Category Archives: Muppets

Missing Jerry Nelson

ImageI was saddened last night to learn of the passing of Muppet performer Jerry Nelson, whose immeasurable talents brought to life such characters as The Count, Floyd Pepper, Emmett Otter, and Gobo Fraggle. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jerry at his home in Cape Cod earlier this year — an absolute thrill — and he was a lovely, thoughtful man who loved what he did.  Like millions — yes, I said millions — around the world, I’ll miss him.

I’m on the road at the moment — perhaps fittingly, I spent the morning in the Sesame Workshop archives — but I’ll post a bit more about Jerry on my return.  Until then, here’s Jerry performing with Jim Henson in one of my very favorite bits: the yip-yipping Martians, as they make first contact with an Earth telephone.  (Jerry  is the pink Martian…)


….and hello there once again. I know I’ve been away for quite some time, but, y’see, this finally happened:

The first draft of Jim Henson sits in all its 700-page glory, to the likely approval of the Jim Henson action figure (as well as the photobombing Jim and Kermit bookmark).

I delivered the first draft of Jim Henson (as I’m currently calling it) to my editor earlier this week. (Actually, I delivered an electronic version to him — this 700-page monster is the one that gets filed away, with all the other first drafts.)

I’m taking a bit of a break for a moment — I’m headed to New York later this afternoon, in fact, to talk about Washington Irving — and then the next round of fun begins.  Stay tuned.

What’s So Amazing That Keeps Us Stargazing?

In honor of the official opening of The Muppets — and I’m thrilled to see it’s already getting rave reviews — I thought it might be appropriate to put up a little something to help remember what got them (and us) here.

Here’s the opening three and a half minutes of 1979’s The Muppet Movie. And I gotta admit, it chokes me up every time.

Lost Genius

In Memory of Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Gonzo Scheduling

The Great Gonzo.

When I left for Los Angeles two weeks ago, my original schedule—as I think I reported in these pages a few entries back —was going to be a bit of a whirlwind: I would be arriving at LAX at 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, which gave me just enough time to rent a car, check into my hotel and grab a bite to eat before I headed over to the Jim Henson Company to meet with Lisa Henson in the afternoon. Early Wednesday morning, I was going to drive to Burbank to meet with Muppet performer Dave Goelz, who had been scheduled to work all Tuesday evening on a Muppet-related project, but had graciously offered to give me a few hours the next morning before he caught an early flight back home. I would then drive back to LAX, return my rental car, and catch my 3 p.m. flight back to Baltimore. That was the way it was supposed to work, at least.

That didn’t happen.  And yet, things couldn’t have gone any better.

The even greater Dave Goelz.

After checking into my hotel, I did what most of us do the moment we settle into the room: I plugged in the laptop, grumbled a bit about having to pay for wireless service, then logged in to check my e-mail.  There I found waiting for me a message Dave Goelz had sent while I was still on the plane that morning, apologizing that he had run into an unexpected schedule change. “Tuesday we expect to shoot until about 2 a.m.,” he wrote, and explained that he was concerned he would be too sleep-deprived to participate in a worthwhile interview the next morning.  However, he continued, “I’d love it if you could come to the studio to do the interview. We’re shooting a music video with OK Go…” Attached at the bottom of the message was a map to Delfino Studios in Sylmar.  “Hope you can make it.” Dave said.

Make it? Are you kidding?

As it turns out, the band OK Go had recorded a version of the theme from The Muppet Show for The Green Album, a new collection of Muppet-related covers—and the Muppets, naturally, would be a major part of their music video. The Muppets and the video-savvy OK Go together? There was no way it couldn’t be a lot of fun.  Knowing he was already at the studio working and therefore unable to check e-mail, I tapped out a text message to Dave telling him that I would love the chance to watch him work, and asked if I could meet him at 7 p.m., after I finished my meeting over at Henson Studios. Dave responded almost immediately: “Xlent.”

I kept my appointment with Lisa Henson—who was as warm and gracious and thoughtful as always—then as the clock neared 6 p.m., I pointed my Kia Soul (what the heck?) in the direction of Burbank. A little after 7 p.m., I pulled up at Delfino Studios, a compound of several connected warehouses just outside of the city.  I managed to luck into finding a producer on a break out in the parking lot, who kindly steered me through a maze of outer rooms and into one of Delfino’s dark, cavernous main studios.  There, in the middle of the room, under an enormous glare of lights, the members of the band OK Go were patiently resting their heads on the top of a long board, waiting for the music to begin as the crew buzzed around them.

Trying to stay out of the way as much as possible, I climbed into a canvas chair in a cozy seating area that had been set up off to one side, an assortment of chairs and sofas arranged around several flatscreen monitors where we could easily see exactly what the cameras were filming. As playback began over the studio speakers, the band began to lipsynch to themselves singing The Muppet Show theme—and as they finished the verse, up popped Marvin Suggs to pound on their heads with his Muppaphone mallets.  My mouth hung open. “OMG,” I texted to my wife, “I JUST SAW MARVIN SUGGS!” (Her response: “MODULATE!” I do love having a pop culture-savvy spouse…)

After another hour of filming—where I watched lead singer Damian Kulash repeatedly smash into, then peel his face off of, a piece of plexiglass as he and the Muppet performers attempted to get the timing just right on a series of quick head turns—Dave Goelz climbed off a ladder where he had been performing Gonzo and we were finally able to grab some time to speak in a quiet side office.

