“FAME” – The Real Story Behind the Scenes…

FAME 2009 the movie failed to live up to the original FAME of 1980, and the TV show that followed, but I figure it’s time to reprint my PARADE article in 1982 on the real-life “Fame School” — the High School of Performing Arts in New York City.
Parade Magazine - Aug 22, 1982
FAME – The Real Story
PARADE – August 22, 1982
By Hank Whittemore

“I want to live forever . . . Baby, remember my name!”

Those words are from the theme song of the movie Fame. They sum up Hollywood’s version of what drives the students at the prestigious School of Performing Arts in New York City, which inspired the film and the TV series that followed it.  In both, talented young actors, singers. dancers and musicians are portrayed as having little else on their minds except seeing their names in lights.

In reality, though they may arrive as freshmen with stars in their eyes and “remember my name” in their ears, that ego trip ends when they walk through the door. The message turns out to be entirely different.  The six hundred students at “P.A.” – as they affectionately call their unique public high school – regard celebrity as an elusive, fleeting and even unworthy goal.

Their talk spills over with words like achievement, commitment, integrity, quality, respect, work.  One word that almost never comes up is fame.

“The TV series doesn’t truthfully portray what kind of people we are,” says Oliver Barreiro, a junior in the drama department. “They make it seem as if everything is a playground. with singing and dancing on top of cars.”

“They don’t show the commitment needed to work in this school,” adds Caren Messing, another acting student. “They’re very result-oriented.  All you see are these musical numbers, with kids performing all the time. But we deal with the process and the practice.”

The film did capture the highly competitive audition process required for admission – out of about 4500 annual applicants, only 200 new students are accepted – and the school’s balanced racial mix.  “This is a school where black kids, white kids, Puerto Rican kids, yellow kids and all the others come together to be liberated,” says Jerry Eskow, chairman of the drama department. “In a real sense, they are all breaking out of their individual
ghettos.”

Erica Gimpel

One of the graduates this year is Erica Gimpel, who took time off to play the leading role of Coco Hernandez in the Fame TV series. In a press release, MGM Television speaks of Coco’s “consuming hunger for success.”  She “knows she’s bound for stardom and fame,” it adds. “It’s just a matter of when it will happen. Her choice is tomorrow … or sooner!”

The real Miss Gimpel is a serious acting student – not a dancer like Coco – and she could hardly wait to get back from Hollywood to continue her work at P.A.  There she is treated as an equal, not as a celebrity. “Erica came back to school to find the reality,” Eskow says.  He adds that, like her classmates who regularly watch her on Fame, “she understands the difference and feels just as strongly about work as they do.”

Erica Gimpel

For Gene Anthony Ray, who played the role of Leroy Jobnson – a streetwise, resentful black dancer – in both movie and series, the difference between Hollywood and reality is perhaps more ironic. Ray had been a Performing Arts student, but he left the school without completing its program.  In the screen version, however, Leroy is kept on and even treated as a special case.

“Now, that’s really unrealistic,” says Corinth Booker, a young black student and, like Leroy, a dancer. “And on the series, nobody wants to get on Leroy’s bad side because he’s so talented.  Here, there’s just no kind of favoritism like that. Leroy gets away with being very stubborn and selfish, and he argues with teachers – like, ‘Are you telling me what I should do?’  That’s not the way it is.”

Gene Anthony Ray died of a stroke at age 41 in 2003

As head of the P.A. dance department, Lydia Joel resembles a strict but caring aunt. Her lecture to freshman dancers comes right to the point “This is an absolutely undemocratic situation you face. You have no rights here. Your only right is to come to class and be wonderful. You can’t protest, you can’t be absent, you can only work. If you are aspiring to work on the professional level, there is only quality, quality, quality.  And we will help you be wonderful.”

“Dancing is an extraordinary human endeavor,” Joel tells her students.  “We can try to find flexible bodies, vitality, response to instruction and the potential for achievement, but what we really can’t judge is your motivation. It’s like a little flame that burns inside of you.  And no matter how much you want to be a big star, it won’t work if that fire doesn’t burn strongly enough to give you the patience and dedication you need. You must give your entire self in an act of faith.  If you have any sort of resentment or lack of clarity, you will find heartbreak.  But if you manage to live through four years of this
demand upon your inner self, your life will be literally changed.”

