Christmas Carol Countdown-Day 5

Day 5: O Holy Night by *NSYNC

We’re getting serious again here on Day 5. Back in the late ‘90s, I was firmly caught up in the boy band craze, and *NSYNC was without question my boy band of choice.  In 1998 they released a Christmas album, Home for Christmas. It played non-stop in my Sony Discman that Christmas season. It’s actually a pretty good album and I still listen to it every year.  One of the things that always set *NSYNC apart from some of the other groups was their true musicality. Those boys could actually sing, and they made beautiful harmonies together. One of the finest examples is their A Capella rendition of O Holy Night. It’s probably my favorite version of this traditional song. You can really hear each voice shine in the arrangement. They performed the song live a few times as well, proving that it wasn’t just studio magic that made them sound that good.  Beautiful stuff.

O Holy Night

O holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
The thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O  hear the angel voices
O  night…divine
O  night when Christ was born
O holy night
O  night divine
O  holy night
O  night divine

The thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees
O  hear the angel voices
O  night…divine
O  night when Christ was born
O  night divine
O  night divine

O  holy night
O  night divine

O  holy night when Christ was born
Holy night when Christ was born

Christmas Carol Countdown- Day 4

Day 4: The Season’s Upon Us– Dropkick Murphys

Today we take a turn from the sentimental and saccharine, and embrace the wacky and off-color. There has always been room for non-traditional novelty Christmas songs (Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, anyone?) but so far, this two-year-old song hasn’t been embraced by the mainstream Christmas radio stations. It does, however, get some play closer to Christmas on our local alternative music station. OK, so it has two lower level “curse words” and deals with some heavier material than your typical Christmas carol, but it’s a rollicking four minutes, it makes me laugh, and it deserves a wider audience. I’d rather chuckle every hour on the hour than get all weepy-eyed at “Christmas Shoes.” While I personally don’t have a dysfunctional family, I know plenty of people who do, and I think they would appreciate this ode to crazy families.

The Season’s Upon Us
The season’s upon us, it’s that time of year
Brandy and eggnog, there’s plenty of cheer
There’s lights on the trees and there’s wreaths to be hung
There’s mischief and mayhem and songs to be sung

There’s bells and there’s holly, the kids are gung-ho
True loves finds a kiss beneath fresh mistletoe
Some families are messed up while others are fine
If you think yours is crazy, well you should see mine

My sisters are wackjobs, I wish I had none
Their husbands are losers and so are their sons
My nephew’s a horrible, wise little twit
He once gave me a nice gift wrapped box full of sh!@

He likes to pelt carolers with icy snowballs
I’d like to take him out back and deck more than the halls
With family like this I would have to confess
I’d be better off lonely, distraught, and depressed

The season’s upon us, it’s that time of year
Brandy and eggnog, there’s plenty of cheer
There’s lights on the trees and there’s wreaths to be hung
There’s mischief and mayhem and songs to be sung
They call this Christmas where I’m from

My mom likes to cook, push our buttons, and prod
My brother just brought home another big broad
The eyes rollin’ whispers come loud from the kitchen
I’d come home more often if they’d only quit b!tchin’

Dad on the other hand’s a selfish old sod
Drinks whiskey alone with my miserable dog
Who won’t run off fetch sure he couldn’t care less
He defiled my teddy bear and left me the mess

The season’s upon us, it’s that time of year
Brandy and eggnog, there’s plenty of cheer
There’s lights on the trees and there’s wreaths to be hung
There’s mischief and mayhem and songs to be sung
They call this Christmas where I’m from

The table’s set, we raise a toast
The father, son, and the Holy Ghost
I’m so glad this day only comes once a year
You can keep your opinions, your presents, your happy new year
They call this Christmas where I’m from
They call this Christmas where I’m from

Christmas Carol Countdown-Day 3

Day 3: Some Children See Him

Written by Alfred Burt and Wihla Hutson

I was not familiar with this song until a few weeks ago. I actually heard it for the first time on the Music Choice Sounds of the Season channel on cable TV, which seems to play more of a variety of music than the local radio stations. I was immediately taken by the haunting melody and the message of the song. It embraces the innocence of children, and how they picture Jesus in their mind’s eye. Much has been made over time over what “color” Jesus really was, but in the end, it doesn’t matter; all that matters is the message of love.

The history of the Alfred Burt carols is interesting. At the request of his father, Burt inherited the tradition of composing a Christmas Carol each year for the family Christmas cards. Some Children See Him was the carol for 1951. I’ve spent some time listening to many different versions, and I think I like Andy Williams’ the best. Something about the timbre and emotion of his voice sets it apart from the other versions. As a bonus, I’m also including a version recorded by Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. He felt compelled to cover the song after he overheard his daughter practicing it for her choir.

