Monday, December 28, 2009

I Love a Parade, Part IV: I Scream, "FLOAT!!!"

Previously on “I Love a Parade,” our would-be Golden Avenger battled the dreaded “Iron Diaper,” nearly doing permanent damage to his nuts and bolts

A celestial-themed float sits outside the entrance to Macy’s float-construction facility

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, heroes and villains alike were convened in Hoboken at the facility where all Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats were designed and built. The reason: “Media Day,” a yearly event to which the press are invited for an exclusive peek at the new floats that would be unveiled that year. Well, it wasn’t quite exclusive. Macy’s always invited a local elementary school or youth organization to partake in the presentation to spice up what would otherwise be a warehouse of static constructs; still plenty interesting to Joe Average, but not the type of money shot that would get the reporters’ blood pumping. But spoon in a dollop of youngsters, mix with colorful characters, and one gets a tableau of wonderfully expressive faces guaranteed to elicit a flurry of camera shutters clicking.

Children learn how Macy’s incredible balloons are created

In addition to sneaking a peek at the new floats as they are built, visitors are shown the steps in creating one of the parades signature giant balloons. In this case, it was the Spider-Man balloon that got the dissection. Sketches of the inflatable’s early designs are presented, after which a three-dimensional model is built. Not true to the final size, mind you. But a minute replica, about the size of a microwave oven. The preliminary concepts for the Wall-Crawler were drawn by Marvel’s Art Director and comic book legend, John Romita, who was the second delineator of the Web-Swinger’s adventures with Issue #39 back in the early 60s after inaugural artist Steve Ditko left.

Preliminary models of the Horton the Elephant balloon

John designed many of the licensed products that Marvel produced and oversaw every comic book that was published. To see the step-by-step creative breakdown Romita exercised in making the balloon a reality was thrilling for this comic geek. The cherry was seeing the model of how the genuine article was going to appear in the parade. The replica was mounted a few feet off table level with dowels attached to its underside, and a loose mock-up of a New York City street framed the model to give the spectator a sense of the real balloon scale upon completion. What an unbelievably cool collectible the miniature was—I wanted it!

Macy’s Parade Studio Vice President John Piper stands beneath a sea of balloon models

To further enliven Media Day, sponsors of that year’s inaugural floats were invited to participate by supplying characters that would be featured on their floats. For example, the Children’s Television Workshop might provide Elmo or Big Bird to meet and greet the kids. Marvel furnished its entire slate of heroes and villains. It was an unusual move—a single prominent character was the norm. Let’s face it; the float sponsors certainly want the additional media attention, but the costs in entertaining a single personality—transportation for the actor and his or her costume, per diem and salary—could easily run several hundred dollars, a seemingly small amount by itself. But after spending tens of thousands of dollars on float and costume design and construction, even discounting the thousands in salary due to talent on Thanksgiving Day, an additional $500–$1000 for Media Day may be deemed too dear.

Another of the many floats on display and under construction

Marvel’s decision to not only participate, but also to include all thirteen of its characters, had a dual purpose: to serve as the coming out party to the New York–area media for the new live versions of its heroes and villains; and to choreograph the fight scene that was to be performed on the float on national television in front of Macy’s during the parade. Ever the frugal company not wanting to pay the costs involved in making an additional stop to the facility for the sole purpose of staging the fight scene, Marvel combined everything. Thus, all the actors were shuttled over from the main office early enough that morning so that the choreography would be complete before the kids and press arrived.

A view from the rafters of Macy’s Hoboken facility

It was also of utmost importance for us to acclimate ourselves with the landscape of the float—our stage, as it were—and subsequently determine what we’d be able to do or not do when in costume. This would figure into the final choreography and lead to any construction adjustments to the float or costumes.

This was the first time any of us had seen the float on which we would be performing, and “wide-eyed” and “agape” would certainly be two words one witnessing our reaction could use. The float was huge—24 feet long—towering in parts—just more than three stories at its highest point. It looked as if it were designed by an architect with Attention Deficit Syndrome: a skyscraper mashed up with a steel-girdered construction site, hugging Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, pressed against a bell tower, which sat atop a dungeon. Worked into the multi-level design were poles, bars, ladders, open windows, staircases, and access ways of every sort, so the characters could climb, shimmy, swing, slide, and traverse the compressed cityscape with ease.

The Marvel Universe float (Notice Silver Surfer on his surfboard 32-feet above street-level atop the rear skyscraper)

I was mesmerized. As the friendless child of a dysfunctional broken home, play-sets were my preferred escape. One of my earliest was a wooden fort. It measured approximately three-feet square and a foot high, and was constructed by inmates at Walpole Prison in Massachusetts. There was the World War II set that featured army-green American soldiers and blue-grey Nazis (some even goose-stepping!); faux plastic barbed wire; a pillbox which, even as a child, I knew was the enemy’s bailiwick and always the toughest part to conquer; and two cannons—one of German, the other of American design—that actually fired shells. The set also included a fold-out plastic terrain of the same quality as self-sticking window decorations. I never used it, because it would not flatten completely, making it nigh-impossible to get the soldiers to stand. I’d separate both sides with barbed wire, then take turns crawling from the good guys’ to the bad guys’ side lining up the cannons and firing. The last-soldier-standing’s side won. Then there was the historically inaccurate dawn-of-man set that combined cave men with dinosaurs. I even had a Planet of the Apes set that consisted of gorilla warriors, humans and two trees between which was a hung a plastic rope bridge. I spent hours with my play-sets, blocking adventures worthy of Steven Spielberg.

The Marvel float was a play-set writ large. And my fellow character actors and I were the action figures!

Bookending the miniature skyscraper at the very back of the float were mega-sized comic books made of large flat sheets of plywood. The covers and interiors were recreated from actual Marvel comics—I remember one clearly showing Spider-Man battling the Scorpion inspired by a Gil Kane cover from the 1970s. Each contained a mere handful of pages, but each page was fully-painted in the primary-color palette indicative of “funny Books,” complete with word balloons, though chicken scratches were used to emulate actual words. From a couple of feet the artwork may have looked rough, but from a spectator’s viewpoint, it was as if New York City was Lilliput and Gulliver himself had brought these issues with him from his personal collection at home. And if you were a comic geek, they were the coolest… things… ever.

