Nov 5 - 9, 2001
Tales of the Tinkerdee was a half-hour TV pilot written and performed by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl in 1962, who tried to sell it to networks as a Rocky and Bullwinkle-style fairy-tale puppet show. Unfortunately, the world wasn't quite ready for Muppet madness. Tinkerdee didn't sell, and the pilot never even aired. In fact, the land of Tinkerdee was entirely unknown to Muppet fans until 1993, when Christopher Finch included a few tantalizing stills from the pilot in Jim Henson:The Works. Some of Henson's original Tinkerdee design sketches were also recently included in the Designs and Doodles book. But as for the show's actual contents, it's been a complete mystery to Muppet fans... until three months ago.
This summer, the Museum of Television and Radio hosted "Muppets Forever!", an exhibit of Henson's television work -- and, miraculously, Tinkerdee was unearthed and screened publicly for the very first time. Now that the exhibit's over, the show is part of the Museum's permanent collection, and available for public viewing in the Museum's library. It's a whole new magical slice of Muppet history for doll-wigglers to enjoy.
To celebrate this new treasure, I'll be posting a three-part synopsis of the show from Monday to Wednesday this week, followed by some technical and puppet notes on Thursday, and finish up with a review of the show on Friday.
Now button your lip, and come with me
To the magical land of Tinkerdee,
Where frogs serenade, and witches roam free...
Monday, Nov 5:
Gettin' medieval on ya
Kermit the minstrel stands before a castle door, strumming his lute and singing:
Hark now to the minstrel's song,
I'll sing to you a while.
So gather round the TV set,
And do not touch that dial.
No, toucheth not that dial!
Kermit strums as an announcer proclaims: "Muppets Inc. invite you to watch the pilot production of its new series, Tales of the Tinkerdee!"
I tell a tale of Tinkerdee,
Of legendary fame.
And of its noble, nutty king --
King Goshposh is his name.
King Goshposh is his name!
Enter King Goshposh: a bossy, grouchy king who chomps on a lit cigar. The King orders the minstrel to sing at his daughter's birthday party tomorrow night, then storms off. Kermit is then visited by the lovely Princess Gwendolinda, the fair-haired beauty for whose love every knight in the kingdom would glady risk his head -- or, if you ask me, a wide-eyed ditz with curly blond hair. Kermit assures the Princess that he'll sing at her party, and she flounces off. Then Kermit tells us:
The invitations have been sent
To everyone poor or rich
The one person who didn't receive one...
Was Taminella, the witch!
... And we see Taminella Grinderfall, the witchiest witch of them all, sitting in her dank cave, and grumbling that she hasn't been invited to the party. The ragged old hag decides that her invitation must have been lost in the mail, so she calls in her ogre Charlie (who we see as a huge pair of filthy legs, played by the only human on-screen in the show). She tells Charlie to take a letter to the King. She must go to that birthday party -- "It's the biggest social event of the season! ALL the neighboring royalty come... and they bring presents! SCADS of jewel-encrusted goodies! That's where we come in... Where we come in and heist the goodies, Charlie!" The ogre asks why they need an invitation. Tammy shrieks, "Where's your sense of etiquette, Charlie? C'mon! Let's start writing letters!"
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the King calls for his Prime Minister (a short, feeble-looking guy with glasses and a pointy hat). They're getting ready for the birthday party. It isn't going well. The cake, which was supposed to have 267 layers, was made with 267 candles instead. The frustrated King bellows for the minstrel, and demands to hear the Princess' birthday song. Kermit gladly obliges:
It is the princess' date of birth,
Let bells ring out the news!
We'll celebrate with joy and mirth,
And a party, I suppoose!
"OUT! OUT!" screams the King -- but then the Prime Minister returns, with a letter from Taminella. He reads it aloud: "Dear King. It has come to my attention that I have not been invited to your forthcoming party. This is an understandable oversight, since you are... a cloth-head... Love, Tammy." The furious King refuses to invite the witch to the party -- but then Kermit rushes in with a singing telegram from Taminella, demanding an invite. Then a blimp goes by, flashing the message: "INVITE TAMMY... OR ELSE!" The King is adamant -- "She can't scare me, and she can't come to this birthday party neither!"
