A Muppet Family Christmas for all of us

24-Dec-14 9:30 AM by
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Today is Christmas Eve, which for many means a gathering of loved ones. If you never strayed far from home, like me, then this ritual may feel almost rote. But if you are far-flung, then this return to your roots can be special — a small window of time in which whatever's been missing from your life is once again present.

I miss the many holiday traditions I had as a kid. Whether it's the sense of wonder and mystery, or the love that family showers upon each other, both are absent now. But I sometimes feel a lingering trace of those magical times when I see tried-and-true holiday specials again making the rounds.

One of my favorites was A Muppet Family Christmas. Like an actual holiday, this 1987 TV special has no real plot beyond the joys, hijinks, and insanity that ensue when many people who are very different but yet still care for each other try to fit into one place. The tenderness all the characters have for each other is obvious — but what made this movie really special was the special appearance of the residents of Sesame Street.

I grew up watching Sesame Street and never understood — still don't, actually — why the only crossover between that cast and the Muppets was Kermit the Frog. This Christmas special finally broke down that wall and united the two families like old friends. That the celebration happens at Doc's house, the set of Jim Henson's other show, Fraggle Rock, made it all the more magical.

There are many people I won't be seeing at this or any future Christmas, and I miss them dearly. But in this brief holiday special, we can always count on all our friends, no matter the neighborhood, to show up and wish each other, and us, a merry Christmas.

Super Megafest 2013: Celebrating celebrities young & old

02-Jan-14 11:25 AM by
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Super Megafest, an annual comic book, sci-fi, geek, and nostalgia convention held the weekend before Thanksgiving in Framingham, Mass., has exploded in popularity. When I arrived at 10 AM on the first of 2013's two-day event, the line to get in wrapped around the hotel, and parking was nowhere to be found. It's nearly to the point that the Sheraton can't accommodate all the dealer rooms, speaker panels, and autograph lines, or grow to offer a cosplay competition and other participatory sessions. But for all that, this year's Megafest, of all the seven I've now attended, was a surgical strike for me. Christopher Lloyd was the closest to this year's headliner, and I'd met him at Megafest 2010. I was instead able to focus on celebrities that were less renowned but no less admired for their work in cult hits.

One was Boston native Eliza Dushku, the "evil slayer" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and star of another cancelled Joss Whedon television series, Dollhouse. I didn't attend her panel (a video of which is available online), but I did get her autograph. In those brief encounters, I always make a point of telling actors how much I liked their less well-known performances, as I imagine it's frustrating for their entire body of work to be overshadowed by a single role. For Ms. Duskhu, I thanked her for the 2007 dark comedy Sex and Breakfast, which I found a fascinating look at the interplay between physical and emotional connections in relationships. She seem surprised to hear this and said the film was "interesting". But she really lit up when I mentioned her cameo on Freddie Wong's YouTube channel, which she said was a lot of fun to shoot.

Other than autograph sessions, hour-long panels of Q&A are often the highlight of any Megafast, but the only panel I was interested in attending this year featured Barbara Eden and Bill Daily, aka Jeannie and Major Healey from the 1960s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. Both were very genial in their autograph sessions, with Daily especially taking time to chat with attendees. He seemed astonished when he got to his table to find a line of fans waiting for him: "Who are all these people here for?!" he asked. Whether he was sincerely surprised or just being humble, I appreciated his down-to-earth nature. The panel wasn't anything special, and even had a touch of melancholy for being held a year to the day that Jeannie co-star Larry Hagman had passed away, but it was still fun to hear the two actors banter and reminiscence like old friends.

I was going to leave the con at that point, but a new friend enticed me to stay for the next panel, featuring Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in all eight Harry Potter films. He hadn't been on my radar at all until an encounter I had in the Super Megafest hallway, which I then related to Felton during his panel's Q&A: "I was on my way to this panel when I came across a teenage girl who appeared to be having a breakdown: she was crying, tears streaming down her face, and she was having trouble breathing to the point of hyperventilating. I asked her what was wrong — what had happened?!? She took a breath and said, 'I just met Tom Felton!!'" My question to Felton then became, "How do you explain your popularity?" Felton seemed a bit taken aback, saying he'd never been asked that question before. The moderator jumped in and said that I'd have to be a teenage girl to understand. That exchange aside, Felton was a fun and amicable guest, telling anecdotes from the Harry Potter set and, at one attendee's request, even reciting his most famous line: "My father is going to be hearing about this!!"

