By Ken Zurski
Long before Jim Henson became famously known as the man behind the legendary Muppets, his early puppet creations were popular thanks to stints on television commercials, the Tonight Show, and The Jimmy Dean Show where a furry dog named Rowlf, pronounced Ralph, became nearly as popular as the folksy TV host himself.
Jimmy Dean didn’t seem to mind and neither did Jim. It was after all the characters who were in the spotlight, not the performers. So Henson and his team, including fellow puppeteer Frank Oz, were virtually unseen and unknown at the time.
This was between 1962 and 1969, the same time an English rock sensation known as the Beatles took over America. The Muppets played a completely different role than the lads from Liverpool, but in one respect they shared a rather innocuous connection with the Fab Four.
Author Brain Jay Jones points this out in his book Jim Henson: The Biography.
In a chapter titled “A Crazy Little Band,” Jones writes that “it wasn’t Jim’s name on the door or company letterhead, but rather THE MUPPETS.” Even Jim’s son Brian Henson would later admit, “The Muppets were known,” but as for his father: “He wasn’t.”
Apparently, without a face, there was uncertainty as to who or what the Muppets actually were. Plus, if you didn’t know what the name stood for (a Henson invented combination of Marionette and Puppet), the confusion was two-fold.
So the name baffled some. Many thought Jim and his crew listed on guest lists as simply “The Muppets” were a rock band similar to other one-name bands like the Troggs, the Animals, the Hollies or the Beatles.
In addition, Jones writes, Jim had somewhat long shaggy hair “like a businessman beatnik” and a beard. He was also tall and lanky and walked with long strides, similar to the look and style that the Beatles would make famous on the cover of “Abbey Road.”
Add to that the Muppet characters who were transported in black boxes which resembled instrument cases. If you didn’t know who the Muppets were, Jones explains, you might have mistaken them for a rock group.
Even Frank Oz conceded to the confusion. “We were just kind of this crazy little band at the time,” he wrote. “We were the Muppets, but like an act.”
This confusion led to an embarrassing incident after a performance in Los Angeles when a stubborn hotel manager refused to give Henson and his crew a room for the night fearing a rock band would trash the place.
Henson, of course, would get the last laugh. He attempted to correct the problem by having a “serious conversation” with the manger. Jim’s real voice resembled Kermit the Frogs’s in tone and was quiet, calm and reassuring. He rarely swore.
The manger was likely convinced without Henson having to take out one of his “instruments” as proof.