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495 Topics: Famous Americans – Jim Henson and The Muppets; The Doors; peculiar versus freaky; ambiance versus environment; to wet (one’s) whistle

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 495.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café number 495. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Go to our website at ESLPod.com. Become a member of ESL Podcast and download a Learning Guide for this episode.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about Jim Henson, creator of something called the Muppets. We’re also going to talk about another Jim, related to the rock band the Doors. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Jim Henson was born on September 24th, 1936, in the state of Mississippi. Mississippi is located in the southern part of the United States, the southeastern part of the United States, which we typically in American English refer to simply as “the South,” even though it’s actually the southeast part of the country.

When Henson was 10 years old, he and his family moved to the state of Maryland, which is located near our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. In fact, they moved to what was basically a suburb of the capital. A “suburb” (suburb) is a small town or community that is next to or very close to a larger city. Henson’s father worked for the federal government. He worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Agriculture” refers to the growing of food, basically.

When Henson was growing up, he was always interested in art and in a relatively new communication form: television. When he was in high school, he began performing on a local television show in Washington, D.C. His performance used puppets. A “puppet” (puppet) is a model of a person or an animal that is controlled so that it looks like the person or animal is moving and talking. Usually puppets are controlled either by using strings, small pieces of wire that are attached to the puppet in order to move it, or with a hand inside of the puppet.

In 1954, Henson was asked to create a show that would be on television two times a day for five minutes – so, a very short program. This program was to have puppets, because Henson was considered very talented in the use of puppets. So, Henson created this show called Sam and Friends with his future wife, Jane. The two of them came up with the ideas and the characters for the show.

Henson called his puppets “Muppets,” which is a combination of two words: “marionette” and “puppet.” A “marionette” (marionette) is a small wooden toy that is controlled from above using strings that are attached to the arms, legs, and head. The Muppets on Sam and Friends were early versions of what would later become more popular characters that were also called Muppets.

The Muppets themselves, the actual puppets, were made out of different materials, including rubber, fabric, and plastic. Each Muppet was controlled by strings, with each string requiring one human hand to use. This meant that if you saw a Muppet moving both arms and head, there were three hands that were required (which is to say at least two people).

The main person controlling the Muppet would also be, in the productions by Jim Henson originally, the voice of the Muppet. This means that the person would speak the lines that the Muppet said. Henson continued this early version of the Muppets under the name Sam and Friends throughout his college years at the University of Maryland up through 1960. In 1961, Henson began performing with his Muppets on national television programs such as a morning program called The Today Show, as well as an evening program called The Jack Paar Show.

In 1963, Henson moved his family to New York City to continue working in television. He and his co-creator, Jane Nebel, married in 1959 and had three children by 1963. They had two more boys later. By 1970, then, the Henson family consisted of five children. In 1966, Henson was asked by a television producer – someone who makes television programs – to create a group of characters for a new children’s education television show. The show was called Sesame Street.

Sesame Street aired – that is, it was shown on television – beginning in 1969, when I was about five years old. It became an instant success – that is, it became popular almost immediately with young children. Interestingly enough, though, I don’t remember watching Sesame Street myself as a child. I remember it later when I was in grade school and high school, but I don’t remember watching it in 1969 – but then again, I don’t remember many things from the time I was five years old.

Sesame Street, however, was not just a puppet show. It used, and continues to use, real actors mixed with Muppets or puppets. The purpose of this show was to teach children letters of the alphabet, numbers, words, good behavior, and other sorts of skills you would want to teach young children.

The Muppets Henson created for the show have become famous all over the world. In English, the characters are given names such as Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Elmo, Grover, Bert, Ernie, and everyone’s favorite, Oscar the Grouch. A “grouch” (grouch) is a person who’s never happy, a person who’s always mad or upset, a person who’s always in a bad mood.

Henson believed that his Muppets would appeal to, or would be popular with, adults as well as children. So he began trying to find someone who would produce or make a television show for adults that had his Muppets in it. It took him two years to find a company. It wasn’t an American company. It was an English company that agreed to make the show. Henson called the show The Muppet Show, and it ran, or was shown, from 1976 to 1981. Now this I do remember, because The Muppet Show was on television when I was in high school, and it certainly was very popular here in the United States.

The show was basically about a theater that produced a weekly musical or comedy show, so it was a show about a show. It involved singing and dancing and showed all of the problems that would happen, or might happen, behind the scenes of a theater production. “Behind the scenes” (scenes) means things that happen without the general public seeing it – things that happen that nobody knows about.

The characters were mostly Muppets each week. However, there would also be a famous actor or actress who would join the show. The Muppet Show featured Muppets such as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, and the Swedish Chef. When I say the show “featured” these characters, I mean that these characters were the most important ones, the main focus.

