Kermit the Frog, one of the most beloved characters in family entertainment, gained fame on "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show." But the sweet-tempered, banjo-picking amphibian — who sang of racial tolerance and undying dreams in tunes such as "Bein' Green" and the Oscar-nominated "The Rainbow Connection" — debuted in 1955 on local television in Washington, D.C.
Muppet mastermind Jim Henson introduced Kermit on the show "Sam and Friends," which aired from 1955 to 1961 on Washington's WRC-TV; the show won an Emmy in 1958. Kermit, the reasonable mediator, frequently perplexed by an unreasonable world, was often referred to as Henson's soft-spoken alter-ego (he was one of Henson's earliest creations and Henson himself operated and voiced the character).
Kermit and the other Muppets' popularity slowly grew with commercials and TV guest spots during the 1960s. But they shot to national fame in 1969 with the premiere of "Sesame Street," a milestone in educational TV. Henson characters such as Grover, Cookie Monster and Count von Count established an instant rapport with young children learning basic language and math concepts. Meanwhile, Kermit's rendition of "Bein' Green" drew wide praise as a plea for racial understanding in an educational system still grappling with desegregation.
By the end of the 1970s, the Muppets reached the apex of their fame. "The Muppet Show" had an extraordinarily successful syndicated run from 1976 to 1981; Kermit emceed, and would introduce each of the eclectic mix of celebrity guests. Backstage, he struggled to keep in check the antics of his fellow characters and the attentions of his love interest, the porcine diva Miss Piggy.
"The Muppet Movie" (1979), the characters' first feature, grossed more than $76 million in domestic box office. Kermit's rendition of "The Rainbow Connection" from that film earned an Academy Award nomination for best original song. Kermit was so popular during his heyday that he once subbed for Johnny Carson on NBC's "The Tonight Show."
Henson began to branch out with non-Muppet fantasies and sci-fi fare. But in 1990, just days before Walt Disney Co. was to buy his company for a reported $150 million, he died of complications from pneumonia. In the wake of his death, the Disney deal was scotched — and Kermit, Miss Piggy and other Muppets from the variety show and the movies fell into more than a decade of creative and commercial limbo.
Brian and Lisa Henson, the puppeteer's adult children, sold the Jim Henson Co. in 2000 to a German firm, EM.TV & Merchandising, for a reported $680 million. But the company quickly ran into financial trouble and was forced to put the Muppets back on the block. The nonprofit Sesame Workshop, producer of PBS' "Sesame Street," had been paying Henson's company a license fee of up to $20 million annually to use Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Elmo and other icons of the preschool set; it leaped in to buy those from EM.TV for $180 million.
That meant that the remaining characters, including Kermit and Miss Piggy, were on their own. The Henson children repurchased the remnants of their father's company in 2003 and the following year sold Kermit and other non-"Sesame Street" Muppet characters for a reported $60 million to Disney, whose then-chief, Michael Eisner, had remained a big fan. Kermit still makes guest appearances on "Sesame Street," including the first episode of the show's landmark 40th season in 2009.
While the talking frog remains a nostalgic touchstone for aging boomers, executives admit that most kids today recognize him only vaguely, if at all. Over the last decade, theatrical movies and TV shows featuring the Muppets have received scant notice, with some viewing the characters' gentle, unassuming humor as hopelessly out of step with the times. Lately, Kermit and Miss Piggy have starred in ads pitching cars and pizza during the Super Bowl. The Disney executive in charge of the Muppets says the studio envisions Kermit and Miss Piggy as "evergreen" characters, akin to Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, and Disney hopes to revive the franchise and rekindle the Muppet magic.