The Muppets had a huge impact on my love of puppetry in general. So it probably goes without saying that i would often search out and make it a point to tune in to any other tv shows i came across featuring puppets. None were ever totally as cool as the Muppets, but there were some that came pretty close. Not to mention some that were really horribly bad. Some were well known, others tucked away...in fact some that i have fond recollections of still remain in such obscurity that to this day, i can hardly find anything about them online. Some of them were only in my local market of Cleveland Ohio area programming.
There was a show called "Mindy" (which was a spinoff of an earlier show i don't remember the name of, but there were few real differences between them) which was one of those Sunday morning shows that had some human hosts and a puppet cast (I'm fairly sure one of the main ones was an Italian named Tony Pepperoni) doing comedy bits in between playing Popeye and Warner Bros type cartoons. I barely remember a lot of details, but somehow i clearly remember my joy and feelings of watching it. I was fascinated by their sets since they had a whole bunch of them representing a whole neighborhood. There was a human character called "The Inspector" who did slapstick bits.
This later was replaced with a far inferior show that had a male and female host called "Hickory Hideout" with some squirrel puppets that lived in a tree. Cute concept but bad show. The humans looked and sounded like a human version of Wayne and Wanda.
One advantage of growing up in a small Ohio town right on the lakeshore was that back when most television stations only delivered about a dozen channels, one of those stations was CBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I saw a lot of cool shows (puppet and non-puppet) that most people elsewhere wouldn't get to experience. I remember stuff like The Friendly Giant when i was really little. Around 1980 there was this show called Snelgrove Snail that had this cast of underwater creatures with a really catchy theme song (one of the things that still stick in my head) and a lead character that sounded very Jim Henson-esque. I haven't been able to find much about this show in terms of clips, photos, or episode details but i did discover that Dan Redican was among its cast. Dan did some work with the Muppets (most notably on Jim Henson Hour) and is also a member of the great comedy troupe The Frantics. Fans of the Dr. Demento Show know them especially from their classic "Boot to the Head". I got to watch Fraggle Rock even though i didn't have HBO! Best of all, their airings of The Muppet Show often included the UK Sketches. (They didn't show the whole 25.5 minute episode, but they would usually cut out a different act and leave in the UK skit)
There was a wealth of puppet-based or puppet-related shows to check out in my youth. I would like to pay tribute to my five most fondly remembered. See if YOU recognize any of these.
THE LETTER PEOPLE
Back in the 70's before schools had vcr's (and often showed film strips or movies from projectors), we would occasionally be treated to any number of made-for-schools shows broadcast weekdays on PBS. One such show that i have fond memories of was The Letter People (now this was the original 70's version. I hear there was an updated 90's version which i've not seen and from what i've heard about it, i really don't care to). The show taught phonics with a cast of characters representing the letters of the alphabet (the consonants were "Letter Boys" and the vowels were "Letter Girls"). Other puppets were included that would interact with them, most notably game show host Monty Swell who discovered the Letter People could combine their sounds and make words and used them on his "Catching Game". There was the first character introduced, the Cookie Monster-esque Mr. M (known for his "Munching Mouth"), Mr. H with his "Horrible Hair", Mr. N with his "Noisy Nose" (a trumpet like protrusion that would sound off when he heard a word starting with the N sound), and my favorites Mr. S (with his Super Socks) and Miss O (an Obstinate Opera Singer) There were even some cartoon inserts that had also been shown on Sesame Street. Although he was uncredited, it was also an early puppetry job for Muppeteer Allan Trautman. Our principal had blown up inflatable dolls of the Letter People and i was really envious of her for having these. If i ever had to stay at home from school due to illness or a snow day, it was always cool to be able to watch The Letter People at home (especially if it was a grade where we weren't watching them) There were 60 15-minute episodes in all, and in the school setting, we never got to see all 60 of them by the end of the school year. In my tape trading, i was able to acquire copies of all of them several years ago. Parts of the show were just as good as i remembered; other parts i found kind of boring while watching as an adult. But still this was an overall really cool show.