The original FAME poster - 1980

The students say that Hollywood’s depiction of competitiveness among them is unrealistic.  “It seems like everyone is scratching their eyes out to beat each other out,” Oliver Barreiro says, “but that is just the opposite of how it works here. We don’t talk about each other behind our backs. We work together, all striving for the same thing.”

In a city loaded with crime, drugs and other problems involving teenagers, P.A. students insist that drug usage is far less here than at other high schools. “They have real respect for their bodies,” says Fred Wile, P.A.’s guidance counselor.  “Just as you can’t be twenty pounds overweight and function as a dancer, you certainly can’t play Beethoven while you’re stoned on drugs.”

Long before Fame the movie brought Performing Arts into the national limelight, the school was known among professionals as the alma mater of such stars as Al Pacino, Lisa Minnelli, Ben Vereen, Melissa Manchester and the late Freddie Prinze. And to most of its illustrious graduates, the school is something very special. “I tell my freshmen students to go out and interview an actor or director,” Jerry Eskow says, “to find out what they feel is important.  And even the biggest stars will talk to a kid from Performing Arts.”

The FAME Television Show

Dustin Hoffman, Eskow recalls, was approached one time by a fourteen-year-old girl from the  drama department. “Could you give me an interview?” she asked.

“No time,” Hoffman said.

“I’m from the School of Performing Arts.”

“Oh!  Well, listen,” Hoffman replied, “I can’t do it now, but why don’t you come to my home tomorrow morning?”

When she arrived, Hoffman was still asleep, but he roused himself for the interview.  The girl couldn’t get her tape recorder to work and started to cry. Hoffman helped her with the machine and even conducted the first half of the interview by asking himself questions until she overcame her shyness.

Another student approached George C. Scott at a time when the actor was refusing to talk to the press.  As Scott emerged from a lobby in Lincoln Center, the young man tried to get his attention.

“What the hell do you want?” Scott roared in his familiar gruff voice.

“I’m from the School of Performing Arts.”

“Come on,” Scott barked, grabbing the student by the arm and marching him across the street to a drugstore.  “Sit down,” he said, ordered coffee for them both and launched into a forty-minute interview as if it were the most important thing in the world.

Which, of course, it often is. The youngsters are being asked to look deep within themselves and come up by age seventeen with answers to the questions:  “Do I have what it takes?  Should I make this my whole life?”

“Talent is all around us,” Eskow says, “but the trick is to identify it and then help the students to see themselves as talented entities rather than as street kids.”

“Most schools see a student as an empty vessel to fill with knowledge,” he explains.  “We believe that these kids are the reverse. You go to a medical school and come out a doctor.  Here, the actor or dancer or musician already exists, and our job is to peel away the layers preventing that professional from emerging.”

At 6 a.m. on weekdays, dance student Corinth Booker wakes up in Harlem, does his chores, takes his little sister to a babysitter’s apartment and then rides the crowded subway down to the very different world of Performing Arts. He attends his classes, goes through muscle-numbing practice sessions, takes more dance classes on the side and works as a busboy three nights a week.  He has his chance, yet he knows time is already running out.

“They want these young dancers out there,” says student Terri Hall. “It’s like, if you’re twenty, you’re old! I mean, at sixteen, I’m halfway over.  I’m really so unsure about what want now.  If I went to college, I wouldn’t major in dance because the level isn’t high enough.  Should I stay in New York when I graduate?  On the Fame series, you never see any of the characters going through these changes.”

Henry Rinehart, also sixteen, says he has lost his adolescence by having had to make his own way in the city while studying acting at P.A. His parents are separated, so he lives at another student’s apartment and copes on his own. “I’m supposed to be a teenager growing up.” he reflects, “but I look at myself and find that I’ve already done it.”

The reality, Henry says, is learning about failure:  “They tell us, ‘If you’re going to fail, do it here and go all the way.  Fail big!’  Because you learn so much from having to pick yourself up and go on.  In deciding whether to continue as performers, we’re really experiencing how to face life.”

Nina LoMonaco, seventeen, is another part of the reality, practicing her French horn on the staircase, blowing it so loudly that the paint starts chipping and falling down all around her.  While other young people are off having a good time, she studies and practices hour after hour.  She says she often wonders: “My God, am I making the biggest mistake of my life?  What am I doing this for?”

