Given the current celebration of Sesame Street’s fortieth anniversary, I reached into my files to find an article I wrote on the Muppets for PARADE, the Sunday supplement, more than thirty years ago in 1978. Jim Henson was forty-two; he died twelve years later, in 1990, at fifty-four. Richard Hunt was twenty-seven; he died fourteen years later, in 1992, at forty-one.
December 24, 1978
The Magical Hands of TV’s Muppet Zoo
Article on the Muppets in PARADE on December 24, 1978
By Hank Whittemore
It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature is stir ring, not even a – frog?
Unless, perhaps, there are visions stirring in your head inspired by the likes of Kermit—the nation’s First Frog – and his Muppet friends, including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and all the other funny, fantastical, foam-rubber TV creatures whose weekly antics make us laugh while reminding us of ourselves. The Muppets delight children and grownups alike with a magical blend of illusion and reality. They may not quite have the appeal of Santa Claus, but they’re the most popular puppets in the world.
Over the last decade, more than half of America’s preschoolers have grown up watching Cookie Monster and other Muppets on Sesame Street, the daily show on National Educational Television. Forty million viewers in the U.S., and 230 million in 103 other countries, tune in for The Muppet Show, the weekly TV series now in its third year of syndication. And now, folks, The Muppet Movie has just been filmed, for release this spring.
With Kermit and his friends already superstars, it’s time for a look at those behind – actually, under – them. Beneath the characters is a team of five men whose hands and voices give life to the Muppets. Each is tall, slim, agile, multi-skilled and possessed of a streak of nutty humor:
• Jim Henson, 42, a soft-spoken man with long brown hair and full beard, is the Muppets. Twenty-three years ago he created Kermit (Out of a partiality to frogs) and coined the word “Muppet” to describe his own unique cross between marionette and puppet. Since then he has built a veritable Muppet empire, operating out of his New York-based Henson Associates – or just plain HA!
“I love the anonymity of it all,” Henson says, although he has allowed himself a degree of public visibility. He’s the guiding genius behind the Muppets’ success, acting as a designer, writer, producer and director, while continuing to perform below Kermit, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, Captain Link Hogthrob, Waldorf the Swedish Chef, the Newsman and Mahna Mahna.
• Frank Oz, 34, has a mustache, spectacles and receding hairline that gives him the high-domed look of a scientist. “I was a perfectly normal kid,” he insists. “You know—serious, studious, rotten. This craziness is a contagious disease I caught from Jim Henson.” Oz, a veteran of 15 years of Muppet service, is creative consultant for The Muppet Show and a vice president of Henson Associates. Henson says Oz is “probably the person most responsible for the Muppets’ being funny.”
Oz based Cookie Monster on his own addiction to chocolate-chip cookies. He drew Grover’s character from that of his dog, Fred. When 0z’s Bert began his first routine with Henson’s Ernie, one of the great modern comedy teams was born.
Perhaps Oz’s most inspired creation is Miss Piggy. “I am certain,” a colleague jokes, “that she’s a reflection of Frank’s warped soul.” She’s a complexity of bravado and vulnerability, a coy lady pig whose delicate identity is not only sustained but fiercely protected by Oz.
* Jerry Nelson, 38, a lean, bearded, actor, is regarded as the “master of voices” among the five, especially as a singer. “With the Muppets you never stand still,” he says. “You keep growing. The character keeps learning, expanding, changing – just like a human being.” He brings alive a range of Muppets, including Robin the Frog, Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Dr. Julius Strange- pork, Fleet Scribbler, Crazy Harry, Uncle Deadly, the Count, Herry Monster and Sherlock Hemlock.
• Richard Hunt, 27, with a mop of curly hair and seemingly boundless energy, had never sent up anything more exotic than a basketball before becoming a Muppet performer. “I came aboard when I was 18,” he recalls,” so I’ve been kind of a younger brother to Jim and Frank and Jerry. You might say I’ve grown up with the Muppets.” Hunt gives us Scooter, Sweetums, Gladys, Beaker and Statler, among others,
• Dave Goelz, 32, the newest member of the regular team, with a beard and a mischievous glint in his eyes, performs for Great Gonzo, Honeydew, Muppy and Zoot, “My background wasn’t show business,” he says, “but my whole family was raised in an atmosphere of weird. So I guess my doing this was inevitable,”
“We’re all pretty much group people,” Henson points out, “To become part of the Muppets, you have to know how to share and work unselfishly for the total effort.”