The show eventually was on television not just in the United States, but in more than 100 countries, perhaps your own country. Henson, then, and his Muppets became famous internationally. During the 1980s, Henson created three Muppet movies as well as a magazine for children that featured the Muppets.

He created another puppet show called Fraggle Rock and an animated television show called Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies. An “animated (animated) show” is a show where there aren’t live actors or even real puppets, but rather drawings like cartoons. In the late 1980s, Henson began negotiating with Disney to have Disney buy or purchase the rights to the Muppets. “To negotiate” (negotiate) means to try to reach an agreement with someone about something. The “rights” are the permissions to use the images and ideas of a certain creative product.

Henson, then, was becoming an international success and a very rich person in addition. However, money isn’t everything. On May 4th, 1990, Henson came down with a sore throat and began to feel somewhat sick. When I say he “came down with a sore throat,” I mean he began to get sick. His throat began to bother him. It began to hurt. He didn’t think it was anything serious, and so he didn’t go to the doctor over the next 10 days, but he became sicker and sicker, and eventually he was unable to leave his bed.

Finally, on May 15th, he went to the hospital. By this time, however, it was too late. Henson died on the 16th of May. His sore throat was actually a very bad infection caused by a certain kind of bacteria called “streptococcus,” or more commonly “strep (strep) throat.” Doctors believed that if he had gone to the hospital when he first got sick he probably would have survived. However, many of us gets sore throats and we don’t think it’s anything very serious, but this unfortunately was very serious and it cost Jim Henson his life.

In 2004, more than 20 years later, the company that Jim Henson started along with his family finally finished the negotiations they had started with Disney many years ago and sold the rights to the Muppets to Disney Company. Even though Disney now owns the Muppets, Henson’s memory lives on today through those characters. They can still be found on the children’s television show Sesame Street and in movies and clips, or parts, of old Muppet shows that you can find on television and on the Internet.

Let’s turn now to another Jim, but not a puppeteer – rather, a popular rock musician. I’m referring to Jim Morrison and the rock group the Doors. The Doors were what we would describe as a “psychedelic rock band” in the 1960s and 1970s. The word “psychedelic” (psychedelic) means relating to certain drugs that produce visions and are supposed to make a person more aware of himself and the world around him.

Psychedelic drugs often give people what are called “hallucinations.” They think something is real when it isn’t. “Psychedelic rock” was a kind of music that was supposed to appeal to someone on psychedelic drugs. There were several rock bands in the late ’60s and early ’80s that produced music of this kind, including Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, and to a lesser extent, the Beatles. These bands and artists made music that was influenced in part by what was sometimes called the “drug culture” of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Doors first got together as a band, as a musical group, in 1965 when a musician by the name of Rick Manzarek asked Jim Morrison to join his band. The band at the time was called Rick and the Ravens. A “raven” (raven) is a kind of bird. Manzarek and Morrison had met each other when they were college students here in Los Angeles. In fact, they were both studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, a public university here. Morrison had not planned on becoming a singer, but Manzarek convinced him that his poems would make great songs.

Manzarek and Morrison then asked a another musician – Robye Krieger, a guitarist – and a drummer by the name of John Densmore to join them. They chose to call their new band the Doors. Why the Doors? Well, it was actually after a book written by a famous writer, Aldous Huxley, called The Doors of Perception.

The Doors of Perception was published in the mid 1950s by Aldous Huxley, about Huxley’s experience taking a kind of drug called “mescaline.” This was a drug that made people hallucinate. As I mentioned earlier, “to hallucinate” (hallucinate) means to see things or experience visions of things that are not there, things that are in your imagination, basically. Well, Huxley experimented with drugs back in the ’50s and wrote about his experiences, and it was that book that the Doors used to get the title of their new band.

The band began performing around Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a very popular place for people to begin their musical careers – at least, it was during the mid and late parts of the twentieth century. One of the places where the band performed was a nightclub, a bar, called Whisky a Go Go – then and now one of the most famous bars in Los Angeles.

Whisky a Go Go is sometimes called a “nightclub,” which is basically an area that has music or entertainment along with alcoholic drinks and usually dancing of some sort. Whisky a Go Go is located on a famous street here in Los Angeles called Sunset Boulevard. In this particular area of Sunset Boulevard, where you can find a lot of bars and nightclubs is called the Sunset Strip (strip). A “strip” is just an area along a certain street or boulevard.

After one of their performances here in Los Angeles, the Doors were offered a record deal from a national record company called Elektra. A “record deal” (deal) is an agreement to, of course, record music and sell it. The Doors’ first album was released, or began to be sold, in 1967 and featured three of their most famous songs: “Break On Through to the Other Side,” “Light my Fire,” and “The End.”

