Saturday, August 25, 2012

Reaching the Top of Those Stairs: Fond Farewell to Jerry Nelson

This weekend was supposed to be Part 2 of our "Good Business/Bad Business" feature, but due to recent Muppet news, this weekend is not one for negativity but rather a time for mourning/remembrance.  Veteran Muppeteer Jerry Nelson passed away on August 23rd at the age of 78.  Muppet Freak spends this weekend remembering the legendary Mr. Nelson.  (The "Bad Business" Article will most likely now be pushed back two weeks as i'll be spending next weekend helping out someone in need.)

The news of Nelson's demise is not unexpected.  Due to his age, declining health, and the diminishing amount of time and energy he's spent over the past decade contributing to the Muppets (he had retired from physical Muppeteering though still providing voices for select characters), fans, family and colleagues have had time to adjust to the thought that Nelson may soon no longer be with us.  Unlike Jim Henson's death which came far too early and without warning, this was no huge surprise that came out of nowhere.  The Muppet team (both that of the Classic Muppets and the Sesame group) have had years to prepare for this eventuality with the training and recasting of most of his characters.  His (LARGE) stable of beloved characters will still be around to make us laugh, cry and reach our hearts.

Of course, that's by no means to say that the news is not sad.  It's actually more bittersweet.  While sad it's finally come to pass, it's actually quite uplifting to bear in mind that he did actually live as long as he did.  He was around long enough to continue to mentor those taking on his characters but also to provide one last special "audio cameo" as an Announcer Voice for "The Muppets" film last year as well as recording his very own album, Truro Daydreams a few years back.  I'm sure those close to him have had opportunity to let them know they loved him and when the end did come, it was in his sleep.

But for Muppet Freaks and fans worldwide, what makes Nelson's death particularly poignant is that this was the passing of one of the true long-time veterans...that special trio of Jim (Henson), Frank (Oz) and Jerry.

Now of course, if one was to be really technical, the original Muppeteer trio would be Jim and Jane Henson along with either Bob Payne or Jerry Juhl as the third.  But mention "Classic Muppeteer Trio" to any Freak and they'll know who you're referencing:  the three that made up the main team as early as the '60s when the Muppets were gaining national recognition.  The threesome that were immortalized ("immuppetalized"?) in puppet form as The Country Trio.  The ones that were the true core group of original veterans that had remained main players throughout the decades.  Even though each performer was incredibly talented and generated chemistry with any scene partner, when these three acted together the resulting manner in which they'd play off each other was akin to great jazz musicians such as seen here (Nelson is Miss


Even though Oz is still with us, his direct ties with the Muppets has been almost totally cut for years now - basically limited to a few Sesame bits here and there despite his characters being all successfully recast and no real involvement with the Classic Muppets for a good decade.  So while Frank Oz is still alive and seemingly well, when it comes right down to it, Jerry's departure really does feel like the last part of that particular team is completely gone.

While many fans would love to see Oz take a more active role with the Muppets - even as just a creative consultant if not a performer (rather than becoming a bit of an "armchair quarterback" commenting on how they could improve rather than marching over to Disney and working with them, bringing his often strong opinions to the table as one of the last remaining disciples of the originators), this doesn't seem likely to happen.  Thus, the loss of Nelson truly does seem to represent the end of The Trio.  His departure really hits the Muppet fan community hard because of the subliminal recognition that it represents an ending of an era.

But moving away from the conceptual and to the specific, Jerry Nelson was an amazing talent whose multiple contributions to the Muppet team will be sorely missed.  Of the Classic Trio, Henson and Oz were the more forefront, taking on the lead characters and having much more of a general public name recognition.  But Nelson was the important stock player of the three, able to supplement the world of The Muppets with any and all kinds of supporting character.  Name an accent and Jerry could do it.  He had the ability to take on any kind of character from largest (Snuffleupagus) to smallest (Robin the Frog), male or female or other, sweet to sour.  Henson referred to Nelson as "the Mel Blanc of The Muppets" with an incredible range of voices.

And of all Nelson's attributes and long list of talents and abilities, it is his voice that will always most be associated with him.  Not only due to his range but also its resonance - he would typically be called upon whenever an "Announcer" and/or "Voiceover" part was needed.  Indeed, even though all his characters were puppeteered and voiced by others in 2011's "The Muppets", Nelson still lent his unmistakable voice as the Muppet Telethon Announcer adding an element to the film that wouldn't have seemed right if not somehow present.  (Tell me you didn't weep with joy when you heard him).

...And of course more than that was his singing ability.  Of the male Muppet performers, Jerry was with very little debate among Muppet Freaks, the most gifted singer.  Just as he could perform any kind of character, so too could he handle any type of music.  The Muppets are synonomous with music and much of that music was as outstanding as it was because of Jerry's contributions.  So here, let's take a moment to let his work speak for itself with a few songs that not only demonstrate his amazing abilities but also manage to honor the man himself at the same time...

If there's one word that could best be used in association with Jerry Nelson, it would be "NUMBERS".  Because as a word with two definitions, Jerry would be strongly matched with both of them.  His highest profile character was Sesame Street's Count von Count.  Millions of children learned how to count because of Jerry.  And as just visited, just as The Count was The Master at numeric numbers, Nelson was The Master of musical numbers...often at the same time!...

As you can see (and hear) just as exhuberantly as The Count is throwing himself into counting, Jerry is throwing himself into the song!

Precisely because Nelson was "The Voice of the Muppets", i would hereby like to propose to the Muppet Fandom community that in the same spirit that Muppet Freaks have adopted September 26 as "Jerry Juhl Day" as a day to remember/honor the late Muppet headwriter by doing silly things, August 23 should hereby be observed as "Jerry Nelson Day".  (Of course this year, honoring "Jerry Nelson Week" as we alternately mourn his recent passing and celebrate his memory)

And HOW do we honor it?  By taking a moment during the day/week to observe a moment of silence to represent the loss of The Muppets' "Voice".  But then spending the rest of that time blissfully engaging in music - both the listening and making of it.  Of course, Muppet/Jerry Nelson songs should be included but take some time to enjoy old favorite songs you haven't listened to for awhile or explore something new.  Visit a music shop (or shop online if brick buildings have gone by the wayside in your area.)  Play something for someone else.  Whistle a happy tune.  And also take a moment to count the roses...and the noses...and guys named Moses... (And if you're really feeling brave, visit a restaurant that's likely to provide subpar service!)

The best way to remember a departed loved one is to not only grieve in sadness but also remember with fondness and joy all the things you loved.  Celebrate the time they were with us.  Just as Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl wished that people would honor their passing with lively spirit, so do does it seem appropriate with the beloved Jerry Nelson.  So Muppet Freak closes this post the best way we know how...with "a funeral dirge you can DANCE to..."  (For those who don't know, Nelson plays both Gobo Fraggle and Pa Gorg here)

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