Should Nina skip regular college and try to become one of the best musicians in the country?  “I can understand people getting discouraged,” she says, “but that’s fine because it’ll mean less competition for me.  I’m going to reach as high as I can, and if I don’t make it, that’s my problem.  But I have to take this chance.  Now.”

Is the punishing life of a dancer the only way Corinth Booker can break out of Harlem and the urban jungle?  How will Henry Rinehart know, really, if he has what it takes to be a professional actor?  Does Terri Hall honestly want the life of a dancer to the exclusion of so much else?

In the real world, these youngsters are at the edge of adolescence, looking out at an unclear future. Yet they have to make decisions about leaping into it. They’re seeking an answer – some sort of message that will make them decide one way or another.

For Lydia Joel, the answer comes every day.  As we sit in the tiny office from which she runs the dance department, the pounding of a practice piano underscores the sound of dancers practicing in a studio two floors above. In another room, a student orchestra plays.  Down the hall, some acting students rehearse a scene from Euripides.

“These kids are beautiful in the right sense of the word,” Lydia Joel says. “The sounds of this school are the sounds of involvement.”

Then she picks up a postcard from a former dance student:  “I would like to thank you for recommending me. I did very well at the audition and in made it to the last 15 out of 300 girls.  But nothing came of it. Well, maybe next time.  I’m not going to give up. I love it too much.”

She puts down the postcard.  She sighs.  “One very beautiful girl who was doing quite well came to me last year and told me she’d decided to become a nurse instead of a dancer.  The flame inside her burned toward nursing. But here,” she points to the postcard, “the flame is toward the dance as a way of life.  That’s how it burns.”

Flame – not fame – is the message.

///////////

Fame TV Show Cast:
Debbie Allen .…………. Lydia Grant
Gene Anthony Ray ………. Leroy Johnson
Carlo Imperato ………… Danny Amatullo
Albert Hague ………….. Mr. Benjamin Shorofsky
Ann Nelson ……………. Mrs. Gertrude Berg
Carol Mayo Jenkins …….. Elizabeth Sherwood (1982-1986)
Billy Hufsey ………….. Christopher Donlon (1983-1987)
Valerie Landsburg ……… Doris Rene Schwartz (1982-1985)
Bronwyn Thomas ………… Michelle (1982-1985)
Cynthia Gibb ………….. Holly Laird (1983-1986)
Jesse Borrego …………. Jesse V. Valesquez (1984-1987)
Nia Peeples …………… Nicole Chapman (1984-1987)
Lee Curreri …………… Bruno Martelli (1982-1984)
Morgan Stevens ………… David Reardon (1982-1984)
Ken Swofford ………….. Quentin Morloch (1983-1985)
Loretta Chandler ………. Dusty Tyler (1985-1987)
Graham Jarvis …………. Mr. Bob Dyrenforth (1985-1987)
Dick Miller …………… Mr. Lou Mackie (1985-1987)
Lori Singer …………… Julie Miller (1982-1983)
Erica Gimpel .………Coco Hernandez (1982-1983)
Dave Shelley ………….. Caruso (1983-1984)
Janet Jackson …………. Cleo Hewitt (1984-1985)
Page Hannah …………… Kate Riley (1985-1986)
Olivia Barash …………. Maxie (1986-1987)
Michael Cerveris ………. Ian Ware (1986-1987)
Eric Pierpoint ………… Jack (1986-1987)
Carrie Hamilton ……….. Reggie Higgins (1986-1987)
Elisa Heinsohn ………… Jillian Beckett (1986-1987)
P.R. Paul …………….. Montgomery MacNeil (1982)

World War II – Waiting for My Father to Come Home

The story as it appeared in PARADE in January 1985, with a photo of me with my parents in 1942 and another one, taken by the great photographer Eddie Adams, in 1984

When we observed Veterans Day earlier this week, it occurred to me to find one of my all-time favorite articles that I wrote for PARADE magazine.  This one was published on January 20, 1985, at the start of the 40th anniversary year of the end of that horrible war.  It represents a personal memory behind just one of the millions of local announcements that appeared during the war in local newspapers across the country:

FROM THE DAILY TIMES, MAMARONECK, NY: ENGLAND, July 14, 1944 – Staff Sgt. William c. Whittemore Jr. of the Alden House, Larchmont, has recently arrived in England to serve in the Signal Corps.  Son of Mr. and Mrs. William C. Whittemore of 3 Virginia Place, Larchmont, Staff Sgt. Whittemore entered the service in July of 1943 and trained in Camp Crowder, Mo; State Teachers College, Tex.; and at Camp Edison, Sea Girt, NJ.  Staff Sgt. Whittemore and his wife, the former Suzette Schwiers of New York City, have one son, two-and-a-half years old.

