In terms of quality and legacy of entertainment for children (and adults), the late Jim Henson’s resume runs deep. That’s in both TV (Sesame Street, The Muppet Show) and film (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth) and even drilled down to Christmas specials featuring chart-topping singers Kermit the Frog and John Denver.
But the one Henson project that seems to get little notice despite having very, very rabid fans is Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. The 1978 TV special is marking its 40th U.S. anniversary this year. And to mark it, movies theaters across the country (including several in Houston) will screen it along with The Bells of Fraggle Rock on December 10 and 16 as Jim Henson’s Holiday Special. Both shows were originally aired in the United States on HBO (Canada got Emmet Otter in 1977).
“It’s true that it’s overlooked, and that’s one reason it’s so great to bring it back out. It’s such a heartfelt and sentimental show,” says Cheryl Henson, one of Jim and Jane Henson’s five children and President of the Jim Henson Foundation, which promotes the art of puppetry.
“I think initially it didn’t play out that well to audiences who were looking for the irreverent comedy of the Muppets,” she continues. “Personally, I feel that we could all use a lot more heart and soul and sentiment now, especially going into the holidays. The messages in Emmet Otter are as meaningful today as they were in 1978.”
The TV special was based on the 1971 children’s picture book of the same name by Russell and Lillian Hoban that itself inspired by the classic O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi.” The plot involves the poor-but-proud Alice “Ma” Otter and her son Emmet (Pa Otter being recently deceased, RIP) trying to make a nice Christmas for each other with an expensive gift. Each is hoping to bankroll the purchase by entering the town talent contest (which they’ve kept secret from each other) and winning its $50 grand prize.
The special has a lot of memorable supporting characters and subplots as well, including a gang of rich juvenile delinquents who have a wild, Alice Cooper/T. Rex-inspired glam rock outfit called The Riverbottom Nightmare Band whose stage act includes sparkly costumes and explosions. Throughout, the importance of love, family, and friends – even when things don't always go in a positive way – are extolled.
“My father really fell in love with the book and the characters and the idea of a whole town on the banks of a river in the middle of the country that’s populated just by animals,” Henson continues. “He would sometimes fall in love with an illustrated book or illustrator and want to give it the puppet technique, turning it from 2D to 3D. I also think the story and the heart and the soul was meaningful to my dad.”
Jim Henson and his crew really went above and beyond in creating not only the puppets, but the elaborate sets for Frogtown Hollow, its homes and businesses, and the river that connects it all. Even after many viewings, one can always spot something new. Even Ma Otter’s tiny rolling pin rolls on what looks like actual dough when she’s baking. Cheryl Henson says this was all part of her father’s plan.
“I adored the sets and the costume and the props. The attention to detail, the care, all of it,” she says, adding that she and her sister Lisa did a lot of playing with doll houses growing up and creating entire miniature worlds. And her younger sister Heather had a whole world of stuffed animals with distinct personalities.
“That was all very much a part of our family home. And so many of the people who are attracted to puppetry whether building or costumes or mechanisms, there’s a fascination with the miniature in common. And the world of Emmet Otter is set in such a charming period.”
A teenaged Cheryl herself actually did some of the puppetry work in the special’s crowd scenes, and the characters are performed and/or voiced by regular Muppet troupers Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, and Eren Ozker (singer/actress Marilyn Sokol voices Ma Otter).
But perhaps the special’s strongest and most memorable aspect is its music – not surprisingly for a show based around a jug band.
Both instrumental interludes and insanely catchy songs were written by ‘70s music icon Paul Williams. The music hop scotches through genres as Williams explores nostalgia and ragtime (“The Bathing Suit That Grandma Otter Wore”), country jigs (“There’s Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” “Bar-B-Que”), barbershop harmony (“Brothers”), ballads (“Our World”), gospel (“When the River Meets the Sea”) and the aforementioned "Riverbottom Nightmare Band" glam rock spectacle.
“One of the great things that came out of it was my dad’s collaboration with Paul Williams on the music. The quality of it…it brought so much heart and soul to the story,” Henson says. Of course, the Williams and co-writer Kenneth Ascher would provide the quintessential Muppet song with “The Rainbow Connection” for 1979’s The Muppet Movie. The first-ever Emmet Otter soundtrack record recently came out with all the songs and music and an unused lost track, “Born in a Trunk.”
Another part of the charm of Emmet Otter is in the “low tech” usage of hand puppets, marionettes, and rod puppets. Henson feels that it gives the production a “sense of warmness” that no computer-generated animation could duplicate.
And hardcore fans will be pleased to note that the new restoration print screened will include two segments that have sometimes been cut from VHS and DVD releases over the years: One is the original intro segment featuring Kermit the Frog, that Disney (which owns the rights to the green amphibian) has given permission to reinstate. And the other is Ma Otter’s muttered wish for Gertrude Fox to “fall off the dock” when the wealthy and haughty character delays payment to Ma for completed laundry work. And just a week before Christmas!
Fans theorize that the line went missing because it runs counter to Ma’s saintly image to wish ill upon any resident of Frogtown Hollow. And that actually comes as a surprise to Henson.
“I had no idea that had that been taken out! It’s such a good line!” she laughs. “And Ma Otter is dealing with very real world problems. Her husband died and she has no money for the winter and Gertrude Fox is mean to her!”
Similarly, fans have wondered of kazoo/washboard player Harvey Muskrat hadn’t tipped off the Riverbottom boys to the talent contest – and who technically entered past the deadline – the ultimate outcome would have been different. Henson chuckles, perhaps at the bizarre depth of this writer’s own extremely scary fascination with the plot.
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“Well, but they picked the right winner! The Riverbottom Nightmare Band was a strong, professional act!” she counters. “It’s heartbreaking, but it’s reality. It was sentimental, but not saccharine.”
Finally, when asked why Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas has such a devout following despite not having the familiarity enjoyed by the Grinch, Frosty, Charlie Brown and Friends, Rudolph, or even Rankin Bass burly dudes Yukon Cornelius and the Burgermeister Meisterburger, she says the answer is simple.
“I think it’s the heart and the soul and these characters feel real. And people can relate to them and the world that they’re living in,” she sums up. “There’s a completeness to it, and it’s just a delight to the depth of it.”
Jim Henson’s Holiday Special screens December 10 and 16 at multiple times and venues at theaters around Houston. Visit Fathomevents.com/events for locations, times, and ticket prices.