We learned the bell tower was collapsible, it’s climactic destruction coming at the hands of the Hulk. How the Hulk would be able to climb into position and whether he’d be able to actually topple the tower while in costume were two concerns. Another: where could the Hulk performer, Mark, take sorely needed breaks during the parade. Even if the temperature were to be unseasonably cold on Thanksgiving day, it would have little effect in relieving Mark of the smothering heat within the Hulk costume. The general rule when playing the character was twenty minutes in, twenty minutes out. The anticipated time from start to stop before Macy’s for the fight sequence was an hour. Mark would need at least a few breaks within that timeframe, including a crucial one just before the battle.

There was even an elevator—at least by the strictest definition of the term—a platform that moved approximately three feet (if that) from the roof of the second tallest structure to the roof of the building it abutted against. But the distance could more easily be gained with one long step and a wee bit of effort. And it was slow. The wheelchair lifts on public buses seem a blur in comparison.

Though a portable version of his board was constructed for personal appearances, The Silver Surfer would not be expected to carry it with him during the parade. Atop the thirty-two-foot skyscraper looming from the back end, a replica of the surfboard was secured. It jutted out like the gang plank of a pirate ship and would be the Surfer’s perch as the float lurched along the parade route. The only way to attain this precarious position was by shimmying up two parallel vertical poles affixed to the backside of the building. It would also be the only means of descent. The location and means of access to the board were two particulars Jim, the Silver Surfer actor, was not made aware of before seeing the float. What if he were afraid of heights? While in costume, would he even be able to shimmy thirty feet to get into starting position or down for the big battle, never mind doing so while the float was actually lumbering down the parade route? More importantly, how was he going to keep from tumbling off his perch? Though well-built from plywood and two-by-fours and securely fitted to the float’s frame, the skyscraper would sway according to the vagaries of the street’s surface and New York is famous for its potholes. Plus, as his board was a good ten feet above the adjoining girders of the faux construction site built beside his skyscraper, the Surfer would be exposed to the cold and wind that would surely be blowing the day of the event, further raising the danger level of his mise en place.

We were allowed, nay encouraged, to explore the float, not that it took much coaxing. Most of the actors took to the directive like children being told to test out new playground equipment. The performer who would be playing Powerman was less enthusiastic. I immediately suspected that he wasn’t an actor at all, but a body-builder. He was extremely muscular in that Schwarzenegger way, which perfectly suited the character, and amiable enough, but most wallpaper has a more animated personality. His movements across the float said more “I was paid to wear a costume and wave, not take part in any athletic activities,” rather than “This is going to be so cool for my character!” I wondered at the time if he was going to shave his thick black mustache—Luke Cage, a.k.a Power Man, was clean-shaven in the comics. Our performer’s mustache made him look like Richard Roundtree after swallowing Arnold Schwarzenegger! It would have been advisable for him to shave it regardless of the roll. But I certainly wasn’t going to tell him!

Surfer Jim shimmied up the skyscraper like God meant for him to have been a chimpanzee, but forgot to make the necessary 2% changes to his DNA. Once at the peak, he could have thanked God personally for making the mistake. Us lowly groundlings got nervous just looking up at him with nought but a narrow plank on which to stand. Mark, a.k.a. Captain America—not to be confused with Hulk-Mark—scurried up the skyscraper just as easily. He and Jim looked like two playful squirrels chasing one another. That kind of climbing was not something I was ever able to do; I needed hand- and footholds. Though I suspected climbing ability would be a moot issue for the guy wearing the iron diaper.

The suspicions proved prescient when, after everyone had donned his or her costumes, we were once again let loose to explore the float. I could barely walk without emulating Festus on Gunsmoke. Amazingly, whatever limitations either the Silver Surfer or Captain America suits had were lost on Jim and Mark, who darted up the skyscraper with ease—the Surfer, sporting his Caspar head and wearing sparkly gloves and dance shoes, like he were rehearsing a Bob Fosse number; and Cap, bedecked in red-leather gloves and boots, with a circular shield strapped to his back. Jim did profess some slippage with his Michael Jackson gloves, a problem solved with patches of leather later sewn into the palms.

The choreographer, Bill Guskey, was familiar with the limitations of costumed characters and how to “cheat” those limitations to fullest effect. Even without that knowledge, it was quickly apparent to the actors that he knew his stuff. Bill asked our comfort-level before committing a sequence to the choreography, deconstructing whole sections unhesitatingly and adjusting with on-the-spot changes that proved equally exciting. He allowed plenty of time for movement—understanding the sight restrictions inherent, especially with the bulkier costumes like mine and the Hulk’s—adding dramatic flourishes to conceal the delayed movement, which only served the traditionally melodramatic nature of superheroic adventures.

And Bill was sensitive to the needs of the client. Every character got face time, no matter how scant. After all, Marvel paid tens of thousands of dollars on this parade among the Spider-Man balloon, float, costumes, choreography and actor fees. Making sure every character was prominently displayed on national television was key. Bill even worked in RoboCop without making the oddness of the character’s presence too pronounced. Unfortunately, Iron Man’s role was in the “scant” column. With my extremely hampered mobility and sight, I couldn’t take a more active role with risking my ability to have children later in life.

Fortunately, it was discovered that there was enough space within the bell tower for Hulk-Mark to take breaks—which entailed removing his head and hands off to allow his body to cool off and breathe—without being seen from the onlookers along the parade route. He’d also be perfectly placed for the grand finale of the battle. As long as he remembered to get into costume on the bell tower before the parade started, the Hulk was good to go. But for the kiddies later in the day, Hulk-Mark would be playing the part of the Green Goblin. There just wasn’t a convenient spot for him to change into the Hulk at the Macy’s float facility.

Alas, poor Hulk... I knew him, Horatio...

Hulk-Mark took to the change as if he’d been freed from years of incarceration. When the children arrived he taunted them and cackled with an insane glee, scurrying up and down the bars and poles of the float like a mountain goat. The kids loved it and shouted right back at him. I was laughing so hard, I momentarily forgot about the pain of the hard celastic digging into my groin area every time I moved. Something would have to be done before we next convened, which would be the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving.

NEXT: Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Just a brief pause (or is that paws?) in our regular programming to wish all my faithful Bloglodytes a very
Merry Christmas and wonderful New Year!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I Love a Parade, Part III: Isn't It Iron-ic?