 Some Children See Him

Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, ah! They love Him, too!

The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
and with thy heart as offering,
come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

Christmas Carol Countdown-Day 2

Day 2: (Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag by Kay Starr
A swinging number written in 1950 by Irving Taylor, Dudley Brooks, and Hal Stanley and first popularized by Kay Starr. The Man with the Bag = Santa Claus. I’ve seen some conjecture on the internet that it is secretly a reference to a drug dealer—the Christmas version of Guns N’ Roses’ Mr. Brownstone, if you will.  Some people have wild imaginations. I’ll take the song at its face value, thank you very much.

The song gained some renewed popularity back in the 90s when it was featured on an episode of Ally McBeal, and has enjoyed a number of cover versions, but I’ve yet to hear any of them on the local radio stations. Enjoy this upbeat number, and may the man with the bag bring you everything you wish for this Christmas!


(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag by Kay Starr
Old Mr. Kringle is soon gonna jingle
The bells that’ll tingle all your troubles away
Everybody’s waiting for the man with the bag
‘Cause Christmas is coming again
He’s got a sleigh full, it’s not gonna stay full
He’s got stuff to drop at every stop of the way
Everybody’s waiting for the man with the bag
‘Cause Christmas is coming again

He’ll be here
With the answer to the prayers that
You made through the year
You’ll get yours
If you’ve done everything you should extra special good
He’ll make this December the one you’ll remember
The best and the merriest you ever did have
Everybody’s waitin’ for the man with the bag
Christmas is here again!

Christmas Carol Countdown- Day 1

Apologies for going MIA. Shortly after I started getting into the swing of things with this little blog, I found out that I was pregnant with my first child! Needless to say, life has been a bit of a whirlwind over the past 9 months. Our little girl is due on December 15th, which has had me in the Christmas spirit for quite some time now. I’ve decided to keep myself busy in these final pre-baby days by blogging about some of my favorite Christmas songs. (If I have enough time to pre-write, I’ll have 25 entries to auto-post… but no promises!) I do plan to get back to my regularly scheduled programming…eventually…

I wanted to focus on songs that are a little off of the beaten path. While I love having Christmas music always at my fingertips this time of year via the many radio stations that broadcast 24/7 jingle jams, it seems as if they are always playing the same songs over and over and over. Sure, Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas is a great tune, but there’s only so many times you can hear it in one day! So, let’s start shedding some light on those deeper cuts that don’t typically make it to the airwaves!

Day 1: Mistletoe and Holly- Frank Sinatra

The song was actually co-written by Sinatra himself, along with Doc Stanford and Hank Sanicola. It was first released as a single in 1957, but it did not chart. It was later included on Sinatra’s Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra album, which is one of my personal favorites. It’s a catchy little ditty that paints a pretty festive picture of the holiday season.

“Mistletoe And Holly”

Oh, by gosh, by golly
It’s time for mistletoe and holly
Tasty pheasants, Christmas presents
Countrysides covered with snow

Oh, by gosh, by jingle
It’s time for carols and Kris Kringle
Overeating, merry greetings
From relatives you don’t know

Then comes that big night
Giving the tree the trim
You’ll hear voices by starlight
Singing a Yuletide hymn

Oh, by gosh, by golly
It’s time for mistletoe and holly
Fancy ties and granny’s pies
And folks stealin’ a kiss or two
As they whisper, “Merry Christmas” to you

Disney Music Loops: Tower of Terror (Part 1 of 4)

68367_795563422787_677437460_nIf you ask any Disney Parks aficionado to list the things he or she loves about the parks, attention to detail and theming will undoubtedly be mentioned. For me, the music loops that play in background of the various lands and ride queues are my favorite part of Disney theming. Nothing can transport me to a particular place in time like music, and playing some music from Disney parks is always a sure fire way to brighten my day. I am lucky enough to have procured many complete Disney music loops over the years. In the age of the Internet, Disney music is always at your fingertips. Many loops have been uploaded to YouTube, and for those of you always on the go, Mouse World Radio has a nice little app for your mobile device that plays both area music and attraction audio.
I obtained most of my collection about 10 years or so ago from websites that no longer exist (though I’m sure more are out there and could be located with some clever googling). The files were only labeled as things like MainSt_BGM (background music) so it took some sleuthing to figure out any songs or artists I was unfamiliar with. I came to rely heavily on Disney Music Loops. The site has not been maintained for over a decade but is still accessible. Over the years I’ve purchased a lot of additional music from many of the artists I first discovered through the listings on Disney Music Loops. Park Tunes is another site that has a decent collection of listings, but some of the song loops are not listed in the proper order, and while they provide links to purchase music through iTunes and Amazon, they do not always link to the correct version of the song used in the loop. (FYI:Disney does update their loops every so often, so some of the versions that I’ll be exploring in this series may be outdated.)

