Letter from the Editor

Thursday, September 20, 2007

World on a string

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

Inanimate objects of foam, stick and string that they may have been, they were mentors and confidants. The Muppets, or Sesame Street. Sweet, patient, nonjudgemental little beings. Where have they gone?

Before them, it was people like dear old Duane Ellott and "Floppy" for 30 years (I was sad when the man passed away, and the fuzzy wizecracking mutt resides silently in the Iowa State Historical Museum). There was Betty Lou Varnum and her "Magic Window" with Catrina Crocodile, based out of Ames. It ran for an amazing 43 years - the longest of any children's show in history. Anybody remember Captain Kangeroo and his tempermental "Bunnie Rabbit?"

Of course, puppets were not all sweetness and light - urban legend has it that the H.R. Puffenstuff characters were all one big drug metaphor, and the Gorch puppets of the earliest days of Saturday Night Live were quite obscene.

There was an amazing puppet theater that traveled the Iowa schools circuit in my childhood - before the internet, high-def multi-media and Britney Spears, we were duly impressed.

The mysterious black curtain was so captivating that we could hardly contain ourselves, and the colorful, undulating life-size puppets made for one of the coolest afternoons of the school year.

Even today, the grand Eulenspiegal (say oil-en-speegal) Puppet Theater Company from West Branch carries on the tradition, teaching Iowa schoolkids about the tradition of puppeteering.

For folks a bit older, it might have been Howdy Doody (created by Storm Lake artist Margo Rose, by the way). Or Kukla, Fran and Ollie; or Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop; Bill Baird and Edgar Bergan.

Puppets were used to wildly entertain and gently teach as far back as the Rennaisance.

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.

Does all this unconsciously condition us to allow our strings to be pulled by others, even our government? Do all those formative years staring at puppets make our generation feel that our own behavior is somehow out of our own hands, that we need someone or something else to orchestrate our happiness - or that there must always be someone else to blame for our misbehavior? It sometimes seems so, from pro sports to Congress.

All of this strings-attached thinking came to me one night as I was brushing up on my Kermit the Frog imitation, which still seems to entertain our Partners in Excellence class. I found a couple of old vidoes online, including Kermit's signature song, "It's Not Easy Being Green."

I must have written off Muppets and the like with the rest of the immature snips, snails and puppy dog tails of early childhood in the Jurassic age.

It occurs to me, though, that it really isn't easy, probably, being brown or black. Disabled. Different. Picked last in dodgeball. Big or small. Confused, awkward, lonely or lost.

Sometimes it just plain is not easy, being...

Pretty wise stuff, for a felt frog.

I once ran into a man who went to school with Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, who told of how they used to make wooden-deaded puppets in shop class. A teacher of Jim's insisted that he put aside such childish foolishness and take up a course of study that might allow him to be something one day.

Remember the Muppets Show, or the Disney World 3D version, with the two crotchety old farts who sit in a balcony and have nothing but criticism for everyone and everything? You guessed it - the short, fat old bloke is that teacher...

"The most sophisticated people I know - inside they are all children," Henson once said. "If our 'message' is anything, it's a positive approach to life. That life is basically good. That people are basically good,"

It was a simpler time. I don't suppose that philosophy will be selling on prime time anytime soon.

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

"Please watch out for each other and love and foregive everybody. It's a good life. Enjoy it."

What passes for childhood entertainment today is brain-numbing pablum perpetrated by actors in stupid suits mindlessly pandering to dull-eyed children left to be babysat by the TV or computer or DVD player.

Shows, music, movies and games dump on children with violence, hate, humiliation, sex, bad language and then more violence. Even many of the "children's movies" these days can't get a "G" rating. One new study finds that children under 5 spend more time watching TV than any activity beside sleeping.

What happened to imagination, I wonder? We give up their innocence so early - and seldom even bother do say that it isn't right. "Kermit" and the gang wouldn't have a chance today. They are too gentle, too nice, too thought-inspiring to survive in our drive-by-shooting of a media world.

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."

The more I look around at what we are doing to our children these days in the name of entertainment, the more I suspect that maybe we need them down here again, too.