Previously, Vroom! discovered he’d be portraying Iron Man on the Marvel Universe float in the 1987 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade…

The Iron Man costume was particularly problematic. First was the question of which armor design was to be used. Iron Man had gone through a number of iterations since his debut in 1963, including his original gray armor, which lasted less than two issues and resembled a pot-belly stove topped by a large shell casing, and the subsequent golden suit, whence the “Golden Avenger” nickname was coined. But even that second design only lasted less than two years. The majority of the following decades, Tony Stark wore a suit of red-and-gold, re-envisioned every few years.

In the comic book, it was Stark’s restlessness—continuous tinkering and upgrading—and drive for perfection that was to blame, when in reality any new writer who came onto the book usually worked a revamp of the armor into the storyline as a means of leaving their thumbprint. Plus, editorial discovered that the introduction of a new suit translated into a spike in circulation, so whenever Iron Man sorely needed a boost in ratings, as it were, they instructed the writer du jour to work said redesign into the storyline.

At the time of the 1987 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the armor had recently been changed again to arguably the worst design of the character’s career, since his inception, an ugly, red-and-silver suit of considerable bulk, belying the sleeker, more streamlined look one would expect from any advancement in technology. Needless to say, I was relieved to discover that the new costume would be inspired on Shellhead’s red-and-gold armor, yet not completely faithful to any one design in particular.

Next problem: How to create a suit that would adequately appear as if made of iron? I couldn’t very well traverse the parade route wearing an actual suit of armor. The faux iron duds had to look like armor, yet still be functional, which meant an acceptable allowance for mobility, i.e. I had to be able to walk normally, not like The Winter Warlock during his early stages of “putting one foot in front of the other” in Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. An all-encompassing helmet and the decreased vision that accompanied such exacerbated the situation.

Fortunately, the character’s overall design was not completely endemic of Ye Knights of Olde. The arms and legs were predominantly sleek—advanced micro-circuitry designed by the suit’s engineering genius was the explanation. These areas were easily replicated by a golden-yellow skintight bodysuit, the fabric of which displayed a metallic sheen without limiting its stretching capability. The clunky parts were the helmet, gauntlets, chest plate, shoulders, grieves, boots and lower torso. The latter component would prove to be the most problematic. Basically, Iron Man wore an iron diaper. Talk about your chaffing!

Besides the fact that forging the larger pieces from actual iron would be cost ineffective and make the resulting costume too heavy in which to move or simulate battling bad guys, imagine the difficulties in finding a Village Smithy when in need of repairs. It’s difficult enough finding a “spreading chestnut tree!” Fortunately, Bob Flanagan—the creative genius behind the construction of the new costumes—had a material called celastic at his disposal. It came rolled in large tubes, like butcher paper, only hued the color of paper grocery bags and slightly thicker. When wet, the celastic could be molded. It hardened as it dried into a lightweight, impact-resistant, waterproof shell. Its surface took paint easily, so it was perfect for simulating Iron Man’s and Dr. Doom’s armor, Magneto’s helmet, Wolverine’s and Daredevil’s head pieces, Silver Surfer’s actual head and Dr. Strange’s amulet, the powerful Eye of Agamotto, which also doubled as the clasp for the sorcerer’s cloak of levitation.

Rather than having an actor subject themselves to the onus of applying silver makeup whenever portraying the space-surfing former herald of Galactus—disregarding the inherent problems of misapplication, smudging, and makeup coming off on children—and in order to better capture the alien mien of the hero, a new head was created from the measurements of the actor’s noggin. A silver fabric was stretched over this cranial fabrication, the same material of which the bodysuit was fabricated. The Surfer’s eyes were designed similarly to Spider-Man’s, so his eyesight was just as limited as the Wall-Crawler’s. For some inane reason, it was decided that Silver Surfer should be smiling. Anyone familiar with the character knows that the Surfer is a solemn and melancholic individual, forever lamenting the loss of his humanity—which he sacrificed in order to save his world—and beloved, Shalla Bal. He never smiled . . . ever!

This would not have been Bob’s decision; he worked off model sheets and comics supplied by Marvel, and his work was reviewed and approved along the way. Methinks the same mucky-mucks involved in the decision not to include Spider-Man on the float, also decided that a smiling Surfer would be better received. At least they’re consistent in their illogic. The affect, once the suit was completed, made the character look more like Caspar, the Friendly Ghost, a sentiment that was often strengthened by the shouts of “Hi, Caspar!” by fans along the parade route.

As for Iron Man, the Golden Avenger’s red gauntlets were attached to a pair of leather work gloves, which were then painted to match. Ankle-high boots were given the same treatment, although the grieves were left unattached and loose around my calves, gravity keeping them down over the boot laces. Unless I performed a handstand while in the costume, nobody would be the wiser. The chest plate was strapped tightly under my arms, which served to keep the straps out of view. The iron epaulets were built as part of the chest unit, but loosely glued on with leather strips, so my arms would not be greatly impeded and I would be able to raise them above my head, a maneuver key to donning the helmet. An adjustable plastic band fitted within the helmet—similar to those in construction-worker hard hats—kept the helmet in place.

Then there were the iron diapers, which were secured via a leather strap and buckle on either hip. In its initial incarnation, the pubic area was made of the same hard celastic. I defy any one to stride freely with an inch of hard material running from crotch to perineum. I hadn’t walked this way since the bathing suit rashes of my youth. It was painful. The next stage of development, and the one which would be in place during the parade, had several inches of the offending scrotum-to-sphincter bridge taken out, so that none of the celastic traveled directly between my legs on the underside of my butt. The unforgiving material still ran partway under my jewels, so as to hide the metallic yellow of the spandex bodysuit underneath, but at least I could walk, though in pain from the celastic digging into my inner thighs.

My vision was even more limited than when in the Spider-Man suit; the eye slots were smaller for one thing, and because my eyes were not actually up against the slots, but rather an inch removed, that smaller opening seemed more so. One trick I quickly learned—one that I would use to a greater degree when in the Hulk or Thing costumes—was peering down through the mouth aperture in order to see where I was walking. This enabled me to walk without visibly bending over to see wee fans approaching to shake my hands; and navigate stairs, curbs or any other low-lying obstruction that could prove hazardous, especially when walking the parade route or climbing about the float.

NEXT: Super Play-Set

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I Love a Parade, Part II: Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe

Previously, our intrepid hero shared his thoughts (ad nauseam to some, I’m sure) on the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade after discovering that he would be participating in the 1987 turkey-day event as a performer on a Marvel Universe float. The float would accompany a giant Spider-Man balloon, both specially created to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the amazing Web-Swinger. But who would Vroom! portray? And which other heroes would be joining him? Read on my faithful bloglodytes and all will be revealed...

