This post was written by Criss Austin. Criss is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab.
I think it’s safe to say that we all agree the last 21 months have been long and trying. During much of this time, NARA staff were working on projects at home which helped to serve our researchers’ needs in many ways, but we missed working directly with the holdings.
In mid-November, after 19 months of teleworking, the staff of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab briefly returned to full time work on site and were greeted with a welcome back surprise in the form of The Wonderful Night of Hercules Brown (Local Identifier: 306.2599). The title alone was enough to catch one’s attention, but after a cursory screening to check that the English and Spanish soundtracks synchronized, we realized that we had something very special indeed!
Subscribers to the blog might remember that the lab has a penchant for puppet appearances in government films, and Hercules Brown, from 1968, is no exception! Much to our delight we were treated to the elfin dream guide Barnaby, a character played by Linn Sheldon, the longtime host of a Cleveland television program, and performances by three significant puppeteers. We were not familiar with The Ritts Puppets, but we did spot a pre-collar Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the dog, and a blonde Muppet named Sue who seems like a cross between Kermit’s nephew Robin and Sesame Street’s Prairie Dawn, both of whom made their first appearances in 1971. Prominent in the film is Shari Lewis, who plays the mother of the little boy whose dreams we are viewing and sings an incredibly sweet song about The Ugly Duckling to puppet Lamb Chop.
We got in touch with the curator from the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland, who was able to provide us with additional information about the production of the film from the archivist at The Jim Henson Company. The United States Information Agency (USIA) paid Jim Henson $1,250 for professional services for The Wonderful Night of Hercules Brown (Puppet Special), including travel expenses to Washington, DC for Henson and the Muppets.
It was typical at this time for local television stations to broadcast the performances to their viewing audience, but as videotape recording was limited, kinescope film copies were made to distribute later, or to hold in a station’s archive. Kinescopes are film copies of a broadcast that were made by pointing a film camera at a video monitor in the studio that was playing back the broadcast feed. This would allow stations to send copies out to other affiliates or they could film back to back live episodes and send the Kinescopes out later. While this process did the job of capturing the action the result is typically dark, grainy, blurry and the audio quality tends to be poor and muddy. While the lowly kinescope quality makes us groan when we come across it, many TV broadcasts wouldn’t survive without having been captured this way.
The other silver lining to this tale is that we also reached out to Mallory Lewis, daughter of Shari, to see if she’d be interested in having a copy of this footage in case it wasn’t in the family archive. Turns out she was interested and she has graciously agreed to let us post this clip of Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop to share with you. So, please enjoy a clip that welcomed us back to work. We look forward to more unique finds to share with you!