When it comes to the world of movies and television shows aimed at children, one of the colossal figures in the scene…or should I say, under that scene, was a man named Jim Henson. Mr. Henson was a master puppeteer. His career began with a little TV show that you may have heard of called Sesame Street. As a child, I was a devoted follower of Sesame Street. I knew everyone who lived in that neighbourhood, whether they were in human form or whether they existed as a puppet. As a child, I know that I found the show to be funny and entertaining, and it helped place me in an environment where I thought that learning about things was a natural way to spend my time. As an adult, I look back upon Sesame Street and I marvel at how incredible it all was. The people responsible for programming those episodes deserve special recognition for how easily and seamlessly they introduced such politically sensitive topics as racial harmony, women’s rights and so on in ways that made sense to the young children watching at home. I have said this in a previous post, but my favourite TV episode of all time, in any era and from any style of television show, was the episode when long time character Mr. Hooper dies (as he did in real life). The writers of Sesame Street wrote it into the show and framed the episode around Big Bird’s character learning about what had happened to his friend and what it means when someone you care for actually dies. *(You can read that previous post here). That Sesame Street could tackle the topic of death in such a respectful way spoke volumes to me about the quality of the character of the people who were running the show. One of those people was Jim Henson.
Jim Henson learned about puppeteering in college in the late 1950s. He began his professional career as a puppeteer by making a short five-minute show segment that appeared as part of a TV show called Sam and Friends that appeared on Public TV in Washington. One of his early puppets was the early version of a talking frog. That talking frog would eventually go on to become the character we all know as Kermit the Frog. As Henson began to receive attention from his Sam and Friends segments, he began to appear with his puppets as a guest on TV shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. His work on those national television shows brought him to the attention of the producers of Sesame Street, who hired Henson to join their production team. He agreed and, along with friend and fellow puppeteer Frank Oz, went on to create some of the most iconic characters in the history of television, such as Bert and Ernie, Big Bird (who was played by Caroll Spinney on the show), Oscar the Grouch, game show host Guy Smiley and many more. Henson believed that puppets could be made to seem so realistic in their appearance, their movements and their speaking ability that they would appear to be real and thus, would be believable to children. Thus, all of Henson’s puppets (which he called Muppets) were created using soft material, with movable rods hidden inside their bodies (as opposed to strings hanging down from above) and mouths that were easily manipulated from within the puppet. The overwhelming success of puppets such as Kermit the Frog led to a spinoff television show simply called The Muppet Show, a further spinoff called Fraggle Rock and a series of movies based upon the Muppet characters. The very first of these movies was given an equally simple title as the TV show had been given. It was called The Muppet Movie. From that movie came a song about rainbows that was about rainbows and so much more. “The Rainbow Connection” was a song written by the team of Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher. This song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song in a Feature Film. The entire musical score was nominated for Best Film Score. “The Rainbow Connection” actually cracked the Top 30 Pop charts in 1979, making it as high as position #25. The song has since been selected for inclusion at The Library of Congress because of its cultural significance.
The Muppet Movie opens with a scene in which Kermit the Frog is sitting on a log in a pond. Kermit sings the song “The Rainbow Connection” as he wonders about his purpose in life. Someone overhears him singing and tells Kermit that he could be an entertainer who brings joy into the hearts of millions of people. Kermit takes this suggestion as being a sign that his “rainbow connection”….his purpose in life… lay in finding a career in show business. To do that, he travels across America in search of Hollywood. Along the way, Kermit meets all manner of Muppet friends who, in the end, become like his family. The movie concludes by Kermit having his dream realized in a most explosive and unusual way that also involves a rainbow appearing, which he takes as a sign that he has made the correct choice in life. One of the things that most people in the audience for this movie didn’t realize was how difficult it was to film that opening scene where Kermit sits on a log in the middle of a pond and sings “The Rainbow Connection” song.
If you think back to how Jim Henson and Frank Oz worked with the Muppets, they did so from below. Thus, all of the sets used in The Muppet Movie had to be built five feet into the air so that Oz and Henson could stand and move about freely from below. So every time you saw a scene using a muppet in the movie (or on Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock) keep in mind that those puppets were actually five feet in the air and a whole lot was going on under the camera’s view. In the case of “The Rainbow Connection” scene, Jim Henson couldn’t stand underneath Kermit the Frog because they were using real water to film the scene. So, in order for Henson to be able to operate Kermit from below, they had to build a sealed diving bell-like contraption. The diving bell was a fully sealed submersible device. Henson was able to breathe for the several hours it took to film the scene because oxygen was being pumped in from behind the bell. In order to feed him, food and water was brought in through a hatchway that could be opened from the outside yet remain sealed from the inside. The hatchway would be opened, the food would be placed in a cubby way, the outside door sealed shut and then, at that time, Henson could open the hatchway from inside and retrieve his food and drink. So, as you watch the video for this song, try and imagine all that went into creating this scene. What a lot of ingenuity was at play!
I will end this post with the following thought. The song “The Rainbow Connection” is about finding your purpose in life and believing yourself capable and worthy of finding it at all. There is no one single, universal “rainbow connection” out there. But there is one such connection waiting for us to find that is meant just for us. I truly believe that we are all worthy of finding a path in life that works for us and will help us become the person we were always meant to be. No one can dictate what that connection is any more than you can buy it from a store. Whatever your true rainbow connection turns out to be, it will be beautiful and wonderful. If you haven’t discovered it yet, keep looking. The journey may be long, but the reward for your heart and mind is immeasurable. To all those who believe in rainbows, I salute you. Good luck on your journey.
The link to the video for the song “The Rainbow Connection” as sung by Kermit the Frog from the original motion picture soundtrack of the film The Muppet Movie can be found here. *The lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer to The Muppet Movie can be found here.
The link to the official website for Jim Henson can be found here.
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