Elvis’ Three Appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show: Watch History in the Making and from the Waist Up (1956)

Oh, to be in the studio audience of CBS’ Television City in Hollywood on September 9th, 1956, to see Elvis Presley’s gyrating pelvis rocket him to superstardom on The Ed Sullivan Show.

His appearance made television history, but 60 million home viewers were left to fill in some major blanks, as the rising heartthrob was filmed from the waist up whenever he was in motion.

Sullivan had been hesitant to book Elvis, not wanting to court the outrage the magnetic young singer had sparked in two “suggestive” appearances on The Milton Berle Show earlier that year. Elvis, he told the press, was “not my cup of tea” and “wasn’t fit for family entertainment.”

Television host Steve Allen, presumably alert to similar red flags, attempted to skirt the issue by shoehorning Elvis into tie and tails to perform “Hound Dog” to an inattentive, top-hatted basset hound.

Elvis was displeased by this jokey spin, but submitted, and newcomer Allen’s ratings clobbered Sullivan’s that week.

Sullivan sent Steve Allen a telegram:

Steven Presley Allen, NBC TV, New York City. Stinker. Love and kisses. Ed Sullivan.

Whether Sullivan was throwing down a gauntlet, or delivering congratulations with a side of poor sportsmanship is somewhat unclear, but Sullivan was now ready to claim his stake, at ten times the price.

The $5,000 appearance fee that had been floated prior to Elvis’ appearance on The Milton Berle Show, had ballooned to the jaw dropping sum of $50,000 for 3 episodes.

Sullivan and Presley’s names are forever linked for that historic first appearance, but injuries from a car crash knocked the host out of commission. Actor Charles Laughton subbed in as host from Sullivan’s New York studio, and was charged with ushering in Elvis’s remote appearance in a very particular way.

As cultural critic Greil Marcus writes:

Presley was the headliner, and a Sullivan headliner normally opened the show, but Sullivan was burying him. Laughton had to make the moment invisible: to act as if nobody was actually waiting for anything. He did it instantly, with complete command, with the sort of television presence that some have and some — Steve Allen, or Ed Sullivan himself — don’t. It’s a sense of ease, a querulous interrogation of the medium itself, affirming one’s own odd, irreducible subjectivity against the objectivity enforced by any system of representations: that is, getting it across that at any moment that you might forget where you are and say whatever comes into your head, which was exactly what half the country hoped and half the country feared might be the case with Elvis Presley.

Laughton, who elsewhere in the show used a reading of James Thurber’s Red Riding Hood parody, “The Little Girl and the Wolf” to insinuate that “it’s not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be,” settled on a non-committal “and now, away to Hollywood to meet Elvis Presley!”

Elvis, clad in a non-threatening plaid jacket on a set trimmed with guitar-shaped cut outs, thanked Laughton, and wiped his brow:

Wow. This is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my life. Ah. There’s not much I can say except, it really makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our heart.

His first number, “Don’t Be Cruel,” had an immediate effect on the teenage girls in attendance, who knew what they were seeing.

“Thank you, ladies,” he said, coyly acknowledging what all knew to be true, before going on to debut the title song of the motion picture he was in town to film, Love Me Tender, his first of 31 such vehicles.

Disc jockeys tuned in to tape the unreleased song for play on their radio shows, shooting pre-sales up to nearly a million.

Later in the show Elvis returned to cover Little Richard’s hit, “Ready Teddy,” and wish the show’s regular host a swift recovery. And then:

As a great philosopher once said…’You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog!’

Cue screams.

A week later, The New York Times’ Jack Gould alleged that in booking Elvis, Sullivan had failed to “exercise good sense and display responsibility,” moralizing that “in some ways it was perhaps the most unpleasant of (the singer’s) recent three performances:

Mr. Presley initially disturbed adult viewers — and instantly became a martyr in the eyes of his teen- age following — for his striptease behavior on last spring’s Milton Berle program. Then with Steve Allen he was much more sedate. On the Sullivan program he injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful.