The band quickly became popular, especially with young people. The lyrics of the Doors’ songs, the words to the songs, were about things that appealed to young people, including experiences with drugs and sex and being free to do whatever you want. The songs, however, were not just traditional rock ’n’ roll songs. They combined elements of blues, of jazz, and even classical music.

From 1967 to 1971, the Doors produced six albums. These albums contained other songs that people now associate with the Doors, including “People Are Strange,” “Hello, I Love You,” and “Riders on the Storm.” “Riders on the Storm . . .” You know, that one.

The Doors were famous for more than just their music, however. The style of performance, especially by Jim Morrison, was something that people often were attracted to. His voice, the lyrics of the songs, the way he behaved onstage, made him very different than many other artists at this time. As the Doors became more successful, however, Morrison, like a lot of famous rock stars, became more unpredictable. He had a lot of personal problems and – once again, like many rock musicians – had problems, especially with alcohol and drug use.

In 1969, he was even arrested by the police in Miami. In 1971, Morrison moved to Paris, France, to try to get away from some of the craziness of his rock life. He decided he would focus instead on writing poetry – the kind of poetry that was used in the songs, but this time without music. However, on July third, 1971, he was found dead in his apartment. He was 27 years old.

At the time, doctors said that his heart had stopped. Most people assume that this was because he was using drugs, but this was never proven, at least from the medical evidence, and whenever there is a mystery about how someone dies, there are people with theories (most of them a bit crazy) about how the death took place.

After Morrison’s death, the Doors as a group actually released two more albums. Manzarek and the two other musicians decided to sing the songs themselves instead of replacing Morrison. However, those albums were never very successful because Morrison really was the key element in the group.

In 1991, filmmaker Oliver Stone made a movie called The Doors, with Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. The other members of the Doors, however, were not very happy with the movie and how it portrayed Morrison. “To portray” (portray) means to describe someone, especially in a work of art or literature. The Doors were made members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. They were, we would say, “inducted” into the Hall of Fame. “To be inducted” (inducted) here means to be included in a certain group or to be admitted to a certain organization.

The founder of the Doors, Rick Manzarek, himself died just a few years ago, in the year 2013, of cancer. If you are familiar with American music at all from the ’60s and ’70s, you’re probably familiar with the Doors, and now you know a little bit about the life of those who were in the band.

Now let’s answer a few of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Pisho (Pisho) from an unknown country – Country X, we’ll call it. Pisho wants to know the difference between “peculiar” and “freaky.” Well, let’s start with “peculiar” (peculiar).

“Peculiar” usually means something that is not normal, something that is different from the typical case. It could also be used to mean special or specific. “I have a peculiar sense of humor.” It’s different. It’s not normal. It’s not like other people’s sense of humor. It doesn’t mean something bad. It doesn’t mean a negative characteristic of a person or thing. It just means it’s very different. There’s an older expression, “How peculiar,” which isn’t used much anymore, but it expresses the same idea of how different, how unusual a certain situation or circumstance is.

The word “freaky” is also used to describe something that is strange or not normal, but it almost always has a negative connotation – that is, a negative meaning. If you say something is freaky, you usually mean it’s scary or it’s frightening. You could also use this adjective to describe a situation that is highly improbable or very unlikely. It would be freaky, for example, to be hit by lightning in a storm twice on the same day. That would be very, very unusual (and of course very, very bad for your health).

If you describe a person as freaky, you’re usually providing a negative description of them, emphasizing their strangeness, their weirdness, perhaps – how they are somehow frightening.

Our next question comes from Vitek (Vitek) in the Czech Republic. This question has to do with two words, “ambience” (ambience) and “environment” (environment). Let’s start with “ambience.” “Ambience” is a mood or a feeling of a particular place. It’s not referring to the physical aspect of a place, although the two are related. Instead, it refers more to the kind of emotion or the kinds of feelings that you would have in this place. If you say a restaurant has a “nice ambience” or a “calming ambience,” you are describing how you would feel or how you do feel in that particular place.

The word “environment” is more generally referring to the conditions of something, including the physical conditions of a place, although it could also refer to other kinds of conditions or situations. We can use the word “environment” to talk about the natural environment – trees, oceans, rivers, that sort of thing. We could also talk about the environment in an office: whether people are happy with each other, whether people are angry with each other, whether they cooperate. That might also be a use of the word “environment” – to describe a certain set of circumstances or relationships.

We use the word “environment” much more often than we use the word “ambience,” both to describe physical properties of a place as well as the emotional or psychological aspects of being in a certain area or a certain place. Some people would say, for example, that Los Angeles is in a good environment for bringing up children, for raising children. We are referring to the situation – not just physically, but socially – of the city. So, “environment” is used much more broadly than “ambience.”

