Touchdown dance! On finding lost gems from the Muppets' Henson

"Charlie Magnetico" is the second lost Henson film to be posted online in as many weeks. Crave hears from the AT&T archivist who unearthed these little jewels.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
4 min read
A still from "Charlie Magnetico." Where there's smoke... Screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

Times have been good for aficionados of Jim Henson.

Not only did we see a new Muppets feature film over the holidays, last week we also saw the posting of a "lost" Henson short: "Robot," made for an AT&T data-communications seminar in 1963. And now a kind of "sequel" to "Robot" has made its way online.

AT&T posted "Charlie Magnetico" to its AT&T Tech Channel (and YouTube) earlier in the week (you'll find it embedded below). Like "Robot," the film stars the charmingly croaky "Computer H14" (Henson's first robot puppet), who tells the tale of Magnetico Electronics and its "tafflerated conducer."

The fictional gadget, used in missile guidance systems, falls victim to a communications mix-up, which of course makes for a bang-up finish to the film. ("Charlie Magnetico" also stars Henson's first employee, Jerry Juhl, as Charlie himself, and as Charlie's mother. Juhl went on to become the head writer for "The Muppet Show" and "Fraggle Rock.")

Despite what recent events might lead you to believe, it's not every day one finds a lost Henson film hidden away in an archive somewhere. And the discovery is bound to inspire unusual behavior in the discoverer.

"I literally jumped up and down in my office," AT&T contractor Robin Edgerton told Crave in an e-mail. "I did a touchdown dance. I don't think I've ever done a touchdown dance before."

Edgerton's history of archiving work has given her a certain amount of esoteric knowledge. Among other things, she'd previously helped New York's WNET use the Web to resurrect "Our Vanishing Wilderness," one of the first-ever environmental TV shows, as well as the '60s-era show "Soul," which students of African-American culture (and fans of performers like Taj Mahal) shouldn't miss. Her work has also given her eclectic, and esoteric, tastes--tastes that apparently include obscure corporate and industrial films.

"I've been a fan of Henson's work for a long time," Edgerton says, "especially his commercial work from the early 1960s." Such a rarified--one might even say "geeky"--appetite served her well. Neither of the Henson films was labeled as such, but seeing the title of the first film, Edgerton plucked both off the shelf ("I'll generally check out anything that says 'robot' on it," she says--a good insider tip for the aspiring archivists out there). And while watching the shorts, she knew she'd made a find.

"The biggest tip-off was that they were FUNNY," she wrote. "And they had explosions, which Henson was particularly fond of at that point in time (see his commercials from the period). And that voice--even though it had a robot audio filter, it sounded Kermit-ish."

Her true eureka moment came, however, when she contacted the Henson archives and was directed, for reference, to a page on Henson.com that discusses the advent of Sesame Street's Sam the Robot. There, in vivid black and white, was a vintage photo of none other than Computer H14. Touchdown.

(The Henson.com page also includes a link to "Paperwork Explosion," a wonderfully retro film Henson made for IBM in 1967. We'll embed that after "Charlie Magnetico" for the lovers of archaic data-processing gear among you. And for the Henson buffs, the film makes it plain that Henson's filmmaking and comedic chops were impressive with or without puppets. Plus, there's an old man in the film who's the spitting image of the Muppets' Waldorf.)

So, to what do we owe the online posting of films like "Robot" and "Charlie Magnetico"?

Barbara Laing, director of technology for the AT&T Tech Channel, describes the intriguing treasure trove that is the AT&T archives:

"It's a huge warehouse, very much like the Indiana Jones warehouse in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,'" she told Crave in an e-mail. "You can wander through it with much the same sense of wonder. It houses an amazing array of documents, films, and thousands of artifacts. Among them...Dr. Watson's notebook, where you can read his recounting of his words to Bell, the words in his own handwriting, 'Come here Mr. Watson, I need you.'"

"The contents of [the archives] are incredibly important..." Laing wrote. "By putting these films and videos online, we offer a window into our technological and cultural history. These films tell small stories about every aspect of American life: from home design, to technological discovery, to work life, even to national defense. They feature brilliant scientists, cultural icons, and--sometimes--angry robots!"