Letter from the editor

Monday, November 27, 2006

World on a string

Those of us who grew up before the animated talking turd of South Park or even being advised on how not to have a cow, man, by a juvenile delinquent named Bart Simpson, learned many of our life lessons from puppets.

Inanimate objects of foam, sticks and string that they may be, they were our mentors and our confidants. The Muppets, or Sesame Street. Sweet, patient, fuzzy, nonjudgemental little beings.

Before that, in much of Iowa at least, it was dear old Duane Ellott and "Floppy" for 30 years (I was sad when the man passed away, but the dog now resides silently in the Iowa State Historical Museum) or Betty Lou Varnum with her "Magic Window" and "Catrina Crocodile" for an amazing 43 years - the longest running children's show in world history, based out of Ames.

The Krofft show H.R. Puff'nStuff, tempermental Bunnie Rabbit of "Captain Kangaroo" - or the obnoxious Gorch puppets of the first season of Saturday Night Live - does anyone remember?

There was an amazing puppet show that traveled to the schools in Iowa in my day with mysterious black curtains and colorful lifesize puppet creatures. Before hi-def video and the internet, it was the coolest afternoon of the year. Even today, the grand Eulenspiegel (pronounced oil-en-speegel) Puppet Theatre Company from West Branch carries on the tradition, touring the state and teaching kids the art of puppeteering.

For folks who are a little older, it might have been Howdy Doody, created by Storm Lake artist Margot Rose, by the way; or Kukla, Fran and Ollie; or Shari Lewis and "Lamb Chop." Before television, there was Bill Baird and Edgar Bergan - or even further back, "Punch and Judy."

I've wondered if it did anything odd to us - a couple of generations of kids who were educated, entertained and socialized primarily by puppets. Do we subcounsciously see ourselves as puppets to fate, or more willingly allow our strings to be pulled by others or even our government? Do all those years of puppets make us somehow feel our own behavior is out of our hands, that we need someone to orchestrate our dance in order to be happy - or that there must always be someone else to blame for our misbehavior? That is either puppet philosophy or congressional self-excusing, I'm not sure which.

All of this strings-attached thinking came to me one night recently, as I was brushing up on my Kermit the Frog imitation to perhaps entertain our Partners in Excellence classroom.

I found a couple of old videos online, including Kermit's signature song, "It's Not Easy Being Green."

Having grown out of such things back in the Jurassic age, I'm sure I've written off Muppets and the like with the rest of the immature snips, snails and puppy dog tails of early childhood.

It occurs to me, though, that it really may NOT be easy being brown, or black. It's not easy being disabled, or picked last for dodgeball. Big, or small. Confused, awkward, lost or lonely. Sometimes it is plain not easy, being...

Pretty wise stuff, for a felt frog.

I once ran into a man who went to school with Muppets creator Jim Henson who told of how they used to make puppet cowboys in shop class - and that a teacher of Jim's demanded that he stop such childish foolishness and take up a course of learning that would give him a chance to be something one day.

Remember the Muppet Show characters of the two crotchety old men who sit in the back of the theater and have nothing but criticism for everyone and everything? You guessed it, the short, fat, bald bloke is that teacher - a little inside joke Jim enjoyed and apparently told no one throughout his career.

"The most sophisticated people I know - inside they are all children," Henson once said, and the more I think on that, the more I believe it is true.

"If our 'message' is anything, it's a positive approach to life. That life is basically good. People are basically good," said Henson.

When he died suddenly of pneumonia, his family found that he had left a letter for each of his children. Somewhere in each was this piece of advice:

"Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It's a good life, enjoy it."

Now, that sentimental stuff would never fly today. What passes for childhood entertainment today is brain-numbing pablum by people in stupid suits mindlessly pandering to dull-eyed children left to be babysat by the TV and DVD player, or worse.

Or worse. Shows, music, movies and games that dump on children with their violence, hate, humiliation, sex, bad language, and then more violence.

What happened to imagination, I wonder? Where along the line did that sly, ticklish wit get replaced by gunfire and explosions? When did we decide kids couldn't think or feel in real ways if given the chance? And how did we let our children have their innocence taken away much too quickly? And will we ever manage to do anything about it?

"Floppy," "Howdy," "Kermit" and the gang wouldn't have a chance today. They'd get taken out in a TV drive-by. They are too gentle, too nice, too simple and too thought-inspiring to survive in today's media world. Their charm apparently can't match the entertainment value of a talking turd.

And that's just a little bit frightening, isn't it?

When Jim Henson died, his family received a letter from a small girl that they have kept to this day.

"God," she wrote, "must have needed muppets in heaven."

As I look around at what we are doing to children, I can't help but wonder... maybe we need 'em down here again, too.

* Reach Dana Larsen at dlarsen@stormlakepilottribune.com