Sunday, November 13, 2011

Kermit the Frog

This is one of those stories that I have told to almost nobody.  And yet it's something that I would hate to leave untold.  I really like the idea that it will float around as long as there's an Internet.

In the summer of 1969, when I was 14 years old, I lived in central New Jersey, in Somerset County.  My summer job was always with the county parks commission.  It mostly consisted of cutting grass and picking up trash, usually at one big park near Doris Duke's family estate called (conveniently enough) Duke Island Park.  It was pretty unexciting.  But every summer the county hosted one of the biggest and most spectacular county fairs in the state, rivaling, in fact, the actual state fair held later in the season near Trenton.  It was on a par with the York Fair in York, Pennsylvania, today, with nationally known singing stars, stock car races, and equestrian events along with the usual cakes, pies, quilts and 4-H animals.  It was, in short, a big deal.  Part of my job was to work at the fair directing cars to an appropriate parking spot in the middle of a big (unmarked!) grassy field.  Once my shift was over, I was free to wander the fair all I wanted.

Later that year, PBS and the Children's Television Workshop would debut a new children's show.  You may have heard of it.  It's called Sesame Street.

WNET-TV in New York City -- Channel 13 (which will always be synonymous with public television to anybody of my generation who grew up in New Jersey) -- came to the Somerset County Fair and sponsored a showcase show with some of the cast of Sesame Street.  Gordon was there, along with David and Bob and Maria.  And so were the Muppets.

Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch were there as was their puppeteer, Carroll Spinney.  Frank Oz was there to do Bert and Grover.  Elmo did not as yet exist.  But Ernie did.  And so did Kermit the Frog.

The Sesame Street show ran a couple of times each evening.  The rest of the time, the raised platform just sat there idle.  One evening after I was finished parking cars I found myself leaning against the base of the platform.  It was a convenient place to set my drink down so I could eat my funnel cake or corn dog or whatever it was I was munching.

I heard a voice say, "Kind of a long day today, huh?" and I looked around to see who was talking to me.  It was Kermit the Frog.

Of course, I didn't know who or what Kermit was.  I hadn't seen the show and had no interest in anything public television was doing for preschoolers.  Hell, most of the time we teenagers thought having to watch public television was punishment.  And nobody outside of local Detroit TV knew who Kermit the Frog was.

I'm sure I just stood there open-mouthed for a ridiculously long time.  Finally, Kermit said, "I said, 'Kind of a long day today, huh?'" and I said something dopey like, "Yeah, it sure was."

Part of Jim Henson's brilliance, in my opinion, was in how quickly he was able to get you to accept his little felt creations as real people.  Within a few minutes, I was chatting away with Kermit.  He made me laugh, I made him laugh; we had a fine old time.  I wish I could remember every word we said to each other, because it was truly one of the best conversations I've ever had in my life.  Finally Kermit said, "Well, this is great but I need to go get ready for the next show," and I reluctantly said good-bye.

I never saw Jim Henson.  I never had occasion to meet him ever again.  That fall, Sesame Street hit the airwaves and children's television has never been the same since.  Years later I saw the original Kermit puppet in Detroit, the one Jim Henson had made from the green lining of a raincoat and a couple of ping-pong balls.  And I couldn't help myself, I teared up.  Because once, when I was very young, I became friends with Kermit the Frog, and it was something I hope I never, ever forget.

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