I was under no illusions that I would be playing Spider-Man for this momentous event. I was still green, with a meager quartet of appearances under my belt (or tights, as it were), and two of those saw me playing the Green Goblin. Granted, my virginal gig as the Web-Slinger was atop a float in the Rutland, Vermont Halloween Parade. And I did portray the Wall-Crawler alongside four of the 1986 World Champion Mets in the Spider-Man 25th Anniversary poster that was handed to more than 20,000 fans during Spider-Man’s wedding at Shea Stadium the previous spring. But that was an anomaly, an unusual confluence of scheduling conflicts with Barbara’s seasoned Spidey actors that necessitated my selection to the prestigious job. It also didn’t matter who I’d be playing; I was going to be on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; how cool was that!

Then Barbara told me I’d be portraying Iron Man. Iron Man?! The Golden Avenger?! . . . aka Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist?! Which armor would I be wearing? Was there even an Iron Man costume? My head was swimming in a sea of questions and excitement. Iron Man was one of my favorite members of the Avengers, a beloved comic close to my heart, as it was an issue of that title—Issue #149—that spurred my initial interest in superheroes more than a decade before. Barbara went on to reveal Marvel’s plans to construct a plethora of new costumes for the event and I’d be custom-fitted for the Iron Man suit. Cool!

At the time, the Personal Appearance Department had a handful of costumes representing a meager fraction of the thousands of characters available in the Marvel Universe: Spider-Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Green Goblin, Dr. Doom, Spider-Woman, Iceman and Firestar. And of those, the former three were the only ones with any renown outside the confines of the comic-book literati.

I’ve discussed the reasoning behind the company’s commissioning costumes for Spider-Woman, Iceman and Firestar in my Heroes for Hire post of February 2009. In brief, suits were created to help promote cartoons. The latter two guest-starred in Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends from 1981 to 1983, and the female super-arachnid had her own eponymous animated series from 1979 to 1980. I can only imagine costumes were made of villains Green Goblin and Dr. Doom to balance out the heroes. Mock battles at appearances were never allowed, though, so why bother? Especially since Doom is the arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four, none of whose members had suits designed for promotions.

But the planned Marvel Universe float was to include an all-out clash between the Do-Gooders and Evil-Doers, so Gobby and Doom were included. Spider-Woman, Iceman and Firestar, however, were not. Granted, Jessica Drew, aka Spider-Woman, no longer had her own comic book. In fact, since its cancellation in 1983, Drew had been de-powered and someone else had taken up her mantle with a completely redesigned suit. But Iceman and Firestar remained active in the Marvel Universe, the former as a featured member of the recently created X-Factor. And both were included in the aforementioned anniversary poster with the members of the Mets, which was distributed six months prior. Their exclusion from the parade is more pronounced when you review the roster of those heroes who did make the cut.

But the fire and ice of the mutant world shouldn’t have felt too bad. After all, Spider-Man wasn’t to be featured on the float either!

I know what you’re thinking: Huh? No Spider-Man—Marvel’s most popular character, known throughout the world, and more importantly, celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary, the float’s entire raison d’être—not present? Did the fumes from the ink in the comics adversely affect Marvel’s executive branch?

Ah . . . you are forgetting the Spider-Man balloon. In their bizarre way of thinking, the Marvel poo-bahs figured they shouldn’t have a Spider-Man on the float, because the Web-Swinger was already in the parade as a balloon. Wouldn’t want to confuse the kiddies. Yet, the Web-Slinger’s arch-nemesis Green Goblin does appear on the float! One would normally have to go to a tea party in Wonderland to confront reasoning like that.

But the cast of characters on the float—or absence thereof—took an even odder turn with the inclusion of RoboCop.


Yes, RoboCop, the same character played by Peter Weller in the hit Orion Pictures movie of the summer of 1987. By that year, Marvel Productions—the company’s animation division, formed after Marvel’s 1981 acquisition of the DePatie-Freleng Enterprises animation studio, creators of the Pink Panther cartoons—had grown into a major animation studio with well-known animated TV series and movies, such as G.I. Joe, The Transformers, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies and Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the aforementioned Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. For 1988, the company planned an animated RoboCop series. What better way to publicize the cartoon’s imminent television debut than by featuring the character live in the Macy’s Parade alongside internationally known characters, such as Captain America and the Incredible Hulk a few months prior?

There was only one problem: the float made no reference to RoboCop’s new show, either with signage or via the scripted remarks made by Willard Scott on the parade’s telecast during his introduction. The float itself was called the Marvel Universe float, which added to the confusion. RoboCop is just on the float, waving to the thousands of intrepid souls braving the cold to see the parade live, and a few million more viewers watching from the warm and cozy confines of their homes amidst the smell of roasting turkey. That small percentage of the viewership who were comic book cognescenti were undoubtedly scratching their heads, while a much larger faction were surely thinking, I didn’t know RoboCop was part of the Marvel Universe. Meanwhile, everyone was certainly questioning Spider-Man’s whereabouts on his own anniversary float.

So what Marvel characters were included?

Accompanying Captain America, The Hulk, Green Goblin and Dr. Doom would be nine characters all new to the personal appearance program: superheroes Iron Man—yours truly—Wolverine, Daredevil, Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange, Powerman (or Luke Cage as he is more commonly known) and evil-doers Magneto, the White Queen, and the Enchantress. Oh yeah, and RoboCop.

Wolverine was the only member of the X-Men commissioned, though, strangely, two major villains from the band of mutant crime-fighters’ comic series—Magneto and lesser adversary White Queen—were included. I’m sure the White Queen’s participation, as well as the Enchantress’s, were a result of the Marvel Na-Bobs wanting some female representation on the float. But then why not Firestar? She may not have been significantly popular, but she did share a co-starring role on a successful Spider-Man cartoon, reruns of which were still in syndication in 1987.

Better yet, why not Storm of the X-Men? She was far more popular than the White Queen or the Enchantress. Plus, Storm had the added advantage of being an African American, a welcome touch of diversity to the mix. To that end, Power Man was commissioned to appear. But a female African American character would have been refreshing, certainly more so than two obscure white super-villains. That’s right: the only two female characters on the float weren’t even superheroes; they were villains. Which, come to think of it, may have been why they were chosen. Without their inclusion, the float would have been sorely lacking villains with which the heroes would be able to battle. Commissioning Enchantress and White Queen killed two birds with one stone: more evil-doers and more females.