Cut to Tammy, still stewing in her cave. "I can't understand it... I've written forty-two letters, three telegrams, and a blimp. D'you suppose they got my message? Maybe they haven't opened their mail yet." She brews a magic potion in her cauldron and conjures a vision of what's happening in the castle -- just in time to see the King order the Prime Minister to burn all of Taminella's threatening letters. Absolutely furious, Taminella screams for Charlie to bring in her costume box. "This is WAR! We're goin' to that party, and we're gonna GET THOSE PRESENTS!"
Tomorrow! The story continues,
as Taminella implements her ingenious Four-Part Plan
to kidnap the Princess and steal the presents,
by disguising herself as... Santa Claus?
Tuesday, Nov 6:
Sixty-seven thousand sandwiches!
At the start of the second act, Kermit recaps:
It's evening at the palace gates
The moon shines bright and clear
The tower guard waits patiently
For the first guests to appear!
Taminella arrives at the palace gates, cunningly disguised as Santa Claus. Charlie the ogre enters, with jingle bells tied around his ankles, dressed as her reindeer. This is Part 1 of her clever plan. She introduces herself to the palace guard, who objects that Santa Claus isn't due until Christmas. Tammy explains that she's getting an early start on her Christmas list. A quick chorus of "Jingle Bells" and a couple of Ho ho ho's later, Taminella and Charlie manage to get past the gates, and Tammy instructs Charlie to go around the side of the castle and wait by the ballroom window.
Meanwhile, there's more trouble in the palace. Instead of ordering 500 peanut butter sandwiches for the party, the Prime Minister sent out 500 orders by mistake -- "some slight mix-up in the purchasing department" -- so there's sixty-seven thousand peanut butter sandwiches piled up all over the castle. "What are we gonna do with all these sandwiches?" King Goshposh exclaims. The Prime Minister sputters: "Well, if each guest ate eighty-four of them... we'd only have... a couple of thousand left over..." The King decides to hide the sandwiches in some of the empty storage closets.
Santa Taminella gets to the ballroom, and whistles for Charlie. The ogre's hand comes through the ballroom window, wielding a fearsome club. The witch explains: "It's time for Part 2 of my plan -- Get the Princess! If you see the Princess walk by this window, smasheroonie!" Charlie gets out of sight as the King and the Prime Minister walk by, looking for storage closets. Taminella curtsies: "Merry Christmas, your majesty!" "Merry Christmas to you, Santa Claus!" the King replies as he walks by. "Funny, I don't remember inviting Santa Claus to the party..." When they're gone, Taminella ducks into the closet to change into her next disguise.
Princess Gwendolinda enters, looking for Santa Claus. Her father said Santa was around here somewhere. Swish! -- the ogre misses as she walks by. "Gotta practice up on my backstroke," Charlie mutters. "I'll get her next time."
The King and Prime Minister come back to the ballroom, and find Taminella dressed in a curly blond wig. The King greets his "daughter" warmly, then goes off in search of more empty closets. Gwendolinda returns again, and Tammy puts on a pointy Prime Minister hat -- and Gwendolinda is also taken in by the clever disguise. (Are you getting all this? It gets kind of complicated at this point.) Gwendolinda asks "the Prime Minister" where Santa Claus is, and Tammy tells her to look in the closet. Gwendolinda looks inside, and Tammy slams the door, trapping the Princess.
"Part 2 of my plan -- mission accomplished!" the witch crows, putting the blond wig back on. She calls for Charlie -- and smasheroonie! He smacks her in the head with his club. "I got the Princess, Miss Tammy!" he yells. "Very good, Deadeye," she snaps, "but I just took care of the Princess myself." "No more smasheroonie?" he says. "No," she says. "That was Part 2. Now we're in Part 3. I find the presents, and then I hand 'em out to you. That's Part 4. Now... where do you suppose those presents are..."
