Monday, August 27, 2012

Musical Monday - When the River Meets the Sea by Jerry Nelson and Louise Gold

Jerry Nelson died on Thursday last week. He was one of the "core" group of Muppeteers, originally hired by Jim Henson to fill in for Frank Oz as the right hand of Rolf the Dog. He played several characters on Sesame Street, the most famous being Count Von Count, but also a number of memorable bit parts, including Herry Monster, my favorite of all the monster characters when I was a kid and regular viewer. One of his best bit parts was the long-suffering customer Mr. Johnson who appeared in a number of sketches with Grover as a hapless waiter. He participated in The Muppet Show, but his early participation was limited due to his daughter's health problems. He still created several memorable characters for the show, including Floyd, the bassist of The Electric Mayhem, and Robin, Kermit's introverted and somewhat insecure nephew. When Jim Henson wanted to make a Christmas special out of the Russell Hoban book Emmit Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, Jerry stepped up and played the lead role beautifully. Nelson truly came into his own on Fraggle Rock, playing the lead character Gobo Fraggle, as well as Pa Gorg and Marjory the Trash Heap.

I know how you feel Count. I feel the same way.
Although he spent most of his career singing as various fictional characters, in this video, Jerry sings in his own voice. This performance is taken from Jim Henson's memorial in 1990, where he and Louise Gold helped say goodbye to their friend by singing a song that first appeared in Emmit Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. You can hear him barely able to hold himself together as he sings his farewell to Henson. And it makes a fitting send off for Jerry himself. I hope he's somewhere out there with Jim Henson and Richard Hunt, singing silly songs like a chicken. Jerry's death and looking back at his performance at Henson's memorial reminds me of how many of the Muppet performers we have lost. Richard Hunt, who performed Scooter, died in 1992 at the age of 40. Eren Ozker, best known for creating the character Janice, died in 1993 when she was 44. Jerry Juhl, the head writer of The Muppet Show and writer for other Muppet projects like Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Movie, died in 2005.

The Muppets are, more or less, the music and comedy of my childhood. They are also a gateway to fantasy fiction. Because Sesame Street was a success despite making the unheard of choice to include a full cast of puppets as a regular part of reality (a choice, by the way, that was opposed by child development experts at the time, who thought that children watching would get confused about what was real and what was not), it had dozens of imitators. But none of those imitators were able to capture the magic of the Muppets. Their puppet cast members where just puppets. The Muppets were real to those of us watching the show. And I think this is because despite treating the puppets physically as puppets (Henson, for example, never worried about people being able to see the sticks they used to move the Muppets' arms), as characters they were treated as real. No matter what project they were involved in, the Muppeteers were able to immerse their audience into their mythic reality because they took the mythic reality seriously. In the hands of others, the Muppets would have been just dull puppets. Henson, Oz, Nelson, Hunt, and the other men and women that made up the Muppeteer team made them come to life. And although others may imitate their magic, and even produce entertaining material like the 2011 film The Muppets, I don't know if it can ever be recaptured.

Previous Musical Monday: Oh My Dayum by The Gregory Brothers (featuring Daym Drops)
Subsequent Musical Monday: From the Earth to the Moon Opening Theme

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