Other notable exclusions in Marvel’s pantheon of parade heroes were Thor, Sub-Mariner and, most astoundingly, The Fantastic Four, i.e. Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch, The Thing and Invisible Woman, the characters and comic book that revolutionized the genre and begat the Marvel Universe. With the exception of The Thing, the remaining members have little visual impact when not using their powers; they’re merely humans in tight-fitting jumpsuits. You couldn’t effectively devise a live-action mechanism to display Mr. Fantastic’s pliability without its looking hokey. And you definitely couldn’t set Human Torch ablaze. It could be argued that the Invisible Woman was included; you simply couldn’t see her. Heck, she might’ve been stark naked the entire time! As for The Thing, the construction of his costume was most likely deemed too cost-ineffective, i.e. expensive, by the company bean counters.

The costumes for the new heroes were to be constructed by Bob Flanagan, whose resume included building characters for Sesame Street, for which he won an Emmy in 1986 for Outstanding Achievement for Costume Design. He would later contribute props and animal effects for Crocodile Dundee 2 and Big, as well as design Toonces: The Cat Who Drove a Car for Saturday Night Live. Bob was an amiable fellow with a shock of red hair, a matching beard and mustache, and wire-rimmed glasses. He looked like the muppet, Floyd Pepper, the bassist and vocalist of Dr. Teeth’s band The Electric Mayhem. Whether he was the inspiration for the character’s design or actually constructed the muppet himself, either is entirely possible.

Though harried by the onus of building nine elaborate costumes—RoboCop’s suit was previously constructed by the movie studio—and updating the simulated metal parts of Dr. Doom’s costume, he seemed most keen when unraveling the hows of the process; how to accurately portray each character, while also allowing the actor within the ability to perform the required athletic feats. The heroes would not be merely standing and waving to the crowd; there was to be a nationally televised, extravagant choreographed battle betwixt the heroes and villains on the float when stopped before Macy’s. So not only did Bob have to make the characters look good, but also he had to make sure they moved well. Apparently, the many hands involved in the big-screen Batman suit design have yet to figure that one out.

NEXT: Can you say Iron Diaper?!!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I Love a Parade, Part I: There's No Need to Fear...

The introduction of a new Spider-Man balloon to the 2009 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, brought back memories of the hero’s original inflated debut in 1987, the year of the Web-Slinger’s 25th anniversary. To celebrate the occasion, Marvel not only commissioned the balloon, but also an elaborate float, which would feature 14 characters, for which nine costumes would be created especially for the event. I'd been in parades before, but never in the Macy’s, the biggest parade in the world.

In Manchester, Massachusetts where my family summered when I was young, the town held a yearly Independence Day parade. To call it a modest parade would border on hyperbole. Its meager elements remained the same from year to year with slight variation: 2–3 high school bands from neighboring towns—the local high school didn’t have a marching band in those days—a dozen vehicles from the area antique automobile club; a Scottish bagpipe band from who knows where; various town selectmen and one or two politicos from larger nearby towns, garnering favor/votes; several antique bicycles, including an occasional bicycle built for two, ridden by people in period costume from—you guessed it—the area antique bicycle club; and a handful of floats.

When I say “floats,” I use the loosest interpretation of the word. Nearly all were merely pickups or cars hauling flatbed trailers, representing various town businesses. Decoration was limited to a few hastily painted posters, some streamers and balloons, and on the more adventurous floats the representative business workers or owners would dress in their work garb. For example, the town landscaper’s float consisted of a flatbed covered in a swath of fake turf, sloppily contoured over a box, cement bag or something to give the effect of a hilly terrain, on which stood a worker holding a hoe and standing by a lawn mower. It was virtually the same every year; replace the hoe with a rake and voilà, you have the following year’s entry.

There was one notable exception to the floats: the entries constructed by Pi Epsilon Sigma, a club comprised of the town’s Greek residents of which there were quite a few. Although not Greek by birth and not a full-time Manchester resident, my mother was christened Greek Orthodox prior to her marriage to my father—a full-blooded Greek—and a Manchester homeowner. Thus, she was a member. Not withstanding comparison to other floats—wherein a lemonade stand atop a truck accompanied by “Pop Goes the Weasel” on a Close-and-Play would have seemed awesome—Pi Ep’s entries were truly amazing. One of the club’s members was an architect/builder, who would design these elaborate creations. One year, the club built a replica of the Mayflower. I’m not talking a miniature model, constructed of balsa wood. I mean a large enough representation on which the members and their children, dressed as pilgrims, could stand and wave to the parade spectators as they passed by. The Trojan Horse Pi Ep built for another year’s entry may not have equaled the size and scope of the fabled article, but it was still several stories high and could comfortably hold a small battalion if not an entire army.

I was once fitted in a toga and rode on one such float. I didn’t do much—simply sat and waved—but it was exciting nonetheless. Although, it was bittersweet in that participating in the parade precluded any chance of scoring any confectionary swag thrown to the crowd by other floats. There was always at least one entry that hurled candy or bubblegum. Unfortunately, by the parade’s end, the candy inventory would be cleaned out, most times much sooner as over-exuberance and begging youngsters would get the better of these candy Koufaxes and they’d blow their load well shy of the finish. So there was no chance of running back along the parade route to get any leftovers.

Contrary to what might be construed from the previous paragraphs, I loved these parades... and still do on the rare occasion when I visit the area over the Fourth of July weekend. There’s a sense of loving participation and pride that can only be felt from such a small-town event. And they were my first exposure to the electrifying effect of marching bands.

Of course, the granddaddy of all parades is the Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. To my young self, it was the highlight of Thanksgiving Day, not the turkey—which I never cared for—nor the football games, which never featured my team, the New England Patriots. In fact, other than the Macy’s Parade, I dreaded the day. Familial gatherings in my house were guaranteed to elicit a succession of fights—filled with screaming and crying—erupting from such innocuous things as the seating arrangement or one sibling’s receiving a larger slice of apple pie than another.

My mother spent the whole day cooking and cleaning, awakening at the crack of dawn to put the turkey in the oven, and toiling until evening. She insisted on doing everything herself save for shelling the roasted chestnuts used in the stuffing, an unenviable task my grandmother dutifully performed. Unfailingly, at some point during the day, my sisters’ and my misbehavior and fighting would cause her to lose it. She’d call us ungrateful and swear that the following Thanksgiving we kids could fend for ourselves, all expressed in voluminous high-pitched tones using only the most colorful language. After punctuating her diatribe with “You can all just go to Hell!” she’d then return to the task at hand. It was a tension-filled day that even the time off from school couldn’t make palatable.