As Tammy hunts around for the presents, the King and Prime Minister return, and check the closet for more storage space. They let Princess Gwendolinda out, but when Tammy comes back, she locks them in. Then Gwendolinda comes back, still looking for Santa Claus, and lets the King and Prime Minister out. (This slamming-doors farce stuff is a lot funnier when you don't have to synopsize it.)
Finally, just as everyone's getting confused, Kermit rushes in with an announcement:
Let me take a second --
or four, or five --
to tell you that the presents
are beginning to arrive!
The King rushes off to check on the birthday cake, as the Prime Minister goes to accept the presents. Taminella shrugs: "Well, I've lost all the prisoners. But I'll still get the presents! CHARLIE! You got your gunny sack? Then stand by... Here come the PRESENTS!"
Tomorrow: The story concludes
as Taminella gets her greedy hands
on the jewel-encrusted goodies,
and dons her weirdest disguise yet...
Pierre, the greatest sculptor in Tinkerdee!
Wednesday, Nov 7:
The Prime Minister stands in the ballroom archway, announcing each present as it's received. Behind him, through the archway, we see Taminella the witch -- still dressed as the Princess -- and behind her, the window where Charlie the ogre waits.
The Prime Minister announces the first birthday present: "First... a sterling silver, mother of pearl, sapphire-trimmed cuckoo clock!" He hands it off to the "Princess," who gloats: "A sterling sapphire, mother of silver, pearl-trimmed cuckoo clock!" She hands it out the window to Charlie, who proclaims: "A silver sapphire, mother of cuckoo, sterling clock-trimmed pearl!" And CRASH! It's dropped into Charlie's sack.
"A solid gold, ruby-inlaid, antique electric frying pan!" says the Prime Minister. "A solid ruby gold-panning inlaid electric fried antique!" says Taminella. "A golden polished standing and leaking antique trick fried ruble!" says Charlie, and CRASH! That's in the bag too.
"A diamond encrusted hand-cut crystal delicately fashioned Italian bird bath!" ... "A diamond-cut crusty crystal birdy fashionable Italian hand bath!"... "A bird-headed delicately dashing bath-cut diamond hand-encrusted Italian!" And CRASH! All the presents fall into Charlie's sack.
Tammy tells the Prime Minister that she put the presents away, and he goes off to get ready for the guests. The witch's moment of gloating is interrupted by the arrival of the real Princess, so Tammy quickly sticks the Prime Minister's hat on her head. The Princess has come to see the presents. As Tammy talks to Gwendolinda, the Prime Minister's hat falls off Tammy's head, and the Princess asks Tammy who she is.
"Well, I'm the Prime Minister, of course!" Tammy sputters. "No, you're not!" the Princess says. "I just talked to the Prime Minister a minute ago." Tammy desperately tries to cover: "Oh.. eh... well, in that case, I'm the lovely Princess Gwendolinda!" This one doesn't go over well with the Princess. Tammy finally admits that she's Taminella the witch, and calls for Charlie to grab the Princess. Charlie's hand comes through the window and clutches Gwendolinda, and Tammy takes the opportunity to do a quick spell -- that freezes the Princess solid!
Under Tammy's spell, Princess Gwendolinda can't move a muscle, until someone says the words that break the spell: "My uncle was bouncing through the ice cream on his pogo stick!" Tammy covers the Princess with a little powder so she'll look like a statue. Then it's back in the closet as the King approaches...
The King is taken aback as he sees the "statue" of Gwendolinda. Then Tammy pops out of the closet in a new disguise, wearing a beret and a droopy black mustache, and holding a cigarette. The witch cries, "BONJOUR, m'sieur! You like my work, no?" The King is stunned. "I am Pierre!" Tammy shouts. "Zee greatest sculptor in Tinkerdee! I have joost completed zis marble statue of your daughter which I geeve to you in honor of her birzday." The King is impressed: "It's lovely! Looks just like her."