The first music loop I wish to discuss is from the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror queue. I cannot even fathom a guess as to how many times I’ve listened to this loop in its entirety. It is my go-to background music. I put it on when I’m doing household chores. In my college/graduate student days I’d play it while writing my papers. I even burned it to a CD so I could listen to it in my old car. I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was that first drew me to this music, because even though I take pride in my eclectic music collection, I was not familiar with a single song in this loop. Maybe it’s my appreciation for a good trumpet solo. Maybe it’s because I love old Hollywood, and thanks to the ride, I now associate this sound with it. I don’t know, but it makes me feel a sense of nostalgia, which is pretty odd considering I was born in the ’80s, thus I clearly did not live through the 1930s and have nothing to actually be nostalgic about. Perhaps I am a reincarnated Hollywood starlet, who knows? What I do know is I love this music! Clocking in at just over an hour, the entire loop includes 20 songs. To keep things interesting and manageable, I’m only focusing on 5 songs at a time. (Side note: I chose to embed most of the videos from a Tower of Terror playlist on YouTube for continuity, and because they seem to all have the “echo” effect on them that you hear in the queue.)

“Can’t Get Started”- Bunny Berigan
This is the song that opens the loop and its memorable trumpet solo makes it a perfect entrée for the ambiance that the music loop intends to set. “I Can’t Get Started” made its debut in the musical revue Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by Vernon Duke. Bunny Berigan, a trumpet virtuoso, made it a top 10 hit in 1937. The lyrics are very specific to the time period, but that’s part of what makes it perfect for setting the mood.
“I’ve been consulted by Franklin D.
Greta Garbo has had me to tea
Still I’m broken hearted
Cause I can’t get started with you!”
My obsession with this song is what first led me down the rabbit hole of tracking down artists featured in music loops. Disney Music Loops incorrectly lists the artist as “Benny” Berigan, but through the power of Google (and before the era of YouTube), I was eventually able to find my guy. I purchased “Let’s Do It!” through iTunes. The album is fantastic, and includes “Can’t Get Started.” Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

“Mood Indigo”- Duke Ellington

This was one of the earliest hits for legendary composer and band leader Duke Ellington. The song was built around a clarinet solo. In most musical arrangements, it was typical for the clarinet to handle the highest notes, followed by trumpet and then trombone; however, in “Mood Indigo” the order is reversed and the horns are muted, creating a unique and melodious yet eerie sound—the perfect sound for a haunted hotel. The song was also given lyrics and has had a wide variation of interpretations, but in my opinion, the original instrumental reigns supreme. There are so many different versions of this song that I’ve had trouble locating the exact version they used in the loop for purchase. The version on “Best of Duke Ellington” is pretty good, but it includes different variations than the version in the loop. If anyone knows where to procure the exact version and would care to share, I’d appreciate it!

“Remember”-Red Norvo

Red specialized in the xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone. This is an instrumental version of a 1925 Irving Berlin song. There are nice vocal versions out there from the great balladeers like Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra, but I really appreciate this instrumental. It isn’t often that the xylophone, vibraphone, and/or marimba are highlighted through solos. The song is available for purchase on iTunes and is part of many different blues/jazz compilations.
Bonus! You can see Red in action backing up Dean Martin on “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” from the Original Ocean’s 11. Dino even gives Red a shout out!

“Uptown Blues”-Jimmie Lunceford


James Melvin “Jimmie” Lunceford was a saxophone player and bandleader who died at the age of 45 under suspicious circumstances. The cause of death was cardiac arrest, but allegations were made that a racist restaurant owner may have poisoned his food. Other band members who ate at the same restaurant also became sick shortly after completing their meals.  Jimmie and his band received high praise from many contemporaries, including Benny Goodman, who once said he put on a better show than Duke Ellington. Lunceford’s live shows live on in legend as having been quite a spectacle, and many have said that the band’s soul was never adequately captured on record–the latter of which I’m inclined to agree with. iTunes has a compilation of Lunceford’s music called “Powerhouse Swing,” and while all the songs are pleasant and could fit right in to this music loop, none of them are particularly memorable in my opinion.

