photograph of a lavender live-hand Anything Muppet that was used in a sketch about “Upside Down.” I immediately knew what it was and attached a YouTube link for the sketch. 

This photo was part of a collection donated by Muppet builder, Caroly Wilcox, after her death in 2020. Contained in the pages of photo albums and scrapbooks was a retrospective of her entire career at The Jim Henson Company that began in the late 1960's with “Sesame Street” and involved virtually every production until her retirement. And there were a lot of them. Of course, there were the big projects like “The Muppet Show” and “The Great Muppet Caper,” for which she was the Muppet Workshop coordinator. But there were also smaller projects like “The Muppet Musicians of Bremen,” for which she created puppets and also did some performing. Few know that she also performed on “Sesame Street” in the early days before Fran Brill joined the team as the first female Muppet performer hired by Jim. And there were numerous reference photos of puppets for all these productions and none of them were labeled. 

Charged with cataloging this massive resource was the Center's museum intern, Ted, who (poor boy) had his work cut out for him. I think Bill Jones had taken pity on him and wanted to reach out to see if I could be used as a resource to help him. After I passed that initial test from Bill, Ted reached out to ask if I could come in and give him a hand. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to see some rare Muppet artifacts. Peeking behind the Muppet curtain is a lot like peeking behind the Wizard of Oz's curtain, except instead of revealing a layer of disillusionment, you discover more magical layers of wonder and enchantment, at least as far as the Workshop is concerned. Caroly's scrapbooks did not disappoint. 

Ted could hardly keep up. He could not type fast enough as I moved from one photo to the next identifying one seemingly random puppet after another. In some cases I started singing the musical numbers they were associated with. Ted must have been terrified or surely thought he was in the presence of a whole other level of crazy person. We whittled his list of about 100 unidentified photos down to about 4 that just stumped me. I even reached out to some Henson veterans and they were equally stumped. But Ted was happy with all we had accomplished and I was thrilled to have gotten a peek into Caroly's worklife. 

Fast-forward a few months. Ted reached out again, this time needing help identifying some people in Caroly's photos. Most of these were folks who worked in the Muppet Workshop at various times throughout the years. These were a bit harder for me and I knew I was going to have call in some help of my own. For those I didn't know, I took photos of the photos with my phone and contacted the same veteran Henson folks I had before, who were very helpful in some cases. 

But there was one guy. He seemed familiar to them but they couldn't name him. 

(Side note: Since I don't have usage rights to share the images of this mystery man, I can't post one to this story, but I made an artist's rendering of one)

This one guy. 

He was tall with wild silver hair and a goatee. He looked like a natural fit for the Henson staff in those days. He was in a photo from 1972 on the set of “The Muppet Musicians of Bremen,” helping Caroly, who was in the costume for Mean Floyd, one of the bad guys. 

He popped up again in photos for “Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas,” making some adjustments to the set of Gretchen Fox's dock. If you know the special, you know the significance of that dock. 

Both specials were shot in Canada, so it seemed likely he was part of the regular Canadian team Jim used when he filmed up there, which was frequently since production costs were cheaper. Jim was also the sort that when he found people he liked to work with, he hired them over and over again. He was also known to be incredibly good to those people. 

It was time to call in the heavy-hitters, which prompted an email thread among Henson Archivist, Karen Falk, Henson Legacy trustee and veteran Muppet designer and builder, Bonnie Erickson, and Fraggle Rock producer, Larry Mirkin. They all looked at the photos of this man and he looked familiar or he resembled this person or that but no one seemed to know exactly who he was. Finally, Larry said he was going to contact puppet wrangler Jane Graydon, who had told him once that her father had worked on Emmet but wasn't on the credit list. So, we waited to hear back from Larry.

The man's name was Louis Graydon, Jane Graydon's father. She said he had worked on a number of Henson projects eventually becoming a Key Grip. In her message to Larry, she revealed that he was also on the team that was responsible for one of the greatest Muppet outtake reels: The rolling drum from “Emmet Otter.” 

If you don't know this bit, well, it seems pretty insignificant in the context of the whole special. Ma and Emmet Otter pass by a music store that's being pillaged by The Riverbottom Nightmare Gang and a bass drum rolls out the door past Ma and Emmet and lands on the curb. In rehearsal, the drum had rolled out and done a nifty end-on-end teeter before landing on the curb. But that was just the rehearsal and the cameras weren't rolling. However, Jim wanted that exact movement, became fixated on it and would not give up on lightning striking twice. The crew valiantly tried over 200 takes to recreate what had happened purely by accident. All the while, Jerry Nelson and Frank Oz were trapped underneath the set performing Emmet and Ma above their heads for those over 200 takes. You can see the outtake reel here: ( Louis peeks through the door of Mrs. Mink's Music Shop at around the 4:00 mark. 

