20 July, 2019

Play the music, light the lights, it's time

So here's the thing,

I have this annoying tendency to put a great deal of effort into writing things for this blog and then, having done all the hard work of actually writing close to 10,000 words, never actually posting the thing because the comparatively easy work of rereading my writing, formatting it, and adding pictures and links, just seems like too much work. (Witness the way I always wait an entire year before posting my reflections on the previous year's film festival films, even though those are literally just reposts of Facebook posts that I had already written.)

So this is a post that I finished writing over a year ago, about an event that took place in April 2018. But, having written it all that time ago, I'm only getting around to sharing it now. In posting this I've proofread it, and tweaked a couple of confusing sentences to clarify my point, but otherwise this is exactly the post I would have shared a year ago, had I gone to the effort of sharing this post a year ago. Sorry about the delay.


So here’s the thing,

A couple of months ago we had a fantastic event running in Wellington – The Jim Henson Retrospectacle, a celebration of the work of Jim Henson with cinema screenings, talks and panel discussions, all centred around a big concert. I was always going to go to the concert (I bought my ticket at the earliest opportunity), and as a movie person I was definitely looking forward to the movie screenings, but I never really considered going to any of the panel discussions until after the screening of The Muppet Movie. Original Muppet Show performer Dave Goelz (who most notably originated and still plays The Great Gonzo) was there, and after the movie he gave a Q&A with the actual Gonzo puppet. As someone whose favourite muppet was Gonzo it was a thrill to actually see this character I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, but I also found Goelz himself to be a fascinating and engaging speaker, and I suddenly realised what a fantastic opportunity this was and how much I would kick myself if I missed out on it. Which is how I found myself unexpectedly spending hundreds of dollars buying tickets to every panel discussion possible. And it was worth every cent.

On the last day, a friend asked if I was going to write a blog post about my experiences. I hadn’t planned to, but the more I thought about it the more I thought it was a good idea – if only to try to capture some of my memories of the event for myself before they fade away into time. So to be clear, these are my recollections. I wasn’t taking notes during the talks, so if I say that someone said something, I mean that I’m paraphrasing what I remember them saying, but memory is unreliable and I could certainly be wrong about what they said. But, to the best of my ability, here is a incomplete record of the Jim Henson Retrospectacle as I experienced it.

(And a quick note: there were a lot of film screenings that I attended – not just screenings of the various Muppet movies, both classic and modern, but also themed presentations, where we got to watch curated clips based around some theme, like music moments from The Muppet Show. The screenings were all fantastic, but I’ll skip over a lot of the screenings unless I have something specific to say about them.)


The day after The Muppet Movie, I attended Becoming Real: A Muppet Performer’s Journey, in which Dave Goelz reflected on his career. (You can hear Goelz cover some of this same material in his interview with Kim Hill, which is pretty good despite Kim Hill being particularly annoyingly Kim Hill-ish at times – seriously, why on earth did she ask if he's made lots of money?) Goelz was working as an industrial designer for Hewlett-Packard when one day at a friend’s house he saw an episode of Sesame Street, instantly became fascinated by the puppets, and he found himself spending his Sundays watching five-hour-long replays of that week’s episodes.

He talked about his fascination with Bert and Ernie in particular, and it really opened my eyes to how much care is taken with character design. He spoke about Bert, about how his colour is a harsh yellow, his face is long and narrow, and the stripes on his shirt are vertical and never at rest, and how all this means we feel uncomfortable and ill-at-ease when we see Bert, because that’s what the character is like. And then there’s Ernie, who’s a nice warm friendly orange, he has a nice round head, like a ball that feels squishy and soft and comfortable, his mouth opens into a nice wide welcoming smile, and his shirt stripes are horizontal, reflecting a character who is at rest. Suddenly I realised how much consideration goes into designing these characters, because every bit of the character visually communicates everything you need to know about who they are.

Eventually, Goelz tried his hand with actually making puppets, starting with making his own Ernie. (Apparently he couldn’t get the right colour fabric for his first effort, but we did see a photo of his second try at Ernie, and while it wasn’t quite perfect it was astonishingly close.) This eventually led him to the muppet workshop, where he made puppets until Henson invited him to work as a performer.