“Deep Purple”- Larry Clinton and His Orchestra with Bea Wain


The original song was a piano tune written by Peter DeRose. So far, I’ve been praising instrumental versions of songs over their vocal counterparts, but in the case of “Deep Purple” I really think the lyrics and vocals enhance the piece and are well suited to the eeriness of the queue:
“When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls
And the stars begin to flicker in the sky
Through the mist of a memory you wander back to me
Breathing my name with a sigh
In the still of the night once again I hold you tight
Though you’re gone, your love lives on when moonlight beams
And as long as my heart will beat, lover we’ll always meet
Here in my deep purple dreams”
There is some dispute over which version is actually used in the loop. A few sites list Turner Layton, and this is the version included in the YouTube playlist I’ve been linking to; however, this is NOT the version that is in my copy of the loop. I’ve also seen some sites link to the version by Artie Shaw featuring Helen Forrest, but that upbeat interpretation is actually featured on the Jungle Cruise Boathouse Loop, not Tower of Terror’s.  After some painstaking research (I’m not kidding, this blog got held up for a few days while I tried to solve this mystery), I’ve identified the version by Larry Clinton and His Orchestra with Bea Wain as the one I’ve been listening to all these years, so I wanted to give them proper credit. Clinton was an accomplished musician and bandleader, and made a name with his arrangements for dance bands. His arrangements were used by the likes of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, and the aforementioned Bunny Berigan. Bea Wain was a popular big band singer who had four #1 hits (of which “Deep Purple” was one).
This is a wonderful song no matter who is performing it. It is very possible that Disney has switched out the version over the years. Next time you are in the queue, maybe you can hang around and listen for me!

Be sure to check back later this week for Part 2 of Disney Music Loops: Tower of Terror.

Muppet Mondays: Blue Skies

I mentioned in last week’s Muppet Monday post that The Muppet Show was my introduction to a plethora of great music. With the lovely weather we’ve been having in our area lately, I was reminded of another one of those songs that I first heard via The Muppet Show: “Blue Skies.”

The Irving Berlin tune was penned in 1926 for Betsy, a Rodgers and Hart musical. The musical was a flop, but the song was a smashing success. It became the first song ever to be heard in a “talkie,” when Al Jolson performed it in The Jazz Singer. It has been covered by anyone and everyone over the past 88 years. Of course, no one will ever be able to touch the snappy and harmonious version performed by these adorable prairie dogs on episode 322 of The Muppet Show:

Wishing everyone Blue Skies from now on!

Muppet Mondays: 10 Weirdly Wonderful Muppet Show Moments

The last new episode of The Muppet Show may have aired over 30 years ago, but thanks to the wonders of VHS and cable TV, children growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s still got to enjoy Muppets gracing their living room screens. As a kid, I spent countless hours in front of the TV watching best-of compilations and Muppet specials that my mom or grandfather taped for my brother and me. I also caught episodes as they aired in syndication over the years on TNT, Nickelodeon, and the Odyssey Channel (though sadly the show hasn’t been on TV since 2001). In addition to syndication, Time-Life released a number of Best-of DVDs, featuring 3 episodes a piece, and Disney has released seasons 1-3 on DVD (though Seasons 4 and 5 are mysteriously still in the vault). Thankfully we live in the age of YouTube and many nice people have uploaded their copies of the episodes for our viewing pleasure.

Somewhere along the line, Muppets got a reputation for being childish and cutesy. Sure, most of the puppets are downright adorable, which is certainly what first grabbed my attention as a child, but adulthood has given me a whole new appreciation for the wonderful but WEIRD entertainment that Jim Henson and his fellow performers gave us with The Muppet Show.

Here are 10 of the weirdest sketches that have stuck with me for one reason or another through the years:

1.Java


This sketch’s simplicity is its best asset, and it seems to have been a favorite of Jim’s, as it was also performed over the years on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Today Show, and The Tonight Show in addition to its performance on The Muppet Show. It features a bendy, tubular puppet dancing in rhythm to jaunty trumpet music, but the puppet becomes frustrated by a smaller variation of itself, who can’t calm down and stay in rhythm. The larger puppet continuously kicks the smaller one out of the frame. Just as you start to feel bad for the little guy, he brings the sketch to a rousing close by blasting his larger counterpart away. As Henson himself once said, “It all ends in one of two ways: either someone gets eaten or something blows up.” We’ll see some more of that theme in this list…

2. Hugga Wugga


Talk about bizarre. This sketch, set in a steamy, swamp-like environment, begins with a mean-looking alien marching around like he owns the place, singing his Hugga Wugga song, which sounds like a war chant. A second alien appears and sings a different song until he is bullied into singing the Hugga Wugga song by the first alien. Suddenly a third alien appears—a cute, yellow creature, who completely changes the tone by singing a sweet version of “You Are My Sunshine.” He refuses to be intimidated and taunts the first alien, who eventually blasts his head off! But that is not the end of our little yellow guy! The seemingly headless alien continues to sing his song, perplexing the bully, who ends up getting blown away himself in the end. Our yellow friend proudly finishes his song-“Do not take my sunshine away”– providing yet another win for the little guy. To this day whenever I hear “You Are My Sunshine” I picture that yellow guy. Fun fact-The yellow creature makes a cameo appearance in Muppets Most Wanted as the “thingy-thing” that Constantine gives to Miss Piggy in “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu).”