The King wants everyone to see the statue, so he calls for the Prime Minister and Gwendolinda. Tammy quickly ducks back in the closet and comes out in her Princess disguise. The King shows the fake Princess the statue. "My goodness!" the witch says. "It looks just like me!" The Prime Minister sniffs, "It looks more like you than you do yourself." The King is having so much fun at the party that it reminds him of the last party he gave -- an ice cream party, when his uncle insisted on bringing his pogo stick. The King says the magic words, breaking the spell -- and the statue of Gwendolinda comes back to life!
"It's WITCHCRAFT!" Taminella cries. "She's a WITCH!" The Princess tries to explain that she's the princess, and Taminella is the witch. The King can't tell the difference between them, so he remembers an old Tinkerdee saying: if you hit a witch in the face with a custard pie, lightning will strike. "That's an old wives' tale!" Tammy sputters. "Why, I heard it from an old wife just the other day!"
Two pies in the face later, the King discovers which is the Princess and which is witch. He sentences Taminella to imprisonment in the dungeon, where she'll be fed all the peanut butter sandwiches. "You can go home as soon as you've eaten all sixty-seven THOUSAND of them!" Then the Prime Minister announces that the guests are arriving, and the King and Princess go off to the party.
Kermit takes us home with a concluding song:
And so the Witch was overthrown.
She cried and screamed and muttered.
But to this day, in a dungeon cold,
She's caged, and peanut buttered!
The castle now is filled with joy.
I bid farewell to thee.
Until the next time I resume
My tale of Tinkerdee!
The Tale of Tin-ker-dee!
Thursday, Nov 8:
If you've read this far...
Okay, if you've read this far, then that means you're an obsessed Muppet fan. Welcome. You're among friends. So now I'm gonna go ahead and give you even more obsessive detail about Tinkerdee's puppets and sets. Enjoy.
Credits: Tales of the Tinkerdee. Produced by Jim Henson. Directed by Carl Degen. Written by Jerry Juhl, Jim Henson. With the talents of Bob Payne, Robin Reed, Jane Henson, Walt Teas, Charlie Byrd. Technical Director: Keith Price. Lighting: Larry Bowling. A Muppet Production.
Taminella: As you can tell from the synopsis, Taminella the witch was the real star of the show. The plot revolved around her, and she's on-screen for practically all of the second and third acts. Tammy is played with obvious gusto by Jerry Juhl, who at the time was Henson's main partner, and who would go on to become the head writer for The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock. Juhl's affection for the character is really apparent; he's having the time of his life playing Tammy. Juhl bowed out of the puppeteering biz in 1963, when Frank Oz joined Henson's troupe, but Juhl returned to perform Taminella again in the 1971 special The Frog Prince. The Tammy of Tinkerdee is a lot friendlier and funnier than the more threatening Frog Prince version. Taminella also appeared in Henson's "Shrinkel and Stretchel" commercials for PakNit laundry products in 1965.
King Goshposh: Performed by Jim Henson, Goshposh became the standard King for the 70's Muppet fairy tales, showing up in Hey Cinderella, The Frog Prince, and the Twiggy Muppet Show episode. The King puppet was rebuilt for those later appearances, but he's very recognizably the same character -- and in Tinkerdee, as in Hey Cinderella, he walks around with a lit cigar in his mouth.
Kermit: Performed, of course, by Jim Henson. As in many Muppet specials, Kermit's main function here is just to remind the viewer that these are Jim Henson's puppets. But there's no small parts, only small frogs -- and Kermit's appearances in Tinkerdee are especially memorable because he actually sings all of his lines of dialogue. Besides the choruses quoted above, he also sings every line of regular dialogue he has. He wears a minstrel's tunic with a ruffly collar, so I can't tell if he has his pointy frog's collar by this point.
Prime Minister: This is the guy in the picture in The Works who looks kind of like Scooter. I don't know who performed him; the only voices I recognize in the special are Henson's and Juhl's. This puppet wasn't used again -- this role in Cinderella and Frog Prince was taken by Featherstone -- but his design obviously informed the design of Scooter more than a decade later.