Which is how he started playing Gonzo. I particularly loved his discussion about the development of Gonzo as a character. In the first season, the character was apparently hard to do anything with because his eyes just made him look too melancholy and depressed. Towards the end of that season, he reworked the puppet to add an eye mechanism that allowed a greater characterisation and allowed him to become the zany wacky character we think of. Then, when working on Muppet Christmas Carol they made Gonzo play Charles Dickens, which allowed the character to become more soulful and reflective. And so now Gonzo has all of these different subtleties and nuances to his character that Goelz can play with and explore. It was a fascinating reflection of how a character can grow and change over time.

Afterwards he brought out Gonzo for another Q&A, and this time I was able to look past the general “Oh-My-Gosh-It’s-Gonzo” reaction I had the first time and just consider how the character works. It’s almost like a magic trick that’s being performed right in front of you and yet you don’t see it. Goelz is not a ventriloquist, so he makes no effort to hide that he's speaking as Gonzo, and you can very clearly see him moving the rods that control Gonzo's arms or move the leg so Gonzo can cross his legs. And yet Gonzo feels genuinely alive, to the point where you almost forget he's not real. There were points where Dave and Gonzo had a conversation and you find your eyes moving between the two as though you're watching two people interact rather than one man talking to himself. It's honestly a remarkable thing to experience.


The weekday evening panel discussions were all held in the cinema at Park Road Post, the post-production facility owned by Peter Jackson, which was a remarkable privilege because that facility is normally never open for the public. And it is just a beautiful facility. Walking into the reception, I initially wondered if I had somehow walked into the wrong building because this place looked more like the reception at a luxury hotel than a professional workplace. Walking to the theatre, we passed prop displays and an actual Oscar (won for Sound Mixing on King Kong). The cinema itself was decorated in what seemed like an Arabian Nights-inspired style with thousands of stars lightly twinkling on the ceiling - absolutely beautiful.

The session was called Bonnie Erickson: The Woman Behind Miss Piggy. Bonnie was really the lead figure in the workshop where the Muppets were created. (In fact, after the event I was watching some early Muppet Show episodes and noticed that she had her own “Puppets by” credit, while the rest of the workshop had a “With” credit, which spoke to how important she was in creating these characters.) And the entire event was just a casual conversation about her life and her work, understandably focused on her time with Henson, but also talking about her work in the company she created with her husband (which most famously created the Phillie Phanatic mascot).

At one point Bonnie shared with us an early design sketch she made of Animal. The idea is there – it’s definitely recognisable as Animal – but it doesn’t quite feel right; it feels too simple, too clean. So at the bottom of the page is a sketch drawn by Henson, and it’s a mess, it’s barely recognisable as a figure, it’s more of a scribble than a drawing, and yet it accurately captures the feel of the character. And she discussed how that kind of collaboration between Henson and those who worked with him led to the development of many of the characters.

She was also responsible for creating Statler and Waldorf. She talked about how she had been on a bus one day, and as it was stopped at a traffic light next to an old gentlemen’s club, she saw two elderly men sitting in a couple of chairs drinking and talking. The image really inspired her, and when she got home she drew a sketch of these two men, imagining that they could be really interesting characters. Henson agreed, but at the time they weren’t working on an anything where the characters would really work. A couple of years later work started on The Muppet Show, at which point Henson had the idea that those two old men could fit well in that show, and thus Statler and Waldorf were created.

But the most significant character she built was Miss Piggy; she was originally designed as just a generic female pig character, one of a group of pig puppets being created, but when they needed a special character for some performance Henson was giving they hurriedly added a few extra features, giving her the pearls, changing the dress. They apparently went through several performers trying to find someone who could create something out of the character, but no-one really connected with her until Frank Oz picked her up. But even then the character wasn’t fully crystallised until one episode when he came up with the idea of the massive karate chop that sends Kermit flying. The idea of that massive "HI-YA!" yell and the level of aggression coming from this previously sweet character really created someone who would be special.

A number of the Muppet characters were recently donated to the Smithsonian Museum, including Miss Piggy, and to mark the event Bonnie got to go to the museum to set up Miss Piggy for a special photograph with the museum’s most famous object, the Hope Diamond (valued somewhere above $250 million). The whole thing was top secret, undertaken in the dead of night with armed guards everywhere, and in the middle of the exercise there was a power cut. In the pitch black everyone was understandably freaked out, guards came running in from everywhere uncertain what was going on and trying to ensure the diamond was safe. (Frank Oz apparently commented that he would have just grabbed the diamond and run; I’m not sure it would have been the most successful of heists, but it would have been a great story that you could dine out on, “the couple of minutes I possessed the Hope Diamond”, as you sat in prison.)


