In December 2001, to mark the 25th anniversary of the original Muppet Show,
a veritable cornucopia of Muppet performers, writers, and creature creators
gathered in Santa Monica, California, for the
first ever MuppetFest. Now, months, later, since Film/DVD editor Jason Myers
has finally gotten around to dusting off his mini tape recorder, you can finally
get a listen to all the Muppety goodness.
CAST OF CHARACTERS:
MARTIN BAKER: Producer of The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets From Space, and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.
BILL BARRETTA: Voice of
Johnny Fiama, Pepe the Prawn, Bobo the Bear, and David Hoggselhoff
KEVIN CLASH: Voice of Elmo and
Clifford; voice of Baby Sinclair and Howard Handupme on Dinosaurs; and voice of Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I and II.
DAVE GOELZ: Voice of The Great
Gonzo, Beauregard, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot, and Sir Didymus from Labyrinth.
BRIAN HENSON: Jim Henson's son.
Director of Muppet Treasure Island and
The Muppet Christmas Carol. Executive
producer of Muppets Tonight and Farscape. Voice of Sal Minella, Dr. Phil
Van Neuter, Seymore, and Hoggle.
JERRY NELSON: Voice of Count von
Count, Herry Monster, The Amazing Mumford, Sherlock Hemlock, Camilla, Sergeant
Floyd Pepper, Robin the Frog, Crazy Harry, Dr. Julius Strangepork, Pops, J.P.
Grosse, Lew Zealand, and the High Priest and Dying Emperor in The Dark Crystal. Random sci-fi
appearance: as Darren Thomas in Robocop 2.
AMY VAN GILDER: Muppet designer
for The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Muppets Tonight, and The Muppet Movie.
PAUL WILLIAMS: Composer for The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Random
sci-fi appearances: as Virgil in Battle
for the Planet of the Apes and as the voice of The Penguin in Batman: The Animated Series.
STEVE WHITMIRE: Voice of Rizzo
the Rat, Bean Bunny, and, since 1990, Kermit.
BRIAN HENSON: One of the things that Frank Oz [Voice of Miss Piggy, Fozzy,
Animal, Sam the Eagle, Grover, Bert, Aughra, and Yoda, and director of many
fine films] would say when people ask, "How do you become a Muppet performer?",
he said, "Well, you just have to fight to survive", which is really true.
People always talk about being polite as a performerÖ and, in the Muppets,
everyone tries to upstage everybody else, and the winner gets a bigger role
next week. So the winners you'll be meeting, and the losers you can book at
your local birthday party. That was really mean.
On Steve Whitmire:
BRIAN HENSON: Steve Whitmire first joined The Muppet Show, with this
crazy little rat that was upstaging everyone. And was very successful at upstaging.
Since then, he has taken over Kermit the Frog.
On Jerry Nelson:
BRIAN HENSON: Jerry Nelson has been performing with the Muppets since the
very very beginning. Jerry has always been really one of our best musical
talents, and really has one of the most extraordinary range of characters.
During The Muppet Show, Jerry almost inevitably got the good characters,
because he could create the character out of a hat so quicklyÖ such entertaining
On Martin Baker:
BRIAN HENSON: Martin is particularly important to me. One of the very few
reasons that the company continued after my father passed awayÖ it's all because
of this man, who brought us all together. Martin has done production for us.
He's produced everything I've directed. And that's why people think I'm a
good director. And the next time I direct, he'll be producing. He's quite
an extraordinary guy. He's held the team together, and if anybody sort of
personifies the spirit of the Muppets and my father, it's this guy.
BRIAN HENSON: At the end of the 60s and the early 70s, my father was trying
to sell a Muppet show in America. And none of the networks understood what
he was talking about. The Muppets in prime time for adults. It didn't make
any sense to them. He then proposed the Valentine special done in 1973. And
that special did extremely well. And they made a pilot of The Muppet Show
called Sex and Violence. And I think that the title had something to
do with the fact that my father had been trying to sell The Muppet Show
for adults for five years, and nobody would believe him, so he made it quite
clear that it was not just for kids. It was a great show and a strong pilot.
