Sixty for 60: Homecoming and Farewell

I’d like to thank Steve for unintentionally setting up the theme of this month’s 60 for 60 post. This month I’m examining the complementary themes of homecoming and farewell. Specifically, I’m looking at the home videos that have emerged on YouTube of the time he went back to participate in a concert at his old high school after 10 years of working with the Muppets, as well as his contributions to Jim Henson’s memorial service two years later.

I’ve never actually met Steve in person and I don’t know him well even by internet standards, so what I’m about to say is pure conjecture, but from where I’m sitting as an outside observer, it seems to me that two things keep him grounded: his close connection to his roots in Atlanta, and his loyalty to Jim Henson. Both are on prominent display in the following videos.

Wembley sings “My Way”–Berkmar High School’s Final Chorus Concert, May 1988 (per YouTube description)

Imagine what it would have been like to have actual Muppets visit your school. Not those hideous costumed walk-around characters that don’t fool anyone, but genuine, authentic Muppets. It sounds like there were a lot of young kids in the audience for this concert, but even for the high school students, it must have been a thrill, because they would have grown up watching Steve’s work. It’s been over 30 years since this concert took place; I wonder where all these young performers are now.

Otis and Rizzo introduce “The Book of Love”–Berkmar High School’s Final Chorus Concert, May 1988 (per YouTube description)

I should point out that, after the introduction is over, no more Muppets or characters appear in the clip. I have a non-Muppet-related motive for including this video; it reminds me of when my younger brother was in high school and he used to perform in a quartet similar to this one. Theirs was an a capella group, but “Book of Love” was part of their repertoire as well, so this brings back good memories for me.

If you’re like me, you sometimes think of Steve having spent his whole career with the Muppets, but that’s not entirely accurate. Prior to joining the Muppets, he had his own kids’ show on a UHF station in Atlanta starring Otis, an original creation. Assuming these high school students performing in the concert were all about 16 to 18 years old at the time, they would have been probably about 5 to 7 when Steve was doing his first show. So for a lot of them, it probably would have been an important part of their childhood, and I can only imagine what a delight it must have been to see Otis back.

This is also significant because Steve has said that there’s no surviving video of his original show, so this must be one of the few extant examples of a performance by Otis.

The video quality is such that we can’t tell what book they were using as a prop, but from the reaction it appears to have been a somewhat naughty sight gag. I’m not sure we could have gotten away with naughty puppet sight gags when I was in high school in the late ’90s, but that’s a whole other story.

Sprocket performs in “I’m the Greatest Star”–Berkmar High School’s Final Chorus Concert, May 1988 (per YouTube description)

I have to say that I really admire the poise and professionalism of these young performers. If I were singing a song with Sprocket, I don’t think I’d be able to keep my composure; I’d have to turn my back on him to keep from laughing.

“Wemblin’ Fool” (Jim Henson Memorial)

The best word I can think of to describe this performance is “joyful.” It goes to show that, however counterintuitive and paradoxical it may seem, joy isn’t the absence of sorrow and can, in fact, co-exist alongside it. Steve’s, Jerry’s, and the other Muppet performers’ willingness and ability to have fun and enjoy the moment, even in the midst of tragedy, is as fitting a tribute to Jim Henson as anything else that occurred during the service (or since). The imperfections in the performance only go to improve it.

“Just One Person” (Jim Henson Memorial) 

I don’t know who was responsible for putting together this program of music for the memorial service, but whoever it was did it exactly right to save this heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting number until last and bringing all the Muppets in for a grand finale. Again, it’s a paradox: the Muppets are puppets, but they are also real and distinct entities. It would have been wrong to exclude them; it would have felt like something was missing.

Two things strike me about this particular performance. First, one of Gobo’s legs is twisted in an unnatural-looking way when Jerry Nelson first brings him out, and Steve corrects it. It wouldn’t have affected the performance, though it might have been distracting for the audience, but it’s a small way in which Steve shows consistent dedication to the integrity of the characters in even the smallest respects. Second, before Wembley starts singing, he says a brief “hi.” Some people might find that unprofessional, but it’s just Wembley being Wembley. It shows Steve’s total commitment to the performance and oneness with the character.

There are enough songs from Jim Henson’s memorial service that I probably could have devoted an entry entirely to that, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to let this month pass without acknowledging and honoring Jim, but at the same time, I wanted to focus on Steve, and I wanted to keep the overall tone celebratory. That’s the whole point of this project, after all.

Thanks for joining me for this very special installment. Next month’s 60 for 60 entry is a return to form as we focus on Steve’s work as Ernie. 

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