28 August 2012

Remembering Jerry Nelson: Robin the Frog Sings “Someone to Watch over Me”

In the beginning, there were five. The original Muppeteers: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz. They were the puppeteer team that carried the famous characters of The Muppet Show and in the Henson projects that followed. And, very importantly, each one played a member of the five-person band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem: Dr. Teeth (Henson), Sgt. Floyd Pepper (Nelson), Janice (Hunt), Zoot (Goelz), and Animal (Oz).

As of this week, there are only two left of this Majestic 5. Jerry Nelson died at age 78 on August 23. Now only Frank Oz and Dave Goelz remain.

Jim Henson’s death was a sudden, shattering blow when it came in May 1990. I was a junior in high school at the time, and was part of the first generation to grow up with Henson’s magic. I recall exactly where I was the moment I heard that Henson died. It was, I think, the first time I felt the mortality of celebrity and artists. It was painful, and my mind yelled out, while my voice spoke a bit softer: “No, no. Jim Henson can’t be dead. He can’t be dead.”

I still go back to that moment. “The Death of Childhood” is too melodramatic a phrase to place on one incident; our childhood leaves us in many stages, even as we reclaim some of it when we grow older and find ourselves still in love with the art of our youth. But hearing of Henson’s abrupt end was an explosion in my brain that made me realize that I assumed someone like Henson would simply live forever. He was not supposed to die—and yet he was dead.

Lost in that grieving was the death of another of the original five, Richard Hunt, a year and half later. I only learned about it when I saw the memorial at the beginning of A Muppet Christmas Carol on my first viewing in a theater. “Oh no,” I thought, realizing I would not be able to concentrate on the film now. “Not him, too. Not Scooter. Not Janice. Not Statler.”

Jerry Nelson’s death did not come at so terribly young an age, and he had already retired from puppeteering. But his death is a reminder that the classic Muppets, even with a recent film in theaters, are slipping away. The characters will remain, and I stand against retiring any of them because of the death of their original performer. I admire the work the new Muppeteers are doing and want them to continue with—but it’s not the same. It can never be the same.

Jerry Nelson had a wonderful stock company of characters he developed over his career. He started on Sesame Street with the Count, Herry Monster, and Snuffleupagus. Less well-known to the public, but aces with me, are Herbert Birdsfoot the lecturer, Simon Soundman, and Sherlock Hemlock the World’s Greatest Detective. When I was a kid, I thought Sherlock Holmes’s name was Sherlock Hemlock!

But it was with The Muppet Show that Nelson showed what a vocal and puppeteering talent he was: Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Lew Zealand, the Ubiquitous Dr. Julius Strangepork, and Uncle Deadly, “The Phantom of the Muppet Show.” He also provided the cynical commentary announcer for “PIIIIIIIGS IIIIIIN SPAAAAACE!” and the recurring voice of Veterinarian Hospital: “Tune in next week when you’ll hear Nurse Piggy say…” He also played Rowlf the Dog’s right arm during piano-playing scenes.

Then there was Robin the Frog, Kermit’s little nephew. This sweet, often lonely character, who was used to being ignored by the bigger folks around him, became one of The Muppet Show’s most touching characters. It was as Robin that Nelson showed off his best acting and singing skills. “Halfway Down the Stairs” is a touchstone song for the character, and his participation in Bernadette Peter’s song “Just One Person” is one of the major contributions of The Muppet Show to popular music. (It was performed as the finale to Jim Henson’s memorial service.)

My favorite Robin performance is a bit more obscure, mostly because it was originally only broadcast in the UK, and it wasn’t until the DVD sets that US audiences got exposed to it. During Season 3, Episode 10, with guest star Marisa Berenson, Nelson performed as Robin the George and Ira Gershwin jazz standard “Someone to Watch over Me,” with Rowlf on piano. This one of my favorite love songs in the Great American Songbook, and Nelson nails it. It’s heartbreaking and perfectly in character for Robin.

I was unable to find a video of it, so I made my own using a still from the episode along with the audio:
On the lighter side, and from earlier in Nelson’s career, here he jams with Frank Oz in a Cookie Monster vs. The Count showdown!