Down at Fraggle Rock… in Yorkville — The Muppets take Toronto

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It all started in 1981 at the Hyde Park Hotel in London, England. Jim Henson was there with some of his writers and puppeteers. For the last five extraordinary years, The Muppet Show had been filmed in a nearby studio, but now it was coming to an end. Henson wanted to brainstorm ideas for a new children’s television series. This one was going be even more ambitious. Years later, one of the puppeteers remembered the moment it all began: “Jim walked into the room and said, ‘I want to do a show that will change the world and end war.'” That’s how Fraggle Rock started.

For three straight days Henson and his team worked on the concept for the show, which would continue to evolve over the next few months. Fraggle Rock would be about peace and understanding; it would teach children that everyone has a different perspective, that even the scariest monsters have thoughts and feelings of their own. Colourful Muppets living in an underground world would see that their lives were connected to the lives of others — whether it was the huge and terrifying Gorgs, the tiny construction worker Doozers, or the humans of “Outer Space.”

“By seeing how the various groups in the world of Fraggle Rock learn to deal with their differences,” Henson explained, “perhaps we can learn a little bit about how to deal with ours.”

It was a message that was urgently needed in those Cold War years, particularly since the Reagan White House had just deregulated children’s television, prompting a flood of violent programming meant to sell action figures (stuff like G.I. Joe, He-Man and Transformers). And Fraggle Rock wasn’t just going to be for kids in North America, either. It was going to be one of the very first international co-productions — specifically structured to connect with the lives of children all over the world. In the United States and Canada, the hole in the wall that led to Fraggle Rock would be found in the workshop of an inventor. In England, it was in a lighthouse. In France, a bakery. Over the course of the next few years, the show would be broadcast in more than 90 countries and translated into 13 different languages. Henson’s message of peace and understanding would have a truly global audience.

And so, they decided to film Fraggle Rock in one of the most multicultural cities on earth: Toronto. “Given the show’s commitment to interdependence and a global consciousness,” one of the producers later said, “I can’t imagine it being filmed anywhere else.”

“When we came up with the idea of doing it in Canada we all just loved it,” Henson once agreed. “It seems right for the program.”

By that point, Henson already had a long history in Canada; he’d been shooting in Toronto since the 1960s. Usually, he’d use the Robert Lawrence Studios in Yorkville; that’s where he filmed Muppet specials like Hey, Cinderella!, The Frog Prince and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. When he first came to Yorkville, the neighbourhood was still ground zero for Canadian ’60s counterculture, filled with hippies, greasers and weekenders and some of the country’s best poetry, folk music and rock & roll. The scene didn’t last long — by the early 1970s, the City had teamed up with developers to replace the hippies with fancy boutiques and restaurants — but through it all, the TV studio survived. And Henson kept using it.

So that’s where they filmed Fraggle Rock. The caverns of the Fraggles and the Doozers, the castle of the Gorgs, and the hole in the wall of Doc’s workshop were all built on Yorkville Avenue — just east of Bay, one block north of Bloor. The neighbourhood that had once been home to the likes of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and William Gibson was now home to a whole other kind of eccentric Bohemian peacenik: The Muppets.

For the next four years, some of the Muppets’ greatest performers were hard at work in Toronto trying to make a puppet show so awesome it would change the world.

Three of the Fraggle puppeteers were relative newcomers to the Muppet family. Kathryn Mullen, who performed as Mokey Fraggle, had most notably been responsible for Kira the Gelfling in The Dark Crystal — and had assisted Franz Oz with Yoda in The Empire Strikes BackKaren Prell, who was doing Red Fraggle, had played some minor roles on Sesame StreetSteve Whitmire, who did Wembley Fraggle, had worked on The Muppet Show, mostly taking on minor characters like Rizzo The Rat.

The three other puppeteers performing major roles on Fraggle Rock were already responsible for some of the popular Muppet characters ever:

Dave Goelz was the human behind Boober Fraggle and Uncle Traveling Matt. Before that, he was The Great Gonzo and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew on The Muppet Show, along with Zoot, the saxophonist from The Electric Mayhem band. He got an apartment in Yorkville just a couple of blocks from the studio (on Hazelton Avenue). His first adventure with Uncle Traveling Matt was filmed right outside the studio (on Scadding Avenue). Many of his adventures took place in Toronto, along with locations all over the world. At one point, he claims the CN Tower — “The ultimate Doozer construction. It looked absolutely delicious, but it tasted terrible.” — in the name of Fragglekind.

