The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow

"The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow"

“The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow”

In 1968, Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl began collaborating on another project that was not meant to be but, if it had been filmed, would have been the first full-length Muppet special, as well as the first time a full Muppet production would be shot on location rather than in a studio. It was meant to be a Thanksgiving show with a cast made up of humans and Muppets. And Jim and Jerry got fairly far into the process. Jim and Don Sahlin built the puppets and even took photographs of them outside in the trees by Jim’s house in Connecticut, to see how they’d look in natural, outdoor lighting, right where he had shot Run, Run with his daughters.


And he enlisted his daughters here again to stand in for the child actors who were to be in the special. And this ultimately unproduced show had the absolutely perfect name of The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow, such an evocative, Muppety title that just hearing it makes you mourn for what could have been.


Or would if it weren’t finally making its way to the small screen this very year, directed by Kirk Thatcher, a director and puppetry expert who, at a young age, worked on such classic films as Return of the Jedi, E.T., Poltergeist, and Gremlins, and has worked with the Muppets since 1989, beginning with The Jim Henson Hour, Jim’s short-lived anthology series! Henson fans today will also recognize him as one of the judges from Syfy’s reality series, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge. And while we may not know if it will end up being exactly as Jim would have brought it to life–especially given scripts do tend to change as they head towards production, not to mention improvised alterations that may have happened during filming–we can rest assured that it will be as authentic as humanly possible.


Just as is the currently available, wonderful graphic novel, drawn by Roger Langridge, who also created the highly acclaimed Muppet Show Comic Book which ran for about a year. Like the one of Tale of Sand, this is also from Archaia Studios, and its creative success is presumably what helped inspire the greenlighting of the upcoming filmed version. And just as with Tale of Sand, it’s an absolutely brilliant resource that brings a Henson/Juhl script to life in a way that reading the words couldn’t have captured. As a piece that was intended for television, it was meant to be seen, and while the songs for this proposed musical were sadly never written, the book does a phenomenal job of giving us an idea of what the show likely would have looked like, and even manages to visually convey the concept of music so effectively that I could practically hear phantom music in my head as I read, even not knowing how exactly it would have sounded. I guess a lifetime of immersion in Muppety music helped me in that regard also.


The monsters with Lisa and Cheryl Henson.

The monsters with Lisa and Cheryl Henson.

The special is about a young boy, Timmy Henderson, who lives in the quaint town of Turkey Hollow, a town so small that the human population is 27 and the turkey population is 3,600, and in which the same man acts as the mayor, the sheriff, the local storekeeper, and the postmaster! Additionally, his name is Grover, which I imagine should delight all Muppet enthusiasts as much as it does me. Timmy lives with his hippie sister, Ann, and kooky aunt, Clytemnestra–an unconventional but loving family who are under constant threat by Mister Sump, the nasty old man who lives next store and repeatedly claims that they’re trespassing on his land, despite the fact that he has no proof of the boundary and everyone else is convinced that he’s in the wrong, laying claim to a portion of land that rightfully belongs to the Hendersons.


One day, when attempting to teach himself the guitar, Timmy discovers a group of strange, furry creatures–each of whom communicates by a different odd, musical noise–who he doesn’t realize are actually aliens who landed on the planet hundreds of years previously and are only now making contact with a human, drawn there by his lousy guitar playing. Yet their special powers actually enable them to send musical notes to him and improve his music. Timmy befriends them and, although he plans on visiting them each day but keeping them a secret, eventually they follow him home…and the day after that, even to school! Soon afterwards, Timmy introduces them to Ann and Aunt Cly, who welcome them with open arms, and everything might have been absolutely fine, if it weren’t for the spying, prying eyes of Sump, who spots the fun-loving, dance-crazy creatures and pronounces them demons and attempts to use them as a perfect excuse to have Aunt Cly driven out of town as a witch.


Grover, however, proves to be less than sympathetic to his cries, and so Sump ups the ante, by kidnapping all of the turkeys of Turkey Hollow and framing the musical monsters, riling up the townsfolk and claiming that these creatures of evil must have devoured them. And thus the race is on for Timmy to prove his friends’ innocence and stop the evil Mr. Sump’s nefarious scheme. There’s a particularly great bit where the monsters are in jail, locked up by a reluctant Grover who doesn’t believe they’re guilty but has to do his job for the time being, and then Timmy remembers that the monsters eat rocks. He lets them know that the walls of the jailhouse are made of rock, and his friends proceed to munch their ways out to freedom!


Timmy and friends.

Timmy and friends.

As Muppet specials go, it isn’t necessarily the funniest or wittiest the team would go on to produce, or at least it doesn’t seem so on the page, without all of the physical comedy the puppetry could have brought to it–not that it isn’t clever but it’s more gently funny than a laugh riot–but it has warmth and whimsy in spades and foreshadows that lovely mixture of humor and kindness that would inform the Muppets’ best holiday excursions.


And in his single- and small-minded vendetta, Mr. Sump foreshadows other nefarious Muppet villains such as Doc Hopper who seem intent on spoiling other peoples’ fun for their own aggrandizement. And even on the page, I love Aunt Cly and how willing she is to go with this monster craziness. As soon as she meets them, she accepts them instantly and, moments later, is trying to figure out what they might like to eat for dinner. She is the slightly nutty but deeply loving, eminently embraceable aunt that we all wish we had in our lives.


I’m very interested to see how Thatcher and the Henson Co. have chosen to bring this to life now. Will they sprinkle in more modern references or will Turkey Hollow remain as backwoods and untouched as Mayberry, a la the original? Will it be set in the ’60s or the ’00s? Will it feel like something made today or is the intention for us to see a retro recreation of what could have been, as if it were a newly discovered lost piece of footage from back then? Will they be using the puppets or at least the designs that were originally intended? It will be interesting to see what choices were made. And also to see something that Jim tried but failed to make finally see the true light of day, in the format it was designed for. And I particularly love that, even if changes are made, we have this “original” to compare it to, a comic that in the meantime is a truly magical substitute for this Thanksgiving special that wasn’t to be but perhaps now is.


And tomorrow, I take a look at The Muppets on Puppets, a special that Jim and Co. filmed for PBS in June 1968 about the art and history of puppetry, featuring Jim, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, and a boatload of Muppets!

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