If you were both a puppetry lover and a budding gay man, you loved Wayland Flowers and Madame. Frequent game and variety show guests and featured on Solid Gold for a time, this quite borderline-raunchy old lady puppet was in many ways what one could imagine Miss Piggy becoming like in her old age. (When i was in high school, i got to have my picture taken with Arizona governor Rose Mofford and i SWEAR she looked just like a human version of Madame!) She got her own show which aired late nights because of its adult humor(which made it all the more cool because you had to stay up real late to watch it). Among its cast was the then ubiquitous Judy Landers and a young Corey Feldman. The sitcom featured her crazy home life at her mansion and the talk show she hosted (which often had guest appearances from well know stars and up and coming comedians, including a largely then unknown Lay Leno). There was also one of the most catchiest theme song of all time which included lines like
When a young man looks at Madame
She just THROWS herself right at 'em
She's young at heart and still gettin' her kicks.
Someone, anyone - PLEASE get this show out on dvd!
This was so much fun. One of those rare kids' shows that didn't feel like a kids' show. The puppets and the humans were both engaging and fun to watch, had awesome guests and songs and also included Muppeteers Kevin Clash, Jim Martin and John Lovelady. The best part of the show was the segment with Gary Gnu and his "guh-"news broadcasts. Think Muppet Newsflash mixed with Soupy Sales and Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update. If you were fortunate enough to see it, you'll never forget the time Bess Armstrong filled in for Gary Gnu and fell victim to his typical humiliations. This is another show that needs to find modern audiences and old fans via dvd! This ranks up there with Soupy Sales, The Electric Company and You Can't Do That On Television as one of the coolest non-Muppet/Henson live-action kids shows of all time.
Of all the shows on this list, this is the one that no one else seems to have seen or remembers. It was a Christian kids show that was on one of the religious channels, but it was hardly preachy and only a small portion was even Bible/religion oriented. Most of it was just good puppety fun. It had a full-bodied green alligator, a Crazy Harry-esque character named Coma Kaze who instead of causing explosions, would run his airplane all over the place in a crazed fashion. There was even a laugh track! One musical number even had the store bought hand puppets of Oscar and Cookie Monster dancing along (so much for "Thou Shalt Not Engage In Copyright Infringement") Each episode would end with a shot of a bunch of mannequins grouped together being feather dusted by one of the little girl puppets as a voiceover declared "Puppet Tree was shot in front of a studio audience...of DUMMIES" at which point she would accidentally knock them over domino style as she crumpled her face up over this action. I don't think there's ever been a religious show this far out wild and entertaining (with or without puppets) ever. I really wish i could track down clips or information on this show...or even for that matter someone else who saw it!
HOT FUDGE SHOW
Now i've mentioned some pretty dang cool shows in this thread, but this one makes all the others look like Polka Party. Just like i had to stay up super late to watch Madame's Place, i had to get up ultra early to watch Hot Fudge on weekend mornings. But it was SO worth it! For the longest time, one could barely find anything about this show on the web (except for other people saying they watched it and it was the coolest thing ever) but over the last year, a handful of rare clips popped up on Youtube, a myspace page, and an official website. I could gush on and on about how awesome this show and its (puppet and human) cast was (actor Ron Coden was so adept at slapstick and physical comedy especially in the "Holy Moley" segments, that he came across like a human Wile E Coyote), but this one was so wicked supercool, i'll invite you to scope it out yourself. There was apparently a recent reunion special from the local Detroit station it originated from and i would be eternally grateful if anyone could manage to track down a copy for me (or any old episodes for that matter). Just like a hot fudge sundae (or any other ice cream based desert), the show was a sweet treat that there's always room for and one can never get enough of it. I miss this show so much it hurts. Hot Fudge was simply the cream of the crop.
[Two years later and there's still NOTHING on the web about Puppet Tree or that local Mindy show that i've been able to dig up either. With the exception of Letter People, finding clips of the above shows are pretty sparse as well.]