Monday, November 21, 2011

Column: Where was Fozzie when I needed him?

We make them all the time — those little parenting choices that don’t seem like a big deal, but wind up having serious, long-term implications. I’m thinking of things like letting them crawl into our beds (“just this once”), or allowing them to find out about Twinkies, or suggesting they might want to try ice hockey.

I made one of those choices back in 2005, when I suggested the family watch the new Muppets TV movie, “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz.” I’ll admit my motives were selfish; the Muppets were probably the single greatest influence on my sense of humor (which, if you know me, explains a lot), and I wanted my own kids to experience the joys of wisecracking frogs and bears in their natural habitat (a Studebaker). Plus, I’ve been told I look like Fozzie (which also explains a lot).

Unfortunately, “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” was not what you’d call a good movie, or even a good Muppet movie. But something about Kermit, Fozzie and company struck a chord with my son Tim, then 4. After that night, for Tim, it was all-Muppets, all-the-time.

And that’s where our troubles began.

It wasn’t too hard to dig up the other movies, which had long since been available on DVD. But as any parent of a 4-year-old knows, no entertainment experience is complete unless it can be complemented by accessories, namely toys, games, stuffed animals and T-shirts. And this is where having a child obsessed with a 25-year-old phenomenon gets a little tricky.

Unlike, say, the mid-’80s, by the 2000s toy store shelves were totally bereft of Fozzies and Gonzos. Muppet merchandise was so rare that when Timmy spotted a giant Kermit hanging from a booth at the 2005 Topsfield Fair, he reacted like Ponce de León stumbling on the Fountain of Youth. This would explain why a phalanx of his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins felt compelled to plunk down the gross national product of Bolivia until we finally won it — the only other option would have been to leave Timmy behind with Kermit to pursue a career as a barker.

Naturally, we soon found ourselves resorting to eBay, which resulted in a small but growing collection of stuffed Muppets that smelled vaguely of the ’70s. One particularly intense Sunday afternoon saw us in a bidding war for a vintage Rowlf doll: “I WILL PAY ANY PRICE!” my mother-in-law declared, in that voice a grandmother uses when she feels her grandchild might be deprived of something that somebody else’s grandchild has, or might someday have.

It may have gotten ugly at times (and if you think that’s ugly, you should see the dancing girls), but our efforts were worth it to see Tim perform full-on productions with his Muppet collection, which he carried with him from place to place in a little plastic suitcase. This was convenient until the entire lot managed to get lost (Have you tried Hare Krishna?), or at least left behind, on a beach in Rockport. All I know is, when you become a parent nobody tells you that someday you’ll be driving to a beachside motel after work to retrieve a suitcase full of Muppets.

Of course, eventually Timmy discovered the Red Sox, and his coveted Muppets became less a part of our everyday lives; poor Rowlf wound up getting dragged outside by one of our (real-life) dogs, where we found him later that winter unceremoniously encased in snow like some ancient Bigfoot. But both Tim and my daughter Jackie still perked up when a Muppet turned up on a commercial or a new YouTube video, and we all reacted with excitement — and some disbelief — when we heard a new Muppet movie was finally in the works.

The Muppets” opens Nov. 23, and as a result you now can’t throw a boomerang fish without hitting Muppet merchandise. Better late than never — early reports say it’s a throwback to the Jim Henson era, when the driving force behind the Muppets was equal amounts heart and twisted wit, rather than corporate synergy or whatever the driving force was behind that awful “Wizard of Oz.” I have my fingers crossed; we’ll find out when we hit the theater on opening night.

I bet I’ll be the only guy there with a Hefty bag full of Muppets in his basement, and whose kids feel like they’re reuniting with old friends.

And who looks like Fozzie.

For more Muppets, see my Gatehouse Media story rating the Muppet movies from first to worst.

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