Richard Hunt had been responsible for Beaker, Scooter, Sweetums and the heckling old Statler on The Muppet Show, as well as Janice from The Electric Mayhem band. On Fraggle Rock, he was one of two people tackling the role of Junior Gorg — the huge Gorg puppet was so complicated that two people were needed to operate it at all times. While Hunt was in town, he stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel just down the street (at the corner of Yorkville Avenue & Avenue Road).

Jerry Nelson was the human behind the star of Fraggle Rock — Gobo Fraggle — as well as Pa Gorg and Marjory The Trash Heap. On Sesame Street, he was The Count and the original Snuffleupagus. On The Muppet Show, he was Lew Zealand, Robin The Frog, Camilla The Chicken and Sgt. Floyd Pepper of The Electric Mayhem band. In honour of Canada, he gave Gobo a distinctly Canadian accent, complete with plenty of “eh”s. During his years in Toronto, he seems to have developed a particular fondest for The Pilot Tavern (on Cumberland near Yonge). “Jerry would often hold court at The Pilot with cast and crew members at the end of a busy week shooting the show,” Prell (Red) later remembered, “regaling all assembled with songs, stories and jokes in a range of hilarious voices until the late hours.”

Many of those members of the cast and crew were Torontonians. Some of them worked for the CBC. (Canada’s public broadcaster was co-producing the show with ITV and HBO; it was one of the American cable network’s very first original series.) Others were local writers, artists and musicians.

The producers had a particularly challenging task in finding someone to write the music for the show — the songs were going to be an incredibly important part of Fraggle Rock. Hundreds of Canadian musicians submitted their children’s music. Jerry Juhl, who had been the head writer on The Muppet Show was taking on the same role with Fraggle Rock. His desk was piled high with hundreds of cassette tapes.

“I listened to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs that were children’s songs,” he later remembered, “[but] we were looking for Fraggle songs… And one morning the alarm went off in my hotel room, and I got up, and before even going in to brush my teeth I picked up a cassette… shoved it into the machine… And I just remember walking back into the bedroom, frozen, because for the first time there was Fraggle music. It was so different.”

The song was by Philip Balsam and Dennis Lee.

By then, Lee was already a famous Canadian poet. His children’s book, Alligator Pie, became an instant classic when it was published in 1974. He’d co-founded the House of Anansi Press, played an important role in the experimental education at Rochdale College, and would go on to become Toronto’s first ever Poet Laureate. He and Balsam were writing songs for fun; Balsam composed the music and Lee wrote the lyrics. But it was just a hobby. They hadn’t even submitted the cassette for consideration; a CBC executive gave it to Juhl. When the Fraggle Rock writer offered them the job, he says Lee tried to talk him out of it. But Juhl was convinced the mix of innocence and wisdom was a perfect fit for the show. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.

It was the beginning of an unbelievably productive period for the songwriting pair. Almost every single one of the 96 episodes of Fraggle Rock featured multiple songs. Balsam and Lee wrote almost all of them — an average of more than one song every week for more than four straight years. And they were good, too. “I can’t remember ever rejecting a song,” Juhl recalled years later. The Fraggle Rock theme song even became a Top 40 hit in the UK.

On occasion, Balsam would team up to write a song with another Torontonian poet: bpNichol. Most of Nichol’s work was breathtakingly experimental: he was best-known for his visual concrete poetry and his performances of sound poems as a member of The Four Horsemen. But he became one of the main writers on Fraggle Rock, penning scripts along with a team that included several award-winning Canadian novelists, playwrights and screenwriters. They’d go on to work on everything from Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Elephant Show to Street Legal to Little Mosque on the Prairie. “It wasn’t the kind of staff that you would normally think would be assembled for a children’s television show,” Juhl admitted, “Because we, in fact, weren’t thinking of ourselves as a children’s television show. We were trying not to label ourselves… we were looking for really interesting people…”

Henson would also personally work on some episodes of Fraggle Rock. He directed several himself and performed a couple of relatively small recurring roles (Convincing John and Cantus The Minstrel). But for the most part, he spent the early 1980s focused on making and promoting his new movies: The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and The Muppets Take Manhattan. And so, Fraggle Rock became the very first Muppet production that he didn’t personally oversee on a day-to-day basis. Instead of spending all of his time in Toronto, Henson trusted the show to the all-star team he’d put together.