Finally, Zahra (Zahra) in Iran wants to know the meaning of an idiom, “to wet (wet) one’s whistle (whistle).” “To wet your whistle” means simply to have a drink, especially an alcoholic drink – a glass of wine or a mug of beer or a cocktail or some other sort of alcoholic drink (alcoholic “beverage,” we might say). It’s an old expression, an informal one, meaning to have a drink. In fact, I think I’m going to go wet my whistle right now.

If you have a question or comment, you can email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café was written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. Copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational Development.

suburb – a community that is next to or very close to a major city, with mainly homes

* Many people with young children decide to live in the suburbs where they can be close to the city for work but have enough space for their children to live and play.

puppet – a model of a person or animal that is controlled either using strings above it or with a hand inside of it

* The baby loved it when her father used puppets to act out a story for her.

marionette – a small wooden toy controlled from above using strings attached to its arms, legs, and head

* Ivan carefully untangled the marionette’s strings so that he could move the arms and legs of the doll.

behind-the-scenes – privately; without being seen by the public

* Many people don’t realize that behind the scenes of movies, there are hundreds of people who contribute to a film, such as electricians and makeup artists.

to feature – to have something or someone as an important or main focus

* The day after the election, most newspapers in the state featured a photograph of the new governor and details about his surprising win.

to negotiate – to try to reach an agreement with someone about something

* Amin negotiated with the car salesman for nearly an hour before agreeing on a price.

rights – permission to use a creative work, such as an image, idea, piece of writing, or film

* Many photographs on the Internet are marked “All Rights Reserved,” which means that they cannot be used by others without permission.

to come down with – to get sick; to become ill

* “I think I’m coming down with a cold,” Norma said as she sneezed for the fourth time in two minutes.

psychedelic – relating to certain drugs that produce visions and are supposed to make a person more aware of oneself and the world around them

* Many people claimed to gain better understanding of the universe and of life itself after having a psychedelic experience.

to hallucinate – to see things that are not there; to have visions

* Helga was so tired after working for three days without sleep that she began to hallucinate and hear people talking to her even though she was alone.

to portray – to describe or show someone in a work of art or literature

* “If they make a movie of my life, I would want Brad Pitt to portray me,” said Jeff.

to be inducted – to be formally included or admitted into a position or organization

* When will my favorite band be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

peculiar – weird; different from the usual; not normal

* Did you hear the peculiar way James pronounced his name, as through there are three syllables?

freaky – strange; different from the usual; not normal

* What is that freaky music? It sounds like cats screaming!

ambiance – the mood or feeling of a particular place

* Lou brought Mia to this restaurant on their first date because of the romantic ambiance.

environment – the conditions that surround someone or something; the conditions and influences that affect someone or something, such as its growth or progress

* Let’s find a better environment to study in than this noisy student center.

to wet (one’s) whistle – to have something to drink, usually an alcoholic beverage

* My coworkers and I like to wet our whistle after work at the corner bar.

What Insiders Know

“Animation” is a technique involving filming drawings or physical objects to show movement and action, what you would see in “cartoons” (films or TV shows created from drawings). “Clay animation or “clay-mation” is also an animation technique. Instead of drawings, however, clay-mation uses the movement of physical objects to make them appear as if they are moving on their own.

The objects, usually made of “clay” (stiff, sticky material that can be shaped into objects, such as pots) are moved in small “increments” (increases or changes) and each movement is photographed. The photographed frames are shown in order, creating the “illusion” (something that appears to be real or true but isn’t) of moving characters or objects.

One famous clay animated character is Gumby, who was created by Art Clokey. Gumby is a green character who “sort of” (in some ways, but not all) looks like a man, but is made of clay and is green. He is nearly flat and has pointed head on the left side.

Gumby first appeared in 1953. Art Clokey created a three-minute film that featured moving and expanding lumps of clay called Gumbasia. In 1953, Art Clokey showed Gumbasia to an “executive” (important employee) of NBC, one of the three major television “networks” (companies). The executive was impressed and told Clokey to create another Gumby animation, which then led to Gumby’s own show on NBC.

The show featured Gumby and several other characters acting as Gumby’s “sidekicks” (companions). His main sidekick was a talking orange “pony” (animal that looks like a small horse) named Pokey.

In the 1980s, Gumby and its original episodes were released in “home video” (recordings that could be played on machines people owned in their homes). This made Gumby even more popular, which led to a new Gumby series in 1988. Gumby became so popular that he appeared on “cereals” (dry breakfast food eaten with milk), video games, toys, and other media and “merchandise” (things produced for sale). In 1993, Gumby was named the best cartoon series of the 1950s by the popular entertainment magazine TV Guide.