The next event was also at the Park Road Post theatre, Dave Goelz and Karen Prell in Conversation. The two of them had worked together a number of times, most notably on Fraggle Rock, where Prell played the enthusiastic Red and Goelz played both the glum Boober and Travelling Matt.

Prell had originally started working with Henson on Sesame Street, playing a number of characters, most notably an excitable monster. But by Prell’s own admission she didn’t really know what she was doing, she was putting too much energy into the character, it was too big, and it didn’t work. After a year or two, she was let go from the show, which was an understandable disappointment for her, feeling as though she had blown her opportunity. But Henson remembered her, and a few years later when he was working on Fraggle Rock, he decided she would be perfect for the character of Red.

They talked about Henson’s vision for the show; he apparently often talked about wanting to create a show that would bring about world peace. Now, they were very clear to say that Henson was a realist – he did realise that a children’s puppet show could never actually achieve that goal – but it does speak to the type of person Henson was. He wasn’t someone who was content to just make something that people would be entertained by and forget; he wanted to make something that would stay with people, that would make people think, that would actually influence people. And that seems to have been a genuine concern for him – after all, bear in mind the fact that with everything else that he was involved in doing, all of the TV shows and movies he was creating and developing and overseeing and working on, he was still performing as Kermit or Ernie on Sesame Street up until his death. Now, part of that could have been that he created these characters and was reluctant to let other people play them, I don’t know; part of it might just be that he really enjoyed the actual work of puppetry and wanted to carry on doing that work, I don’t know; but regardless the fact is that even as he was doing all of this work and building up this massive company, he still carried on performing for 20 years on a public television children’s show. And to me, that really speaks to the type of person it seems he was; it seems that there was a sincere desire to use his artform to create some good in the world, and the best way to do that is to teach the next generation how to be good people.

One of the challenges that Goelz had was with playing Travelling Matt, because the nature of the character was that he was out exploring the real world. (In fact, Fraggle Rock even brought Goelz out to Australia and New Zealand to film a few segments.) The challenge of this is that, whereas the set locations are obviously designed for performers to work as freely as possible, the real world isn’t designed for that. So here we have Goelz trying to scoot around on uneven footpaths, on muddy fields, and even in one occasion in a rubbish dump (which apparently required Goelz to be hidden under the rubbish).

One of the recurring jokes that was made throughout the retrospectacle, that I think almost every performer made at one point or another, is the importance of hygiene as a puppeteers. Yes, hygiene is important in general, but it’s especially important for puppet performers who get so incredibly close to each other. This is obviously true when you have two people having to squeeze together tight to play a single character, but even if a character is played by one person it’s still an issue. After all, you can’t maintain a comfortable distance between performers, since a comfortable distance for six-foot-tall people puts much too much space between characters that are only a couple of feet tall. So if you imagine a scene where all five Fraggles are on screen together, we saw photos of what was going on beneath, photos of five or six performers squashed into a tiny area and trying to find their own space in which they could perform.

A discussion about that need for hygiene prompted Dave Goelz to recall his time in England shooting The Muppet Show. One day he was driving to work and was worried about his breath, so he pulled into a small store to buy some mouthwash. They had Listerine, and sitting next to it was some English brand he had vaguely heard of but didn’t really recognise. Figuring the English brand couldn’t taste any worse than Listerine, he bought the unknown brand and gargled it in the car park; it still tasted pretty bad. He started driving when all of a sudden his mouth started to foam up, until he had to stop to clear his mouth. And then it happened again. And again. And again. And suddenly he realised where he recognised that mouthwash brand from, which is why when he arrived at work he immediately had to seek medical help for gargling Dettol disinfectant.


Friday night brought a screening of The Dark Crystal. This isn’t a film I hold terribly much affection for; I think I really only saw it once or twice as a kid, and never really cared for it, finding it really rather dull. I did rewatch the film a couple of years ago when The Next Picture Show podcast paired it for a discussion with Kubo and the Two Strings, and the film didn’t improve for me. But watching it on the big screen, I found that I enjoyed the experience a lot more. The film certainly has flaws, but it does have a lot of strengths in its visuals, and that’s really brought out on the big screen. Henson succeeded in designing a cast of puppets that look nothing like the Muppets, and the design work for the most part is incredible. The frustrating thing is that after giving us such wonderful creatures as the Skeksis, the Mystics, Aughra the Oracle, the Garthim, or Fizzgig, he then centres the film on two Gelflings, easily the least interestingly designed creatures populating this world, and in particular on the exceptionally bland male Gelfling named Jen, who seems to have no personality beyond “nice”. And yet the film as a whole was so stunningly beautiful, was such a visual feast, that as an experience it made an impact that home viewing never could.