The critics loved and everything was looking good, and of course the network
said, "No. We don't get it." Then the Muppets started doing some pieces on
Saturday Night Live. While they were doing Saturday Night Live,
they got a call that Lou Grade, in London, wanted to commission the show to
make two entire seasons, and the only condition that he wanted was that the
Muppets go to England, and produce the show there. So my father went to London,
and the rest is history.
Amy will talk, now. She worked in the Muppet shop during The Muppet Show.
AMY VAN GILDER: I was in charge of the workshop. And the workshop happened
to be a room right next to the studio. And so it was a constant flowÖ everybody
mingling togetherÖ the writersÖ the music. And it was an incredible experience.
We would do whatnots for each show. They would come up with characters or
situations and then we would build them. We would have to do some crazy wacky
things at the last minute. Like dust. OrÖ "Build a chill." Things like that,
which was wonderful. To come up with our own ideas and build them, I just
cannot tell you how wonderful it was to have that freedom. It was great. I
work for Walt Disney now. AndÖ ahÖ it's very different. It's not as fun, because
we don't have writers coming up with ideas like a character who is a chill.
And now it's over, and that's sad.
BRIAN HENSON: I think when they stopped making The Muppet Show, it
was one of the top two or three most successful shows in the world. And I
think that's a very my father thing to do, to stop making the show when it's
one of the most successful shows in the world. Nowadays they would make twenty
years of it. But he wanted to go on and do other things.
PAUL WILLIAMS: It's a great honor to be here. The very best part of my career
involves the Muppets. I showed up in England to do The Muppet Show,
and that's where I met Jim. And something happened when I walked onto the
set of The Muppet Show. I think there was an ability to play, with
a respect for heart. I wish you could experience standing talking to Jim and
Frank and Piggy and Kermit at the same time. If you're standing with Jim and
Kermit or speaking to Kermit, and Dave and Gonzo, there are five of you in
One of the first things that you understand when you're working with the
Muppets is that nothing is sacred and nobody is safe. When I went to do The
Muppet Show, they created two Paul Williams Muppets to sing Old Fashioned
Love Song. They came popping out of the radio to sing harmony: "Coming down
in three-part harmony." I think I was one of the first people who ever had
a Muppet character made of him. And probably the only one that were actually
To this day, the most important work that I've ever done has been with the
MARTIN BAKER: My first contact with the MuppetsÖ I became the producer of
The Muppet Show. I was working on a series in the late 60s, the Tom
Jones series, in fact, a big variety series that was produced in London,
and one week came along and the Muppets were on the show.
I still remember my first conversation with Jim. He arrived in London. He
checked into his hotel. And I called him to say that we were sending the limousine
to bring him to the studio. He was with Frank Oz, by the way. Jim and Frank
were both there together to guest on the show. And I said, "I'll send the
limousine for you." And he said, "Is there a train we can take to get out
there?" And I thoughtÖ I'd been working with lots of big stars on this show,
and it wasn't a question of a limousine, usually. It was how many limousines?
And here was this guest wanted to know about the train timetable. And indeed
Jim Henson and Frank Oz rode on the train, from London. And I think that said
so much about who he was. He didn't want all the star treatment. He didn't
want the limousines. He just was Jim. And the fun of coming out from central
London on the train meant more to him that riding in a big black limousine.
Anyway, we did the Tom Jones show, and then in the late 60s, early
70s, Jim came back to do specials in London, with the Muppets and Sesame
Street. Out of all this, Jim and I got quite close, and along with a colleague
of mine, we became the two stage managers at The Muppet Show. We got
to know Jim, and became part of the core team of The Muppet Show, and
it was a ride that I know all of us were just thrilled to be a part. It was
an extraordinary five years of my working life. None of us could expect that
this little puppet show would become this world-wide phenomenon.
JERRY NELSON: Yeah, I was aware of Jim and Jane Henson during Sam and
Friends and some of the early commercials that they made, mainly because
I lived in the Washington DC area. After I got out of the army, and I had
a job as a page at NBC, and I used to walk through the studio and see them
setting up everything for Sam and Friends. It was a tie-in to the news
so that they could keep people, you know. They'd watch the Muppets and then
stay for the news.
And, years later, someone who had worked with Jim in Washington DC, said,
"Do you know who Jim Henson and the Muppets are?" And I said, "Oh, yeah, they're
great. I love them." And he said, "Well, why don't you go see Jim? I think
you'll get along." I said, "Well, I would love it."