WOULD MY FATHER COME MARCHING HOME AGAIN?
After 40 Years, one small story from our biggest war

I don’t think I can recall one thing about my father before he left us to go to war. I was not yet two years old when he disappeared from our lives, vanishing across the Atlantic Ocean’s turmoil of dark water and gray sky on his way to various European battlefields. I can recall, perhaps, the feeling of his presence in my life, but I don’t know that for sure.

What I do remember – vividly – are images formed as a result of looking at photographs and from being told the same stories over and over. Some of them refer to events that happened well before my birth in November 1941, back during the days when my father was growing up to become the handsome, dashing young man who would sweep my mother off her feet and marry her within six months of their first romantic meeting.

Yes, my images of him in those days are illuminated by the sort of glitter and glow reserved for Hollywood stars, and those old photographs only reinforce my conviction that he was a more-than- average fellow. He appears in them as tall and slim, often wearing white slacks and shoes, smiling with confidence and gazing at the camera as if he knew, right then, that he was creating an indelible effect.

The most striking physical fact about him was his bright red hair – wavy, thick, passionate hair that seemed to be perpetually on fire. On a couple of the black and white photographs, his hair was touched up with red-orange paint, and his eyes were given a watercolor blue.  But these were Ineffectual attempts to capture the true flavor of his arresting appearance – or so I was told, at age three, when I would stare at the photos of my absent father and pretend that he was gazing back into my soul.

CLOSEUP OF PIC WWII ARTICLE

He had lived as a little boy on West 150th Street in New York City; later, he moved with his parents out to the suburbs, to the Village of Larchmont in Westchester County, twenty miles north of Manhattan. He met my mother in the summer of 1940, when he was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. She had come up from New York to Larchmont with her parents, who had rented a home for the summer to escape the heat of the city. The house was diagonally across the tree-lined street from where my father lived.

To my mother, the colorful, flowers and green trees of Larchmont were as beautiful and thrilling as the hills and valleys of the countryside. I can only try to imagine the warm summer evenings and sunny weekend days of the courtship that led my mother and father to marry before the year was over.  I think they knew, even on their wedding day in December of 1940, that events beyond their control might soon reach out and pull my father away.

They were married in the city, at the Biltmore Hotel.  They took an apartment in Larchmont (in the Alden House), a short walk from where my father had lived and where his parents remained. I was born eleven months later in New Rochelle Hospital. Just five weeks afterward, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

ALDEN1

The Alden House in Larchmont, on the Post Road, where we lived during World War II

As I say, I have no recollection of my father from the time I was born until he left us. I am told that it took at least eighteen months before he was drafted into the Army.  My mother and I were to stay in the Larchmont apartment while he was overseas, but first he would have to go into training. When he got to Camp Edison in Sea Girt, New Jersey, my mother and I traveled down there by train and took a room in a boardinghouse near the beach and a few blocks from the camp.

The story I like best from that time is about how my father would sneak out of the barracks area at night and make his way to the boardinghouse to be with my mother (and me) for a few stolen hours before racing back, climbing over the fence and slipping into his tent again in time for sunrise and reveille, hen he’d get up and continue, on virtually no sleep, training for war.

I have one other image from that time on the Jersey shore, just before my father was to be shipped overseas. I see myself in a little red wagon. My mother is pulling me on the boardwalk beside the sand and the ocean. I hear the waves slashing and pounding with an angry, threatening force. I feel the wind hurling itself against my mother as she pulls me, afraid but determined.  Her long, dark hair is blowing wildly from the violence in the air, which continues to build as if it were blowing all the way from Europe. Her face is very pale, and she seems so very alone with her willpower and her faith and her fear.

Coming upon the sight of a large crowd on the beach, we can see from the boardwalk that the object of curiosity is the enormous corpse of a whale. The sight of its ugly gray body terrifies my mother, who quickly turns the wagon around and starts pulling me away from the scene. She pulls with sudden, inexplicable strength, as if to save us both from some mysterious danger.  If such a powerful mammal has lost its fight against unchecked brutality, where is safety for a young woman alone with a child in a world whose madness no one, much less she, can fathom?  I see her pulling me faster and faster and calling the name of her young husband, whose vanishing figure she chases in bewilderment along an endless pier beside an endless, churning sea.

