Frank Oz, Paul Williams and David Goelz remember ‘Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,’ the Jim Henson-directed Muppet musical
Emmet Otter is not the most famous Muppet in Jim Henson’s universe of characters. But Hollywood will still embrace the occasional second act, and the leader of the Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band in 1977 TV special “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” is now a part of the revival circuit.
Four decades after the show originally aired on a then-fledgling HBO, Henson’s hourlong TV musical will see its first-ever theatrical release this month alongside another Henson holiday special, “The Bells of Fraggle Rock.” Screenings will occur Dec. 10 and Dec. 16 in approximately 600 theaters nationwide (among the local movie houses showing the films will be those at downtown’s L.A. Live and Universal’s CityWalk).
The music from “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” entirely composed by Grammy-winning songwriter Paul Williams, has also just been issued on CD and to music streaming services through the Music.Film Recordings imprint. Williams couldn’t be happier that the songs of Emmet and his townsfolk pals including Doc Bullfrog, Pop-Eyed Catfish and Yancy Woodchuck will get the chance to flourish once more.
How happy? He crooned into the phone before even saying hello, delivering a Tony-worthy taste of “The Bathing Suit That Grandma Otter Wore” — “Long, long aggggoooo there lived a laaadddyyyy.”
Sounding positively giddy that the work has advanced to the digital age, Williams says that “Emmet Otter” set him on a path. “This was a total labor of love,” he says, adding that it was “the first time I got to write anything for Jim and for the Muppets.” It remains a dear part of his repertoire.
He’s not alone, says Dave Goelz, a Muppeteer who worked with Henson and company for over three decades and who inhabited Emmet Otter’s bandmate and best friend Wendell Porcupine in the original show. Speaking on a three-way call with colleague Frank Oz, Goelz says: “I think everybody who worked on it has has felt it was one of our top favorite projects ever.”
To a certain extent, Goelz says Henson was taking a chance with Williams. “When I think about his catalog before that, I’m not aware of anything that was quite this heartfelt and sweet,” referencing that at the time Williams was probably best known for the Carpenters’ hit “Rainy Days and Mondays.” In hindsight, Williams notes “the impact of the story” on him as a writer calling it “unlike anything else I’d written — and what is basically Americana.”
Oz, who defined and/or voiced many a Muppet, including Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster and Fozzie Bear, adds, “It takes a lot of courage or belief or commitment, and a worldview, to do something as sweet as this. But it wasn’t cloying sweet. It wasn’t cute sweet. It wasn’t a pejorative sweet. It was legitimately sweet.”
A story about a talent show, love, loss and kindness, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” is propelled by Williams’ songs as the titular Emmet, his mother Ma Otter (played by Oz, but whose songs were sung and recorded off-site by actress Marilyn Sokol) and band mates battle the nasty metal-head rockers the Nightmares.
Goelz, who had joined Henson’s company at Oz’s encouragement, continues to be struck by Henson’s approach for “Emmet Otter.” He calls the puppets “charming and primitive. They walked like marionettes — their legs were straight and their heels would come out. It was rustic the way that the marionettes were used — along with these high-tech rowboats.”
The late Henson and his team produced the show, which was adapted from a children’s book by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban, between seasons of Henson’s hit series “The Muppet Show.”
For Williams, writer or co-writer of cultural touchstones including the theme to “The Love Boat,” the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection” and Daft Punk’s “Touch,” Henson’s invite proved to be a door into an entirely new creative space. While Emmet Otter never resulted in a classic holiday album such as “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together,” the music endures in no small part due to the handcrafted purity of Henson and Williams’ intention.
Henson and Willaims met a year earlier when Williams guested on “The Muppet Show.” Not long after, Henson mentioned the HBO project he was pondering.
Goelz recalls being in on the discussions with Henson about music for “Emmet Otter,” and cites Henson’s “intuitive sense of people” in choosing Williams.
“He hired the right person almost every time,” Goelz says. “And, of course, Paul had that soulfulness to really just channel these heavenly thoughts.”
Much of the scoring for “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” occurred during filming in Toronto, with Williams and his touring band playing along to the action.
Williams, who now serves as the president of songwriters’ rights association ASCAP, recalls watching what he called “the Felt Brigade” as they worked the set, crouching and puppeteering beneath raised stages and working their magic.
In the production, Otter-guided boats drift through a self-contained on-set stream, with Oz and fellow puppeteer Jerry Nelson voicing characters while maneuvering, via remote control, the puppets’ movements.
Williams says the team’s collective vision was notable. “They were a company. It was a collaborative experience — and they were stars. They had their own creative energy.”
“Jim was like a Pied Piper,” Goelz says. “He gathered people as he went. It was analogous to what Kermit did in ‘The Muppet Movie.’ He would run across people and bring them into the fold — let them shine and let them develop.”
Within this realm, the songwriter flourished. Song titles were riffs on phrases from the original book: “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub,” “The Bathing Suit That Grandmother Otter Wore” (“… a tourist would mistake it for a circus tent”) and “Bar-B-Que” among them. Williams composed old-timey piano-driven incidental music that tapped into barrelhouse blues and New Orleans jug-band sounds of the early 1900s.
The Otter Band’s instrumentation contained a classic Mississippi jug band line-up: percussionist, a wash-tub bassist, a handmade-guitar player and a breathy leader who blew, flute-like, across the lip of a jug. The band’s arch-rivals in the production, a bunch of jalopy-driving, electric-guitar-slinging jerks called the Nightmares, rip through the plot like a tornado, upending every scene.
Their climactic song “Riverbottom Nightmare Band,” an acid-rock jam that suggests “Smell the Glove”-era Spinal Tap, is an ode to their bad selves: “The grass does not grow in the places where we stop and stand,” yowls Chuck, the lead singing snake voiced by Oz, adding later that “we don’t brush our teeth because our toothache can help us stay mean.”
Laughing, Goelz recalls watching Oz work to get the singer down: “Frank just sealed Chuck when he said, ‘I’m not hungry — I’m HUNNNNGGGRRYYYYY!’” He adds of Oz: “Frank finds these little beats that can take a character way, way beyond where it would be if it was just right on the page.”
“I love that character. That character was so much fun to do,” Oz says.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is “When the River Meets the Sea.” Told that the song could easily be mistaken for a 19th century spiritual, Williams pauses. The bittersweet ballad seems beamed from the heavens and delivers comfort within a story that has as a backdrop Emmet coping with the death of his father.
“When the mountain touches the valley/All the clouds are taught to fly/As our souls will leave this land most peacefully/Though our minds be filled with questions/In our hearts we’ll understand/When the river meets the sea.”
Repeating the title aloud, Williams says of the song and Henson, “The last thing I ever expected was to hear it sung at Jim’s funeral, but it was. He wanted that performed — and that came far too soon.”
“When I was raising our kids, I used to sing them to sleep with that song, among others,” Goelz says. “It was so profound and so soft and lovely, and even though it’s a song about letting go and dying and all that, there’s a beauty to it that the kids always respond to.”
Decades later, the handcrafted HBO production may seem quaint, created as it was long before computer animation, quick-edits and the prevalence of irony upended kid’s entertainment.
Williams is heartened by its return. Calling the new attention “a real treat,” he says, “No one thinks something that they wrote in 1977 would show 40-something years later in the theater.”
Goelz too finds comfort in the attention.
“We’re in a more cynical world now. I suppose it’s surprising that it’s still valued by people,” he says, adding that “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” comes “from a very authentic place. It is sweet, and it comes from characters really caring about each other and realizing that though they are poor, they have each other. The warmth of that melts all the snow.”
‘Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas’
Where: Amazon Prime
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