There have been 1.7 billion hours of footage featuring the Muppets, but the peak of all things Muppet was the first three minutes of the 1979 The Muppet Movie. Kermit, sitting on a log by himself in his home swamp, playing the banjo, and singing wistfully about rainbows and lovers and dreamers while carefully separating himself from them. That was it. Something about those few pre-Dom DeLuise minutes summed up everything that was right about the Muppets and the life work of Jim Henson.
So when I found out we were going to be headed through Mississippi, renowned for its swamps, its blues, and its omnipresence on third grade spelling bee lists, I had to go see Kermit’s birthplace.
Now, Kermit the marionette-puppet was born in Maryland, when Jim Henson was attending college and putting his home economics degree to good use. I told that story when I visited one of my most favorite statues on the planet. However, in the Muppet-verse, the character of Kermit hails from a small town called Leland, Mississippi, on the winding western edge of the state, a town which is more or less the childhood home of Henson himself.
And back in humble little Leland, they celebrate it.
We arrived before it opened, so we spent time sitting at a picnic table on the bank of the very same cypress-lined river that helped inspire Kermit and which meandered behind the museum. Here and there a turtle popped its head from the water and all along the edge the cypress knees protruded knobbily from the mud like blunt stalagmites as I tried and failed to imagine inventing a universally beloved character just by sitting there.
Eventually, the building opened and we walked into a small room. Two glass cases filled the center, pictures adorned the walls, and in a corner a viewing area was set up in front of an old tube TV. The Rainbow Connection scene was playing on it as we walked in.
We were greeted by Cecilia, who was nice enough to walk us through the whole exhibition, told us about the Frogfest the town celebrates every year, and took our photos with an oversized stuffed Kermit in another corner.
Most of the items on display were donated by the Henson family. In one case was a replica of Kermit himself, sitting in a swamp diorama, holding a banjo. In the other were the original puppets used in the “The Song of the Cloud Forest” bit in the “Fitness” episode of The Jim Henson Hour from 1989.
That was, in fact, our next stop, a small span of Old Highway 61 a few blocks away and crossing over Deer Creek. It bore another brightly colored sign with a waving Kermit. I had expected the Rainbow Connection Bridge to be colorful, like Fozzie’s Studebaker after Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem got their paint cans all over it (“I don’t know why to thank you guys.”). Instead, only the guardrails were painted and only a solid green, but less Kermit green and more army men green. It ain’t easy bein’, you know?