13 Facts About The Muppets Take Manhattan

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

On July 13, 1984, TriStar Pictures distributed the third Muppets movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan. It followed 1979’s The Muppet Movie and 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper. Frank Oz, who had voiced Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear and had co-directed The Muppet Movie and The Dark Crystal with Jim Henson, co-wrote the script and directed it—his first solo directing gig.

Set in, of course, Manhattan, the live-action film follows the gang as they graduate from the fictional Danhurst College and move to New York City to find a producer to put their musical, Manhattan Melodies, on Broadway. At first, things do not go well: a Central Park mugger steals Miss Piggy’s purse, and the gang is forced to separate to make ends meets. Kermit finds a job working in a diner with some talking rats and a human friend named Jenny (Juliana Donald). Finally, after months of struggling, Kermit convinces producer Ronnie Crawford (real-life theater actor Lonny Price) to put the musical on Broadway. But as soon as he seals the deal, Kermit is hit by the car, gets amnesia, and joins a Mad Men-like ad agency.

Though grittier than previous Muppet movies, The Muppets Take Manhattan does have a happy ending. Against a budget of $8 million, it grossed a modest $25.5 million, and composer Jeff Moss earned an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Original Song Score (he was beat out by Prince for Purple Rain).

In honor of the film's 35th anniversary, here are some behind-the-scenes facts about the urban Muppet adventure.

1. Jim Henson wanted to make an entertaining movie for everyone.

Jim Henson (1936 - 1990), the creator of the Muppets at the BAFTA awards at the Grosvenor Hotel, London
John Gooch, Keystone/Getty Images

The Muppets Take Manhattan came out in the summer of 1984, where it faced off against violent “family films” like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. In fact, films had become so violent that the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating with Red Dawn’s release on August 10, 1984. But a month before, during an interview with Gene Shalit, Henson explained how he felt about his G-rated movie. “It’s a strange and sort of sad thing that the G-rating has come to be thought of as a real negative,” Henson said. “I’ve always felt that people should be able to do a film that works for the whole family, that doesn’t have any kind of violence or sex, and it’s still very entertaining."

2. Working with Frank Oz wasn't easy for everyone.

Because The Muppets Take Manhattan was Frank Oz’s first solo feature, the pressure was on for the director—and some of the cast felt it. In 2018, Gonzo voice actor Dave Goelz told Smithsonian that working with Oz "was torture. We had the hardest time working with him. Frank felt he had to make every decision, dictate every tiny detail, and he micromanaged our performances. Not sure I should say it, but Jim [Henson] was as frustrated as the rest of us." But as Oz got more experience behind the camera, his relationship to his actors changed. "Now, Frank is a great collaborator," Goelz said. "He’s taken Jim’s delicacy to heart, to let people contribute, solicit input, and realize his job is deciding what to include.”

In a 2018 interview with Tough Pigs, Oz admitted he was under a lot of pressure while directing The Muppets Take Manhattan and that he was too hard on the performers. “I was a first-time director and part-writer on that, and also I performed about four or five of my characters, so I think unfortunately I was harder on those guys,” he said. “You should talk to Dave Goelz about it. We laugh about it now, how much he hated me."

3. Juliana Donald landed the role of Jenny because she was able to speak to Kermit in a natural way.

Apparently, the producers wanted to cast a well-known actress for Jenny—Kermit’s sympathetic diner co-worker and a source of jealousy for Miss Piggy—but couldn’t find the right person. “I was told that the problem they were having was finding someone who looked like they were really talking to the Muppets, not talking at them,” Juliana Donald said. “By the time I went in they had thrown up their hands and agreed to meet anyone and everyone that was remotely close to what they were looking for. I think part of getting hired had to do with timing and part had to do with my audition with Jim Henson and Frank Oz. They said I was believable talking to Kermit."

4. Frank Oz kept the movie grounded with character development.

In past Muppet films, Oz thought the humor was a bit “wilder.” But in The Muppets Take Manhattan, he reined in the comedy and grounded it in realism. “Muppets Take Manhattan was more grounded than the other stuff you’ve seen,” Oz told Tough Pigs. “Some people love that—I felt it was a failure on my part because it didn’t have that kind of Muppet wildness to it.”

In order to “ground” the project, Oz rewrote a lot of Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett’s original script. “There’s now a situation where I told Jim in my opinion I thought it was too jokey, too much just for the laughs, and not enough about the relationships and the characters themselves,” Oz said. “What I did in the rewrite is, I made it more grounded—for good or bad—and I had more focus on the relationships of the characters than just the jokes."

5. Frank Oz wanted the movie to have more “lunacy.”

“It doesn’t have enough lunacy,” Oz said of the movie in Jim Henson: The Biography. “I think the story is your basic old-fashioned story, and it was a well-crafted thing because of that. But it didn’t have flights of fancy like The Muppet Movie.”

