Muppets mania coming to Mahoning
BY JIM RADENHAUSEN
Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and their fellow Muppets will “get things started” during a double-feature event Saturday at Lehighton’s Mahoning Drive-In Theater, located on Seneca Road, just off Route 443.
“The Muppets Take Mahoning,” a mini-Muppets-fans convention, will include 35 mm screenings of 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” the first of eight Muppets feature films, and 2011’s “The Muppets.”
In addition, Gene and Bill Barretta will host a live episode of “The Barretta Brothers.” The show, a Muppets-centric video podcast, premiered May 16, 2020, the 30th anniversary of Muppets creator and puppeteer Jim Henson’s passing.
Gene, a children’s book author/illustrator and regular at the theater, will appear in person. Bill, a longtime Muppets performer, will participate from Los Angeles. The live show will include fan interaction, a theater-lot tour and guest Ed Christie, ex-vice president of the New York Muppet Workshop.
“The Muppets Take Mahoning” will also feature vendors, memorabilia, a “Mahna-Mah-Nachos” snack-bar treat, Muppets performers’ pre-recorded intros and Muppets trailers.
“It’s going to be a fun, joyous celebration of all things Muppetational,” said Mark Nelson, the theater’s general manager. “Gene thought that with his connections, we could make it a fun fan event, beyond just a double feature.”
Nelson, a child of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s with Muppets memorabilia, watched “Sesame Street” and loved “The Muppet Show.” The latter sketch-comedy/variety show - “weekly installments of TV anarchy,” as he put it - ran in syndication from 1976 to 1981.
The Muppets, to Nelson’s appreciation, “weren’t seemingly targeted solely at kids, but much like the Looney Tunes cartoons before them, were done at an adult level that kids could also appreciate.”
Though he enjoys all Muppets works, Nelson favors “The Muppet Show” and “The Muppet Movie.” The latter, featuring the song “Rainbow Connection,” shows how the Muppets met.
Nelson was concerned the 2011 film, reuniting a disbanded Muppets, “might not work as well as the older material. It won me over almost immediately.”
Gene and Bill, who grew up in Yardley, also became Muppets fans as kids. Gene and a cousin “were hooked immediately” upon seeing Bert and Ernie on “Sesame Street” in the early 1970s.
“We started building our own version of Muppets with foam and fabric we bought at a local store,” said Gene, a Bryn Mawr resident. “Along with Billy, we did a few puppet shows for our Aunt Kathy’s students at the Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf.”
A couple years later, at 14, Gene “wrote a letter to Jim Henson and asked him how to make Muppets. He took the time to write back and send me basic instructions.”
Bill’s earliest Muppets memories also come from “Sesame Street.” The characters “seemed so real, even though they were abstract-looking beings, monsters and animals. I’ve always been a fan. Who isn’t?”
Gene, who worked on “Sesame Street” and the 1999 film “Muppets From Space,” also created character designs for two Jim Henson Company TV pilots.
After working on ABC’s 1990s sitcom “Dinosaurs” - filling patriarch Earl Sinclair’s body, among other tasks - Bill was asked to join various Muppets projects. His first film, 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island,” includes his first main character, Clueless Morgan.
Bill inherited Henson roles such as Rowlf the Dog, The Swedish Chef and Dr. Teeth. Other characters include Pepé the King Prawn, Johnny Fiama, Big Mean Carl and Bobo the Bear.
Most recently, Bill co-created the Disney+ series “The Muppets Mayhem.” The show, for which he serves as an executive producer, centers around The Electric Mayhem band.
During COVID-19 lockdown, “we did a fun livestream about nothing in particular,” Gene said. “We wanted to do more. The Muppets became the perfect focus. We had access to everyone in the Henson universe,” plus celebrities who worked with the Muppets.
The Muppets’ longevity, Bill believes, “has to do with everyone being accepted for who they are. Everyone is valued, no matter how crazy, weird, smelly, scary or difficult. It’s a hope of acceptance I believe Jim had and wished for all people.”
Furthermore, the Muppets, Gene said, “feel real to many fans. They always provide a fun, emotionally positive and optimistic reflection of life. People need/want that to balance the insanity of life.”
Nelson believes the Muppets have endured “because they’re more than just puppets that are caricatures of human behavior.” Henson and company, he added, “have brought joy to generations with those pieces of felt and foam.”
Amidst the joy, they taught “about the world and the virtues of living a life filled with kindness, via ping-pong-ball-eyes and bits of cloth imbued with love, humor and humanity.”