Dave Goelz had played Fizzgig and the Skeksis who became the new Emperor, and he gave a typically entertaining Q&A afterward. The most interesting revelation to me was the discovery that the film had originally been intended for all the creatures to speak in a made-up language, and this changed only after the film was shot and made no sense to anyone, at which point English dialogue had to be written that matched the mouth movements of the characters speaking this imagined language. Suddenly the film and its flaws made so much sense. (He also mentioned visiting the set of the Dark Crystal prequel series currently in production, which I’m suddenly more interested in; the film established a strong world and beautifully designed creatures, and if they can have a solid script to start with then it could work out well.)

It was also fascinating to hear him describe the set, and especially the insanity of the Skeksis scenes; since each Skeksis required five or six operators to perform the character, in any scene with a number of Skeksis on screen you would have an insane set with 30 or 40 people around trying to bring these creatures to life.  The exercise of performing a Skeksis was understandably tricky, since there were so many people involved in operating a single character, it initially took a lot of practice and effort to get them all co-ordinated and working together as though they were one. However, after a few weeks of this, the performers for each individual Skeksis all came to know and understand how each other work, and they became much more comfortable being more free with the character knowing that the other performers would be able to follow their lead – he compared it to a jazz group being able to instantly follow and support when one of the musicians goes off on their own improvisation.

The other good thing about the film was that it prompted me to go back and rewatch the second episode of the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge reality show, in which the puppet designers had to create new Skeksis that had adapted to different environments. It reminded me just how fascinating that show was in giving an insight into the art of creating these puppets; it was a shame it only ever ran for one season. If you’re able to seek it out, the entire series is worth watching.


One of the most interesting screenings was a screening called Muppet History 101, a compilation of clips that took us through Henson’s career up until the start of the Muppet Show. It was fascinating watching scenes of the original Kermit from Sam and Friends; seeing some of his earliest work making commercials; learning that, while Kermit predated him, it was Rowlf who was actually the first popular Muppet star after making regular appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show; watching the original pitch video promoting Sesame Street to PBS member stations that were considering showing the programme (I also realised that, until I saw the explanation of the title in the video, I had never once connected Sesame Street to “Open Sesame” and the idea of using the show to open up a world of riches to the children watching); all the way up to watching some of the special commercial spots recorded to promote The Muppet Show. The entire session was absolutely fascinating.

One thing I found interesting was learning just how revolutionary Jim Henson’s work really was. We’re all familiar with the cliché of the puppet theatre, but it was genuinely innovative when Henson had the idea to, in essence, use the framing of the television screen as the theatre while the performer sits below the camera watching their performance live on monitors and adjusting what they do based on how it appears on screen.

A few days earlier I had come across an early version of "Mahna Mahna" that had been performed in the first season of Sesame Street. The puppets are generic Muppets, a couple of ordinary girls and a rough bearded man, rather than the pink aliens and the wild figure we’re used to, and the pacing and comic timing is not quite as perfect as we’re used to, but it is essentially pretty much the exact same routine we’re used to. So during the Q&A with Muppet historian Craig Shemin I asked if there were any similar instances of a recognisable sketch that exists in early prototypical forms; the answer was No, that "Mahna Mahna" was really the only example of a sketch that was developed over time in that way. But it did prompt him to talk about the origins of the song; it’s an Italian song that Henson used after hearing it used over footage of girls in a sauna in a documentary about sex in Sweden called Sweden: Heaven or Hell.


That afternoon there was a free Muppets Quiz, and this was fun and frustrating. It wasn’t like one big pub quiz, but a collection of smaller quizzes on a theme. Each round had three new contestants, and the winner in each round won a prize, and they were really great prizes – books or toys all autographed by the performers. The third round was a Movies round, identifying a real movie from a Muppet parody photo, and unfortunately I was unsuccessful in getting into that round. So I had to sit in frustration while the people who were actually chosen struggled to remember the name of Mission: Impossible and had no idea what Patton was. I would have really cleaned up on that round.