Even though I may not remember these things, I feel them.  And I feel my helplessness in being too weak, too insignificant, to protect her.

Back in Larchmont, we lived in the apartment together. It was during this time that my true memories did, in fact, begin to form. In the earliest one, we are on the high rooftop of our building, which itself is on a hill. I am standing on the tar paper, gazing through an opening in the wall.

“Be careful,” she says.

“Don’t worry, Mom.” I reply. Those are the three words I remember speaking most often, taking it upon myself to calm her down, to give her peace. I was acting brave. And, in the same breath, I was also absorbing her fears, her loneliness and her pain, making them my own and trying to reassure myself.

I could feel her waiting.  Always waiting.

One day we entered our building as usual, my mother picked up the mail and we went up in the elevator. When we were in the apartment, she told me to go and wait for her in the bedroom.  I was on my parents’ bed when she walked in, her eyes red and tears spilling down her face.  A letter was clutched in her hand, at her side. In the letter was a small, brownish close-up photograph of a man’s face – like a passport photo.  My mother knelt down, holding it in front of her, and I listened to her sobbing for a long time.

“He’s a prisoner.” she finally whispered. “They won’t let him tell the truth, but he’s trying to send me a message with this picture. He’s a prisoner of war, and he’s never coming home!”

She knelt and tried to pray, and the double bed beneath me became a floating raft set loose from its moorings, carrying me away. I lay face-down on the sheet with my arms spread wide, my fingers clutching but unable to hold on, as she continued to weep, and I felt the inexorable pull of the tide and the roll of the waves, beyond my control.

After that, I could feel my mother’s tension whenever she checked the mail or if someone called. At last, another letter from overseas.  He seemed okay, but the war continued. What would happen to him, and to us, was unknown.     Over the days, weeks and months, we waited.  We shared an unspoken agreement that our most fundamental activity was passing time, dangling, holding on, as if the beginning of our lives had been postponed.

In my grandparents’ house on Virginia Place in the winter of 1945, there is a large gathering of adults. I am playing off to one side, on the rug near the piano, with a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces show the jagged features of men in battle. The house is stuffy and warm from the radiator, the tobacco smoke, the body heat. From my vantage point on the floor, there is an ebb and flow of milling pants, dresses, legs and shoes accompanied by a loud, continuous babble.

I am concentrating on the puzzle when I feel a blast of invigorating air sweep through the forest of legs.  I hear a clamor of cheering. The congregation moves toward the open front door. There are shrieks of laughter and delight.  I remain on the rug, staring at the chaos.  The throng backs up into the living room and, after more commotion, the congestion breaks apart to reveal, in the glow of an amber light, a handsome man wearing an overcoat and a cap with a visor.  He is standing there with a confident smile, greeting people with hugs.  He takes off his overcoat. He is dressed in a uniform of the U.S. Army.  He removes his cap. In the warm, brown- yellow circle of light, his hair is fiery red.

As he puts his arm around my mother’s waist and gives her a kiss, I look away and shut my eyes; in this self-imposed darkness, it seems that my breath has been taken away. I hear his voice distinctly. He is calling my name.  “Where is he?’ I hear him say, and the conversation ceases abruptly, as if all the sound in the world has been shut off.  In the hush, my eyes are still closed; yet I can feel him staring at me from across the room. I wait – in fear, in resentment, in hope, in a darkness stretching away to the ends of a silent universe.

When I open my eyes, he is taking the last strides in my direction.  He bends down in a squat and gazes directly at me. The red hair is a ring of fire around his face, and I stare into his blazing blue eyes, which are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I feel his harsh breath and the scraping of his beard stubble on my cheek as he kisses me with strange, scary roughness.

So here is my first real memory of him, with his strong hands gripping either side of my chest under my arms, slowly lifting me off the ground as the scattered pieces of the war puzzle recede far below on the rug; and I soar, weightless, higher and higher, into the amber sky, gliding without effort above his head, looking down at all the faces and at the face of my mother, who is smiling up at me with glistening eyes, with the expression of a little girl being transformed suddenly into my father’s wife, and some terrible burden of the spirit, some unbearably oppressive weight, softly slides away.

The Muppets – Three Decades Ago…

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

MUPPETS

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.