SOUTH BEND — The Studebaker Commander that Fozzie Bear drove in the 1979 film “The Muppet Movie” set off on its next grand adventure Friday, departing the Studebaker National Museum as it headed for North Carolina.
In the flick, it was Hollywood bound. Fozzie took his uncle’s vintage 1951 car, grabbed his pal Kermit the Frog and rambled across America, meeting a menagerie of Muppet characters and humans to chase their movie dreams.
This time, the bullet-nosed beast cruised down the road, sitting on a trailer and bound for restoration. Finally. It was time to renew its creaking metal bones, its shaggy and stained upholstery and its weathered skin, which has lost its famously psychedelic paint job.
Fozzie and Kermit stayed back at the museum, where visitors had seen them while the car was on display.
A restoration crew from Razorfly Studios in Sylva, N.C., ushered the Commander onto a trailer, wrapped it in protective tarps and blankets and headed south for work that could take up to 16 months.
“I grew up with the Muppets,” said Eric Hokanson, a restorer with Razorfly. “I said, ‘Really, we get to work on a Muppet car? Cool!’”
The car had been sitting for several years in a movie studio’s outdoor lot when, in 2004, the Studebaker museum acquired it as a gift from the Studebaker Drivers Club’s Orange Empire Chapter in California.
It has seen only some light cleaning, stabilizing and replaced headlights since it moved to South Bend. It was in admittedly rough shape.
So, two years ago, the museum began a $175,000 crowdsourcing campaign to restore the 1951 Studebaker Commander to its film glory, as The Tribune reported at the time. Once restored, museum officials said, it could be loaned out to other museums and taken to special events like car shows and parades.
Since then, Razorfly owner Mark Zoran said he learned about the campaign and reached out to the museum, making a reasonable offer.
“The museum has secured approximately $60,000 in funding for this project,” Assistant Director Jo McCoy said, “which is enough to move this project forward with Razorfly Studios’ generous partnership. We will continue to seek donations for special components of the restoration and to build an exhibit in the museum that brings the movie magic to life.”
Donations can be made through a webpage that the museum has set up for the project.
Razorfly Studios specializes in restoring and building replicas of vehicles from TV and film, along with props and costumes.
“To be fair, we’ve seen a lot worse,” Zoran said of the car.
It helped that, for the time it sat neglected, it was in California and away from the Midwest’s harsher weather, he noted.
His company has built replicas (that is, copies, not restorations) of the DeLorean time machine from the 1985 film “Back to the Future” with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, of the 1974 Dodge Monaco dubbed the Bluesmobile in the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers” and of the AMC Pacer driven in the 1992 film “Wayne’s World.”
Zoran said they are now working on restoring the actual Herkimer Battle Jitney, which was portrayed to be a windowless armored truck in the 1999 superhero comedy (of lackluster fame) “Mystery Men” with many stars, including Ben Stiller.
For the Muppets’ car, restorers will balance two goals. One will be to make it drivable so that it can appear in parades and go to special events.
The other goal will be to show how the car was modified for the movie, especially how it was painted but also how it was reconfigured so that a very small person could drive it from inside of the trunk, hidden from cameras. There’s a steering wheel in the trunk, along with gas and brake pedals.
“I haven’t found any pictures of the dude back there,” Hokanson said.
The driver, sitting close to the exhaust pipe, would see the road ahead on a screen via a camera hidden in the front-end’s bullet nose.
To make it road worthy, the driving controls will switch back to the driver’s seat.
Because the Commander was a common car, Zoran feels confident that he’ll find replacement parts, which will make the mechanical and body restorations “fairly easy.”
“The hardest part is recreating the paint job,” he said.
In the movie, the psychedelic paint job was done by the woolly-headed Muppet rock band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. In reality, it was actually painted by one person in the movie studio’s art department, who has since died and who didn’t leave any plans or designs, nor many still photos, Zoran said.
That’s not a slight on the studio, he added. It happens many times in movies. The art department needs to build a prop for a scene, and once that scene is shot, they move on to the next one.
“They don’t know it’s going to be a part of American history,” he said.
Hokanson said they’ve been watching “Muppet Movie” scenes “over and over and over again to get details.”
Not a rough job when you’re heading down memory lane.
But, maybe next year, once Fozzie is settled back behind the driver’s seat, he can again say, as he said in the movie, “Ah, a bear in his natural habitat, a Studebaker.”
∎ To donate to the project: Visit https://studebakermuseum.app.neoncrm.com/forms/restore-the-studebaker-muppet-car.
South Bend Tribune reporter Joseph Dits can be reached at 574-235-6158 or email@example.com.