Of how we met the Muppets, filled a few holes in the suitcase with yet more records, and farewell to Williamsburg…

As our last weekend began, we set off on the final visit plucked from our ‘to do’ list and one that we knew we couldn’t miss – the Museum of the Moving Image way up in Queens. There was a particular attraction drawing us there which I’ll get to shortly, but on arrival we soon learned that we were in the heart of the early East Coast movie-making scene, with the buildings all around MOMI once – and many still – dedicated to film studios. Indeed, if we’d known that this was where the Marx Brothers made their early films, we’d have been making a bee-line there, MOMI or no MOMI. The Museum foyer is in the spacious white box style, with an excellent cafe just made for recuperating from another walk in blistering heat. Refreshed, we headed straight for the exhibition that had caught our eye in the NY visitors’ guides – an exploration of the life and work of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. For both Mrs M and I, the Muppet Show was a staple part of our childhood TV watching, and introduced us to all kinds of obscure song genres. Sesame Street perhaps less so, as by the time it penetrated UK consciousness, we were slightly too old, though its principal characters were all familiar and much-loved characters. The permanent exhibition is superb, mixing displays of the original characters from the Henson family collection (some of them the second or third iteration after the originals just wore out), with archive material, film clips, and even the chance to make your own puppetry clip. Having been introduced to the Muppets purely on the basis of the TV show filmed in the UK, we were surprised to learn that they were familiar characters on US TV long before they got their own show, often appearing in TV variety shows and adverts, so the individual characters, particularly Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the piano playing dog, were well established before we got to know them. The delightful thing about Henson’s work, particularly with his wife, Jane, and later with collaborator, Frank Oz, is that the characters and sense of humour so accurately reflect the personalities of their creators. Even at their peak, the Muppets were a very personal cast of characters, rather than a brand sustained by a team of writers. After going round twice, we were left with a warm glow and the big question: why haven’t the Muppet Shows (or at least a selection of highlights) been released on DVD? With stellar guest appearances from the likes of Steve Martin and the late Robin Williams, surely these are treasures that would be in huge demand. One question that was answered, though, was that of whether ‘Muppet’ is a contraction of marionette and puppet – apparently not, although Jim Henson’s deep study of puppetry in all its form must surely have embedded the two words deep in his mind to pop out conjoined when he was looking for a name for his act, much as Gerry Anderson coined the term ‘Supermarionation’ to meld puppetry and big screen special effects for his series.

The rest of MOMI is equally fascinating, from the wonderfully kitsch screening room to the amazing collection of film-making artefacts, from merchandising (I wanted all of those metal lunch boxes, but especially the Howdy Doody one), wigs, make-up and special effects records, scripts (including an original from This Gun For Hire – enough to get any noir enthusiast excited), film fan magazines and front of house photos. There was also a huge display of original movie-making and protecting equipment, and a gorgeous selection of original TV sets, reminding me that the States were always streets ahead of we Brits in technology design in the 50s and 60s. Everything was beautifully displayed and lit, too, enhancing the aesthetic impact to add to the museum element.

Emerging into the Saturday lunchtime heat, we took a wander around Queens – unremarkable but also unspoiled, and providing us with a classic diner lunch to mark our visit. As we made our way back to Williamsburg along another elevated section of subway, I jumped out at Greenpoint to rescue a 45 we’d checked out on line and spotted as a worthwhile purchase, meeting up with the girls near the apartment in the Kellogg Diner in Williamsburg – wonderful original setting but (at least on this occasion) indifferent service which was a real shame as it would have made a fantastic venue for one of our last NY meals. Instead, we set off back to the East Side so that Mrs M could earn her spurs placing an order at Katz’s diner and we could enjoy another of their awesome bagels while taking in the neon after dark. As we made our way up north from Delancy Street along one of the side streets, we passed an empty lot where a Cuban band was filling the air with rhythms that drew us magnetically across. As we stopped to watch through the wire fence, the guy on the gate approached us presumably, we expected, to ask us to move on. Instead, he urged us to come in and join what was a free community event, with food and drink stalls around the outside and locals already starting to leave their seats to dance in the spaces around the edge. We stood entranced by the relaxed professionalism of all on stage, down to the small boy under tambourine training until, after a couple of numbers, we realised that we needed to get going if we were to be fed at Katz’s at any reasonable hour. “Hey, come back tomorrow”, cried our host as he bade us farewell, “There’s lots more going on”. Given the chance, we’d have stayed all week. Katz’s was slightly less frenetic than on our lunchtime visit and, armed with our newly-acquired expertise, Mrs M conjured up bagels, cheesecake, coffee and soda in a fraction of the time it had taken me. Stuffed to the gills and tired out, we collapsed onto the subway home.

We took our last day at a relaxed pace, revisiting some favourite Williamsburg spots, scoffing ice cream, and liberating another couple of handfuls of 45s from Human Head before dinner at our local favourite, Pies’n’Thighs. As we set off the following morning en route for JFK, it felt like we were saying goodbye to a neighbourhood where we’d quickly felt at home. Williamsburg still has an earthy urban feel to it – a summer evening walk takes you past tenement buildings with folk sitting out on the stoop, listening to music while old men play dominos on fold-up tables and children lark about in the water spurting from fire hydrants. It’s hugely diverse, but fortunately the hipster tribe are confined mainly to the principal shopping areas, leaving big areas to ordinary folk, and one feels no more at risk than in most areas of London or any other city. Indeed, we found New Yorkers a friendly bunch all round, some understandably preoccupied as they went about their business but many open for a chat and unfazed by our Englishness – none of that ‘Aw gee, I love your accent’ business that’s supposed to typify the Brit abroad, just nattering about music, buildings, food, history, Gene Hackman movies and all kinds of normal interesting stuff. Like London, though, the signs of creeping gentrification are there, and we sensed that it wouldn’t be long before Williamsburg – particularly around the subway line – became dominated by upmarket apartment buildings for Manhattan commuters, usurping local business for chain stores and pushing out the remaining local industries. Hopefully we’ll be back before that happens – after all, there’s bound to be record shops we haven’t visited yet.

And to finish, some of the random photos that didn’t fit anywhere else…