At least some parents are puzzled or confused by Presley’s almost hypnotic power; others are concerned; perhaps most are a shade disgusted and content to permit the Presley fad to play itself out.

Neither criticism of Presley nor of the teen-agers who admire him is particularly to the point. Presley has fallen into a fortune with a routine that in one form or another has always existed on the fringe of show business; in his gyrating figure and suggestive gestures the teen-agers have found something that for the moment seems exciting or important.

Cue more screams.

A month and a half after his first Sullivan Show booking, Elvis and Sullivan met in the New York studio for a follow up, along with a chaste youth choir, the Little Gaelic Singers, and ventriloquist Señor Wences(S’alright? S’alright.)

“Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Hound Dog” were on the menu again, along with a brand new release — “Love Me,” above.

Señor Wences was not the tough act to follow here.

The appearance resulted in more wildly high ratings for Sullivan, and a growing awareness of the perils of rock n’ roll, as embodied by Elvis’ well lubricated nether regions, which the camera, fooling no one, again shied from at crucial moments.

Cue another million teenage fan club enrollments, as well as parents, clergy and other concerned citizens who came together to burn the singer in effigy in Nashville and St. Louis.

Nearly as notable, from the perspective of 2021, was the public service Elvis performed backstage, allowing himself to be photographed receiving the polio vaccine, in hopes his legions of admirers would follow suit.

Elvis’ third visit to Sullivan’s show, January 6th, 1957, would prove to be his last, owing to the astronomical fee his manager Colonel Tom Parker set for future television appearances: $300,000 with the promise of two guest spots and an hour-long special. An attempt to book Elvis for Sullivan’s 10th anniversary celebration, was thwarted by the fact that Elvis was abroad, serving in the Army.

Another massive audience tuned in for another helping of hits — “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” as well as newer material — “Too Much” and “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again.”

Between songs, Sullivan advised the swooning teenagers to rest their larynxes and introduced Elvis’ performance of the gospel standard, “Peace in the Valley,” by urging viewers to contribute to a Hungarian refugee relief fund Elvis supported.

While many fans persist in the belief that the gospel number was included as an affectionate nod to the singer’s beloved mother, Gladys, a letter from Colonel Parker’s assistant to Elvis suggests that the choice had more to do with his host:

Mr. Sullivan thought it might be very appropriate for you to sing a hymn or a semi-religious song on the show. You certainly can sing a hymn very effectively and I think it would make a very strong impression on all the viewers. It has been suggested that a song like ‘Peace in the Valley’ might be held in readiness. We have obtained the music on this song and are forwarding it to you.”

This time, home viewers really were left to guess what was going on below the star’s sequined vest and open collared blouse, described by Marcus as “the outlandish costume of a pasha, if not a harem girl:”

From the make-up over his eyes, the hair falling in his face, the overwhelmingly sexual cast of his mouth, he was playing Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, with all stops out. That he did so in front of the Jordanaires, who this night appeared as the four squarest-looking men on the planet, made the performance even more potent.

Sullivan’s first co-producer, Marlo Lewis, intimated that the decision to formalize a waist-up policy for Elvis’ third visit was sparked by a rumor that had dogged his prior appearances. To wit:

Elvis has been hanging a small soft-drink bottle from his groin underneath his pants, and when he wiggles his leg it looks as though his pecker reaches down to his knee! 

Meanwhile, it appeared Sullivan was no longer willing to be lumped in with Elvis’ detractors, closing the show by saying:

I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy, and wherever you go, Elvis, we want to say we’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you. So now let’s have a tremendous hand for a very nice person!

Had Elvis won him over, or was it, as cultural critic Tim Parrish asserts, that Colonel Parker, “had threatened to remove Elvis from the show if Sullivan did not apologize for telling the press that Elvis’s ‘gyrations’ were immoral.”

Watch all of Elvis Presley’s performances on The Ed Sullivan Show in HD here.

