Mikey's Muppet Memorabilia Museum

Mikey's Muppet Memorabilia Museum

Sunday, July 16, 2017

It's not easy being... objective!

Above: Puppeteer Steve Whitmire with everyone's favourite (and arguably the most talented) amphibian, Kermit the Frog, at the San Diego Comiccon in 2015. Recently, news that Mr. Whitmire was fired by Disney last October has spread like wildfire. The related news story and above photo are found on the CTV website at this link: http://www.ctvnews.ca/entertainment/former-voice-of-kermit-the-frog-devastated-by-firing-1.3502327

Of Muppets and Manners....

Hey there Muppet fans! Well gee, what seems to be the topic of the day? Did I miss much?

Ya, that was sarcasm. Presumably you have already heard the news that Disney has fired their lead star Muppet performer, Steve Whitmire, in an extremely abrupt and rather disrespectful manner - over the phone - this past October. Disney didn't allow Mr. Whitmire the respect of a face to face meeting, and it seems from the available information they would not compromise or allow him the opportunity to correct any wrong doing. You likely also already know about Steve Whitmire's recent blog post in which he stated:

"I just want you all to know that I am sorry if I have disappointed any of you at any point throughout our journey, and to let everyone know that I am devastated to have failed in my duty to my hero (Jim Henson)."

You didn't Mr. Whitmire! You entertained us and put smiles on millions of people's faces all over the world for the past 40 years. You are not a mere man or mouse, you are a frog! Right now you just seem to be "all scrunched up", so I hope someone close to you will take your arm and pump you back into shape, frog of my heart!

In his post Mr. Whitmire mentions the firing took place due to "two stated issues that had never been mentioned to me prior to that phone call". The entire blog post can be read here: https://stevewhitmire-muppetpundit.com/2017/07/11/its-time-to-get-things-started/

This news was so upsetting to people that it didn't just anger Muppet fans, it gained main stream media coverage... everything from local and national news programs to late night talk shows were reporting and commenting on events. In Canada both the CBC and CTV posted the Associated Press report on their websites, as noted above. Meanwhile Stephen Colbert opened an episode of his Late Show this past week with a skit making light of the situation, for which it looked as though the real Kermit puppet may have been used: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKW8iI0WlC0  I understand that to a non-puppeteer such a skit might seem funny, but considering Colbert had previously had Mr. Whitmire as a guest performing Kermit on the show, I found the skit to be in poor taste and quite a disrespectful way for Colbert to treat a fellow performer. Apparently there really isn't any honour among thieves. Here is the previous guest appearance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjAb498Ax60

[Update July 20, 2017: A third skit with Kermit was aired on the Colbert show July 18 toward the end of the monologue, during which Colbert ridiculed Steve Whitmire more directly comparing him to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. http://www.cbs.com/shows/the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert/video/2rRDwe1bJsKXvVAZH76WW7wcsAcHH3_F/kermit-the-frog-s-very-ugly-contract-negotiations/ He also quoted Cheryl Henson as having stated "Steve performs Kermit as a bitter, angry, depressed, victim...".  The quote is taken from this online article: https://io9.gizmodo.com/no-one-looks-good-in-the-ugly-drama-surrounding-kermit-1797013930  Lisa and Brian Henson have also apparently sided with Disney according to this July 17th New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/arts/television/kermit-the-frog-disney-firing.html.]

Without question, the way Disney handled this situation was rather authoritarian and as such if their goal was to do the firing in a manner that minimized any fallout, they certainly didn't help themselves in that regard. This is especially true if they allowed Colbert to use the actual Muppet to mock these events, as it would be purposefully adding insult to injury toward Mr. Whitmire.

Be that as it may, and as upsetting as this news is to everyone, we still do not know what the "two issues" are that led to this point. What could Mr. Whitmire have done, if anything, to have warranted such a harsh response from Disney or cause him to feel that he has "failed" in his duty to Jim Henson? Can the folks at Disney really be so inept and self-absorbed that this is all some kind of personal vendetta against Mr. Whitmire in response to their "two issues"? [Update July 20, 2017: The "two issues" were revealed in the July 17th New York Times article linked above]

When I first heard about the way Disney treated Mr. Whitmire, my initial response was to consider posting an illustration of some kind on this blog showing Mickey Mouse with a big "X" over his face along with a caption in large block letters that read "Disney Sucks!". I still might do that eventually, but I'm glad I held off and didn't respond with a knee jerk reaction. Social media certainly makes it easy to do so! Many fans have subsequently posted anti-Disney sentiments online, some of whom have understandably stated that they will be boycotting anything Disney from here on as a protest of Mr. Whitmire's firing.

Meanwhile the Muppet fan site Tough Pigs, which broke this news in the first place along with their colleagues at the Muppet Mindset fan site, has since posted a rather thoughtful article titled "Take a Deep Breath: The Aftermath of the Kermit News". http://www.toughpigs.com/deep-breath/ In the article they respectfully try to console fans and urge them not to boycott Disney, and to instead be "supportive". Good luck with that one! The article is a noble attempt to put out the flames, and while it is reassuring to see such a thing in the social media jungle, I'm more than a little pessimistic about their message having much effect. I'll explain why....

My take away from the Tough Pigs article is that the message they were attempting to get across is this: "be objective". In my humble two cents worth, it is somewhat of an oxymoron to request such a thing on a fan site, especially in an article that quotes Jim Henson as though he was Jesus. To many Muppet fans that's just who Jim Henson is, and for a younger generation of fans Jesus is Steve Whitmire.