4. Jabberwocky


This Muppety take on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem is just as weird to me now as it ever was. “Have you SEEN the scene? Even when you know what it is, you don’t know what it is!”
That about sums it up, thanks Scooter. Burble burble.

5. I’ve Got You Under My Skin


The Muppet Show loved putting weird twists on old standards. In this sketch, the Cole Porter tune that Frank Sinatra made famous becomes a duet between Behemoth (Who now goes by the name of Gene) and his still-living lunch, who is trying desperately to fight his way out. This sketch really creeped me out as a kid. It kind of still does.

6. Mahna Mahna


This is one of the most popular sketches associated with the Muppets, but it’s definitely weird. Like “Java,” it was performed on other programs both before and after it appeared on The Muppet Show. In a theme somewhat reminiscent of the Java sketch, the Mahna Mahna Muppet is expected to stay calm and do his part in backing up the cutesy pink Snowths as they do-do-do-do-do along. Whenever he tries to improvise, they give him the glare of death until he calms down. I’m sure many significant others who have been on the receiving end of a death stare can sympathize. Mahna Mahna gets the last laugh as he leaves the stage and exits the building, then puts a call in to Kermit, who brings the phone out to the stage, which allows our fuzzy pal to utter one final “Mahna Mahna.” Many people mistakenly believe that this catchy tune is an original Muppet song, but (and here’s where it gets even weirder) it actually debuted in a “pseudo-documentary” about wild sexual behavior in Sweden. The song accompanies a sauna scene in the movie. Here’s a safe-for-work excerpt: Now you will probably never hear that song the same way again.

7.Tit-Willow


Rowlf the Dog gets uptight Sam the Eagle to participate in this song, under the guise that it is cultural because it’s from Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera, The Mikado. Rowlf performs most of the song while Sam plays the role of “Dickey Bird” and must repeatedly say “willow… tit willow…tit willow.” Sam feels increasingly awkward about it, but never quite gets the joke and ends by asking, “Why are they laughing at me?” All Rowlf can do is cover his face as he giggles. Cheeky! The song actually made it onto The Muppet Show soundtrack, which I had in cassette form and listened to all the time as kid. I didn’t get what was funny about it then and found the song boring, so I usually fast forwarded the tape to something else. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered this strange and silly clip, and that is part of what makes The Muppet Show even better as an adult. I love discovering gags I didn’t understand as a child, and finding new meanings in sketches.

8. All of Me


Another wacky interpretation of a standard. The character who sings the song literally takes all of his parts off of his body one by one, handing them over to his lover, who giddily enjoys stuffing them in a box until there is nothing left to give except the shell of his body. So of course, he jumps into the trunk as she seals ALL OF HIM inside. Sure, it’s presented in a humorous manner, but adult-me sees an abusive, one-way relationship. We’re staring to get a little bit more serious here…

9. Windmills of Your Mind


As a kid, I found the “screaming thing” in this sketch strange, but also ridiculous and funny. As an adult, the simple act of watching this sketch now gets my anxiety revved up within the first 10 seconds. The Muppets took a haunting, Oscar-winning song and turned it into a frantic, psychotic plea for help. We start with the screaming thing telling us “I’m very relaxed. I’m terribly calm and tranquil, and very, very relaxed indeed…(cue fast music) ON THE OUTSIDE, BUT ON THE INSIDE…” and he proceeds to sing the song with ever increasing speed while his legs flail about and the world goes in circles around him until he crashes into an actual windmill. He starts shaking like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown and reassures us that on the outside, he is very calm—but then he screams and runs away and ends up flinging himself off of Statler and Waldorf’s balcony! Whoa dude.

10. Time in A Bottle


This was my first exposure to the Jim Croce classic (The Muppet Show was actually my introduction to many great tunes), and it has remained a favorite of mine over the years. As a kid, I liked the pretty yet haunting melody, but as I grew older I gained an appreciation for the longing and pain that the song invokes. In the sketch, a scientist sings the song as he makes and takes potions that make him increasingly younger, but he goes too far and returns to his older self in the end, because no matter how hard you try, you can’t save time in a bottle and you can’t recapture your youth. Sad!