For a glimpse of the 1956 Gibson J-200 Elvis played in that final appearance, and speculation as to whether he crossed paths with fellow guests Carol Burnett and Lena Horne, watch Graceland archivist Angie Marchese’s show and tell of ephemera related to his stints on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Related Content:

The Last Great Moment of Elvis Presley’s Musical Career: Watch His Extraordinary Performance of “Unchained Melody” (1977)

Elvis Presley Gets the Polio Vaccine on The Ed Sullivan Show, Persuading Millions to Get Vaccinated (1956)

The Night Ed Sullivan Scared a Nation with the Apocalyptic Animated Short, A Short Vision (1956)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

“The Hippie Temptation”: An Angst-Ridden CBS TV Show Warns of the Risks of LSD (1976)

To lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, we owe much of what has endured from Western popular culture of the mid-20th century: consider, for instance, the latter half of the Beatles’ oeuvre. In Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald describes LSD as “a powerful hallucinogen whose function is temporarily to dismiss the brain’s neural concierge, leaving the mind to cope as it can with sensory information which meanwhile enters without prior arrangement — an uncensored experience of reality which profoundly alters one’s outlook on it.”

So profound is that alteration that some came to believe in a utopia achievable through universal ingestion of the drug: “If there be necessary revolution in America,” declared Allen Ginsberg, “it will come this way.” But most Americans didn’t see it quite the same way. It was for them that CBS made its broadcast “The Hippie Temptation.” Aired in August 1967, three months after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, it constitutes an exposé of LSD-fueled youth culture as it effervesced at the time in and around San Francisco’s countercultural mecca of Haight-Ashbury.

“The hippies present a strange problem,” says correspondent Harry Reasoner, later known as the host of 60 Minutes. “Our society has produced them. There they are, in rapidly increasing numbers. And yet there seem to be very few definite ideas behind the superficial glitter of their dress and behavior.” In search of the core of the hippie ideology, which seems outwardly to involve “standing apart from society by means of mutual help and love,” Reasoner and his collaborators delve into the nature of LSD, whose users “may see a wild complexity of images, hear a multiplicity of sounds. This is called ‘taking an acid trip.'”

Alas, “for many, the price of taking the shortcut to discovery the hippies put forward turns out to be very high.” A young doctor from UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute named Duke Fisher argues that most LSD users “talk about loving humanity in general, an all-encompassing love of the world, but they have a great deal of difficulty loving one other person, or loving that specific thing.” Also included in “The Hippie Temptation” are interviews with young people (albeit ones cleaner-cut than the average denizen of late-60s Haight-Ashbury) placed into medical facilities due to hallucinogen-related mishaps, including suicide attempts.

“There is the real danger that more and more young people may follow the call to turn on, tune in, drop out,” Reasoner declares, in keeping with the broadcast’s portentous tone. Even then there were signs of what MacDonald calls “the hippie counterculture’s incipient commercialization and impending decline into hard drugs.” But to this day, “that there was indeed something unusual in the air can still be heard from many of the records of the period: a light, joyous optimism with a tangible spiritual aura and a thrillingly fresh informality” — a quality MacDonald finds concentrated in the work of not just The Beatles but the Grateful Dead, who sit for an interview in “The Hippie Temptation.” LSD may no longer be as tempting as it was half a century ago, but many of the creations it inspired then still have us hooked today.

via Laughing Squid

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Rare Footage Shows US and British Soldiers Getting Dosed with LSD in Government-Sponsored Tests (1958 + 1964)

R. Crumb Describes How He Dropped LSD in the 60s & Instantly Discovered His Artistic Style

New LSD Research Provides the First Images of the Brain on Acid, and Hints at Its Potential to Promote Creativity

When the Grateful Dead Performed on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark & Secretly Dosed Everyone With LSD (1969)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Witness Maya Angelou & James Baldwin’s Close Friendship in a TV Interview from 1975

In the mid-50s, Maya Angelou accepted a role as a chorus member in an international touring production of the opera, Porgy and Bess:

I wanted to travel, to try to speak other languages, to see the cities I had read about all my life, but most important, I wanted to be with a large, friendly group of Black people who sang so gloriously and lived with such passion.

