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MuppetFest, Part I
In which everyone explains how they joined Team Muppet
© Jason Myers
June 24, 2002

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.


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 characters.

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 the conversation.

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 life-size.

To this day, the most important work that I've ever done has been with the Muppets.

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 hardworking people.

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!

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