I don’t want leave you on such a depressing note, so enjoy this bonus weird clip which features a scantily clad Raquel Welch doing a sexy dance with a giant spider. There are plenty more weird sketches in the Muppet catalog, so feel free to comment if you have a particular weird sketch that sticks in your mind.

“America’s First Zoo”

110920121347359878If you grew up in the Delaware Valley, chances are you took a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo at some point in your life. Whether it was with your school, your summer day camp, or your family, a zoo trip was and still is a veritable rite of passage in this area. So, when was the last time you ventured over to the Philadelphia Zoo? My husband and I enjoy visiting the Philadelphia Zoo in the morning during a weekday, especially in the off-season. There is rarely a crowd, and the Zoo staff, eager for some for conversation, will talk to you for as long as you want. We have found most of the staff at the exhibits to be very friendly and knowledgeable. The Philly Zoo also has scheduled “Meet the Keeper” events throughout the day. Here are a few of our favorite animal shots from our most recent trip in March:

Aside from the animals, the thing I love most about The Philadelphia Zoo is its rich history. The Philly Zoo bills itself as “America’s First Zoo,” which is true on a technicality. The Zoological Society of Philadelphia was chartered on March 21, 1859, though the actual grand opening did not occur until July 1, 1874.

ZooTimeline

19th Century sketch of Philadelphia Zoo entrance and gatehouses ©Philadelphia Zoo

The Philly Zoo has had many other “firsts” along the way. Some of their achievements include the addition of the first children’s zoo in the western hemisphere (1938), the first successful birth of an orangutan in a Unites States zoo (1928), and the first successful birth of a chimpanzee in United States zoo (1928).  Another interesting tidbit is that Jackie (AKA LEO), the first MGM lion to roar in those famous opening credits, retired to the Philly Zoo in 1931. You can read more about Jackie/Leo’s incredible story at mentalfloss.com and see more of the Zoo’s accomplishments via their timeline.

If you really want a taste of what The Philadelphia Zoo was like during its earliest years, head on over to digitalhistory.com, where they’ve transcribed a fascinating analysis of the Zoo from an 1879 edition of The Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.The article is accompanied by some wonderful sketches.

Gatehouses

Gatehouses

The Philadelphia Zoo is both bolstered and hindered by its age. Many of the original buildings still stand, much to the delight of any historian or architectural enthusiast. In particular, the Victorian style gatehouses, designed by famed Philadelphia-area architect Frank Furness, are quite charming. The downside of being an old zoo is that the city grew and expanded all around it, leaving little room for the Zoo to expand. At this point, any new exhibit added comes at the cost of getting rid of an old one. So far, the Zoo has aptly met the challenge of keeping pace with changing societal views on zoos—sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes forcibly.

Tragedy struck the Philly Zoo on Christmas Eve, 1995, when the Primate House caught fire. The Zoo suffered the loss of 23 animals, all of which perished from smoke inhalation in their sleep. The casualties included a family of six lowland gorillas (one of which turned out to be pregnant), a family of three orangutans, four white-handed gibbons, and ten lemurs. Many corporations, individuals, and other zoos contributed funds in the wake of the tragedy, which led to the opening of the PECO Primate Reserve in 1999.

2006 saw the opening of the new $20-million exhibit, First Niagara Big Cat Falls. In this expansive area, visitors can view animals, such as lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards, in exhibits that are more reminiscent of their natural habitats. The old big cat building was preserved as part of the exhibit.

Original Big Cat building

Original Big Cat building

One of the biggest controversies the Philadelphia Zoo has faced in recent years surrounds the elephants. The elephants have long been fan favorites at the Philly Zoo. At the main entrance, after your ticket is scanned, one of the first sights you are greeted with is a large elephant sculpture. For decades, the Philadelphia Zoo had audio storybooks at many of their exhibits, which could only be activated by a Zoo Key, shaped like an elephant. Alas, the storybooks are gone, and so are the elephants. After dealing with years of protests from animal rights groups, the Philadelphia Zoo decided that they could no longer meet the modern standards for keeping elephants in captivity, and sent their elephants onto greener pastures in other zoos across the nation. It was the right decision. Having seen the modern, expansive environments provided to elephants in zoos like The San Diego Zoo  and The National Zoo in Washington DC,  it is abundantly clear to me that the old Philly Zoo exhibit was severely outdated. Thankfully, they preserved the old elephant house as part of the new KidZooU exhibit which opened last year. The old children’s zoo area is currently vacant, and if you speak to the Zoo staff it is no secret that the Philly Zoo would one day love to have elephants back on their roster; however, they would definitely need to do a major overhaul of multiple areas—the old children’s zoo area will not suffice on its own.