Princess Gwendolinda: A running gag in the special is that Gwendolinda is the loveliest girl in the kingdom -- so it's unfortunate that she's actually the only bad-looking puppet in the production. She's a generic little girl Muppet with a curly blonde mop and disturbingly large eyes. She's probably performed by Robin Reed, since I don't think Jane Henson ever performed a character's voice.
Palace Guard: The guard appears in only one scene, when "Santa Claus" is trying to gain entrance to the palace. He's performed by someone other than Henson and Juhl. The notable thing about the Guard is that he was obviously built from the old Yorick puppet from Sam and Friends. He's wearing a guard's helmet over his eyes, but the mouth is visible, and it's clearly Yorick.
Charlie the ogre: The only "human" figure in the show is Charlie the ogre, who we see first as filthy, ragged legs (in Tammy's cave and at the palace gates) and then as a club-wielding arm (through the window of the palace ballroom). The voice is by Henson, in a kind of Link Hogthrob groan. The actual body parts are almost certainly not Henson or Juhl, since he often appears in the same shot as other main characters. The illusion is really clever and oddly convincing; you actually start to believe that there really is an enormous ogre just off screen.
The sets: Using the production's financial and technical limitations as a challenge, Henson created beautiful, stylized sets that look like a storybook come to life. The sets are all just flat, painted backgrounds, but Henson uses the two dimensional sets in interesting 3-D ways. For example, Taminella's cave has a painted flat with stalactites and spider webs -- but there are big holes in that background, and you can see another painted background behind it with the back of the cave wall. The multiple flats are so obviously two dimensional that it creates a kind of pop-up book effect. It's really quite beautiful.
The soundtrack: It looks like the Tinkerdee soundtrack was recorded first, almost like a comedy album with a lot of running footsteps and other sound effects. Then the puppets were performed to lip-synch to the soundtrack. Henson voices three characters -- the King, Charlie, and Kermit -- who often appear in scenes together. However, if Henson's characters didn't appear together, you wouldn't really be able to tell that the voices were recorded first. The lip-synch is much more skillful and precise here than in the earlier Sam and Friends sketches.
The color: The Tinkerdee photos in The Works are in color, but the copy at the Museum of Television and Radio is in black and white. I don't know if the show was originally shot in color or not.
Tomorrow: But was it any good?
A discussion of Tinkerdee's strengths,
and what it meant for Henson's later work...
Friday, Nov 9:
All right, today I write some final reflections on Tinkerdee. Is it too late for me to say that I really liked it? That may be kind of obvious from the reams of text I've posted about it this week. So I'll just skip the "review" part of this review, and go straight for the historical context.
So, 1962: Henson has just finished his successful run of Sam and Friends, which ended in '61. He's done a lot of guest spots on variety shows, and he's begun regular appearances on the Today show. He's been doing a huge series of commercials for Wilkins Coffee in DC, and he's been booked by Purina Dog Chow for national ads. He's growing in confidence and recognition as a puppeteer and as an artist.
But, so far, he's yet to produce a narrative longer than five minutes. The variety-show sketches and Sam and Friends skits are brief and punchy, and his Wilkins commercials proved that he can make a memorable sales pitch in ten seconds. But he's never really had the scope to develop a full narrative.
So Tinkerdee was Jim Henson's first story. Henson wanted to prove to television producers that he had the ability to hold an audience's attention for a whole half hour. He wasn't just a clown that could entertain the viewers for three minutes between singers on Ed Sullivan; he was a storyteller, who could create characters and situations that people could really care about.
As in the early days of Sam and Friends, Henson turned to Stan Freberg's comedy records for inspiration. Freberg was a radio comedian who became famous in the 50's for his soap opera spoof, "John and Marsha," and his parody of Dragnet, "St. George and the Dragonet." You may not recognize the names from Freberg's 1957 radio series -- Daws Butler, June Foray and Hans Conreid -- but you'll certainly remember them as the voices of Huckleberry Hound, Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Captain Hook. In 1961, Freberg brought all these luminaries together to record his most accomplished comedy album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America. Henson was a big fan of Freberg; the early episodes of Sam and Friends were often just puppets lip-synching to Freberg records. Henson's own original sketches were close cousins to Freberg's literate, verbal satires.