IMG_4463 For all these actors and their fame and draw, my favorite moment of the entire weekend was perhaps the quietest, and one which surely no one else even noticed. In attendance at Super Megafest was Carroll Spinney, the actor behind Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. I'd first met Mr. Spinney at Super Megafest 2008, but I left that encounter heavy with regret for not having asked him one important question. He was back at Megafest 2011, but having already gotten his autograph years before, I had no occasion to approach him just to ask one question. But I had another chance in 2013 — Spinney is native to this area, and attending Megafest coincides with spending Thanksgiving with family — and this time, I wanted his autograph again, this time as gifts for friends. While he signed, I mentioned that I was one of his Kickstarter supporters, having backed a documentary about his life, I Am Big Bird. The film will be a fitting send-off to the actor, who, at age 80, is nearing retirement.

After chatting a bit about the promising trailer, he handed me the autographed photos. I hesitated. It was now or never. "Mr. Spinney," I began, "I hate to put you on the spot like this, but… can I give you a hug?"

He smiled. "Well, sure! That'd be fine. Come around the table," he said, standing up to receive me. Relieved, I wrapped my arms around him, saying, "Thank you, Bird." For everything.

November was a rough month for me, with two massive, personal disappointments I'd been beating myself up over. It's magical and inexplicable how much that weight was lifted by a hug from Big Bird; I just suddenly felt that everything was going to be okay.

Thank you, Super Megafest, for this moment. I'll treasure it always.

(more…)

Sesame Street parodies the Hobbit, Hunger Games

09-Dec-13 11:18 AM by
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The Internet has inspired a revolution in Sesame Street's relevancy. Always a wonderful tool for educating children not just in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also in social skills such as cooperation and patience, these values are now being encased in many wonderful YouTube videos whose humor will appeal to adults as well. Nowhere is this more evident than in the show's newest segment, "Cookie's Crumby Pictures", in which Cookie Monster teaches kids self-regulation and executive function skills in the form of parodies of Hollywood's latest big-budget hits.

This series is impressively modern by setting its sights on this holiday season's headliners. One of the current hot flicks has been Catching Fire, the second adaptation in the Hunger Games book trilogy. Cookie Monster engages in survival of the fattest in The Hungry Games: Catching Fur:

Despite Cookie being the leading role, Pita nearly stole the show. What an improvement over the original!

The next fantasy film in showgoers' sights is The Hobbit: The Desolaution of Smaug, releasing this week. What force could be more evil: a dragon, or a ring? Neither! Beware the one dessert to rule them all in Lord of the Crumbs:

Classic icons aren't above having our furry blue friend inserted into their casts. When the world's best spy isn't available, they call Cookie Monster in The Spy Who Loved Cookies:

You can also see Cookie Monster as Captain Snack Sparrow in Cookies of the Caribbean and as an earnest martial arts student in in The Biscotti Kid. See the playlist for the full catalog of parodies.

It just goes to show: everything is better with Muppets!

Summer Shorts: My Deaf Family

04-Jun-10 11:00 AM by
Filed under Television; 1 comment.

Confession: I follow Sesame Street on Twitter. That may not seem an appropriate pastime for a thirtysomething, but it's hard to resist such clever witticisms as espoused by Cookie Monster: "Me tried fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free cookie today. Or, as me like to call it: crime against humanity." Big Bird: "There are lots of birds that can’t fly: turkeys, ostriches, penguins, Larry…" and Grover: "It is Frank Oz's birthday. I do not know who he is, but I will try to find out. Wait, what do you mean, there is no 'try'?"

It was in these wanderings that I came across a video of Billy Joel singing to Oscar the Grouch. His song was signed by a woman who looked familiar. Some brief research revealed her to be Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress who has been performing on stage, film, and television since her Hollywood debut in 1986. She was even the star (though a passive one) of a film in my own DVD library, What the Bleep Do We Know?.