The Zoo continues to make improvements and seek out innovative ways to enrich its visitors’ experiences. The latest improvement is the Zoo360 initiative, which provides enclosed walkways for various animals to explore outside of their exhibits and walk above the heads of the visitors. The Treetop Trail features monkeys and lemurs from the Rare Animal Conservation Center and the Great Ape Trail is connected to the Orangutan enclosure. Big Cat Crossing will be officially opening up May 10, featuring—you guessed it—big cats! We were told the Tigers would likely be the first animals encouraged the check out the crossing. I’ve seen some pictures floating around which show a tiger and a leopard separately enjoying the new pathway. We love this idea in concept; unfortunately, we have not yet had the pleasure of witnessing animals using the trails in person. Bad timing, I guess.

Old, deflated Zoo Balloon

Old, deflated Zoo Balloon

One last thing I’d like to note is the resurrection of the 6ABC Zoo Balloon. The Zoo Balloon fell victim to the particularly harsh winter we had this year, and had to be deflated and decommissioned. I took this picture of the old balloon on our last trip. Low and behold, later that very same day the Zoo announced that the balloon would “Soar Once More” and a new balloon was unveiled. I only got to ride in the balloon once, and it was not a particularly nice day; however, I’ve heard that on a clear day you can see all the way to the Jersey Shore. I would like to test the new balloon for myself this spring/summer if I can find a brave soul to go with me (my husband is afraid of heights and spent our one and only zoo balloon experience with his eyes closed, clutching onto the railing for dear life).

 

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New Zoo Balloon Soars over the Polar Bears ©Philadelphia Zoo

The Philadelphia Zoo offers wonderful experiences any time of the year, so a membership is very much worthwhile if you visit more than once a year. Here’s the breakdown: A one-day visit in-season costs $20 per adult and $18 per child. You will also need to pay $15 for parking. For a family of 3, one Zoo visit will set you back $73. A basic family membership, however, only costs $120 and would provide all 3 family members entrance to the park, free parking, and access to members-only areas and benefits. It pays for itself in two visits. Throw in another $40 bucks to get the Family Plus plan and you can bring Grandma and Grandpa along every time you go. You can check out more membership details here: http://www.philadelphiazoo.org/Get-Involved/Membership/Join-The-Zoo.htm

This overview of the Philadelphia Zoo, past and present, has only scratched the surface. In the future I hope to provide more history on the Zoo and explore its animal conservation efforts more thoroughly.

Muppet Mondays: Muppets Most Wanted!

Muppets_Most_Wanted_posterThis weekend saw the opening of the newest Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted. For mega Muppet fans such as myself, the weeks leading up to the release have been wonderful. I love seeing Muppets popping up all over the internet and TV, and I commend Disney for its extensive marketing efforts. I am a bit disappointed that the movie did not see a bigger opening weekend, but I think it still has legs in the U.S. and should do well overseas. If you have not yet seen the film and have even the slightest interest in seeing it, I urge you to get your booty to your nearest theater! I’m a bit perplexed as to why this movie got more tepid reviews as opposed to 2011’s The Muppets, because in my opinion, Muppets Most Wanted is the superior film.

I enjoyed The Muppets, and am a fan of both Jason Segel and Amy Adams, but I felt their character arcs were brought to a nice conclusion at the end of that movie. The Muppets served its purpose in bringing the Muppets themselves back to the forefront by playing heavily on the nostalgia factor for adults, while simultaneously resetting the Muppet franchise for a younger audience. It was heartwarming and fuzzy and left almost everyone in the theatre smiling –but it wasn’t perfect. The biggest complaint came from Muppet diehards who felt that there weren’t enough actual Muppets in The Muppets (a criticism that is humorously addressed in the new film).  Muppets Most Wanted shines a spotlight on the wacky and wonderful antics of this loveable troupe of misfits and weirdos. The negative reviews I’ve read tend criticize the lack of warmth and the loss of the “centering” presence of Segel and Adams, to which I say: “Phooey!” This new movie is classic Muppet fun. It’s clever and chock full of zaniness. The Muppets were blowing things up long before they got a reputation for being warm and fuzzy. Maybe those who prefer generic CGI cartoons outnumber the amount of people who can truly appreciate Muppet humor these days, but I’d like to think there’s still room in entertainment for smart comedies that the whole family can enjoy.