The Macy’s Parade was the exception. Seemingly miles and miles of ginormous floats—some with moving parts and some with celebrities; marching bands with column after column of brass and drums; every clown in the known universe. And the balloons! Giant balloons that threatened to swallow the surrounding buildings that fought to contain them: Bullwinkle; Cecil, the Sea Monster; Linus, the Lionhearted; Snoopy; Superman and my favorite, Underdog, whose clever design—arms outstretched before him, legs and cape behind—had him seemingly flying over Broadway. Sure, Superman was designed similarly, but I loved Underdog.

When Barbara approached me about being in the parade, I was ecstatic, though I would’ve liked to have shared the experience with my belovèd Underdog, whose balloon was retired many years before. Ignorant me; I couldn’t—or maybe didn’t want to—comprehend why the balloons in the Macy’s Parade were retired. Why couldn’t they just fly the same ones every year or make new ones of the same characters? Who wouldn’t want to see Underdog flying through the skyscraper-lined thoroughfares of New York City each and every year? So what if the cartoon went off the air decades ago?

Ah, the innocence of childhood nostalgia. I never realized that those Brobdingnagian inflatables only had a life-expectancy of seven years . . . nine at best. I don’t know why I never cottoned on to that fact . A garden-variety helium-filled balloon can always be found on the floor wrinkled, reduced and pathetic-looking the day after its arrival home. That’s a mere handful of hours compared to the estimated 84 hours over seven years of a Macy’s balloon (Inflation begins the night before and they remain filled until approximately noon the following day. And that doesn’t include test-flight time in the days leading up to the parade).

This was years before the invention of mylar balloons, which never stop floating, and in so doing, have taken something away from the novelty of getting a helium-filled balloon. A fireworks display would eventually become mundane if unceasing. But to my young mind, the Macy’s balloons were not merely balloons, they were the gods of balloons, ever peering down at us lowly mortals.

There was also the issue of financing the balloons. Macy’s didn’t pay for their construction. If a company wanted a balloon of their character in the parade, they had to pony up the money themselves; I vaguely remember $10,000 being the ballpark figure at the time I participated in my first parade in 1987. And that figure may have only been the participation fee, not the cost of design or construction. Macy’s designs all the balloons themselves—albeit with the help and approval of the respective clients—at the Hoboken warehouse, where they build new floats and store old ones that have yet to be retired. It’s certainly understandable that there would be a placement charge for returning floats and balloons.

I also learned that having the money and desire to create a balloon did not necessitate Macy’s allowing it into their parade. Supposedly, Macy’s is extremely picky about whose characters they allow, although when you see such commercial properties as Hasbro’s Sky Dancer—a new toy the company was unveiling for Christmas the year of its debut and subsequently tanked—and Jeeves from, now simply, it makes one wonder if Macy’s strict review isn’t influenced by piles of money. Yes, I’m well aware that all the balloons are properties promoting something, but c’mon . . . Sky Dancer?!! Jeeves?!! Why not have Amana sponsor a giant refrigerator? Or how about a balloon of Joe Camel, the RCA dog or NBC peacock?

So both age and popularity play a role in whether a Macy’s balloon returns the following year. Needless to say, Sky Dancer was never seen again after her initial appearance.

I understand Marvel’s participation wasn’t selfless, by any means. But Spider-Man was already an international pop cultural icon, twenty-five years strong. The company wasn’t using the parade appearance in an attempt to popularize the character the way Hasbro was hoping to do with their Sky Dancer toy. There wasn’t even an impending movie, cartoon or toy-line release that Marvel was using the Wall-Crawler’s balloon and character float to promote. Closer to the sad truth: the move was Marvel’s desperate cry to remind people that Spidey and his super-powered colleagues were alive and still kicking in the comics.

NEXT: Marvel commissions a bevy of new characters for the big event. But who made the grade? The answers may surprise you…

Thursday, November 19, 2009

By Any Other Name

I should have expected something unusual by the peculiar lilt in Wolverine’s voice when he introduced me to his little friend…

Wolverine, Captain America and I—Spider-Man—were appearing at the University Mall in Tampa, FL. Most often, appearances at malls would occur in a particular store and usually included one hero, two tops. But this was a major promotional event mounted by the mall itself with a budget to match, so three Marvel powerhouses were recruited.

Still, the mall tried to recoup some of its investment by offering Polaroids at $3 a shot to any fan who so desired one. That’s a buck a hero (Hell, put us in the 99¢ store!) Of course, no purchase was necessary to meet the heroes and get their autographs and to that end Marvel supplied “Marvel Fun & Games” booklets to the cause.

What, no comic books?!! I thought comics were provided to clients for signings...

When I began my web-slinging career, that was the case. Upon booking an appearance, Babs, my boss, would fill out the appropriate forms with the newsstand sales department, who would then feed the request into the system and, Voilà!, comic books arrived at the desired location from the nearest newsstand distributor. The exception was with gigs at comic book stores. As a means to support these keepers of the flame, as it were, who constantly struggled in an ever shrinking market, Marvel’s Personal Appearance Department offered comic shops a friendlier rate, only sans free comics. This makes perfect sense. After all, they are a comic book shop. Giving away that in which they specialize can only serve to hinder those additional sales expected from having a superhero at the store in the first place. This isn’t to say that retailers never gave away free books at gigs. Some certainly did, seeing the event as a means to get publicity and attract customers—parents and their kids—who wouldn’t normally set foot in such an establishment.

But for conventional jobs, a free allotment of comics was S.O.P. Unfortunately, on occasion, the comics never arrived or not in time, which is just as bad. Savvy clients took the clip art of the characters that Marvel also provided with every gig and designed and printed flyers the children could color as back-up; not nearly as cool as receiving a comic book, but better than nothing. Then there were the rare instances when relieved clients received the comics promptly only to discover, when they opened the box, that there were DC comics—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.—inside (Oops! Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.).

Of course, as the only representative of the company on site and the most iconic/famous, Spidey would be the one disgruntled customers approached. (Why me? You’d think Captain America would be the go-to guy, being a captain and all, not to mention the leader of the Avengers, “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” I can understand not confronting the Hulk. No one likes him when he’s angry. But moi?!! I’m a menace to society, the source of all New York City’s ills, according to the Daily Bugle, that is. Don’t these people read the books? Sheesh!)