I did eventually get chosen for the second-to-last round, a predict-the-future quiz in which we watched the starts of a collection of early coffee commercials made by Henson, and had to guess from multiple choice options what would happen to Wontkins. Unfortunately after a couple of questions I fell behind; in the end the other two players were tied and I was one short. The annoying thing was that, with one of the questions I got wrong, immediately after giving my answer I noticed slight cracks in the wall, realised the correct answer was that the room would collapse, and started kicking myself for getting that question wrong, even before they even played the rest of the video; if I had had the quickness of mind to at least ask to change my answer I would have tied, and I know I recalled the answer to the tiebreaker question (“What is Lew Zealand’s act?”) faster than the other two, and could have won an autographed Funko Pop of Bert. As it was, I lost. (Sigh.) I still find myself thinking about that quiz, kicking myself over the questions I got wrong or for not even thinking to change my answer in that one question.

But in between each round they would show a short video of something interesting. Which is how I discovered this ridiculously fun Sesame Street song. There’s also a different version of the video, which is mostly the same but has a lot of surprises in itself; I can’t decide which I prefer since they’re both great.


Easily the best panel discussion came next – The Art of Television Puppetry, presented by four Sesame Street and Muppet performers, Matt Vogel, Eric Jacobson, Peter Linz and Carmen Osbahr. The key word in that title is “Television” – this was not a discussion about puppet work in general, but what is specifically involved in getting puppets to work in an engaging manner on television. So they had a camera and screens showing us how the puppeteers’ work on-set translated to home viewers.

I had already known, for instance, that most Muppets fall into two categories – rod puppets and hand puppets (with full-costume puppets like Big Bird as a rarer third category). You can see those two main types of puppets if you look at Bert and Ernie. Bert has rod hands; his hands are entirely for show, they’re not functional, can’t hold anything without help, and they’re just attached to rods, so the puppeteer uses their right hand to control the mouth and head of the puppet and their left hand to control the rods that move their hands. Puppets like Ernie require two puppeteers to function because they have real practical hands: the lead puppeteer controls the head and mouth with their right hand and wears the left hand like a glove, while a second puppeteer performs as the right hand and is generally supposed to support and follow the lead puppeteer. I had heard about this before, had even seen photos of Henson and another performer working together to play Ernie, but I loved watching it and seeing how this all works out in practice.

(In a different session I learned that an interesting exception to this approach is the Swedish Chef. Because so much of the Swedish Chef performance comes out of the interaction of the hands, you can’t have two different people playing the hands, so Jim Henson used to play the head and mouth of the Chef while Frank Oz used to be both the left and right hand of the character. Also, because he was always dealing with real food and liquid they couldn’t make the hands out of felt, so the Swedish Chef has actual real human hands – which is why when the Museum of the Moving Image acquired the Swedish Chef puppet they arranged for a cast to be taken of Oz’s hands for the display.)

The big thing is that as a performer you obviously need to have your hands raised above your head for an extended time while you work – which was why the entire audience found ourselves trying to hold our hands above our heads for a couple of minutes and many of us failing to do so (I managed to make it until we were told we could lower our hands, though it was difficult). While working, the performers aren’t focused on what they’re doing above their head, and instead are looking at little television monitors below them that show them the actual live feed of the work they’re doing, which means they’re watching and adjusting their performance as they do it. The challenge of that is that everything is reversed, so if you move to your left your character moves to the right of the screen, and it can apparently take many years to really get used to that. It was also fascinating to learn that The Muppet Show stage was actually built six feet off the ground, so the puppeteers could stand as they worked, whereas because the Sesame Street set is an actual practical set the puppeteers need to keep as low as possible to the ground and make their way around on little trolleys that look like bar-stools on wheels.

Another interesting point is that, when you’re making a puppet talk, you need to keep your fingers more or less still and only move your thumb. Firstly, this mimics the way we actually talk – the thumb is attached to the lower jaw of the puppet, and when an actual person talks they really only move their lower jaw. But more significantly, the puppeteer’s fingers largely control the puppet’s head movement, and if you’re moving your fingers up and down when the puppet is talking then its head will just be constantly shaking up and down and losing all eye contact with the viewers at home. It’s also apparently quite common for new puppeteers to instinctively close their hands on each syllable, which means their characters are speaking through closed mouths. They then had us, with our hands in the air, practicing our hand movements as we counted up to 20, and since we were so busy focusing on only moving our thumbs, keeping our hands open on the syllables, and trying to get the number of syllables in 17 correct, we completely failed to notice Count Von Count until he announced his appearance, having been drawn to the sound of a room full of people counting. There was a palpable excitement in the room when we heard that voice and all suddenly realised who had arrived.