On a stopover in Paris, she met James Baldwin, who she remembered as “small and hot (with) the movements of a dancer.”

The two shared a love of poetry and the arts, a deep curiosity about life, and a passionate commitment to Black rights and culture. They forged a connection that would last the rest of their lives.

In 1968, when Angelou despaired over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin did what he could to lift her spirits, including escorting her to a dinner party where she captivated the other guests with her anecdotal storytelling, paving a path to her celebrated first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The book wouldn’t have been written, however, without some discreet behind-the-scenes meddling by Baldwin.

Angelou considered herself a poet and a playwright, and resisted repeated attempts by fellow dinner party guest, Random House editor Robert Loomis, to secure her autobiography.

As Angelou later discovered, Baldwin counseled Loomis that a different strategy would produce the desired result. His dear friend might not conceive of herself as a memoirist, but would almost assuredly respond to reverse psychology, for instance, a statement that no autobiography could compete as literature.

As Angelou recalled:

I said, ‘Well, hmmm, maybe I’ll try it.’ The truth is that (Loomis) had talked to James Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it.’

“This testimony from a Black sister marks the beginning of a new era in the minds and hearts and lives of all Black men and women,” Baldwin enthused upon its publication.

They became siblings of affinity. Witness their easy rapport on the 1975 episode of Assignment America, above.

Every episode centered on someone who had made an important contribution to the ideas and issues of America, and Angelou, who alternated hosting duties with psycho-historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, columnist George Will, and oral historian Studs Terkel, landed an extremely worthy subject in Baldwin.

Their friendship made good on the promise of her hopes for that European tour of Porgy and Bess.

Their candid discussion covers a lot of overlapping ground: love, death, race, aging, sexual identity, success, writing, and the closeness of Baldwin’s family — whom Angelou adored.

Those of us in the generations who came after, who became acquainted with Angelou, the commanding, supremely dignified elder stateswoman, commanding more authority and respect than any official Poet Laureate, may be surprised to see her MO as interviewer, giggling and teasing, functioning as the chorus in a room where code switching is most definitely not a thing:

Baldwin: I think…the only way to live is knowing you’re going to die. If you’re afraid to die, you’ll never be able to live. 

Angelou: Hey, hey!

Baldwin: You know. 

Angelou: Hey, hey.

Baldwin: And nobody knows anything about that. 

Angelou: Yes, yes, yes.

She poses great questions, and listens without interrupting to her friend’s thoughtfully composed answers, for instance, his description of his family’s response to his decision to base himself in France, far from their Harlem home:

Sweetheart, you have to understand, um, you have to understand what happens to my mother’s telephone when I’m in town. People will call up and say what they will do to me. It doesn’t make me shut up. You, you also gotta remember that I’ve been writing, after all, between assassinations. If you were my mother or my brother, you would think, who’s next?

There’s a lot of food for thought in that reply. The familiar connection between interviewer and subject, both towering figures of American literature, brings a truly rare dimension, as when Angelou shares how Baldwin’s older brothers would reserve a part of the proceeds from selling coal in the winter and ice in the summer to send to Baldwin:

In France! I mean to think of a Black American family in Harlem, who had no pretensions to great literature… and to have the oldest boy leave home and go to Paris, France, and then for them to save up enough pennies and nickels and dimes to send a check of $150 to him, in Paris, France!

Baldwin: That’s what people, that’s what people don’t really know about us. 

Angelou: One of the things I think, I mean I believe that we are America. It is true. 

Baldwin: You believe it? 

Angelou: Well. 

Baldwin: I know it. 