“Where are the comics?” the one-in-charge would pointedly ask. Like I’d be lugging fifty-plus pounds of funny books with me on the trip from New York.

“They should have been delivered,” I’d offer.

“Well, they haven’t. Now, I have nothing to give the kids.”

If I’d thought for a moment that this invective was a result of the person’s concern for the children’s feelings, I might have sympathized. But it was nothing more than a person worried about covering their ass and staving off a reprimand from their boss. This is not to say I wasn’t concerned about the feelings of my constituents. Au contraire, absence of free comics or flyers only upped the ante on my performance. I felt that I needed to work even harder to entertain the troops.

By ’91, the year of the Tampa appearance (No, I haven’t forgotten… thanks for sticking around…), Marvel’s Personal Appearance Department replaced free comic books with “Marvel Fun & Games” booklets. The idea was to create something that the department could easily and cheaply—comic books are heavy and thus expensive to ship—send directly from the office, circumnavigating a middleman/distributor. Also, the booklets were compact enough that the actors could carry a few hundred of them to every gig as back-up, in case the main shipment didn’t arrive.

Though I recognized the problem and applauded Marvel’s intent, the result was lacking. The “Marvel Fun & Games” booklet was nothing more than a single, black-and-white, double-sided, sheet (Big whoop!) that was folded once, and contained Marvel superhero-themed puzzles and character illustrations. I hated them! Besides looking cheap—they weren’t even in color—as a marketing tool they did nothing to draw people to the comics, thus increasing sales, which is the whole point of promotional giveaways.

The booklets lasted about as long as Furbys did, replaced by exclusive personal-appearance trading cards. Still, not a great freebie for selling comic books—trading cards, maybe, but not comics—but a lot cooler. I’d like to think it was my thoughtful, diplomatically-presented argument (read: bitching) against the puzzle “brochures,” that led to their demise, but modesty prevents me from taking credit.

As for those lackluster puzzle-pamphlets and the University Mall event…

I would have hated having to tell a child that they couldn’t receive a photograph featuring them with their favorite superheroes unless they forked over some dough (So sorry, but here’s a piece of paper with some black-and-white pictures of us on it, instead... Thanks for playing!). I realize children love getting something… anything from Spider-Man and his pals, but when they see other children getting a full-color live photo of themselves with the superheroes, it’s like the scene in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown when, while trick-or-treating, all the other kids get candy and Charlie Brown gets a rock. Fortunately, two comely young lasses were provided to collect money, operate the camera, keep order in the line… and gracefully say to anyone unwilling to pay, “No ticky, no laundry!”

The event took place at the center court area of the mall. It was a beautiful day, and skylights overhead allowed the sun to keep the area bright… and toasty. I certainly didn’t mind. If you’ve ever been to the Sunshine State, you know that Floridian retailers keep the air-conditioning level so high, you could store carcasses in the aisles for several weeks without their spoiling. I was quite comfortable; not so for Wolvie and Cap.

Although originally designed to be worn without an underlying muscle-suit, the Captain America costume was later incorporated with one to reflect the growing testosterone level of the character in the comics. Cap was always fit, but never a cement-head. He was a product of a “secret soldier serum,” designed by the American military, which prospective soldier, Steve Rogers, agreed to take as his way to help fight the Germans during World War II after he was deemed too frail for regular service. The serum made Rogers super-fit, but not grotesquely bulky, like the Hulk, and greatly enhanced his athleticism. Thus, Marvel hired able-bodied actors, not bodybuilders, for the role.

Wolverine, in contrast, was a “brick shithouse,” as my mother used to say: squat—technically five' four", according to the comics—square and all muscle, so Marvel decided it would be easier to have the actor playing the feisty Canuck wear a muscle-suit beneath the outer-lying spandex than to find men with the proper physique who could also act. Of course, this resulted in the Captain America actors looking scrawny in comparison, so they were subsequently forced to accompany the red-white-and-blue threads with a muscle-suit. The Captain Americas were ordinarily hot in the nearly all-encompassing costumes, but adding a muscle suit to the mix, increased the discomfort tenfold—the Wolvies were already at that level. Add a copious amount of sunshine and the two heroes were sweating more than Perez Hilton eating a corn dog (Take a look at the pit stain on Wolverine in the pic below, if you do not believe me. And that is through thick padding!).

Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker, was always just a puny nerd, who received the proportional strength of a spider when bitten by a radioactive arachnid, but remained small, albeit more wiry by virtue of web-swinging and fighting crime. Ergo, a muscle-suit never became a staple of the Spidey suit. It would make crouching, perching, leaping and contorting—the signature movements of the character—impossible.

Another drawback of the Wolverine costume was the decreased ability to hear caused by the headpiece. To achieve the recognized look of opposing vertical projections arising from the sides of his head—a look not too dissimilar to Batman’s cowl—in such a way as to retain its structure and not sag, the designer created a hard, molded form over which fabric was stretched. Though not negating the wearer’s hearing outright, it greatly reduced it.

(Separated at birth? Maybe not in the eyes of an adult, but a small child might think so...)

Contrarily, I found my hearing noticeably augmented when in the Spider-Man suit. My theory: the reduction of my sight by the white screening over my eyes caused my remaining senses to compensate. I’d find myself overhearing parents in line talking with their kids about what they were going to ask Spidey when it was their turn, while I was in the midst of autographing for another child. The look on their wee faces when I greeted them by name or brought up a nugget of info from the discussion with their parents was priceless… as was the disturbed look on Mom’s and Dad’s face as they worriedly pondered who was this strange man in the Spider-Man suit who knows their child so well.

Wolverine’s limited aural abilities and my enhanced ones begat one of my fondest Spider-Man memories, which occurred moments before the titular X-Man’s suspicious introduction which opened this posting. As could be expected, the appearance of three beloved superhero icons in the center court of Tampa’s most popular mall on a Saturday afternoon elicited quite a turnout. Greet-pose-sign-adieu-repeat became the day’s drill for Cap, Wolvie and I, with sporadic periods of straightforward signing for those children in line for an autograph and not a picture. It was during one of these signing sessions that I overheard through the hubbub the following short exchange between Wolverine and a young child of no more than four, who was obviously confused about the hero’s similarity to a certain caped crusader:

Boy: “Are you Batman?”

