Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Mississippi Manifest Destiny: Leland, Birthplace of Kermit the Frog

In the touching opening sequence of The Muppet Movie, Kermit the Frog sings The Rainbow Connection--a song which is now a classic--while playing the banjo in a swamp. And it's that same Kermit, on display, who greets visitors in Leland, Mississippi's Birthplace of the Frog Museum. It's dedicated to all things Muppet.

Henson spent his early childhood years in Leland, his father was an agronomist for the federal government.

But how is Leland the birthplace of the frog? Historian and retired librarian, Dorothy Love Turk, who gave a guided tour of the museum to myself and two Canadian women, explained to us that Kermit was named after Henson's Leland friend Kermit Scott. The two played together on the banks of Deer Creek--which can be seen from the rear window of the museum. That's the front of the Birthplace on the right, and as you can see on the left, it was built to resemble a bayou shack.

Henson's family moved to Maryland while Jim was still a child, and the pair lost touch with each other. Scott became a philosophy professor at Purdue University, and didn't connect the dots between Henson and Kermit the Frog right away. "You see," Ms. Turk told us, "he knew Henson as 'James' or 'Jimmy,' but never 'Jim.'"

I offered an explanation to Turk that perhaps, as a philosophy professor, he just got lost in his thoughts.

Scott was quite pleased with his renown as the inspiration to the world's most famous frog.

My visit the museum took place on May 16--twelve days later, Kermit Scott passed away in Virginia at the age of 71.

Henson of course died, quite suddenly, in 1990. I remember my shock when I heard the news.

The museum of course chronicles Henson's days in Leland, as well as all aspects of his Muppet career, which began in the 1950s on local television in Washington, DC.

Henson's first "adult" Muppet was Rowlf the Dog, who by the time Muppet television show started in the late 1970s, was pushed to the sidelines by newer stars such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Gonzo the Great.

But between those accomplishments, was of course the still-running PBS children's show Sesame Street.

There are displays in the museum dedicated to two lesser-known Henson achievements, the films The Dark Crystal--which Turk says has a dedicated following to this day, and Labyrinth.

It's forgotten by most people, but not me, that during the first season of NBC's Saturday Night Live, Muppet characters appeared on the show--but not Kermit, Fozzie, Big Bird or any recognizable creations. I mentioned to Ms. Turk I read John Belushi hated those skits, and she replied, "Henson viewed that project as a big mistake."

There's a gift shop in the museum--I bought a hat pin--the Canadians (I think) bought post cards. The Birthplace of Frog doubles as the Washington County Tourist Center/Leland Chamber of Commerce. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. Yes, I did put some cash in the jar.

After I walked out of the museum, I strolled along the banks of Deer Creek. Frogs were jumping in the grass.

I had planned to spend 90 minutes or so in Leland. I spent over three hours there. That's the neatest thing about a byways adventure--surprises leap in front of you--and you change your plans. I connected to my rainbow in Leland.

Next: What Mike Espy is up to these days

Previous Leland posts:

Highway 61 Blues Museum
Leland's Blues Murals

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Genevieve said...

The information about Kermit's name was very interesting. I didn't know that!

Wyatt McIntyre said...

"It ain't easy being green"

Thanks for the post John, I really enjoyed it a great deal. I use to love the Muppets growing up but I had no idea that Kermit was named after a friend of of Jim Henson or any of the other backstory you posted.

Thank you.

John Ruberry said...

Thanks, both of you!

Levois said...

I was pretty young when I heard the news of Jim Henson's death back then. I was shocked and I even wondered how the Muppets would survive.

Greybeard said...

I fondly remember the skits on "Saturday Night Live".
They were obviously slanted more toward the adult audience...
Animal shouting "Woman! Woman!" at whichever attractive female happened to be passing by.
And wasn't the Mahna Mahna skit first shown there?