“I think we all felt a sense of pride about that,” Nelson (Gobo) said. And the cast and crew took it to heart. Making the show was a process that took all seven days of the week; some of those days lasted long into the night. But by all accounts, it was incredible fun. Creativity ruled. Collaboration was everywhere: in the writers’ room, in the songwriting, in the design of the sets and the characters, in the way two puppeteers were needed to bring many of the characters to life. In fact, a piece in The Awl recently suggested that Fraggle Rock provides the template for “the ideal creative workplace.” In articles and in interviews and on blogs, one after another after another, members of the cast and crew remember Fraggle Rock as the best job they ever had.

“We shared the values of the show, as you may expect,” producer Larry Mirkin recalled, “but we also shared the same values in how you go about creating a show… There was never an argument on the set. We all just believed that in order to make the show, we were going to make it by means of this joyful process.”

That joy is easy to sense when you’re watching the show. It helped to make the series an unqualified success. A generation of children all over the world was raised on Fraggle Rock — and on its message of peace and understanding. Since then, it has continued to air in syndication, inspired a spin-off animated series and a new CGI show about Doozers; a Fraggle Rock movie has long been in the works. Decades later, it’s still revered as one of the greatest children’s television shows of all-time: “a high-water mark for children’s television“; “unrelentingly smart“; “exquisitely crafted… unrivaled in terms of craftsmanship and character development.”

It was still breaking new ground years after the final episode aired: in 1989, Fraggle Rock became the very first North American television series to be shown in the Soviet Union. Within months, the Iron Curtain had crumbled. “We always joke that Fraggle Rock led to the end of the Cold War,” a Henson archivist later said. “By the end of the year, as the show’s lessons of tolerance and understanding wafted through the airwaves, the Berlin Wall came down.”

By then, the show was over. But Henson’s relationship with Toronto continued throughout the 1980s — both during and after Fraggle Rock. Before his death in 1990, he returned to Yorkville over and over again, filming Muppet specials like The Muppets – A Celebration of 30 Years, The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show (“she gets caught up in a love triangle involving George Hamilton and John Ritter”) and the pilot episode of The Jim Henson Hour.

The cast and crew who worked in Toronto during those years also continued to play an enormous role in the world of The Muppets beyond Fraggle Rock. When Henson was making Labyrinth, he had Dennis Lee write the first draft of the film’s story. Four of the five main Fraggle puppeteers would all perform characters in the movie. And all five were there on the sad occasion of Henson’s funeral, performing in character as part of a musical tribute in his memory. Goelz (Boober) and Whitmire (Wembley) would go on to star in The Muppet’s Christmas Carol as Gonzo and Rizzo The Rat. Whitmire had only been in his early 20s when took on the role of Wembley Fraggle, worried that his career had already peaked; today, he’s Kermit The Frog.

So, it wasn’t really the end when Fraggle Rock finally stopped filming in 1986, but it was still a bittersweet moment. Henson wanted to end the show while it was still at the height of its power. The night after the final day on set, the cast and crew gathered for a wrap party a few blocks from the studio — at the Sutton Place Hotel at the corner of Bay & Wellesley (it’s being turned into the Britt Condos now). That night, the show ended the same way it had always been made: with joy and creativity. The invitation to the party was covered in Doozers. A video showed what the Fraggles were going to do now — Red signed a contract to play hockey for the Leafs. Balsam and Lee wrote a new version of one of their songs, turning it into a farewell to the show sung by the Fraggles and their puppeteers. The crowd rose to its feet in applause and sang along.

Jim Henson gave a speech that night. At first, he joked around, did his Convincing John voice, had to wait for the whoops of laughter to die down. But the room grew quiet as he began to reminisce about his years in Yorkville and the work they’d done there. “This whole project of Fraggle has been a joy from the beginning,” he said. “It’s fun when you start out trying to do something that makes a positive statement… I think the body of work of Fraggle Rock is something that’s going to stay around. And I think it’s something we’re all going to be proud of for a long time. And I think that’s… that’s really nice.”

 

 

A version of this post originally appeared on the The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. You can find more sources, photos, links and other related stories there.