By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Visitors with childlike hearts who follow “The Rainbow Connection” to its beginning come across a small building on stilts on the banks of Deer Creek, surrounded by crape myrtles and cedar trees.
A giant-sized Kermit the Frog smiles and waves, letting passersby on U.S. Highway 82 know something wonderful got its start in Leland.
The Mississippi Delta town doesn’t make an idle claim. None other than Jim Henson, the Muppet master himself, attested to Leland’s status in writing. A photo signed by Henson and Kermit is clear: “Leland – Birthplace of the Frog.”
The creative force behind “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” was born Sept. 24, 1936, at King’s Daughters Hospital in Greenville. His father worked with the U.S.D.A., and the family lived in Leland. Young Henson attended Leland Elementary School, and he played in Deer Creek, a muddy tributary of the Yazoo River.
“He had a friend, Kermit Scott,” said Emily Kearney, tour guide at the Jim Henson Museum and Leland Welcome Center. “They would catch frogs, turtles and snakes on Deer Creek. I guess they threw rocks in the water and fished, like boys do.”
Dot Turk, office manager at the museum, said Henson was a member of Boy Scout Troop 42, and he put on his first puppet show as a kid in Leland.
“He got a bunch of kids together. Some made puppets and some bought them,” Turk said. “It was a motley affair, but it was his first puppet show.”
At age 12, he packed up whatever experiences Leland provided and took them to Maryland, when his father was transferred.
“He never made it back,” Kearney said. “It was only his immediate family living here because of his father’s job.”
Henson was formerly invited to the town’s centennial in 1986, but he was in England filming. He sent along his regrets and that signed photograph, which offers a tidbit of trivia: When giving his signature, Kermit the Frog continued the tail of the “g” at the end of his name and swirled it into a curlicue.
“People do think of Kermit as real,” Turk said.
Any hope of a hometown visit ended when Henson died on May 16, 1990. The death was felt around the country and the world, wherever there were fans of “The Muppet Movie,” “Sesame Street,” “Labyrinth,” “Dark Crystal,” “Fraggle Rock” and other endearing TV shows and films. The town of Leland decided to honor Henson’s memory, and the museum opened in 1991.
“This used to be the Chamber of Commerce building,” Kearney said. “In time, Kermit started to crowd out the chamber. They got a little cramped, so they moved out because people were coming to see the exhibit.”
The effort was quickly endorsed by the Jim Henson Legacy foundation. The prized possession is a Kermit the Frog puppet inside a glass case. The Muppet sits on a log in a scene that could’ve been inspired by the view just outside the museum.
“Kermit’s at home on Deer Creek,” Kearney said. “That’s where he’s going to stay.”
Years ago, the museum had a temporary exhibit featuring Dr. Teeth, Chester the Rat and the Swedish Chef, all characters Henson had operated.
“All the colors and detail were fantastic,” she said. “The Swedish Chef had a mixing bowl and a mixer. Really, really amazing.”
That’s no longer on display. It was replaced by characters from “The Song of the Cloud Forest,” which originally appeared on TV as part of “The Jim Henson Hour.”
The main room includes displays about Henson’s life and work, and Jim Henson Legacy foundation sent a collection of videos that play in rotation on a television. Kearney can’t begin to count how many times she’s heard “The Rainbow Connection,” Kermit’s signature song from “The Muppet Movie,” but it still makes her smile.
“I couldn’t have raised my kids without the Muppets,” she said.
When her son was serving in Iraq, she remembered his childhood love for Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street.”
“I sent him an Oscar mug. He loved it,” she said. “Also, I found Oscar the Grouch underwear, boxer shorts, and he got a big kick out of them.”
There’s no Oscar underwear, but the museum gift shop is loaded with just about every Muppet film or TV show, along with Christmas ornaments and plush versions of Ernie, Bert, Miss Piggy, Animal and of course, Kermit.
“We just got a Kermit lunch box in,” she said. “This is going to be a big seller.”
An adjoining room is stuffed with toys and memorabilia donated by fans who shared their childhoods with Henson’s imagination.
“We had people from England send us a ‘Muppet Show’ album, if you can believe it,” Kearney said. “They were from Leicester, England. I thought, Oh, they’ll probably go home and forget, but we had it in a couple of weeks.”
Leland is in Delta blues country, and the Highway 61 Blues Museum down the road honors James “Son” Thomas and other masters of Mississippi’s native music.
“Sometimes they are on the blues trail and they drop by here,” Turk said. “Sometimes they are dyed-in-the-wool Jim fans, Muppet fans, and they come here first.”
And sometimes, people see the smiling Gustavo on Highway 82 and can’t help stopping.
That’s right, Gustavo.
“That’s what we call him,” said Bego Goitia, 28, from Spain. “We were driving by and we saw a sign for tourist information. We said, ‘Why is Gustavo everywhere?’”
She and her friends were touring the South and visiting blues sites on their way to New Orleans, but they couldn’t pass up a visit to the museum. They bought Muppet puppets for friends and family back home.
“Everybody knows the Frog and the monsters,” said Goitia, who remembers “Barrio Sesamo,” rather than “Sesame Street.”
People from all over the world visit the hometown salute to Henson. Whenever Kearney and Turk go to work, they’re liable to meet someone with Muppet memories from South Africa, Germany or Holland.
“They say in Holland Big Bird isn’t yellow. We’ve learned that over and over,” Kearney said. “I can’t imagine Big Bird being anything but yellow, but they say he’s blue in their country.”
It’s impossible to judge how much influence Mississippi, in general, and Leland, in particular, had on Henson and the joy he’s given to people in far-flung places. He left the town at 12, and that’s an early age to base a future on.
But a couple of key facts are indisputable: It all began with a Frog, and that Frog was born amid cedar trees along Deer Creek.
“That’s a big deal for us,” Turk said. “It is a big deal that Kermit was born in Leland because Jim said so. You don’t get any more accurate than that.”
Reason to visit
THE LELAND FROG FEST in honor of Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog will be Sept. 29, on the same day as the town’s 12th annual Highway 61 Blues Festival.
TO LEARN ABOUT THE FROG FESTIVAL, call (662) 379-6412 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For blues festival info, call (866) 285-7646.
THE JIM HENSON MUSEUM is located at 206 North Broad Street in Leland, just off U.S. Highway 82. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Admission is free. Call (662) 686-7383 or visit www.birthplaceofthefrog.com