The mystery was solved! Jane was so grateful to Larry for being in touch and allowing her the opportunity to remember and share her memories of her dad. Now he'll be properly credited in the Henson Archives as well as in Caroly's material at the Center for Puppetry Arts. I was so glad to play a little role in solving this mystery and connecting those dots. As the years roll by the number of folks who were directly involved in these productions dwindles. I think we were really lucky to catch this one when we did. I also feel really honored to know some of that old guard who are still around like Ed Christie, Rollie Krewson, and Bonnie Erickson, all who helped so much on this excavation trip. 

All this also puts me in mind of the current fight the members of IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) are undertaking. There are so many people that work behind the scenes of all the content we have been gorging on since the start of the pandemic. Production companies have attempted to turn up the rate of production, mostly at the expense of the teams of people who work incredibly hard to make it all happen on schedule and on or under budget. This has lead to cut corners on safety in some cases or just a blatant disregard for the general well-being and welfare of crew members. It has all finally reached a breaking point and negotiations with union leadership has stalled and a worker strike is likely forthcoming (and justified). 

So think about all the work it takes to make a movie or a show that you watch. 

Think about all those names you see scroll on your screen. 

Think of their families. 

And think about Louis Graydon. 

Monday, June 24, 2019

"The Muppet Movie" Turns 40

40 years ago movie audiences and Muppet fans were treated to "The Muppet Movie" and the world was introduced to Kermit's big-screen anthem, "Rainbow Connection."

I've sung this song a few times in my years as a puppeteer, Muppet fan and banjo player, although it wasn't this song that sent me down the banjo path. The song is tied to many personal memories; some sad and some sweet, which seems appropriate for a Paul Williams song.

I started playing the song at gigs with my band, Banjolicious. I played it for IBEX's first trial run of their popular "Muppet Movie Sing-A-Long." I played it at an Amphibious Alumni event flanked by 3 generations of Muppet performers. I played it to Jane Henson in her living room on the "Muppet Show" banjo, which is now on display at the American Banjo Musem. I played it to a room of puppeteers at the O'Neill Puppetry Conference when I proposed. I played it (recorded it) for the first dance at my wedding. I sang it as Mr. The Frog when I auditioned for the role. And I played it to a room full of banjo players (including Bela Fleck) when Jim Henson was inducted into the American Banjo Museum's Hall of Fame.

Much like the Frog in the film who left the Mississippi swamp with a bindle stick, a banjo and a dream, I left rural Alabama (by way of Atlanta) with 2 suitcases, a banjo and a little money in my bank account seeking that "rich and famous" contract. My story turned out more like Emmet Otter's than Kermit the Frog's, which is still better than selling snake oil. Both characters have Paul Williams songs in common, too, and you can't go wrong there.

I'm grateful for the man behind the Frog and the man behind the song and the all the dreams they inspired 40 years ago, including mine.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Banjo/Muppet Connection in Oklahoma City!

Oklahoma City is home to the American Banjo Museum where visitors can view displays of hundreds of banjos of various styles: 4-string tenors, 5-string open backs, 5-string resonator bluegrass, long-neck Seeger style, and on and on. For any banjo enthusiast, it is a must-visit. The only thing that would make the experience even better for a banjo player would be getting to play some of these incredible instruments!

I had a specific reason for visiting the Museum this past weekend. As part of their annual Banjo Fest, the American Banjo Museum was honoring the 2018 inductees into the Banjo Hall of Fame. For his role in promoting the banjo in American pop culture, Jim Henson was being honored and I had been asked by the Henson family to play and sing Kermit's iconic song, “Rainbow Connection,” written for “The Muppet Movie” by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.

Added to this honor, was the knowledge that Bela Fleck, perhaps the world's top banjoist was also being inducted and would be in attendance as well as banjo legends Tony Trischka and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen. To say I felt some intimidation would be an understatement.

Tim Allan, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka & John McEuen

But I needn't have been worried. The community of players and enthusiasts was so warm and welcoming. Everyone felt like family. There was even ANOTHER David Stephens! Can you believe it? TWO David Stephenses in ONE place at the SAME time!

