Annual Muppet launch in Washington draws crowd
Special to The Union
The usual pre-launch session at the Washington Hotel’s bar was COVID-cancelled, but not even a worldwide pandemic could quash the enthusiasm and passion of the Annual Muppet Launch in Li’l Town, also known as Washington.
Carrying on a tradition begun in 2011, Washington residents and more than a few tourists cheered Friday as The Swedish Chef was spirited away in a special space capsule (old plastic snack jar) fueled by a powerful rocket (high-altitude, helium-filled weather balloon).
The annual day-after-Thanksgiving Muppet Launch is the brainchild of creative, beloved and eccentric Li’l Town resident Poison Bob. Poison Bob, who died in 2014, continues to participate posthumously in each annual launch.
Just before the weather balloon was filled with 150 cubic feet of helium, a pinch of Poison Bob’s ashes were added.
“We always include some of his ashes in the balloon so when it bursts, Poison Bob is spread all over space,” said Merv Lee, adding the balloon and capsule eventually reach an altitude that causes the helium to expand and the balloon to burst.
Although the capsule is equipped with a parachute that ostensibly could allow it to float gently back to earth, none of the Muppets launched have ever been found.
Launching a Muppet character is not just something Washington does — it is what the town reflects. Just as The Muppets are an ensemble cast of characters cherished for their absurdist and burlesque style, so are the anachronistic residents of Washington. Many found and moved to Li’l Town because they cherish independence, resilience, and seclusion.
The WASA Launch Crew, also known as the Washington Aeronautics and Space Administration Mission Control Management Team, is comprised of Merv Lee, daughter Amy Lee, and Robb Cadzow. Cadzow is dubbed “Helium Man” because he procures the helium for the weather balloon.
“One year, when helium was scarce and expensive, it cost close to $500 to fill the balloon,” Cadzow recalled.
Muppet Astronaut Swedish Chef follows in the footsteps of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Animal, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Beaker, Dr. Bunson Honeydew, and Rizzo the Rat. At each launch, a soundtrack featuring songs about flying, space, and discovering the heavens plays in the background.
In 2006, Kermit the Frog and The Jim Henson Company filmed a Ford commercial in Li’l Town. The spot aired during the 2007 Super Bowl. Kermit is seen mountain biking, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting in the rugged terrain surrounding Washington. At the end of the commercial for the “green” Ford Escape Hybrid, Kermit announces, “I guess it is easy being green.”
That commercial was Poison Bob’s muse. The annual launch is a time for Li’l Town locals to give thanks for their close-knit camaraderie and celebrate their unique, rural mountain lifestyle.
Donations and sales of T-shirts and buttons benefit Hospice of the Foothills.
The launch also draws its share of tourists.
John Bartell, a Sacramento TV reporter, enjoyed the festivities on his day off work.
“I’d heard about the launch for many years,” said Bartell. “I love quirky traditions in small towns, and this more than met my expectations. I think what struck me most is the sense of community.”
Tourist contingents from the East Bay and Central Valley joined the fun, some sporting white chef’s toques. Many face masks featured colorful Muppet characters.
Madison Eoff, an 11-year-old visitor from Fremont, was attending her second launch.
“It’s fun because we get to do the countdown and launch a Muppet up to the moon,” said Eoff.
Hyperbole surrounding the launch was also not lost on 7-year-old Chase Patillo of Tracy.
“You get to see a Muppet fly in a rocket ship,” he explained.
Alycia and Richard Kite of Fairfield said curiosity prompted them to stay an extra day in the area after visiting family on Thanksgiving.
“All I know is it has something to do with Muppets,” said Alycia.
Mickey Stefan, affectionately known as the “Bad Grandma” who has tended bar at the Washington Hotel for two decades, conducted the traditional voice vote after The Swedish Chef floated out of sight.
“We need to decide next year’s Muppet astronaut,” said Stefan, who admonished the crowd for a lackluster first round of cheering. “You can do better than that!”
Members of the Muppets’ Electric Mayhem Band were the 2021 nominees. Floyd the Guitarist narrowly squeaked by Ralph the Piano Player and will kiss the heavens next year.
But this year, it was all about The Swedish Chef.
Washington Mayor Crystal Dawn donned bright ostentatious orange eyebrows and a beard that are the chef’s trademarks. Washington has no official government, but Dawn was “voted” mayor by collecting more than $700 in donations for Friends of Washington School. She knows how to handle the influx of tourists, as well as exuberant locals.
“I greet people, leave rude notes on poorly parked cars, and erect nasty signs to slow down speeders,” said Dawn.
Space, a Li’l Town institution who coquettishly doesn’t divulge his real name, said he was proud of Friday’s large turnout during a pandemic, especially since last year’s launch was cancelled due to heavy snow.
“We’re keeping the tradition going,” said Space, whose truck always leads the parade of vehicles from downtown Washington to the launch pad at a scenic overlook a few miles uphill. “Since we’re not allowed to have gatherings now, this is a protest. It’s a launch and a protest.”
“Everyone still needs to do fun stuff,” said Cadzow, who was an engineer on the Kermit-Ford commercial. He said the area’s scenic beauty and peculiar populace prompted his move to Nevada County in 2009. Cadzow loves being a member of the Launch Team.
“Why spend just an hour on the launch when we can make it last half a day? Why shop or cut down a Christmas tree on Black Friday when you could be doing this?”
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.
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