After appearing on shows from West Wing to Desperate Housewives to Dancing with the Stars, Ms. Matlin recently struck out on her own by hosting and financing a reality series called My Deaf Family. The only deaf person in her family, Ms. Matlin wanted to bring attention to the lives and obstacles of members of the deaf community and their loved ones. When no network picked up the series, she uploaded the pilot to YouTube:

Although I don't know if this pilot could be extended into a full series, the questions and dilemmas raised by this short segment are substantial. All parents wants what's best for their children, but it's not always clear what that is. For two deaf parents to raise a hearing child can be exceptionally difficult. As Jared indicates in the above video, there are some things Jared can't talk to his parents about, and he had trouble learning how to pronounce words without his parents to teach him. Children in his scenario often have a lisp or other speech impediment, at least until they are mainstreamed into a school where they have teachers and peers. Whatever issues Jared has faced, few of them are likely to arise with his siblings who share their parents' abilities.

That raises a significant question: is deafness a disability, or an identity? Are there moral ramifications to two deaf parents wanting a child who is deaf? We want our children to be strong — but should we want them to have to be strong? The 2005 holiday film The Family Stone has a horrendously awkward scene in which someone asks the mother of a gay man, "You didn't actually hope for a gay son, did you? I mean, life is hard enough when you're normal…" Although this quotation has good intentions, the implication is that there is some physical and emotional "status quo" to which we should be born, and anyone who doesn't fit this archetype is somehow impaired. That's complete hogwash, of course; otherwise we'd see nothing distasteful in the genetically sequenced dystopia that is Gattaca, in which Stephen Hawking would never have existed — or, if he had but with no motivation to develop his mind over his body, might have pursued a fabulous career in the NBA. If deafness and other conditions are limits, they are limits that can be overcome.

Having written this post, I realize that I do want to see more in Ms. Matlin's series, though perhaps with a broader scope. I don't want a Chicken Soup for the Soul television series, but a closer look at the lives and hurdles of people with various mental and physical challenges could prove not only inspiring, but also enlightening. Consider it an adult vehicle for the love and acceptance we were taught to practice as children by Sesame Street.

Is there a network brave enough to pick it up?

(Hat tip to AOL)

The Return of Super Megafest

26-Nov-08 11:16 PM by
Filed under Celebrities, Potpourri; 5 comments.

The weekend before Thanksgiving has become a tradition of celebrities of sci-fi, wrestling, and nostalgia. A half-hour west of Boston, a Sheraton hotel again became the home of the annual Super Megafest, a convention for comic book dealers, cosplayers, and all manner of geeks and fans.

Having attended last year's Megafest, I knew what to expect: a small but full hall of merchandise, with a few smaller aisles of celebrity signings. I'm not a collector and, as appealing as the vintage toys, comics, and posters were, I wouldn't need to budget much time to peruse the various vendors' wares. I'd be there for the stars, who offered not only their autographs but also their time. A fee for their signatures meant the lines to meet these guests would be short, which equated to more time they could spend with each fan. There were actors, wrestlers, artists, and other big names to appeal to everyone, but I narrowed down my must-meet list just three.

Meeting them occurred more quickly than I predicted. Aside from the show floor, there was a too-small conference room in which each celebrity was granted a half-hour moderated Q&A session. No schedule was posted to the show's Web site, so I took a gamble and showed up as late as 2:30 PM on Saturday. At exactly that moment, the first star on my list was taking the stage, followed immediately afterward by the next. I could not have planned my first hour at the Megafest more precisely.

Dawn Wells, famous for her innocent portrayal of Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, was happy to entertain questions from the fans. Though Ms. Wells now runs a film school in Idaho, most of the discussion was about the role and show she is best known for. Ms. Wells said that in the Sixties, Gilligan's Island was how the rest of the world saw America, though she made no allusion to another group that thought the show was real. More recently, she considered the 2004 reality show based on the series a travesty — "Why would you take anything so wholesome and have Mary Ann and Ginger mud wrestle?" Yet even the original series has its dark rumors, such as that the seven castaways were modeled after the seven deadly sins, with Mary Ann representing envy. "Preposterous," claimed Ms. Wells. During this short session, I did not get the opportunity to ask either of my burning questions: how did she and the Professor feel about the theme song reducing them to "the rest"; and why could the Professor build a radio out of coconuts, but he couldn't repair a hole in a boat?

