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The Powers of Ten (Muppet Version)
by Richter Claus | 12/31/2009

Okeydokey, so 2009 is coming to an end and 2010 approaching in Seven League Boots, and suddenly we'll have the first decade of the new millennium behind us. As a child I was pretty certain that by 2000 our lives would be feature flying cars and incredibly futuristic architecture. Now, while it is the Internet, tiny mobile phones and huge clouds of invisible dataflow that influence things and these are not quite so spectacular in visual terms, they give us the opportunity to resort pretty damnd quick to all sorts of things that you would otherwise not have found so quickly let alone brought together in one place and time.

For example, all the Sesame Street episodes relating to the word "Ten". And if someone out there claims this is completely irrelevant and everyone today simply copies from Wikipedia, then he should go and join the cultural pessimists in the corner while we start to enjoy a delightfully superficial tour of the marvelous world of the early Jim Henson, in part cobbled together from "Muppet Wiki" of course.

Jim Henson will be remembered as one of the big cultural talents of the 20th century once 99 percent of the painters and concept artists have been forgotten and countless immensely original "designer luminaires" are busy collecting mold in the damp and dark cellar stores of bad taste. As people will hopefully still joyfully remember Kermit, Miss Piggy or Ernie and Bert... Henson's figures, and they constantly walk a thin line between didactic thrust and anarchy, are outstanding examples of an attempt to live the right way in the wrong world, to paraphrase Adorno. They are optimistic but not soft-focus role models, lovable but not always sweet, and above all liberating and marvelously entertaining. Where in the world would we otherwise have seen superstars of the likes of Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Rudolf Nureyev or Liza Minelli in duets with singing cows, exploding chickens or a nervous green frog? I simply cannot understand someone who does not like the Muppets.

Seven Leagues boots, well actually we should be opting for the ten-league version! Because that would be more fitting for the decade and the coming new year. And back with Jim Henson's great numbers films. And in our case the special focus is on the number TEN.

With his colleagues, in the early Sesame Street series Henson produced a few wonderful short takes destined to make it easier for kids to learn their numbers (and completely without the Muppets). Usually, the short films concentrate on a series of numbers from one to ten, sometimes they only count as high as four, another time the madness finished at the number twelve. And we viewers find ourselves repeatedly astonished by the directors' marvelous talent for showing one and the same thing in such a varied and entertaining way, such that it never seems to be one and the same. "T'aint what you do - It's the way that you do it!" Ella Fitzgerald sang back in 1939, and Jim Henson and Company show us in their catching numbers films just how that can be brought to life.

In 1969, the first year in which Sesame Street was broadcast, together with Joseph Raposo Henson produced a series of short intros that are now known collectively as "Baker Films". The name came from the running slapstick gag of a baker who trips (and the accidents get worse and worse, as the number of cream pies rises) that brought each film to the highly anticipated final climax. Before the baker took to the stage, however, animals, toys or everyday objects illustrated the particular number, accompanied by a funky upbeat track and a choir of brash kids. The number ten in the "Baker Films" presents ten toes on a delightful little Asian foot, ten academic triangles, ten pins bowled in a clean strike, ten bells ringing and rattling wind-up toys. And this time the baker goes crashing with ten small chocolate cakes.

That same Denny Zeitlin created a series of number of films that are known as "Jazz Numbers".

The number "ten" is again emphasized by a fast upbeat rhythm. Ten fingers of one hand count ten racing cars that tear off in front of ten illustrious spectators chasing ten dos followed by a bird made up of ten bananas, and are viewed by ten spies who narrowly escape death and then cross the finishing line after ten rounds.

Today, the nervous stuttering Jazz beat and the spoken/sung/breathed sound of the voice of none other than Jefferson Airplane's singer Grace Slick (!) and the truly surreal scenery conjure up nostalgic images of the days when children's TV was still a psychedelic art form.

One of the highpoints of the art form was created by Henson Studios in 1977 with another series of number films, this time called "Pinball Number Count".

No lesser mortals than the legendary Pointer Sisters sang the numbers 1-12 to a funky Jazz track by composer Walt Kraemer. Artist Jeff Hale and his team animated a truly psychedelic pinball machine in which the run of the balls is determined by (favored by us, given the coming year) the number Ten in the form of mechanical dragons, knights, giants, turrets, cannons and witches in any manner of different constellations, always accompanied by colored lights flashing and the sound of the Pointer Sisters crying out "TEN!".

Wow! Seldom was counting so exciting! The number ten was never as funky, and even watching the film ten times over does not make it less of a twinkling gem of a piece.

And even after Henson's death in 1990, the charming number films fortunately did not die out, and although people today may not count further than four, at least this is not done by a preachy, politically correct pseudo-lively boring figure, but by the truly charming Feist accompanied by any number of well-meaning monsters, penguins and hens.

A little less than four decades ago Jim Henson contributed something truly valuable to my world, and as long as kids still learn to count to ten in Jim Henson's spirit 2010 brings no new worries to my mind.