Road signs of a flipper-waving Kermit the Frog attract thousands of visitors annually through the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta to the hometown of the famous amphibian and his equally renowned creator, Jim Henson.
The city of Leland (population 5,500) was where Henson lived from 1936-48. His childhood home was torn down years before he became famous. But a permanent exhibit about Kermit called "Birthplace of the Frog: An Exhibit of Jim Henson's Delta Boyhood" was created here after Henson's death in 1990. The exhibit was a gift to Leland from the Jim Henson Co.
Kermit, the original Muppet, sprang from Henson's childhood and memories of playing along nearby Deer Creek with childhood friend Theodore Kermit Scott, who is believed to be the inspiration for the frog's name.
"My wife says my smile looks just like the frog," said Scott, 70, a retired philosophy professor, who lives in Monroe, Va. Scott said as children he and Henson used to play at Deer Creek and catch frogs.
The Kermit exhibit, in a three-room building along the banks of Deer Creek, features childhood photos of Henson and an actual Kermit puppet, with his banjo, sitting in a swamp-like setting.
"Everyone seems to know the work of Jim Henson and it just appeals to them," said Ashley Zepponi, the exhibit's director. "Most people are charmed by it."
Visitors from Germany, France, Italy and other parts of the world are routinely among the 10,000 people who find their way here each year, Zepponi said.
Leland lies about eight miles east of the Mississippi River and Greenville, where Henson was born, and it's only a short mile and a half from U.S. 61, Mississippi's "Blues Highway."
Connor Ahearn, 26, and his brother Sean, 24, stopped over while on a cross-country road trip from Raymond, N.H. A book of roadside attractions tipped them off to the exhibit.
"We both liked the Muppets growing up," Connor Ahearn said, while looking at a photo of the original Kermit puppet alongside his more recent counterpart.
Not many differences exist, except for original Kermit's more lizard-like appearance and paler skin tone.
The main room features the "Swamp Kermit" scene from the original "Muppet Movie," a gift from the Jim Henson Foundation, enclosed in a glass case, and a viewing area showcasing episodes of "The Muppet Show" and other Henson works.
Recent additions to the exhibit are several puppets from Henson's "The Song of the Cloud Forest," a segment from one of his TV shows, about the importance of preserving South American rain forests and habitat. The brightly colored frogs and alligators are on loan from the Jim Henson Foundation.
Visitors can pause for a quick photo-op with an oversized stuffed Kermit, propped in front of a rainbow scene, and then wander into a Muppet memorabilia room, featuring hundreds of donated items.
"It's just amazing the people that come in and they are all a part of it," said Zepponi.
Two shelves of Muppet items, including a plush Animal doll, were provided by San Diego resident Kevin Watson.
"He contacted us and let us know that he absolutely had to have part of his collection be a part of this exhibit," Zepponi said.
Zepponi said visitors often send items by mail after stopping by the exhibit.
Items on display include McDonald's Happy Meal toys, plush Kermit and Miss Piggy dolls, and vintage Muppet lunch boxes. There is also a special case devoted to "Muppet Babies" and "Sesame Street."
"It's interesting to know that I am right in the area of the show I grew up watching," said Mashondia Redmon, 34, on a recent visit.
Redmon is director of a program in Greenville that helps youths get their GED while balancing work schedules. Redmon and several teachers brought the students to the exhibit to learn about Henson.
"It shows them that people from Greenville can come and do great things," said teacher Angela Champion.
Dorothy Dixon, 18, of Leland, grew up with "Sesame Street" and the Muppets. Her favorite movie was "Muppets from Space."
For the true Muppets fanatic, the exhibit also has a gift shop with hand-puppets, T-shirts and all things Kermit - the top seller, of course, being "anything with Kermit on it," said Emily Kearney, a tour guide at the exhibit.
Kermit made his debut in a 1955 television comedy called "Sam and Friends," which aired locally in Washington, D.C., but he looked more like a lizard back then. The first puppet was fashioned from an old coat belonging to Henson's mother.
Henson and his 2-foot tall puppet joined "Sesame Street" in 1969. "The Muppet Show" followed in 1976 and ended its run in 1982. Henson's puppets moved to the big screen in 1979 with "The Muppet Movie," followed by movies including "The Great Muppet Caper" and "The Muppets Take Manhattan."
Henson gave Kermit a voice and a life for 35 years. After Henson's sudden death at age 53 from pneumonia and a strep infection, Kermit's voice and movements were done by Steve Whitmire, who started working for Henson in 1978.
Whitmire was a Kermit fan from the time he was a child - just like most of the people who stop by the exhibit in Leland.