Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A History of The Muppets

By Brittany Bell

With recent news about new Muppets attractions at Walt Disney World, it’s safe to say the franchise is getting a revival at the Disney theme parks. Though they have had a presence in the Parks since the opening of Muppet*Vision 3D at the then-named Disney’s MGM-Studios in 1991, the rebirth of the TV show, along with new Muppets movies, makes it safe to say that the silly and whimsical group is ready to make a mark on the Parks once again. However, these characters were not always a part of Disney; in fact, they date all the way back to 1955, when creator Jim Henson was still a college student at the University of Maryland. The rich history of these now-beloved characters is where our journey takes us today in this history of the Muppets…

As previously mentioned, the Muppets first came to fruition in 1955, with Kermit the Frog appearing on the TV show Sam and Friends with the help of his own “friend” Jim Henson. Though Kermit looked slightly different than he does today (see the photos below), he appeared on the show for its six year run, until he finally landed a gig on Sesame Street in 1969. While on Sesame Street, Kermit spent six years on the cast, where he coined his famous song telling the world, “It’s not easy being green.” Kermit’s popularity on Sesame Street and his song led to his landing of a prime time network television show that was to be called The Muppet Show.

Kermit in 1955 making his first TV appearance on Sam and Friends

Kermit and the cast of Sam and Friends

Sam and Friends logo, 1955

Jim and Jane Henson pose with the characters from Sam and Friends, circa 1956

Jim Henson began pitching ideas for the Muppet show in the early 70s, however, it wasn’t until British media mogul Lew Grade showed interest in the project that Henson’s dream would become a reality. Henson packed up shop and brought his ideas across the Atlantic, and with the creative team behind the Muppet show working in England, production of the show began. Then, in 1976, The Muppet Show premiered on CBS, introducing the world to characters such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, the Swedish Chef, and most of the other Muppets characters we know and love today. The show was well-received in both England and the US, running from 1976 to 1981. However, the wild popularity of the show led to another opportunity for the Muppets: a shot at the big screen.

Newspaper ad for The Muppet Show

Season One cast of The Muppet Show

The Muppets made their silver screen debut in 1979 in The Muppet Movie, which reveals how Kermit the Frog came to meet the rest of the Muppets. The movie was not only a box office hit, but was critically acclaimed as well, leading to Henson halting production on The Muppet Show to focus on making more Muppet movies. The Great Muppet Caper was the next Muppets movie to come out in 1981, which still boasts a 79% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.2 rating on IMDb.

Movie poster for The Muppet Movie, 1979

Finale of The Muppet Movie, which featured the song “Rainbow Connection”)

Movie poster for The Great Muppet Caper, 1981

In 1989, Jim Henson decided to sell The Jim Henson Co., the legal owner of the Muppets to the Walt Disney Company for $150 million. However, Henson died from a bacterial infection in 1990, leaving the contracts with Disney unsigned. His family then decided to keep the Jim Henson Company private, along with the Muppets. However, Disney was able to work out a deal with the Henson family, which still brought the in-production Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D to Disney’s MGM-Studios in Orlando. The attraction officially opened on May 16, 1991, the one year anniversary of Jim Henson’s death. The show was originally intended to be the centerpiece of an entire “Muppets Studio” that was to include The Muppet Movie Ride and The Great Gonzo's Pandemonium Pizza Parlor. However, when the original deal with the Hensons fell through, so did many of the plans for Muppet Studios.

The green carpet was rolled out for the 1991 opening of Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D

Promotional image for the opening of Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D

The Muppet Movie Ride concept art

Though the Henson family originally intended to hold on to the Jim Henson Company, after a few switching of hands, the company finally was bought by the Walt Disney Company in 2004, along with Bear and the Big Blue House. Once Disney officially owned the Muppets, they set out to reintroduce the characters to a new generation, making more Muppets movies and television specials. The first of which, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, received poor reviews and ended up being a television movie instead of a big screen flick, which it originally intended to be.

In 2008, a new revival of Muppets films began, with new storylines for the characters featuring celebrity cameos in the films. The Muppets premiered in 2008, bringing in $165 million worldwide. The Muppets were recently brought back to television in 2015 with a new The Muppets television show, but unfortunately the show was a flop, only running for about a year.

Promotional image for The Muppets TV show which aired on ABC

Although the Muppets haven’t recently found success on television, Walt Disney World is getting ready to bring a bigger Muppets presence to the theme parks. First, the original idea for a Muppets Studio in Disney’s Hollywood Studios is now coming to life, with plans for the Muppets Courtyard to open in late 2016. The newly-themed area features Mama Melrose’s and Muppet*Vision 3D, and will also be home to the newly announced PizzeRizzo, which will be taking the place of the now-closed Pizza Planet. According to the Disney Parks Blog:

“Rizzo The Rat owns and operates the pizzeria, where guests can grab a pizza pie and a cold drink. Enjoy a casual Italian-American dining experience in a whole new way, through the eyes of the lovable, wisecracking Muppet.
Walt Disney Imagineering hid hints of Rizzo, his extended family and friends who have visited PizzeRizzo over the years throughout the two-story quick-service location. In addition to the expansive indoor and outdoor seating area, guests will be able to dine in a “cheesy” banquet room, or take five in a special booth designated just for Rizzo’s celebrity friends.”

Along with the new area in Hollywood Studios, a new Muppets show will be making its way to Magic Kingdom in the fall as well. The Muppets Present… Great Moments in American History will debut in Liberty Square in October, featuring the ever patriotic Sam Eagle and the rest of the gang telling the story of, well, great moments in American history. The show is also set to feature a new original song.

Promo image Disney released following the announcement of The Muppets Present: Great Moments in American History

With the new revival of the Muppets comes a new generation (along with the previous) loving and laughing with the Muppets characters. They have entertained audiences for almost as long as the Disneyland Resort itself, and will always hold a special place in entertainment (and Disney) history. There is endless adventures that await this silly crew, and it’s exciting to see what more Disney can come up with for the Muppets.


Brittany Bell grew up in Lewiston, Maine, about 45 minutes away from Portland. She is currently studying Public Relations and Journalism at Boston University, and hopes to one day work for the Mouse himself. She grew up in a Disney-loving home, and would watch Sleeping Beauty on repeat as a little girl. Her first trip to Walt Disney World was in the summer of 2000, at four years old. Ever since then, Brittany and her family take annual trips to the World, and have no intention of vacationing anywhere else. Her favorite places in Walt Disney World are the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Grand Floridian, and the Magic Kingdom. She can’t go without seeing Fantasmic! at least once each vacation, even though she chokes up a little at the final scene. Brittany is fascinated by how one man’s dream became an empire—one that makes dreams come true every day.

Before she became obsessed with Frozen and Queen Elsa, her favorite Disney characters were Princess Aurora and Mulan. She loves everything and anything Disney, from the parks, to the movies, to the Broadway musicals. In the near future she hopes to participate in the Disney College Program and work as a “friend of a princess”.

You can find all of Brittany's articles here

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