So when Henson had his first chance to produce a sustained story, he continued to follow Freberg's example. Tinkerdee sounds like a Freberg comedy album, with lots of sound effects, running gags and dreadful puns. And, like Freberg, Henson (and partner Jerry Juhl) developed an anarchic style of storytelling that valued energy and punchlines over sensible narrative. In Freberg's work, comedy was always more important than logic, and Henson and Juhl followed this grand tradition.
Tinkerdee's story is driven by Taminella the witch, and her efforts to crash the Princess' party and steal her presents. The witch is the most intelligent, witty character, and we're invited to sympathize with her struggles. The King, Princess and Prime Minister just float through the story, getting locked in closets and then released, but never really having much of an emotional response to their situation. Gwendolinda spends most of the show looking for Santa Claus, but never seems bothered that she can't find him. The King gets exasperated with the party preparations, but he doesn't have much to lose. It's Taminella who gets emotional highs and lows, victory and despair. And she's the one who gets the most screen time -- in fact, for the second and third acts, she's hardly ever off camera.
Tinkerdee invites us to go beyond the traditional fairy tale cliches and root for the villain. When Tammy gets her hands on the presents and passes them out the window to Charlie the ogre, her moment of triumph is much more satisfying than her comeuppance. (In fact, we never do find out what happened to those presents. For all we know, Charlie keeps them.) Essentially, Henson and Juhl take us into a skewed, farcical universe where it simply doesn't matter if the Princess' birthday party is ruined or not. What matters is that we're having fun, running around, slamming doors and wearing one crazy disguise after another.
This lunatic vision gets watered down in Henson's later fairy tale specials. Ten years later, Henson's Frog Prince has a much more traditional plot, pitting good against evil for the sake of a boy-meets-girl romance. In The Frog Prince, Taminella is still dressing up in disguises and casting spells on princesses -- but she's more serious, and much less loveable. She has to be a real menace to Robin and the Princess, and the story turns on defeating her and breaking her spells, so that good can win, and Robin can marry the Princess.
Tinkerdee doesn't really care if good wins or not. Princess Gwendolinda is a big drip, and nobody cares if she gets to keep her Italian hand-cut crystal bird bath or not. We're certainly not going to be invested in her love life. Tinkerdee is entirely driven by Taminella's lunatic energy, and the King's grouchy fits of pique. It's straight-up farce, and pure pleasure.
I can't imagine that TV producers didn't see the amazing comic energy in Tinkerdee. The pilot didn't get picked up, but it wasn't because the show wasn't funny, or visually inventive. Unfortunately, it's not clear how Henson and Juhl planned to sustain the show as a series. A half-hour of anarchic, Freberg-style farce was great, but when your main character ends up imprisoned in the dungeon, what do you do in the next episode?
A year after Tinkerdee, Henson landed a regular appearance on The Jimmy Dean Show as Rowlf -- his first sustained, fully-developed Muppet character. Over the next decade, he got to tell more comic stories, starting with Hey Cinderella and The Great Santa Claus Switch. By the end of the 60's, he was creating the Sesame Street Muppets, the most beloved children's television characters of all time. The seeds planted in Tinkerdee were going to grow over the next few years into the most amazing things.
And now, we have a chance to go back and get a glimpse at where it all came from. Taminella may end up in the dungeon, but she's the greedy, sarcastic grandmother of a long line of Muppet troublemakers, from Cookie Monster and Oscar to Miss Piggy and Pepe. She's the witchiest witch of them all, the greatest sculptor in Tinkerdee, and a jolly old elf, all wrapped up in one. She's witty, and angry, and triumphant. She's amazing. She's the Muppets.