Behind the scenes shot of Muppets Most Wanted opening

Behind the scenes of Muppets Most Wanted

Muppets Most Wanted picks up, literally, right where The Muppets left off. The gang, having just finished its big finale, is left wondering what to do next. This leads right into the fabulous and infectious opening number “We’re Doing A Sequel.” Bret McKenzie, who won an Academy Award for “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets, was once again in charge of music, and he did not disappoint. (As an aside, you may notice that they sing “Let’s give it a name- How about The Muppets Again? It’s the Muppets Again!” in the opening number. The title was actually changed from Muppets…Again to Muppets Most Wanted after the song had already been recorded and filmed. I’m guessing the same is true for the finale, a clever update of the biggest song from Muppets Take Manhattan, “Together Again…Again.” Despite the name change, the songs still work.)

Dominic (Ricky Gervais) and Constantine

Dominic (Ricky Gervais) and Constantine

The deceptive Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) convinces the newly reunited Muppets to take their show on a world tour, which will serve as the cover for Dominic and his boss, the evil Kermit doppelgänger known as Constantine, to execute their heist of the Crown Jewels of England. Everyone except Kermit thinks the world tour is a great idea, and soon the gang is off. I don’t want to give much else away, but the action is nonstop, and there is plenty in this movie to please people of all ages and Muppet fans of all kinds. In particular, there were a lot of carrots thrown out to the super fans (bouncing baby figs!) and as a self-proclaimed Muppet Geek, I had a blast trying to spot all of the Muppets that appeared both in the background and in speaking roles. (Hugga Wugga! Mildred! Flying Zucchini Bros! Bob Benson and his Baby Band!) As always, there were plenty of great human cameos, too.

Sam the Eagle and Jean Pierre (Ty Burrell)

Sam the Eagle and Jean Pierre (Ty Burrell)

As for the rest of the top-billed cast, Ty Burrell fits in perfectly as Jean Pierre Napoleon, an Interpol agent who must work side-by-side with Sam the Eagle (who in truly wonderful Muppet fashion now inexplicably works for the CIA) to catch the baddies who are traipsing around Europe, stealing and defacing priceless works of art. Meanwhile, after being mistaken for Constantine, Kermit lands in what is apparently the most talented Gulag in Siberia, headed up by Tina Fey as Nadya. While every actor and puppeteer delivered marvelous performances, Matt Vogel as Constantine steals the show.

Constantine makes sure Dominic knows his place

Constantine makes sure Dominic knows his place

Vogel really gets to stretch his wings in this movie, with lots of screen time and two songs: “I’m Number One,” which also features a singing and dancing Gervais, and my personal favorite, the cheesy disco-era song used to woo Miss Piggy,  “I’ll Get You What You Want.” Constantine trying to impersonate Kermit provides some of the biggest laughs in the film, and the fact that no one in the group even notices it’s not actually Kermit (aside from Animal) makes it even funnier. My group of friends was breaking out into Constantine-as-Kermit accents the entire weekend. I hope we get to see a bit more of the explosion-loving, karate-chopping, and knitting wonder that is Constantine in the future. (Though not necessarily at the expense of some of the more well-known Muppets 😉 )  The big show-stopping number (which also includes a big cameo) is “Something So Right,” which is by far Eric Jacobson’s best performance as Miss Piggy.  I also want to give credit to Steve Whitmire. Even though he’s been the man behind Kermit for over two decades, he still lives in the shadow of the incomparable Jim Henson. Muppets Most Wanted allowed Whitmire to give us a version of Kermit with depth and a range of personality more akin to the character’s demeanor on The Muppet Show. I love a good Kermit freak-out.

Nadya (Tina Fey) and Kermit

Nadya (Tina Fey) and Kermit

Some of the best moments in the movie were the skits that were part of the show-within-a-show. As part of the traveling Muppet Show, we got to see the opening performed in Spanish, Gonzo’s live running of the bulls, and Christophe Waltz dancing the Waltz to name a few. Over in Siberia, Kermit takes charge of the Gulag’s annual review and we get to enjoy the aforementioned talented prisoners, who perform a hysterical take on “I Hope I Get it” from A Chorus Line, as well as a rousing version of “Working in the Coal Mine.” These segments harken back to the halcyon days of The Muppet Show, and have me convinced that The Muppets can still work  in 2014 when they are placed in the right hands. The jury is still out on whether Muppets Most Wanted ends up being considered a box office success, but given the right time slot and format, I think that some sort of small screen revival in the vein of The Muppet Show style variety act is still a viable idea. A weekly show is probably not in the cards, but a special here and there, paired with the right celebrity guest (think more Jimmy Fallon and less Lady Gaga) could be just what the franchise needs to stay relevant throughout the next decade and beyond. Long live the Muppets, and if you’ve read this far and have still not ventured out the see Muppets Most Wanted… what are you waiting for?