As such, it is likely that the route of people's outrage is not based solely on what the Disney folks did or didn't do in this situation, but rather it is based on a fan's own blind devotion to their idol. Under such a lens objectivity goes out the window. This isn't just true of Muppet fans, this is true for anyone who is a devoted fan of something. Star Trek fans, for example, praise Gene Roddenberry as a god and insist that they be referred to as "Trekkers" rather than the derogatory "Trekkies". George Lucas used to have a similar devoted following until he made the three prequel films and isolated a good chunk of his worshipers, myself included... R2-D2 does not fly for f**k sakes! Pardon my language! The subsequent sale of a good chunk of my Star Wars collection was not as painful as I thought it would be.

So where am I going with all of this?

Well, over the years there have been a number of issues that I have wanted to discuss here on my blog but never bothered to for the very reason that I find devoted fans cannot be objective. At least that has been my experience. That I should have given folks the benefit of the doubt and posted the info anyways is a fair point to make, though a moot one as I didn't, so here we are.

Yet, with recent events I find myself once again pondering if I should post those issues for which I find objectivity went out the window. Not only is this an opportunity to see how Muppet fans will consume the information, but I also feel that it is only fair to correct inaccuracies and give credit where credit is due. So if Tough Pigs and Muppet Mindset are seriously calling on fans to be objective, perhaps I should see if I'm wrong about fans and their objectivity, or at least try again.

Before I do so however, I just want to say for the record that while I'm extremely proud of this blog, I don't pretend that it is nearly as relevant to Muppet fans as Tough Pigs, Muppet Mindset, or others that are out there. My thing is to document collectables and that's it. None the less it is certainly not my wish to be outcast or ignored altogether by posting information about the Muppets which upsets people! So if you are still reeling from the recent news and feel it is poor timing to post additional, potentially upsetting info, stop reading now and come back later. My blog will still be here!

But for those of you who are willing and capable of being more objective about their idol, I'll take the plunge and risk submitting the following fact about Jim Henson for your consideration. I have a few others, but I'll start with one just for the sake of keeping this post from becoming a research paper! (Or is it too late for that? Silly me!) Depending on how this goes I might post the other items down the road. Keep in mind however that I am a huge, life-long fan of Jim Henson and the Muppets, so I'm not doing this to tear anyone down but rather for the sake of being objective and honest. Again, it's only fair to give credit where credit is due. Here we go!

Canadian puppeteer John Conway and his puppets Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock
(photo likely from 1957 or 1958)

Fact: Jim Henson was not the first television puppeteer to use the TV screen as the proscenium in framing the performance of puppets on television.

Back in the early 1950's Canadian puppeteer John Conway, along with director Norman Campbell, used this technique on their CBC program "Uncle Chichimus" before Jim Henson had discovered it for himself. It is still unknown if Conway was the first puppeteer in the world to use the technique as more research needs to be done, but it is clear that he did so before Jim Henson made his TV debut in 1954.

In 2003 I created a video documentary about John Conway and had discovered this information in the late 1990's while doing the research for that project. My documentary was screened at a Puppeteers of America festival in 2004, yet subsequent Henson exhibits still continued to claim that Henson was the first to pioneer the technique, either that or the text was ambiguously written as to mislead the reader into thinking that such was the case. For example the text about Jim Henson currently on the Henson.com website reads: "Jim, along with his assistant [...] Jane Nebel, introduced [...] innovative technical tricks (such as eliminating the puppet stage and using the television itself as the proscenium)." This is somewhat ambiguous and as stated is incorrect. https://www.henson.com/our-founders.php  The Muppet Wiki page about Jim Henson also makes a similar claim, and with more detail, but as stated is also incorrect: http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Jim_Henson

Meanwhile, the 2011 PBS documentary "Pioneers of Television" about Jim Henson states "[...] Henson was among the first to understand the potential of the new medium", which is a more accurate statement to make though still somewhat ambiguous because it is not explained, and the narrator says it so quickly the meaning of the statement is glossed over so that the impression is still that Henson was the only one doing that kind of television puppetry, which again is misleading because he clearly wasn't the only one doing that kind of puppetry. I have not yet seen the entire documentary so I do not know if they clarify this elsewhere in the program.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzpS1Gsd69Y

In any case, I am not the first researcher to bring this information about John Conway to light. American puppeteer George Latshaw recorded the facts about Conway and Campbell in his book, Puppetry the Ultimate Disguise, published in 1978. Yet, his research was apparently also ignored even though Latshaw was actually a guest puppeteer on Conway's CBC program in February 1954, making his research a first hand account of the events.

So what does this mean for Jim Henson's legacy? Not much! He is still a genius who accomplished more than any other TV puppeteer ever did, and he is still the first American puppeteer to use this technique, so I find it quite odd that Henson folks refuse to accept the truth in this instance. In fairness credit should be given where credit is due, should it not? Additionally, Jim Henson's legacy doesn't need embellishment with false or misleading facts. What he did for real was awesome enough.

The last point that I want to make, and the one that is personally close to my heart having known John Conway for the final few years of his life, is that just because John Conway is not as famous as Jim Henson does not mean that Conway's accomplishments or his role as a television pioneer are any less valid. We should not be excluding Conway from the history of television puppetry simply due to his inability to win a popularity contest against Jim Henson.

As a side note, I find it quite ironic that like Kermit, Conway's main character Uncle Chichimus is also green.... "It's not easy being green" indeed! For more about John Conway please see my post about the documentary on "Mikey's Art and Puppetry Blog" here: http://mikeyspuppetryblog.blogspot.ca/p/john-conway-and-uncle-chichimus.html

In conclusion, just to remind folks what a huge Jim Henson fan I am (in the event that the existence of this blog is not enough!), below is a photo of my Kermit the Frog collection taken in the mid 1990's before I learned that John Conway had even existed! So if you have the impulse to bite my head off right now, please "take a deep breath" and try to be objective! - Mikey

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