I was fascinated to learn that the Muppets are generally all cross-eyed – it’s subtle, but once you know it it’s definitely there. The idea is that the cross-eyes almost create a triangle, as though they’re focused on one specific point a bit in front of their nose. They also talked about how much of Sesame Street work involves looking through the camera to talk to the audience at home. If you have an actual person on screen that’s easy to do; they just need to look straight into the camera. But if you have a puppet that can’t actually see, then you as a performer need to learn to find that point where your character is looking through the camera. What makes it particularly difficult is that, as they demonstrated to us, it only takes the slightest adjustment up, down, or to the side, and all of a sudden the character seems to be staring off somewhere else. It apparently takes years to learn how to instantly find that point. After showing this to us, they had Grover come running from off-screen into the middle of the screen, then turn and BANG he’s looking at us: this was something I must have seen hundreds of times and never considered, but suddenly the entire audience burst into applause because we suddenly understood how difficult an effect that is to achieve and how much precision is involved in it. As part of this, they never have a character fully in profile, instead even when they’re walking across the screen they’re always subtly turned towards the camera so that you can always see both eyes, in order to maintain that connection. And after learning all of these tricks, it was pointed out that all this only works on the one specific camera that happens to be filming the characters at the time. So, whenever the camera changes to a different angle the performers need to quickly make adjustments to their character’s positioning so that they continue to work in the new shot. There’s an incredible amount of work and effort that goes into making these characters seem as real and as convincing to the home viewer, and I came away with a great admiration for these people who can make it seem so effortless.


The final event at Park Road Post was on a Monday, which meant I had to miss Film Society. I generally try not to miss Film Society if I can help it, but I felt I had to skip that week’s screening because I didn't want to miss the talk. That decision was made a little easier when I realised that week’s film was a German film about late-term abortion (apparently a very good film). To be clear, Film Society movies are usually more enjoyable than that probably sounds, but regardless, when faced with a choice of a tough emotionally brutal abortion film or an evening of joy with the Muppets, my decision was obvious.

I’d arrived early for the talk, as I had for all of the talks – fear of getting caught in rush hour traffic while trying to cross the city meant I just went there straight after work and then waited for an hour. But that day they were putting on a celebratory event for everyone involved, and those of us waiting for the talk were invited to attend. And so I got to talk to all of the people, particularly all of the puppeteers, I’d seen and heard from over the past ten days. I get very nervous around famous people, even in the case of people like this; I would have walked past these people on the street without a second glance, but in this context I was overwhelmed because I knew that that guy plays Gonzo, or that guy is the new Kermit or Big Bird. In most cases, these were the new generation of performers; I grew up watching Jim Henson and Frank Oz play Ernie and Bert, and had stopped watching Sesame Street long before Peter Linz and Eric Jacobson took over the roles, but just the knowledge that these are the people who continue giving life to these characters I love had me star-struck.

The session was called Extending and Honouring Jim's Legacy, and it was a discussion with the same four performers from Sesame Street who had demonstrated television puppetry the previous day. It was a really interesting discussion, and I remember none of it, because the rest of the experiences of that night pushed away my memory of what was said. Because there was a point in the talk where they brought out the puppets, and suddenly there’s the Count and Bert and Ernie and Rosita in front of me.

Talking to my mother, I’d made a comment about how it felt a little silly to be so excited to see a bunch of puppets from a kids show. She made the point that it was understandable – Sesame Street was a show I loved as a kid, and indeed I apparently taught myself to read by watching the show. But I think it’s more than that. It’s not just nostalgia for a show that I once loved; after all, would a kid who grew up watching Barney or Teletubbies have the same type of reaction meeting those characters as an adult as I was having to seeing the Sesame Street characters. The characters feel real because they are real; several people described how much Jim Henson was like Ernie and Frank Oz was like Bert, so when they were creating those characters they were bringing their own dynamic to them. And while the Count might be largely based around a simple pun, his passion for counting feels absolutely real; we all have something that we are absolutely passionate about and that makes us light up when we think about it, so while I might not love counting as much as the Count does, I recognise his passion because it’s exactly how I feel about movies.

