The Muppets trace their roots to this Southern town

It’s not easy being green in the land of the blues. We all know the Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of American music, but it’s also the birthplace of the Muppets.

In fact, the Muppet Movie opens on a shot of Kermit the Frog playing his banjo in the swamps of Mississippi. A hot shot producer paddles by on his boat and convinces him to head west and try to make it in show business. He stumbles across Fozzie Bear doing a nightclub act in a hostile Southern bar, Miss Piggy is a pageant queen and Dr. Teeth (leader of the Electric Mayhem band) got his gold tooth from a voodoo princess in Tupelo, Miss. Also Kermit is trying to escape a maniacal fast food king with a taste for frog legs.

The Muppets may have launched on a soundstage in London but they’ve got deep Southern roots. And you can trace those roots all the way to Leland, Mississippi, Birthplace of the Frog. And the home of Jim Henson.

This week Reckon sat down with Rhonda Looney, the curator of the Leland’s Birthplace of the Frog Exhibit, about Henson’s and Kermit’s Mississippi beginnings.

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The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: What do we know about Jim Henson’s childhood there in Leland and Stoneville? I know he spent some time there and then also later in Maryland.

Rhonda Looney: Right. He was born September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi, at King’s Daughters Hospital. And he actually grew up in Stoneville which is the [Delta Research and Extension Center]. And his dad was a research scientist. But he moved back to Hyattsville, Maryland, which is where his parents came from, in 1938. So, he was just a little over a year old when they moved back. And they stayed there until after his first-grade year. Then they came back to Leland and he lived here till he was 12 years old.

And he attended school at Leland Consolidated School District. And he had friends here. And we have a picture of him with his little Cub Scout troop and that sort of thing. Deer Creek is the creek that goes through Leland. And he grew up on the creek in Stoneville. So he grew up playing with frogs and snakes and tadpoles and that sort of thing. And he grew up in an idyllic place and that he was like a Mississippi Tom Sawyer.

I think he did always remember his times here—although it wasn’t for very long. But he did have some Southern roots. His mother and his grandmother on his mother’s side lived in New Orleans and Kentucky and Memphis. So, you know, he did have some Southern roots. But once he moved back [to Maryland], he sort of developed a Northern accent and that sort of thing. I don’t think that ever went away.

Reckon: And I guess in the Muppet Movie, it does establish that Kermit is also from Mississippi.

Looney: Right. We have a video that runs continuously in our exhibit. And the Henson family actually made it for us. And Kermit says “I’m from Leland, Mississippi, and I was born in the swamps.” But it wasn’t really the swamps, it was the creek that he was born in. We invited Jim—he never came back after he left when he was 12 years old—And he was going to but he just got so involved with the Muppets and we have a letter that says you know, “I will be back after I finish in London,” and he signed it, “Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog.” So he acknowledged that. That’s my favorite thing to show in the exhibit because it proves that Jim Henson says that Kermit the Frog was born in Leland, Mississippi.

And my daughter was at Disney World and she went into a gift shop and she saw Kermit that around his neck, it said “I’m from Leland, Mississippi.” You can’t beat that. I mean, that’s pretty good proof, right?

Reckon: He said he had an idyllic childhood, what impact do you think it had on his art and his sense of humor and the Muppets?

Looney: Well, his mother’s mother was very artistic. And that’s where his artistic ability came from. And her father before her was a mapmaker. So she influenced him. Even though she still lived in Maryland, she came to Mississippi very often. And she would encourage him to do plays and they would sew together, and they would do all this kind of stuff. So she was a big influence. And when Jim Henson went to college, he was a Home Economics major because they had a puppetry class. He knew how to sew and so he made his own puppets.

Reckon: What kind of exhibits do y’all have there in the museum?

Looney: We have a Kermit that the Jim Henson Legacy gave to us and it’s him on the creek or the swamp playing his banjo. And they gave us that to keep. And then we have a lot of memorabilia that people have given us over the years. And then we have a lot of pictures. We have that picture that he sent with himself and all the Muppets. And we have documentation and pictures of his childhood. We have the school where he went, documentations that he did go to school there. And the King’s Daughters Hospital that he was born there.

And then we have a little room where the children can go and watch the movies that he you know, the Muppet movies. And we have Muppet toys and stuff like that. And then we have a gift shop. And we operate only on donations in our gift shop and grants, we don’t charge for admission to come in.

It’s a small building, and I’m trying to get it renovated. So hopefully, that’s gonna be in the near future.

Reckon: And then each year, Leland hosts FrogFest. I know they didn’t host it because of COVID last year, but do you think you’ll be starting that up again this year?

Looney: Yeah. It’s October 2 from 10 to 4 this year. And it’s going to be on the Rainbow Connection Bridge. We actually have a bridge that they dedicated as the Rainbow Connection Bridge. And the Historical Society is trying to get enough money to do like a bronze sculpture of Jim and Kermit and put like park benches and things like that there. But it’s just kind of hard to raise money for it.

But we have a fun run for the children and we have a 5k for the adults. And then we have entertainment and the Junior Auxiliary here they do little frog hats and things like that. The Henson exhibit gives out free books to children.

Reckon: There’s also a blues museum there. I know. You know, the whole the whole Delta is kind of the birthplace of the blues. Do you think there’s something about the community there that kind of sparked both the blues and the Muppets?

Looney: Son Thomas’s family was from here. And he was a pretty well-known blues player. I think he played for President Reagan, and he would travel around and he’s got some things in Smithsonian, and then B.B. King’s just up the road in Indianola, which is about 15 miles. And then we have other you know, like Johnny Winter’s is from here. And then we just have a lot in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which is about, it’s probably about an hour from here, they have a lot of blues there. But since the pandemic… a lot of our blues tourists that come through are from Europe [and they haven’t been able to travel].

It’s amazing how people from right here don’t appreciate the blues like they do in other countries. Which is really sad, you know. And a lot of the blues players are dying off. It’s kind of becoming a lost art. So I don’t know what’s gonna happen there.

Reckon: And then I guess my last question that I have is should the Muppets be considered part of Southern culture and Mississippi culture?

Looney: The Muppets were really bigger in London. It’s amazing. We have people from all over the world that come to our little exhibit. When I first started working there, like in two months, there were people from five different countries. And probably 25 states. And that was just in two months. We’ve done a tally of where they are and it’s just all over the world.

To me, Kermit is Southern because he was born in the swamps or on Deer Creek. But the Muppets to me are not as much. When I think of the Muppets I don’t really think of Southern. Now, that’s just me. Other people may, but I don’t think they do because we have so many people from all over the world that come to see him. And I don’t think it’s like the blues. You know, the blues is very southern.

Click here to learn more about the Birthplace of the Frog Exhibit, make a donation or buy merchandise.

The Reckon Report.
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