Related Content: 

Maya Angelou Reads “Still I Rise” and “On the Pulse of the Morning”

Watch a Never-Aired TV Profile of James Baldwin (1979)

James Baldwin Talks About Racism in America & Civil Rights Activism on The Dick Cavett Show (1969)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Jim Henson’s Farewell: Revisit the “Nice, Friendly” Memorial Service at St. John the Divine (1990)

Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it. — Jim Henson

Born in Greenville, Mississippi, Jim Henson spent his youth practicing the tenets of Christian Science, a faith he would officially renounce in 1975. But the power of positive thinking his early religion years instilled would persist, romanticized by his alter-ego, Kermit the Frog, and tempered by foils like the earthy, irascible Ms. Piggy. For every foul-mouthed Oscar the Grouch, there was always a lovable Big Bird, “Jim taught us many things: to save the planet, be kind to each other, praise God, and be silly,” said Muppet writer Jerry Juhl at Henson’s 1990 New York City memorial service. “That’s how I’ll remember him — as a man who was balanced effortlessly and gracefully between the sacred and the silly.”

Henson’s first memorial, held at the cavernous Cathedral of St. John the Divine bore witness to Juhl’s portrait of the late, brilliant creator’s legacy. In true Henson fashion, the puppeteer directed the event himself from beyond the grave, a final lighthearted joke, as he had written in a letter to his family four years earlier: “It feels strange writing this while I am still alive, but it wouldn’t be easy after I go …. This all may seem silly to you guys, but what the hell, I’m gone and who can argue with me?”

By “this all,” Henson meant a funeral service in which guests were forbidden to wear black and asked to mourn and celebrate to the tunes of a Dixieland brass band: “A nice, friendly little service,” he wrote in his instructions, with a “rousing” soundtrack.

To the sounds of jazz, his friends and family added — of course — the songs that defined Henson’s career, including “Sunny Day,” the Sesame Street theme song, Muppets anthem “The Rainbow Connection,” and — in a second memorial service held two months later at St. Paul’s in London — Kermit the Frog’s anthem, “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (above) sung by Big Bird and Oscar puppeteer Caroll Spinney. (Spinney passed away in 2019.) Both Henson memorials were solemn (unavoidable given the occasion and the venues) but also decidedly silly, as story after story about the man poured forth from those who knew him best.

In the Defunctland video at the top, you can see Henson’s friend and frequent collaborator Juhl take the pulpit at St. John the Divine to tell his favorite Henson story of working on their first show in 1955, Sam and Friends, a local Washington, D.C. live-action/puppet program that gave birth to Kermit. Doubting the joke at the heart of a sketch, Juhl went to Henson with his misgivings; and Henson replied, “It’s a terrible joke, but it’s worthy of us.” The laughter that rumbles through the crowd is characteristic of both funeral services, which feel far more intimate than they are. Or as Henson’s son Brian says in his tribute, “Sorry Dad. Little service, big place.” See the full New York funeral service for Henson just below.

Related Content:

Witness the Birth of Kermit the Frog in Jim Henson’s Live TV Show, Sam and Friends (1955)

Jim Henson Creates an Experimental Animation Explaining How We Get Ideas (1966)

The Creative Life of Jim Henson Explored in a Six-Part Documentary Series

Watch Blondie’s Debbie Harry Perform “Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show (1981)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Death of Soap Operas (Is Greatly Exaggerated) — Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #105

Writers Sarahlyn Bruck and Kayla Dreysse join your host Mark Linsenmayer to discuss how this once very popular TV show type has simultaneously become niche, yet has had a tremendous influence on current prestige TV as well as reality shows. We talk about soaps’ story and structure conventions, the demands on soap actors and writers, and how changing market forces and technology have affected the genre. How much of a role does sexism play in the critical dismissal of soaps?

In addition to the daytime soaps like General Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful, we touch on nighttime soaps like Dallas, teen soaps like Beverly Hills 90210, Downton Abbey, White Orchid, Breaking Bad, 24, Gray’s Anatomy, and more.

Get Sarahlyn’s novel Daytime Drama and follow her at @sarahlynbruck.