An hour later, a technician came in to call Dave back to the set. Dave cheerily pointed a finger at me. “Let’s keep talking!” he said. “Don’t go anywhere!” Believe me, there was no chance that was happening.  For another hour I stood to one side as Dave laid on a rolling cart with Gonzo, reacting goofily as a Muppaphone mallet was thrown into a pyramid of inverted trash cans, sending a bucket swinging toward the camera.  As it struck a Muppet chicken, a blast of compressed air blew a handful of feathers skyward.  (“Whoopeee!!” cheered Gonzo in several takes.) The director finally decided everyone had nailed it, and back Dave and I went to talking, taking a slight break to eat dinner on the set around 11 p.m.

The genuinely nice Steve Whitmire.

At one point, Steve Whitmire—who’s performed Kermit the Frog since 1990, and who I had the pleasure of speaking with in Atlanta earlier this year—circled around us several times, then came over, smiling, to shake my hand. “I thought I recognized you!” he said as he clapped me on the shoulder.  Man, the Muppet performers are all such genuinely nice people.

Well into the early hours of Wednesday morning, Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire sat just out of the camera’s eye, performing Statler and Waldorf, first with Kulash, and then by themselves. They worked without a script, preferring to ad lib their dialogue, cracking each other up, and laughing in character. After one particular take, director Kirk Thatcher laughed out loud. “That was great!” he called out, “Let’s cut!”

“No, it wasn’t great,” Whitmire said.  “We need something else.”

“I got it! I got it!” said Goelz, and as cameras rolled again, the two of them worked their way through several more jokes until both were happy with it.

As I watched these two old friends work together—two men who had known each other for nearly thirty-five years, and who knew each other’s rhythms so well they could hit all the beats of an ad-libbed routine perfectly— I was struck by just how fortunate I am to be a part of their world, if only for a moment.  To call it awe inspiring doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

I closed my night–or morning, rather, for at this point, it was approaching 3 a.m.—listening to Dave speak fondly of friends and coworkers, many of whom are long since gone. After we finished, as I got up to go, he took my hand in both of his and shook it warmly. “Thank you for letting me talk about Jim,” he said. “It’s been a real privilege.” That choked me up; as I said earlier, the Muppet performers are all such warm and generous people. It was all I could do to stammer that the privilege was all mine.

And it truly was.

And now, here’s the video I had the thrill of watching Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, OK Go, and the rest of the talented Muppet performers make in that warehouse studio in Burbank:

(My thanks to Dave Goelz for inviting me to the set — and to the members of OK Go who graciously permitted me to stay there.)

Trip Report? Well . . . okay. Go.

I haven’t posted anything about my trip out to Los Angeles back on August 9 — but that was because I got to see something really extraordinary that I couldn’t talk about until things were officially Official.

They’re official now, and they have to do with this:

Click here for the video (I’d embed it, only WordPress Hates Vevo). More later.

“Henson & Oz” and the Museum of the Moving Image

The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York — a stone throw from the Kaufman Astoria studios where Sesame Street is taped — is presently hosting the exhibit Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, a marvelous show covering the entire span of Jim Henson’s creative career.  As the program for the show says:

Fifteen iconic puppets, including Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Rowlf, and Bert and Ernie, are on view, along with photographs of Henson and his collaborators at work and excerpts from his early projects and experimental films. The exhibition spans Henson’s entire career, with drawings, cartoons, and posters produced during his college years in the late 1950s and objects related to the inspired imaginary world of his popular 1982 fantasy film, The Dark Crystal. The exhibition features artifacts from Henson’s best-known projects, The Muppet ShowThe Muppet Movie and its sequels,Fraggle Rock, and Sesame Street, in addition to materials from Sam and Friends, an early show he created in the 1950s, and his pioneering television commercial work in the 1960s.

I had the opportunity to see the exhibit when it was at the Smithsonian in 2008, and it’s a lot of fun.  And while there are plenty of familiar faces on display, you’ll also have the chance to take a peek at some hidden treasures, including some projects that never materialized.

Jim Henson’s Fantastic World runs through January 2012.  You can find more information right here.

Meanwhile, the Museum of the Moving Image has put up on its website a terrific short film Henson & Oz, a affectionate look at the on- and off-screen relationship of Jim Henson and Frank Oz, and the characters they performed.  And it’s very funny stuff indeed. Have a look.

Box Tops

As expected, four o’clock in the morning arrived WAY too early this morning. Still, that was what time I had to get up to catch the 5:58 a.m. train from Baltimore to New York, where I’m spending another week doing research in the Jim Henson archives at the the company’s headquarters out on Long Island.

As usual, crack archivist Karen Falk (and her assistant, Madalyn) are taking good care of me, bringing me armloads of materials stored neatly in dark green boxes. Today, I spent the entire day sorting through newspaper clippings, press releases, and interviews. And how cool is it when the boxes that get plunked down on your desk have this sticker on top of them?

I’ll be here the rest of the week, continuing to do research—even though it’s so much fun it hardly seems fair to call it “research.”

Stille Nacht

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween from Muppet Labs!