Wolverine: “No I’m a good man.”

The innocence of the lad’s inquiry; Wolverine’s mistaken response delivered with quiet, heartfelt reassurance, believing the lad was terrified, having asked him if he was a “bad man,” then the boy’s confused look after Wolvie’s answer… Priceless.

I, of course, being the sympathetic and supportive team player for which I am often revered, produced an enthusiastic guffaw. “Hey, Wolvie… You may want to get your ears checked. He was asking if you were Batman. You know, caped crusader, Gotham City vigilante…?”

All Wolvie could do is watch as the boy shuffled toward me, all the while looking over his shoulder at Wolverine with a look that said, This is the kind of person my mommy warned me about. Children can be so unforgiving.

Before the end of the day Wolverine got his revenge. As mentioned, the twinkle in his voice should have tipped me off, never mind his more than normal personal attention to introducing to me the little boy in question.

“Hey, Spider-Man, this is my friend…” and then he said the child’s name, which sounded like lay-MON-zhel-low (the zh pronounce like the soft French g in Gigi). This was unique even to me after five years and thousands of personalized autographs. It sounded Spanish or Portuguese and had a notable flair. I told the lad how cool I thought his name was, then dutifully asked him its spelling as I signed his “Marvel Fun & Games” booklet.

“L-E-M-O-N-J-E—” he carefully began.

“THAT’S LEMON JELL-O!” I incredulously blurted before the boy could utter the final O.

“My mom likes Jell-O,” he offered in a defeated tone.

“I love Jell-O!” My quick recovery seemed to enlighten the child and spur his twin brother, who I hadn’t noticed behind him …

“And I’m (or-RON-zhel-low)!

You guessed it: his brother’s name was spelled Orangejello!

It boggled my mind that a parent would do that to their children. Kids have a hellacious time growing up as it is without having to fend off the additional abuse sure to come from being named after a gelatinous confection made from animal hooves.

Upon reflection I cannot help but think that I’d dodged a bullet. My mom loved pickled pigs’ feet!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sunny Day: My Top Five Sesame Street Moments

Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Sesame Street, which premiered on November 10, 1969, and I can still remember watching the very first broadcast.

I was in kindergarten, when the teacher alerted the class to a new show that was coming onto PBS. Mrs. McKlintock didn’t actually use the term, “PBS”—most of us five-year-olds would have thought she meant PB&J—or “Public Broadcasting System,” which would have sounded like something out of a 50s sci-fi flick, shown on the Saturday afternoon Creature Double Feature after the cartoons. She merely said Channel 2—Boston’s PBS station—which my classmates and I recognized as the go-to place for Mr. Rogers.

Mrs. McKlintock coupled the announcement with the presentation of a promotional poster advertising the new show. It featured shots of the various characters and cartoon shorts that would be part and parcel of Sesame Street. Oddly, though I distinctly remember Mrs. McKlintock’s endorsing the show and her display of the poster and subsequently tacking it up on the classroom wall, the only image that remains in my mind from the promotional piece is that of Wanda the Witch, a cartoon short that explained the letter W.

Even as a young’un, I thought it peculiar that an instructor would be hyping a television show, albeit an educational one, but such were the expectations and excitement from the teaching community for this “new” form of children’s programming.

Up to that point, kids’ shows featured a central grown-up figure, in character, who would speak softly and sagely to his audience, and interact with other, usually more colorful, characters in human or puppet form. There were animated segments—the Bozo the Clown Show featured eponymous cartoons, while Captain Kangaroo ran Tom Terrific ones—storytelling, how-tos, animal discussions and the like. I was a keen fan of Messieurs Rogers, Bozo and Kangaroo, the latter being my favorite.

Sesame Street retained these aspects, but tweaked them and revved up the volume. The action took place in a neighborhood, not a particular house or, in the case of Bozo, circus tent. Instead of a central host, the show employed a team of human regulars—Gordon, Susan, Mr. Hooper, Bob, et al., interacting with muppets. Episodes were themed around one or more letters of the alphabet and certain numerals. Most importantly it offered ethnic and racial diversity, children with disabilities, and respected all equally.

The in-your-face, staccato nature of segment-jumping and information presentation is de riguer today, but forty years ago was groundbreaking. I, like every other child, loved it, the sense that I never knew what was going to happen next, the diversity, the muppets, the music—Sesame Street utilized music videos long before such a form existed, influencing everything from Schoolhouse Rock to MTV. Some argue the show contributed to the emergence of Attention Deficit Syndrome, but I and many of my generation turned out—Oh, look, a squirrel!

Anyway, without further reflection, I present my all-time top five Sesame Street moments:

5: “Wanda the Witch”—if for no other reason than its indelible mark on my memory of the show from the poster in Mrs. McKlintock’s class (see pic above).

4: “What’s that Part”—Even as a child, I loved game shows, What’s My Line being a particular favorite that I would watch everyday with my grandmother. This muppet skit lovingly spoofed the show, having blind-folded muppet contestants try to guess the mystery-guest body part that was introduced by host Guy Smiley, a hilarious parody of game-show hosts, who still elicits a smile from me just thinking of him.

3: Joe Raposo—Okay, not a moment, but the shows music writer, whose contribution to the shows identity and the music world cannot be over-stressed. To pick a particular favorite would be impossible. The man was a composing machine, writing such incredible songs as Kermit the Frog’s signature “Being Green”—which was recorded by such singing luminaries as Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra, “Sing”—The Carpenters cover of which became a hit in 1973—“Rubber Duckie” and the Sesame Street theme.

2: “Near and Far”—This segment alone solidified Grover as my favorite muppet. It is nothing more than the blue-furred innocent’s explaining the difference between “near” and “far,” drawing closer to the audience with the former and running to the background for the latter, over and over, as he exhausts himself to collapse. Still cracks me up.

1: “Mah Nà Mah Nà”—Presented in the show’s first season, this musical number has had several iterations since, but the original is still the best. The muppet equivalent of Joe Cocker begins this nonsense song by Italian composer Piero Umiliani, singing the title’s refrain, backed up by two “little-girl” muppets following with the song’s “bah dee, bah dee bee.” The verse repeats until the Joe Cocker muppet gets carried away on his own bridge, which escalates until he notices his back-up duo regarding him strangely. He slows to a pause, embarrassed by his free-flowing musical excursion along the “road not taken,” then looks at the camera and begins anew…. “Mah Nà Mah Nà…” Genius!