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The wonderful, whimsical, interfaith family of the Muppets

In August of 1960, a young man, his wife and their eight-week-old daughter drove into Detroit in a secondhand Rolls Royce. In a moment of mischief, the man asked his friend who was tagging along to take the wheel and drive him to the center of the Motor City. There, he cracked the moonroof and perched a green puppet with ping-pong ball eyes on top of the car. Jim Henson (and Kermit) had arrived — but they had yet to meet their Miss Piggy.

In town for the 1960 Puppeteers of America Convention, Henson and his family caused a bit of a stir “without particularly intending to,” Jane Henson, his wife, recalled in the 1993 book “Jim Henson: The Works.” Among the people who took notice were two veteran puppeteers, Frances and Isidore (“Mike”) Oznowicz. Within three years, Frances and Mike’s son, Frank, would become a permanent part of the Henson family.

And it was, by all accounts, a family. Henson began his career in commercials and local television with his girlfriend and later wife, and the empire he developed valued close bonds and collaboration. Each year, Henson designed the prints for a Christmas card sent out to his extended corporate clan, yet Henson’s primary performing partner for nearly 40 years celebrated Hanukkah. Almost 60 years later, “Muppets Now” will arrive on Disney+ July 31, with Henson and his Hebraic partners’ touch intact.

In 1961 in Monterey, Calif., Henson thought he found a worthy successor to Jane, who was retiring from puppeteering, in Frank Oznowicz. Oznowicz dazzled Henson with his direction of a puppet show at that year’s PoA festival — the only rub was that he was still in high school. A guy named Jerry Juhl got the job instead, after previewing an impromptu puppet show staged outside the trunk of Henson’s station wagon. But once he graduated, Oznowicz (soon to go by Frank Oz), flew from his West Coast home to join the Muppet team at their East 53rd Street base in Manhattan. He was 19, and had intended to continue with college after a a six month part-time stint with Henson, but he soon became too vital to the Muppet operation pursue his degree. Instead, his school was Henson’s office, where he learned about film-making two decades before he became a director in his own right.

Oz recalled the tiny space, up a flight of narrow stairs, with its dartboard and papier-mache moose head and Henson’s animation stand, where he’d sketch out storyboards.

“This is the room where Jim, wearing his bright flowered ties and speaking just above a whisper, would hold meetings with clients,” Oz reminisced in “The Works.” “This is where Jim and I and Don [Sahlin, a puppet builder] and Jerry would hear that Kennedy had been shot. This is where we’d eat the deli sandwiches with those funny-tasting East Coast pickles. For the kid from Oakland, everything here was new and strange and exciting and adult.”

Emerging as Henson’s closest collaborator, Oz would come of age with his menagerie of Muppets and help him puppeteer its first breakout star, Rowlf the Dog, the sidekick on “The Jimmy Dean Show.” At the time the show ended in 1966, a TV producer named Joan Ganz Cooney was spearheading a Carnegie Institute study on children’s television. During the study, she met Henson and, after a lot of courting, “Sesame Street” premiered in November of 1969.

Oz debuted the characters of Grover and Cookie Monster and was the Bert to Henson’s Ernie. The street itself was bustling with life, and featured a diverse cast of monsters, animals and people. including a Jewish grocer named Mr. Hooper, played by a formerly blacklisted member of the Group Theater named Will Lee.

By the mid-70s, after a short-lived stint on the inaugural season of Lorne Michaels’ “SNL” (as part of a nightmarish segment called “The Land of Gorch”), Henson was ready to return his Muppets to a more adult crowd. But they met with resistance.

“Every network we went to said ‘puppets don’t work at night, puppets don’t work at night,’” Henson’s longtime manager, Bernie Brillstein, recalled in an interview. But where others saw no nocturnal potential for these flocked foam creations, a British producer named Lord Lew Grade, a rare Jewish baron, saw promise after watching the puppets on “The Julie Andrews Show.”

“I approached Jim Henson and I said I’d like to do a television series,” Grade said, in between puffs of a cigar, in a documentary on his career. “He said ‘I’ve been trying for three years to get on to television in America.’ I said ‘We’re going to make 24 episodes. And, we went ahead.”

“The Muppet Show” was born. Juhl was the head writer and Oz introduced the world to that porcine diva Miss Piggy and to the Borscht Belt shtick of Fozzie Bear (inspired by the humor of his father, who fought the Nazis with the Dutch Brigades).

The Yiddishkeit of the series could not be overstated. Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Joel Grey, Milton Berle, Peter Sellers and George Burns all hosted. Danny Kaye cooked with the Swedish Chef. Zero Mostel mocked the buttoned-up pieties of Sam Eagle (behind his back). Tony Randall accidentally turned Miss Piggy into stone and Alan Arkin drank a Jekyll and Hyde-type potion that made him pummel cute bunnies in their burrows.

But beyond the list of Jewish stars, the behind-the-scenes antics of “The Muppet Show” had the vibe of a Catskills pageant scramble. It evoked a kind of vaudeville family troupe with shades of Second Avenue. Not all the players were Jewish, but that hardly mattered. The spirit of the show and its showbiz subversiveness had a ragged, outsider quality that Jews could all recognize. It had hopes of making it big, of going off without a technical or personnel-based hiccup, of pleasing those critics in the opera box and becoming an established part of the culture.

That Henson, a Christian Scientist from Mississippi, fostered such a feeling is not just a result of his close Jewish collaborators, but a testament to what makes the Muppets great. In their variety and their vibrancy they are an ensemble that anyone could slot themselves into or see themselves reflected in. Muppets are just like everyone, only more so.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].

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