One thing that I really came to understand throughout all of these talks is how much of a full performance is being given whenever these characters come to life, and how dismissive it is whenever you hear them described as just “doing the voice” of Kermit or Gonzo. And in this session, watching the performers interact and play off each other as the characters, having fun between themselves, these are genuinely funny comedic performances. They may be characters from a show for young children, but I cannot imagine anyone not being fully entertained.

To me, the most memorable example of a performer bringing his puppet fully to life was probably Matt Vogel playing the Count. There was a point in the Q&A where someone in the audience asked if the Count wanted to learn how to count in Māori; I don’t know how Vogel feels about learning new languages, perhaps he’s really interested in other languages or perhaps he’s not, but in that moment he was playing the Count and the Count’s excitement at learning a new way to count was palpable. At the start of the evening someone had made reference to the 9000 stars in the ceiling of the theatre, and later on in the evening when someone mentioned the stars to the Count he seemed genuinely sad, commenting “I heard the woman say that before, and I wish I didn’t know that; I would have loved to just sit back and count them all one by one.” I do feel confident in saying Vogel personally would not have actually wanted to count all of those stars, but when the Count said that I completely believed him and actually felt sorry for him not getting to do this thing he would have loved to do.

A couple of months earlier, I had watched the entirety of Sesame Street’s “Death of Mr Hooper” episode, not just that specific scene but the entire episode, because of a discussion about it on the Extra Hot Great podcast, and had really been impressed with how the show worked as a whole. It’s only actually about the death of a beloved character in the last ten minutes, and the rest of the show just seems like it could be any ordinary episode, but all through it subtly builds in elements and ideas and themes so that when you reach that emotional moment they’ve laid the groundwork for it all to work with the kids watching. It’s a masterful episode, a landmark of television history, and a great example of Jim Henson’s legacy, using the show to teach kids not only about how to read or count but wider ideas about how to live. So I asked a question, using that episode as a springboard to ask about similar episodes the performers had been involved with. Matt Vogel, who was Big Bird’s understudy for twenty years and who recently took over the role full-time, talked about how Big Bird tends to be the focal point of many such stories, citing in particular an extended storyline where Big Bird lost his home after his nest was destroyed and another storyline about a group of birds bullying Big Bird for his size. Meanwhile Carmen Osbahr discussed her efforts to use the show to help children cope with military parents away on deployment.

At the end of the talk there were two young children who wanted to give a picture they had drawn to the puppets, and after that happened it was suggested that we should all sing a song together, eventually landing on Sing, Sing a Song. And as the song carried on they came out and started shaking hands with people. Which was how I shook hands with Count von Count. And that was a real thrill. And then the panel ended, and everyone started going up and taking photos with the puppets. I was a bit reluctant to – after all, we were asked not to take photos inside Park Road Post – but this was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And so I went up and actually got to meet Ernie and Bert and the Count and Rosita, which is just incredible, and I think about that experience and it still seems amazing that this actually happened to me.

And there’s something weird about meeting these characters; you genuinely feel like you’re talking to them, not to the person next to them who’s actually doing the talking. So when, for instance, I was with Carmen Osbahr, I actually spent the whole time talking to her character Rosita. Now, it would be one thing if this were Bert and Ernie or Kermit or Gonzo, characters I’ve known all my life, but Rosita was a character I had no connection with; I was a teenager when Rosita started on the show in 1991, and had long since stopped watching Sesame Street. But rather than engaging with Carmen as an adult, I found myself apologising to Rosita for not knowing who she was and promising that I would go home and watch some videos of her (a promise I did actually keep; I’ve since watched maybe a dozen Rosita videos, just because I promised this puppet that I would). But that’s the power of these characters and this art form; they almost render the performer invisible, even though they’re literally standing next to their character.


I took advantage of the Anzac Day public holiday to go to a screening of Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird, which was fascinating to watch. Sure, it’s very obviously targeted specifically at young children – unlike the Muppet movies which are films that I can comfortably watch as an adult, I definitely felt too old for the Sesame Street film. But it was enjoyable to watch and spend time with these wonderfully fun characters. (Although I wasn’t convinced by the running joke where the Cookie Monster eats a car.) And the film stands as a tribute to the incredible work of Carol Spinney as Big Bird. Once you understand just how the Big Bird puppet works, you realise that thing is just insane. And so, when the film starts with Big Bird roller-skating down Sesame Street and or reaches its climax with him jumping from a moving truck onto the front of a following car and you remember that Spinney is doing these things while literally blind inside the puppet, the work that he is doing is staggering – and that’s before you get to the actual performance he gives, which is sweet and nuanced and wonderful. It’s definitely a young kids’ film – I wouldn’t be able to recommend it to an adult in the way that I might recommend a good Muppet movie, for instance – but there was definitely enough in the film that I was glad to have seen it.


