Making the Grade: The Story of Lew Grade and THE MUPPET SHOW
Updated: Feb 3
By John C. Alsedek:
During the mid-1970s, I was in my tween years, and I guess my television viewing habits kind of reflected that. Oh sure, I was still watching a lot of the same things I’d been watching since my mid-to-late single digits: Dr. Shock’s Horror Theatre/Mad Theatre, The Twilight Zone, Ultraman. But thanks to cable, I was discovering new treasures. Some of them were reruns, such as Roger Moore’s The Saint and Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s live-action series UFO. But others were brand-new shows such as The Muppet Show and the Martin Landau/Barbara Bain vehicle Space: 1999. Little did I know at the time that I owed all these programs to the Charleston World Champion of 1926, the great Lew Grade.
Born in the Russian Empire on Christmas Day 1906, Grade (real name Louis Winogradsky) and his family fled the pogroms for London when he was five. A talented dancer in his youth, Grade spent years working as a talent agent before seeing the potential in the new medium of television. In 1954, he formed a consortium that became known as Incorporated Television Company (ITC) with the intention of syndicating British programs to the vast American market.
ITC joined forces with the Associated Broadcasting Development Company to create Associated Television (ATV), and in 1955 Grade had his first U.S. hit with The Adventures of Robin Hood. His star really took off in the sixties with the success of the Anderson’s Supermarionation shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds; the Patrick McGoohan duo of Danger Man (known as Secret Agent in the U.S.) and The Prisoner; and the aforementioned The Saint, which was syndicated in over 80 countries.
The early seventies weren’t quite as kind to Grade: programs such as UFO, its sort-of-sequel Space: 1999, and the Roger Moore/Tony Curtis adventure The Persuaders! underperformed expectations; while The Julie Andrews Hour landed seven Emmy Awards but only lasted one season. But he was still a major player, so, when Grade got in contact with Jim Henson about a series idea Henson had been unsuccessfully pitching to American networks, Henson listened.
What Henson had in mind was a variety series starring his Muppet characters, who would interact with human guest stars; Grade loved it and agreed to financially back Henson, with the stipulation that Henson would film in England at ATV’s Borehamwood studio. Thus began The Muppet Show, which aired from 1976 until 1981 and spawned a series of Muppet motion pictures.
The Muppet Show was a wryly satirical show that had a little something for everyone: the Muppets themselves for the kids, instantly recognizable guests for the adults, and a non-stop barrage of jokes for everyone. Presented as both a behind-the-scenes and performance look at the production of a vaudevillian variety show, each episode took place at the slightly dilapidated Muppet Theater, where harried showrunner/host Kermit the Frog did his best to keep things on track. Working against him, however, was basically everyone else, from superdiva Miss Piggy to the randomly chaotic Gonzo the Great. And making fun of it all were Statler & Waldorf, heckling from their box seats.
The list of guest stars was absolutely remarkable, as The Muppet Show quickly became a show everyone wanted to do. It featured comedians such as Steve Martin and Dom DeLuise, showbiz elders such as Ethel Merman and Vincent Price, pop singers such as Elton John and Diana Ross, contemporary stars such as Mark Hamill and Roger Moore, and British greats such as Michael Caine and John Cleese (Peter Sellers did an episode, but as various characters rather than as himself). Even Lew Grade got a wink and a nod, both by name (the fish-throwing Muppet Lew Zeeland) and in character (the movie mogul Lew Lord, as played by Orson Welles, in The Muppet Movie).
The Muppet Show was immensely successful, garnering an audience of over 14 million per episode in the U.K. within months of its premiere and eventually airing in over 100 countries. Besides its popular appeal, The Muppet Show was also an artistic success. The show won four Emmy Awards, three BAFTAs (British Academy Television Awards), a Peabody, and even a Grammy in the Best Recording for Children category.
For me, The Muppet Show remains one of the most joyfully fun shows to have ever been broadcast on television. I just went down a YouTube rabbit hole of Muppet Show clips and ended up on a clip with Rita Moreno singing "Fever" . . . only to get into a disagreement with drummer Animal (whose actual drumming was provided by British swing master Ronnie Verrell) when he kept upstaging her—a disagreement that ended badly for the fearsome Muppet. Just hilarious from start to finish!
As for Lew Grade . . . well, his fortunes went on the decline in the 1980s after he helmed a series of box-office disasters such as The Legend of the Lone Ranger and Raise the Titanic; of the latter, Grade commented, “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.” He ended up resigning from ITC, though he would eventually return to head the company a decade later. But it wasn’t all bad: two of the films he produced, On Golden Pond and Sophie’s Choice, ended up winning Academy Awards in the early eighties. And Grade produced Jim Henson’s first two big-screen productions, The Muppet Movie and The Dark Crystal. Grade died of heart failure on December 13th, 1998, just twelve days shy of his 92nd birthday.
One of the all-time great moments from The Muppet Show was a drum battle between Animal and jazz great Buddy Rich. Rich may have lost the battle when Animal smashed a snare drum over his head but was still widely considered to be perhaps the best drummer to have ever lived. We’ll be talking about the mercurial but vastly influential Rich next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.