Although most people would associate “Mah Nà Mah Nà” with The Muppets or Sesame Street, this iconic song that’s been sung by children the world over for nearly half a century actually originates from a racy 1968 Italian softcore “mondo” documentary called Sweden: Heaven and Hell.
The film, which has scenes of swingers parties, nude beaches, porn films and lesbian nightclubs—and even a scene of drug addicts huffing gasoline and eating shoe polish on bread to get high—used the song in the context of its camera ogling several towel-clad blondes cavorting in a sauna giving the scene a comic “leering” quality when a few of them drop their towels and decide to frolic in the snow (because that’s what nude Swedish ladies apparently used to do back then).
Italian cinema composer Piero Umiliani’s original soundtrack score—or at least one number—“Mah Nà Mah Nà”—took on a separate life when it became a novelty hit, reaching #55 on the Billboard singles chart in October of 1969. (It would eventually reach #8 on the British singles chart in 1977. It’s been covered by the likes of the Dave Pell Singers, Tom Jones, Giorgio Moroder, Goldie Hawn, Nancy Sinatra in her Vegas act and there’s even a Moog version.)
The song was also associated with both Benny Hill and Red Skelton, then it was adopted by bearded hippy puppeteer Jim Henson. The beatnik Muppet character who would become known as “Mahna Mahna” debuted on Nov. 30, 1969, on The Ed Sullivan Show.
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