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| "He started a scaled-down kids' show on ZBM called Junior Club," Frith remembers. "He'd do a little bit of magic and puppetry and show cartoons. Because I was hanging around and he knew I was a cartoonist, I would turn up on his show from time to time and draw pictures and tell stories. He was just a wonderful, funny, talented man."
Harbin began touring his magic show around Bermuda's hotels, with Frith in tow. "He called me his assistant, but I would just hang out and help. I just loved it. For a kid, doing little bits of television, bits of radio, with this extraordinary guy, listening to his stories...it was great."
When Harbin eventually left the Island, Frith took over hosting the hour-long evening show for a couple of summers. "I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "I'd tell stories and draw pictures and they'd show cartoons, and we'd have occasional guests. I have no idea what we did for an hour. Absurd, but I was cheap. That was my first TV experience...talk about seat of your pants!"
It was at boarding school-New England's Deerfield Academy-where he was art editor of the school paper and art director of the school yearbook, that Frith met Christopher Cerf-who became a lifelong freind. Indeed, since then, the two have spent most of their professional careers together, first at Harvard University's humour magazine, the Lampoon, later at Sesame Street, and now in their current partnership for Between the Lions.
At Harvard, they were instrumental as part of the student editorial team which managed to revive the ailing Lampoon and give it a national audience. During this period, Frith was the magazine's president and co-author with Cerf of several parody bestsellers that launched the Lampoon into big-league publishing. One of these happened to be a James Bond spoof, which the pair devised during a summer holiday in Bermuda.
"It was about the time that Jack Kennedy had let it be known that his favourite mystery writer was Ian Fleming," Frith remembers. "James Bond was just becoming known as a character in fiction, so we thought it would be kind of fun to parody. We published it as an insert in the magazine and got a fabulous response. We printed 100,000 copies, never imagining they would sell-but they sold instantly."
Unfortunately, Fleming himself wasn't amused. Random House approached Frith and Cerf about publishing the parody as a book, but first wanted to get Fleming's permission as a courtesy. "I still remember the text of Fleming's telegram that came back," says Frith. "It was: "I enjoyed the joke, but I do not wish to perpetuate it.' He was furious! I think one of the reasons was that Truman Capote had just spent a weekend at Fleming's place in Jamaica. Cerf and I happened to be at dinner one night with Capote, and he was telling stories about Fleming, so we incorporated some of that stuff into the book, thinking Fleming would get a giggle out of it. But he went through the roof."
Such high-jinks stood Frith in good stead for a life-long career that has successfully blended a riotous sense of humour with a passion for education. At Random House, his first job out of college and where he would spend the next 12 years, Frith became editor-in-chief of Beginner Books, working closely with none other than Theodor Geisel-a.k.a. Dr. Seuss-who had launched the Cat-in-the-Hat series. Frith later was editor and art director for the publishing house's Sesame Street book series, based on the hit pre-school television series. The latter venture led to a meeting with the late Muppets creator, Jim Henson-and he never looked back.
"We hit it off right away," Frith says. "We were more or less contemporaries. He was five years older than I, but we were interested in the same kind of things and he loved the (book) drawings I'd done of Sesame Street characters."
Frith decided to leave Random House to join Jim Henson Productions as art director in 1975, just in time for the birth of The Muppet Show. Henson's Muppet characters were, and remain, the backbone of Sesame Street, but the success of the Childrens' Television Workshop daytime production had opened the door for Henson's real dream: a Muppets' variety show. Frith immediately began working with Henson to develop a pilot dubbed "Sex and Violence with the Muppets"-"otherwise known as 'Sax and Violins,' or 'Socks and Violets,'" jokes Frith-which won them a regular Muppet segment on the newly-launched Saturday Night Live.
The Muppets attracted the attention of British showbiz impresario Lew Grade who happened to be looking for a suitable vehicle to enter the American market. "He was looking for a show to put into syndication and he saw the Muppets pilot and just loved it," says Frith. "He and Jim simply shook hands and said, 'Let's do it.' Grade guaranteed Henson 24 episodes for the first season, which were snapped up by CBS stations. As Frith likes to recall, the arrangement delivered prime-time viewers a wonderful juxtaposition-a stately "Goodnight" from anchor Walter Cronkite, followed by the giddy "Hi-ho!" from Kermit the Frog.
"This wonderful thing had just happened in America where they had declared what was called 'prime-time access'-a half-hour that came right after the national news at 7:30 p.m. and right before the official network evening programme began at 8. The U.S. stations were scrambling to figure how to fill this prime-time access slot, and so Lew Grade said, 'I've got this thing called The Muppet Show.' It just couldn't have been more fortuitous."
Within a year, says Frith, "it was the most popular show in the world."
Frith had two official creditson the show: creative consultant ("coming up with ideas, stories, wacky skits, characters") and design consultant, in which he created such famous Muppet characters as Fozzie Bear. "Jim would call me up and say, 'We need 10 show girls for the next show,' or 'a bunchof pigs,' or whatever."
Frith, like many others, he says, also stakes a claim on the beloved Miss Piggy.
"Everyone will argue every success has a thousand fathers," he says. "Certainly, I had started with a drawing of a pig with long blonde hair. I was living in Brooklyn and I used to walk to the subway every morning. Jim had asked me to come up with ideas for pigs, actually, for the 'Sex and Violence' show. Then we did something called 'Planet of the Pigs,' with anonymous pigs. Among them was this blonde one and she was based on a young woman who used to hang out on the street corner. I would pass her on the way to the subway, and she just said 'pig' for some reason."
Frith remembers when the Muppet-who eventually was named Piggy and often mistakenly thought to be based on singer Peggy Lee-made her first entrance. "Early in The Muppet Show, there was a muppet chorus composed of frogs and pigs. One day, they were singing 'Temptation': 'You came and I was alone/You were temptation...' And Richard Hunt, one of our puppeteers, happened to have this blonde pig on, and without any cue, this pig leapt out of the chorus-Kermit was conducting-and jumped on Kermit and started making passionate love to this frog. And everyone, of course, just fell over, and...suddenly we realised, Oh my God, something great is happening here..."
Piggy was later brought to life-and celebrity-as a porcine diva by puppeteer genius Frank Oz, the voice of Bert, Grover, Cookie Monster and Fozzie Bear, among others.
Frith spent 20 years working with Henson, racking up an impressive....
To be continued....