We all watched the 2020 documentary The Story of Soaps, which is available on YouTube. A fun podcast Mark listened to some of is A Trip Down Soap Lane.

Other sources that inspired us included:

Sample the Muppets’ fake soap opera that Mark’s intro references.

This episode includes bonus discussion you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop or by choosing a paid subscription through Apple Podcasts. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Elvis Presley Gets the Polio Vaccine on The Ed Sullivan Show, Persuading Millions to Get Vaccinated (1956)

No one living has experienced a viral event the size and scope of COVID-19. Maybe the unprecedented nature of the pandemic explains some of the vaccine resistance. Diseases of such virulence became rare in places with ready access to vaccines, and thus, ironically, over time, have come to seem less dangerous. But there are still many people in wealthy nations who remember polio, an epidemic that dragged on through the first half of the 20th century before Jonas Salk perfected his vaccine in the mid-fifties.

Polio’s devastation has been summed up visually in textbooks and documentaries by the terrifying iron lung, an early ventilator. “At the height of the outbreaks in the late 1940s,” Meilan Solly writes at Smithsonian, “polio paralyzed an average of more than 35,000 people each year,” particularly affecting children, with 3,000 deaths in 1952 alone. “Spread virally, it proved fatal for two out of ten victims afflicted with paralysis. Though millions of parents rushed to inoculate their children following the introduction of Jonas Salk’s vaccine in 1955, teenagers and young adults had proven more reluctant to get the shot.”

At the time, there were no violent, organized protests against the vaccine, nor was resistance framed as a patriotic act of political loyalty. But “cost, apathy and ignorance became serious setbacks to the eradication effort,” says historian Stephen Mawdsley. And, then as now, irresponsible media personalities with large platforms and little knowledge could do a lot of harm to the public’s confidence in life-saving public health measures, as when influential gossip columnist Walter Winchell wrote that the vaccine “may be a killer,” discouraging countless readers from getting a shot.

When Elvis Presley made his first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show in 1956, “immunization levels among American teens were at an abysmal 0.6 percent,” note Hal Hershfield and Ilana Brody at Scientific American. To counter impressions that the polio vaccine was dangerous, public health officials did not solely rely on getting more and better information to the public; they also took seriously what Hershfield and Brody call the “crucial ingredients inherent to many of the most effective behavioral change campaigns: social influence, social norms and vivid examples.” Satisfying all three, Elvis stepped up and agreed to get vaccinated “in front of millions” backstage before his second appearance on the Sullivan show.

Elvis could not have been more famous, and the campaign was a success for its target audience, establishing a new social norm through influence and example: “Vaccination rates among American youth skyrocketed to 80 percent after just six months.” Despite the threat he supposedly posed to the establishment, Elvis himself was ready to serve the public. “I certainly never wanna do anything,” he said, “that would be a wrong influence.” See in the short video at the top how American public health officials stopped millions of preventable deaths and disabilities by admitting a fact propagandists and advertisers never shy from — humans, on the whole, are easily persuaded by celebrities. Sometimes they can even be persuaded for the good.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Prince Appear on the Muppets Tonight Show & Reveal His Humble, Down-to-Earth Side (1997)

From Frog to Prince: We will always love your music and you. Our hearts are yours. Thanks for being a friend.
 Kermit the Frog, April 21, 2016

There was a time when sharing the screen with the Muppets was the ultimate celebrity status symbol.

Prince never appeared on The Muppet Show — 1999, the 1982 album that made him a household name, was released the year after the series concluded its run – but he got his chance fifteen years later, with an appearance on the shorter lived Muppets Tonight.

In a tribute written shortly after Prince’s death, Muppets Tonight writer Kirk Thatcher recalled:

We were very excited that Prince had agreed to do our Muppet comedy and variety show but had been told by his managers and support staff before we met with him that we must never look at him directly or call him anything but, “The Artist” or just, “Artist”. As the writers of the show, we were wondering how we were going to work or collaborate with someone you can’t even look at, especially while trying to create comedy with puppets!