6. Frank Oz cast the celebrity cameos based on merit.

Throughout Muppets history, celebrities from Mel Brooks to Julie Andrews appeared in Muppet shows and films. In The Muppets Take Manhattan, everyone from Gregory Hines to John Landis (who was a puppeteer on The Muppet Movie) makes an appearance. When asked how he decided on casting the cameos, Oz stated, “We wanted to have the cameos as part of the plot.” He said people criticized The Muppet Movie for its “name value only” cameos. “Why weren’t they part of the movie? It made sense that they should be characters in the movie, not just Dabney Coleman for Dabney Coleman’s sake, or Joan [Rivers] for Joan’s sake. We really chose the cameos to fill those characters. It’s almost like casting a regular movie to make sure the part that Dabney Coleman plays really suits Dabney Coleman—and Joan Rivers and Gregory Hines. I guess, all I’m saying is, we chose them because they were good for the part.”

7. Dustin Hoffman almost had a cameo.

David Misch, who was a writing consultant on The Muppets Take Manhattan, told Tough Pigs that he and Oz wanted bigger name celebrities, like Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, and Laurence Olivier. “Hoffman was going to play a Broadway producer and planned to do an imitation of legendary film producer Robert Evans, which he later did in the movie Wag The Dog,” Misch said. “At the last minute Hoffman decided it might be offensive to Evans and dropped out, following which all the other big names dropped out as well.” But, hey, at least they got Brooke Shields.

8. The TV show GLOW paid homage to The Muppets Take Manhattan’s “whisper campaign.”

During the second season of Netflix girl wrestling show GLOW, producer Bash (Chris Lowell) and wrestler Debbie (Emmy nominee Betty Gilpin) try to sell the show GLOW at a TV expo. Bash has the idea to start a “whisper campaign” like they did in The Muppets Take Manhattan, in which Kermit goes to Sardi’s, replaces Liza Minnelli’s portrait with his own, and makes his rat friends hide under diners’ table and talk him up. However, GLOW’s campaign turned out to be more successful than Kermit’s.

9. Joan Rivers was a little tipsy when she filmed her scene. (So was Frank Oz.)

In a brief but memorable scene, Joan Rivers works at Bergdorf Goodman’s perfume counter with Miss Piggy selling Quelle Difference perfume. Rivers tells Piggy she could use some makeup. “Pigs don’t have eyebrows,” Piggy protests, but Joan gives them to her anyway. They get carried away with the makeover, and the store manager fires them both.

Oz told NPR they rented the department store all day, but Rivers had to leave early. Oz felt that the scene wasn’t working. “It’s very hard to have a spontaneous laughter,” he said. “It wasn’t working, because I didn’t know Joan that well and I guess she didn’t know me.” To remedy the issue, he asked a production assistant to bring them four Bloody Marys. “I had a couple of Bloody Marys and Joan had a couple of Bloody Marys, and we shot the scene kind of like that. Joan left, and I was feeling real good.”

10. Martin Scorsese’s parents were extras in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

In an interview, Juliana Donald revealed that Martin Scorsese’s parents had roles as extras. “They were so sweet and overjoyed to be extras,” she said. “It was great because their son was one of the all-time greatest directors, and they could have had regular parts in any of his films, but they only wanted to be extras. I think they liked the fact that they could talk to friends and have no stress on having to learn lines.” Scorsese’s parents had small roles in many of their son's films, too; in Goodfellas, Catherine Scorsese famously played Joe Pesci’s mother, and Martin’s father, Charles, played Ray Liotta’s prison friend Vinnie.

11. The Muppets take Manhattan led to Muppet Babies.

During a carriage ride through Central Park with her Kermie, Piggy tells him she wishes they would’ve met as toddlers. She envisions a fantasy sequence of baby Kermie, her, Gonzo, Rowlf, Fozzie, and Scooter playing in a nursery and singing the song “I’m Gonna Always Love You.” A few months after the film came out, CBS launched the animated series Muppet Babies, on September 15, 1984. It was Henson’s first Saturday morning show. Muppet Babies ended in 1991, but Disney Junior rebooted it in 2018.

12. The man who played the minister at the end of the film was a real minister.

Spoiler alert: At the end of the film, Kermit thinks he’s pretending to marry Miss Piggy as part of the Broadway show, but she tricks him into marrying him for real. In an interview with Tough Pigs, David Misch revealed they hired a real minister, Dr. Cyril Jenkins, for meta purposes. “Jim wanted ambiguity about whether Kermit and Piggy were ‘really’ married, not just in the movie, to drum up interest,” he said.

13. Kermit thinks it’s time for a Manhattan Melodies revival.

In a 2018 interview with TheaterMania, Kermit said he’d be interested in doing a Manhattan Melodies revival. He would like to star in it but offered another choice. “If I had to recast my role in the Manhattan Melodies, I'd go with the supremely talented singer, dancer, and actor Neil Patrick Harris,” Kermit said. “I just hope he doesn't mind playing opposite Miss Piggy; she’s contractually obligated to play herself.”

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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