The Phantom of the Muppet Theater (1991)

     by Ellen Weiss

Man, I love the Muppets. I can't help myself. It's some wacky combination of childhood security (puppets! Happy puppets! They sing and dance!) and adult hilarity (one hundred tongue-in-cheek jokes I did not get as a kid) that I find completely irresistible. Someday I'm going to own the entire run of The Muppet Show and spend a whole week in my PJs watching it with nostalgic snacks and trying to identify celebrities from before I was born.

 

Anyway, this is a wee little picture-book, obviously child-oriented, detailing a story involving a Phantom haunting the Muppet Theater, site of most of the Muppets' shenanigans. Interestingly enough, the story's gone through a few further transformations by the time it gets to this book; from the original Gothic novel, it arrived on The Muppet Show in a 1977 episode, in which various characters from the theater begin sighting a Phantom of the Muppet Theater, who is eventually revealed to be an ex-actor whose theater career was ruined by the panning of the critics, prompting him to haunt the theater in a funk. From there, it goes to this book, which follows most of the same beginning format but actually takes a completely different direction when it comes to the actual denouement of the story. The timing makes me wonder if the 1977 episode might have been an affectionate parody of the contemporary de Palma/Finley film, which also featured a flesh-and-blood Phantom haunting a variety-style theater; this picture-book, however, was written a few decades later and doesn't show any signs of being related.

 

Pictures are important in a picture-book, and these don't disappoint; the Muppets are rendered faithfully and engagingly, and the painted art is a treat, not only because of its familiarity but also because it keeps a very energetic and whimsical style throughout, adding busy touches and humorous side happenings that are totally appropriate to the characters and setting.

 

The Phantom of the Muppet Theater appears to be one of the more useful sort; he never does anything negative or frightening, aside from existing, and generally provides beneficial aid to the bewildered performers - rescuing Miss Piggy's dog, discovering maintenance issues before they can cause a problem for the audience, and providing general help around the place (all without being seen, of course). It's in his secretive style of helping that most of the remaining vestiges of the original Erik can be found; he uses notes to communicate with people he won't speak to face-to-face, and is very proprietary about the theater in general (though he is more paternal than commanding).

 

The suspicions of the cast and crew are in opposition to those of the superstitious original characters; it is only when almost everyone in the house has been touched in some way by the Phantom that they begin to suspect a presence, and even then they shrug it off in favor of performing their show with clear heads. A far cry from the panicked ballet rats, but, then again, I doubt anyone really expects the Muppets to be crying in corners instead of exuberantly shooting themselves out of cannons.

 

Eventually, when Gonzo's finale goes awry (as it always does) and he needs to be rescued from the flies, the Phantom is revealed to be John Stone, the actor who opened the Muppet Theater way back in 1802 (entertainingly, this has him predating the gentleman upon whom he is based by almost 80 years). He is actually and undoubtedly a ghost, a fully supernatural Phantom, which is something we've seen less and less frequently in later versions of the story. This is not only a change from the original story's ambiguous but at least definitely solid Erik, but also from the original version of the Phantom of the Muppet Theater, who was also a solid, living... creature? (I'm not sure; he looks a bit like a tiny, peeved dragon.)

 

Naturally, Stone is a benevolent Phantom who only wants to keep maintaining his beloved theater and making sure everything runs smoothly, so after some momentary discombobulation, the Muppets happily agree and everyone goes their merry way. There are no further traces of the original plot left intact, except that Weiss makes a point of letting us know that Stone has something of a soft spot for Miss Piggy (though, of course, he would never extend it further than rescuing her dog and keeping her costumes in order).

 

There's nothing spine-chilling going on here, but who cares? Muppets! It's light, fluffy, child-friendly entertainment, and that's okay with me. The adult themes and Gothic trappings of the original would have detracted from the aim of the picture-book, and it doesn't suffer for their absence; besides, it is, unsurprisingly, very cute.

 

Also, god damn do I love me some Muppets.

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