I bumped into Ms. Wells again later when she was signing autographs, but she seemed preoccupied. I briefly mentioned the book Gilligan's Wake to her, but she'd never heard of it. We then both moved on.

After her Q&A, I kept my seat for Jonathan Frakes, prolific sci-fi actor and director best known for the role of Commander William T. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He paraded down the room to the theme of TNG, courtesy his own vocal talents — remarkable, since the theme has no words. "Sorry, but I love that song," he grinned. That introduction set the tone for the rest of the session, as Mr. Frakes seemed genuinely amused by absolutely everything: his history, his fans, their questions. I did not expect someone attending his umpteenth convention in 20 years to be so gracious, but there he was. He asked our opinion of the new Star Trek movie. I offered "cautiously optimistic", to which he replied, "I feel the same, except for the 'cautiously' part." He added, "I got to visit the bridge, and it is spec-TAC-ular" (emphasis his). "And the studios are serious about it. For the money they're pumping into it, we could've made three or four more Trek films — NOT THAT I'M BITTER!" Mr. Frakes also had a full portfolio of other roles he was happy to discuss: everything from having recently auditioned for a part on Reaper to his work as host for Alien Autopsy. "I was the spokesperson for the paranormal for several years," he reflected. "'We can't get Stewart, but call Frakes! He'll do anything!' I was the Mikey of sci-fi." This time, I got my turn to ask a question: "I loved Gargoyles. Could you talk about your work as a voice actor?" (two sentences which he interrupted with, "You have excellent taste.") "It's a dream job. You get to go to work in your pajamas." Also: "I don't understand why Gargoyles didn't last longer." That makes two of us.

I later caught up with Mr. Frakes at his autograph table. Just ahead of me was a young girl of six or seven to whom Mr. Frakes was enthusiastically recommending Seussical the Musical. As she left, he commented to me, "She had no idea what I was saying." I disagreed: "You'd be surprised what sticks at that age. I was only eight when my dad sat me down to watch the sequel to a show he'd grown up with." "And he made you watch every episode after that?" "Are you kidding? After that first episode, he didn't have to make me do anything!" "… You were born in 1979?" he asked. I expected this question to lead into an unoriginal crack about how old I made him feel. Instead he nodded sagely and commented, "That's a good age to get into Star Trek." I'd brought along my copy of First Contact for Mr. Frakes, the film's director, to sign, telling him, "This really was the best movie. You really understood what Star Trek was about." Another director might've taken that as an opportunity to denigrate Stuart Baird, who capsized the TNG film franchise with his direction of Nemesis. Mr. Frakes simply added, "We had a great script to work with." Before then, I'd already respected him as an actor; I did not expect him to exhibit such humility and grace as to leave me also respecting him as a person.

The final highlight of the day was meeting Carroll Spinney, the man inside the Big Bird costume since 1969. (Mr. Spinney also brings to life Oscar the Grouch.) Like my three older brothers, I grew up on Sesame Street and was moved to meet someone who had been such a good friend to me; part of me regrets not taking the opportunity to give him a big hug. When I told him I still remembered the day everyone met Mr. Snuffleupagus, he replied, "That was a Thursday." What a gentle and amusing sense of humor!

I got far more out of my two hours at this year's Megafest than one would think. Whereas Adam West and Burt Ward charged $50 per signature in 2007, this year was more reasonable, almost disproportionately so: $30 for Dawn Wells, $25 for Jonathan Frakes, and $20 for Carroll Spinney. But though I went home with fewer autographs this year, I took with me more memories. Sure, Ray Park and Helen Slater have an undeniable "cool" factor, but their performances didn't have nearly the impact on my upbringing as Mr. Spinney's and Mr. Frakes'. This weekend, they gave me more than their autographs: they gave me the chance to say "Thank you."