I went to see Jim. We had a meeting. Frank was there. And I was lucky because
Frank had been drafted into the army. So they needed somebody desperately,
and I was the first one who showed up. And, he said, "Go home and make a tape,
and bring it back." And I did. And so I started working with Jim and the guys.
There were five of us then. Originally there was Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, and
Jim, and a secretary. The company has grown some since then. And I really
feel blessed to have been a part of that.
BRIAN HENSON: The main performers for years were those three guys and my
father, and Richard Hunt. Richard did Beaker and Scooter, and a huge number
of other characters as well. Sweetums was his originally.
He was really an extraordinary guy. And kind of crazy. And he was sort of
the bad boy of the team. And, of course, all us kids loved to go and be entertained
by Richard. Richard passed away in 1992, and we miss him. And other people
who just couldn't be here—Frank Oz, who is very busy these days directing.
He just released The Score with Robert Deniro and Marlon Brando. And
that's what he's doing nowadays is directing.
And then Jerry Juhl couldn't be here, which is a shame, ëcause he was kind
of the head writer. Everybody did everything in the beginning, and I think
Jerry sort of veered into being the writer. He was the head writer for The
Muppet Show. And then he co-wrote The Muppet Movie, wrote The
Great Muppet Caper, wrote The Muppet Christmas Carol, co-wrote
Muppet Treasure Island, and he co-wroteÖ I'll just say he co-wrote
everything we've made. He even wrote for Muppets From Space, and he
also was writer on Fraggle Rock. He's an extraordinarily prolific writer
who couldn't make it this weekend.
JERRY NELSON: And he wrote for Sesame Street as well.
BRIAN HENSON: And Sesame Street.
DAVE GOELZ: I'm here because I got curious about Sesame Street. I
had been a long-time Muppet fan, and that curiosity sort of drove me to New
York, where I visited Sesame Street to meet some of the people involved.
I really wanted to know who created this.
I was fascinated with Ernie and Bert. Everything about Ernie and Burt fit
with their characters. Because Ernie was chubby and had horizontal stripes.
He had a soft orangy colored skin and black hair. And Bert on the other hand
was rigid, and he was upright, and he has verticle stripes on his shirt and
light yellow skin with really dark eyebrows. And I just thought this was amazing,
to watch them work. Ernie was kind of bouncy, and fun and playful. And Bert
was rigid and planted. He was always planted and had dull hobbies.
I just wanted to know who the people were who did this. I imagined that they
were a bunch of hippies. I thought that they would be rapping all day and
coming up with these ideas. And I got there and found out that they were really
Here in Los Angeles they were guesting on a Perry Como special. And [someone]
said to me, "Are you going to be working with us?" And I said, "What?" I didn't
really think so. So I said, "Boy, I don't know." And she said, "I'm sure Jim
will find something for you to do."
STEVE WHITMIRE : I was, I guess, sucked into the Muppets. I was an absolute
fanatic when I was about two years old. And I watched everything these guys
ever did, because they were my heroes. Finally, I made it through high school,
barely, ëcause all I did was play puppets all day.
[I got an interview with someone at Sesame Street] So we were at the
Atlanta airport. I had my footlocker full of my homemade puppets. And we sat
down at this little table, and [the interviewer] said, "I really want to see
you do something with puppets." We were at an airport restaurant and she wanted
me to pull out my puppets. I pull out these puppets. I was doing this little
local TV show at the time. And I was doing my thing with these puppets. And
these kids were at the next table. I guess they were Atlanta kids, and they
knew this show [and were watching me very closely]. And that's why I got hired.
Because of these kids.
What comes first: educating or entertaining?
BRIAN HENSON: I think what we've always said is we're entertaining first.
So basically, I think what the Muppets always were was entertaining first,
but either with a message or parable or educational curriculum like in Sesame
Street. But really, I think, the performers are never happy with it unless
its really funny and entertaining.
How does one get to work for the Henson company?
BRIAN HENSON: Send videotape in, of yourself with a puppet. You kind of have
to get that far on your own. Develop a characterÖ and send it in on videotape.
Most people are training, or work with us in some capacity for a few years
before [they get to do characters].
To be continued in Part Two, here at RevolutionSF!