And what an effort that is! On the set, the Muppeteers stand together, jostling around with their arms up, moving their Muppets’ mouths and arms for the camera, which is poised up high to catch the action. They speak or sing into microphones attached to headbands, following a memorized script. On top of all that, they must constantly glance sideways to watch TV monitors so they can see what the camera sees.
For a character like Kermit, who cannot grasp objects with his hands, Henson moves the arms with thin rods painted to match the background. The many other characters who can hold objects require two performers standing together. One manipulates the mouth and the left arm (and hand) while the other operates the right arm, “It takes twice the work of an actor,” Hunt says, “because you’re trying to communicate everything through a piece of foam rubber.”
“We’re really actors who use puppets,” Nelson adds. “The Muppets have a personality makeup that extends beyond caricature. I think it goes all the way back to the cavemen, who wore animal heads. It begins as a visual stimulus, but it also goes deeper and touches something basic in man. The Muppets let people indulge in fantasy, but they’re also rooted in real emotions that people can identify with.”
New Muppets are born only after much creative input from designers, writers and performers. When a character is ready, Henson tries to “link the puppeteer with the Muppet, whenever there’s an affinity.” Only after a long period of practice with a mirror and a tape recorder does the fledgling character go public.
Rehearsals are usually relaxed, jovial sessions. “When you’re squashed under a stage all day with two or three other guys, you’d better like each other,” Nelson says.
This genial, creative atmosphere is a reflection of Henson’s quietly offbeat personality. He maintains a firm artistic hand but is singularly unthreatened by others’ talents. His wife – the former Jane Nebel, his original puppeteering partner – says the best insight into his style comes from close observation of his alter ego, Kermit the Frog:
“Kermit is the emotional pivot point for the other Muppets to work around. He sort of watches and enjoys the characters around him, taking them for what they are. Jim does the same for the people around him. The result is that they all have great respect for their characters and lend a general balance to each other,”
Jim and Jane Henson met as art students at the University of Maryland. Henson, who grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., had joined a puppet club during high school. Alter graduation he started building his own creations and, in 1955, toward the end of his freshman year in college, he landed a late-night five-minute TV show of his own on a local station.
Married in 1959, the Hensons kept that show, Sam and Friends, on the air for eight years. Kermit went on The Ed Sullivan Show as a regular for five seasons, and Rowlf the Dog, created for a dog-food commercial, wound up as resident comedian on The Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960’s.
“From the beginning we played to an adult audience,” Henson says, so in some ways Sesame Street was a set back. Starting in 1969, it became a tremendous success – but mostly for preschoolers. Some of the Hensons’ own children (there are five, ranging in age from 7 to 18) helped with their reactions. It wasn’t until The Muppet Show began in 1976 that Henson’s original conception was proved once and for all: the Muppets are for everybody.
Sesame Street is taped in New York while The Muppet Show, produced by Henson and ITC Entertainment, is done in London, “We have a schedule to drive people crazy,” Hunt says, alluding to the additional travel to Hollywood to do The Muppet Movie.
“The feature film has been one of our big goals,” Henson says. “We’ve reversed the format of the TV show. Instead of guests coming to visit from outside, we’ve taken the Muppet characters out into the real world. The story begins with Kermit down South in a swamp. He hitchhikes across the country, and all the friends accumulate.”
Another movie, planned for 1980, would involve all new Muppet creations in the form of “gnomes, wizards, elves and other uglies,” according to Hunt.
Henson says it’s coincidence that all current members of the performing team are male. There have been female performers in the past – notably Louise Gold of London – and he says there undoubtedly will be again. “There are always people on the fringes and working toward joining us,” he adds,
The Hensons live in Bedford, N.Y. Of the others, all of whom are bachelors, Oz and Nelson live separately in Manhattan, Hunt in New Jersey and Goelz in California. They all have outside interests. Oz, for one, has been an Off-Broadway actor and is also a playwright, sculptor, videotape producer and enthusiastic sailor.
One day he was strolling on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near his apartment, when he overheard two men discussing Cookie Monster. “Excuse me,” Oz said, “but I am Cookie Monster.”
“Hey,” said one of the men, “no kidding! He’s great!”
Not you’re great, but he’s great – which pretty well sums up the public identity of a Muppet performer.