His staff sent an advance team to make sure the working environment would be to his liking, special food and drink was laid in at his request, and the scripts of sketches that had been written for him were sent ahead for his approval. 

The Muppets’ crew grew even more nervous when Prince asked for a meeting the night before the scheduled shoot day. Thatcher had “visions of him trashing everything and forcing us to start over,” adding that it would not have been the first time a guest star would have insisted on a total overhaul at zero hour.

Instead of the monster they’d been bracing for, Prince — who Thatcher described as “only half again bigger than most of the Muppets” —  proved a game if somewhat “bemused” and “quiet” collaborator:

He had fun additions and improvs and loved playing and ad-libbing with the puppets and was very easy to talk to and work with. The whole situation with his advance team and management reminded me of the relationship I had created between Kermit and Sam the Eagle in Muppet Treasure Island. Sam had convinced everyone that Kermit, playing Captain Smollet, was a furious and angry tyrant, beset by inner demons and outer tirades. But when we meet him, he was just good, old, sweet-natured Kermit the Frog… just in a captains outfit. The same for Prince. He was just a nice, fun, creative guy who had built this persona around himself, and had a team there to reinforce it, probably to protect his art, his personal life and even his sanity.

The episode riffed on his established image, shoehorning Muppets into a “leather and lace” look that Prince himself had moved on from, and cracking jokes related to the unpronounceable “Love Symbol” to which he’d changed his name four years earlier.

Naturally, they plumbed his catalogue for musical numbers, having particular fun with “Starfish and Coffee,” which features a proto-Prince Muppet and an alternate origin story.

(The actual origin story is pretty great, and provides another tiny glimpse of this mysterious artist’s true nature.)

The show also afforded Prince the opportunity to chart some unexpected territory with Hoo Haw, a spoof of the countrified TV variety show Hee Haw.

If you’ve ever wondered how The Purple One would look in overalls and a plaid button down, here’s your chance to find out.

Related Content: 

Watch Blondie’s Debbie Harry Perform “Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show (1981)

Watch a New Director’s Cut of Prince’s Blistering “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” Guitar Solo (2004)

Prince’s First Television Interview (1985)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Anthony Bourdain’s First Food-and-Travel Series A Cook’s Tour Free Online (2002-03)

At the time of his death in 2018, Anthony Bourdain was quite possibly the most famous cook in the world. Without question he held the title of the most famous cook-traveler, a status resting primarily on No Reservations and Parts Unknown, the television shows he hosted on the Travel Chanel and CNN, respectively. But it all began with A Cook’s Tour, which the Food Network originally broadcast in 2002 and 2003. That series, Bourdain’s very first, took him from Japan to Morocco to Mexico to Australia to Thailand — and through many points in between — in search of the world’s most stimulating eating experiences.

Now A Cook’s Tour has come available free to watch on Youtube, thanks to the streaming channel GoTraveler (who also offer the show through their own service). A Portuguese slaughtering-and-roasting party; vodka-fueled ice fishing in St. Petersburg; an exploration of the American “Barbecue Triangle” constituted by Kansas City, Houston, and North Carolina; and a best-faith effort to lose himself in Chiang Mai: if you caught these or other of Bourdain’s early international culinary adventures those nearly twenty years ago, you can relive them, and if you missed out, you can enjoy them for the first time.

During the launch phase of his rise to fame (after decades of restaurant work and years of writing, an effort that first produced a couple of food-themed murder-mystery novels), Bourdain managed to tap into a new wave of gastronomic interest then rising in America. He did so with a street-smart sense of humor that appealed even to viewers with no particular investment in the world of cooking and dining, as long as they had an interest in the world itself. With A Cook’s Tour, he took food television out of the kitchen — way out of the kitchen — and over the eighteen years since its conclusion, the series’ influence has become so pervasive as almost to be invisible. Anthony Bourdain may be gone, but parts of his personality live on in every high-profile traveler out there cooking, eating, and getting lost today.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.