Spawned on the Bayou: The Birthplace of Kermit the Frog

March 25, 2015 — Leland, Mississippi, is a town of 5,000 people. But I was there for a frog. A felt one.

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.

Henson was born next door in Greenville, and his family lived at an agricultural experiment station where his father worked, in nearby Stoneville. He went to elementary school in Leland. There he would catch lizards and turtles and, yes, frogs in Deer Creek with a friend of his named Kermit Scott. It was that idyllic bit of boyhood that eventually inspired him to turn a swamp frog with ping-pong-ball eyes into the fringed face of an entertainment empire.

And back in humble little Leland, they celebrate it.

Our first sight in the town was a giant, colorful sign with a waving Kermit that proclaimed, “Leland, Mississippi: Birthplace of the Frog.” It was next to a small, weathered, wood-paneled building with another bright-green Kermit waving to us from a window. The place was technically the Leland Chamber of Commerce, but it was mostly taken up by an exhibit on Henson and his Delta childhood.

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.

On the walls were pictures of Henson and the area. Of most interest was a letter from Henson dated November 1979, five months after The Muppet Movie hit theaters. In it, he politely rain-checked an invitation to visit Leland from the mayor of the town. The letter cited commitments in London for the next couple of years, those commitments, I’m assuming, being The Great Muppet Caper and The Dark Crystal. He enclosed a photo of himself with his Muppet creations, autographed and officially acknowledging Leland as the birthplace of the frog.

In an adjoining room were more glass cases, this time of Muppet memorabilia, most of it donated by fans, Cecelia told us, and about half of which I believe I’ve owned in my life at one point or another. It was in this room that I tried to explain to my then-four-year-old how awesome the Muppets were. She wasn’t having it though. Was going through a phase where animal toys needed to be realistic-looking. As long as Kermit walked on two legs, she wanted nothing to do with him. I’ve never prided myself on being a good parent. I still bought her a shirt in the gift shop, though.

Soon it was time for us to leave. It’s a small exhibit in a town you have to aim for to hit, but, honestly, I liked this simple perspective on Kermit much more than the character-as-giant-brand, Mickey Mouse version. As we left, Cecilia called to us, “Make sure you see the Rainbow Connection Bridge.”

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?

On the other side of the bridge was an historical marker proclaiming the connection of the murky trickle to Jim Henson. After swinging by the elementary school that Henson attended, just across Deer Creek from the Chamber of Commerce, we broke for Arkansas and the home of another American legend.

Our time in Leland had been bright and clear, despite the tornado watch we were under. However, after we left, we were pursued and periodically caught be torrential rain all day. By the time we made it to our hotel in Memphis, the deluge caught us for real. But it soon spent itself, leaving behind a rainbow in the sky on the only exact day that I really wanted one.

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