David Eugene Stephens from Ocean Springs, Mississippi and David Andrew Stephens. 

At the awards ceremony, I had a plan in the event I should feel too nervous, which I did. I took the stage and saw all the banjo luminaries (including Deering Banjo founders, Janet and Greg Deering) at the front table, mere inches away from me. Tony Trischka had even emerged from the green room where he had been warming up to watch my performance. Add to this Heather Henson, Jim's youngest daughter, and members of the extended Henson family were also in attendance. They had jokingly told me before the ceremony, “don't screw this up!”

I started that famous banjo riff that we all know and love and then sang the first line of the song in Kermit's voice. Then I stopped, coughed and cleared my throat. I then apologized to the audience and said “I had a frog in my throat..” The joke brought the house down and took all the pressure off and I started the song again in my own voice. It all seemed to go quite well and Heather Henson gave a lovely acceptance speech and received the award.

David Stephens, Bela Fleck, Heather Henson & Tony Trischka

Deering Banjos co-founder, Janet Deering and I were Kermit pin twins!

American Banjo Museum Executive Director and tenor banjo maestro, Johnny Baier

Heather Henson & David Stephens

David Stephens and Tony Trischka

A nervous me with a custom Kermit tie by Sci Fi Ties (on Etsy!)

John McEuen warming up

The next day, at the American Banjo Museum, Heather cut the ribbon and officially opened a year-long exhibit featuring a “photo” Kermit holding a prop banjo that was used by the Muppet version of Jim Henson in the Country Trio and also used in the “Muppet Musicians of Bremen.” Additionally, the banjo that was used on a large number of musical tracks on seasons 2 through 5 of “The Muppet Show” was on display.

Larry Jameson's design for Kermit's banjo as seen in "The Muppet Movie."

"Sing-A-Song" design by Jim Henson

The musician who had played this tenor banjo during those “Muppet Show” sessions had managed to get autographs from many of the guest stars who appeared on the show. There were signatures from Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers, Johnny Cash, Petula Clark, Leo Sayer and even Jim Henson and Kermit.

The "Muppet Show" banjo signatures

More signatures on the "Muppet Show" banjo.

A few years ago, the banjo came up for auction. The owner had been dealing with some health issues and in an effort to ease some medical expenses, was selling off some of his instruments, including this banjo. I saw the auction listing and notified Heather Henson that this was an important piece of Muppet history that did not need to get lost. The Henson Legacy managed to acquire the banjo and now it will be on display at the American Banjo Museum through 2019.

It was an incredible weekend honoring two of my life's passions: the work of Jim Henson and the banjo. I never could have imagined those two worlds colliding in such a specific way, but I was privileged and grateful to have been asked by Jim's family to honor his legacy. And for making me feel like an extended family member.

Many, many thanks to fellow Muppet and banjo enthusiast, Lucas Ross who was instrumental (pun intended) in coordinating the exhibit and making my visit possible. Lucas even had Chubbly on his morning news spot!

David Stephens, Heather Henson and Lucas Ross on Oklahoma News 4!

Heather Henson gets a banjo lesson from Lucas Ross!

David Stephens, Chubbly and Heather Henson

Heather and I signed a banjo head for the Museum!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Happy Fall from Chubbly!

Georgia Mountain String Band at 2017 Chomp and Stomp!

Each year, the Atlanta neighborhood of Cabbagetown hosts Chomp and Stomp, a bluegrass festival and chili cook-off. Last year, Georgia Mountain String Band played our first Chomp and we were thrilled to be invited back this year. Here are some photos of our set on the Amphitheater Stage!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Inktober 2017 Challenge!

While in a bit of a creative slump, I decided to engage in the Inktober Challenge for 2017. Haven't heard of Inktober? Well, here's what it's all about:

And to help spur you on each day, there's a handy-dandy word prompt list: 

So, here are my 31 drawings for the 31 days of Inktober!

1. Tub.
(This a Jonathan Swift joke using the title form one of his works)

2. Divided


4. Underwater

5. Long

6. Sword

7. Shy

8. Crooked

9. Screech

10. Gigantic

11. Run

12. Shatter

13. Teeming

14. Fierce

15. Mysterious

16. Fat

17. Graceful

18. Filthy

19. Cloud


21. Furious

22. Trail

23. Juicy

24. Blind

25. Ship

26. Squeak

27. Climb

28. Fall

29. Unite

30. Found

31. Mask

I had a lot of fun with this challenge. So much so I wish there was an Inkvember challenge so I could keep going!