After two weeks of screenings and talks, we finally came to the main event – The Jim Henson Retrospectacle Live in Concert at the Michael Fowler Centre. I attended the Friday evening performance, and it really was a great show. It opened with Kermit on stage playing the banjo and singing "The Rainbow Connection" with Bret McKenzie, who hosted the show. The show was basically a retrospective of Henson’s career; the entire show was basically structured around Henson’s career, generally starting with Sesame Street, then into the Muppets, with a brief detour into the music of the Dark Crystal, then into Fraggle Rock, and then into more recent post-Henson Muppet works, interspersed with short video packages of footage of Henson working. We had the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra providing musical weight, and you could really get a sense of the musicians enjoying playing with the puppets – particularly the percussion section, which had a very funny moment putting on noise protection when Animal went to play a massive gong. But what was really surprising to me was how full the show was, and just how many characters we had throughout the show. I had been speaking to one of the performers a few days earlier, and he had mentioned that there were going to be five main puppet performers in the show (there were also a couple of support puppeteers doing right-hands or flying bats around the Count). I had imagined a stage filled with Muppets, and instantly realised that wasn’t going to happen – especially since the strain of performing with puppets held above their hands means the performers can apparently only do four or five minutes in a stretch. But what we got was something quite special. Rather than just the mass of characters I had imagined, it was generally one or two characters appearing at a time, talking, singing a song, and then leaving. And the variety of characters was impressive – while I expecting many of the Sesame Street characters I had seen and knew that characters like Kermit or Miss Piggy or Big Bird were here, I had no idea that characters like Oscar the Grouch or Animal were here until they suddenly appeared. And while it was an obvious choice for someone like Lew Zealand to come to New Zealand, it was a complete surprise when the Snowths appeared to accompany Bret in singing "Mahna Mahna". One of the best parts was the appearance of Big Bird, who no matter how much you’ve seen him on television, you never quite get how absurdly massive an eight-foot-tall bird puppet is until you see it in real life. (It also gets into this weird space where you are both aware of and forget the practicalities of the performer inside Big Bird; there was a point when, as Big Bird was leaving the stage, he seemed as though he was about to slam his head into the bottom of the gallery above the stage and I found myself worrying about the effectively-blind performer inside the puppet similarly slamming his own head, forgetting that the performer is not himself eight feet tall.)

One thing I loved about the show was that there was no effort to hide the puppeteers. We got to see them all scooting around on stage on little bar-stool-trolleys holding the puppets above their heads. When Kermit was playing the banjo we could see Matt Vogel controlling the mouth and body while Peter Linz would control the hands, left hand strumming the strings while the right hand moves up and down the neck.  I’ve heard that there have been concerts in the past where they hid the performers, but I was so glad they didn’t do that here. Does it affect “the illusion” that the Muppets are alive? Perhaps, but we all know they’re not alive. So from the point of view of this show being a celebration, not just of Jim Henson’s characters but of Jim Henson himself, it made sense for the actual performers to be so visible and to show them working in this art form that he loved.

So the show itself was great. My personal experience was not. I had secured my seats for the show as fast as I possibly could; I bought them through a pre-sale about ten minutes after they went on sale. When I went to buy, it offered me A, B, or C Reserve. I went for the best seats possible, A Reserve, and was surprised to find the A Reserve seats were all up in the gallery, not down in the stalls close to the stage. Never mind, I figured there’s probably a good reason for that – at the time I thought the puppeteers would probably not be visible, and if so there would need to be a raised screen hiding them, which might make the view from the stalls difficult. So I trusted the ticket sellers and bought a seat in the gallery, because those were the “best seats”. I’ve since discovered that there was Premium Reserve seating, which I hadn’t been offered, which were the seats up front in the stalls, exactly the seats I had wanted; I would have happily paid whatever I needed to for one of those seats, to be up close to Kermit or Miss Piggy or Big Bird. Instead, I found myself literally in the back row of the gallery at the far end from the stage; there was no seat in the theatre further away from the stage than mine, and only the seats with an obscured view could have been worse. And for this seat, I paid A Reserve prices.

To make my experience worse, the women in the seats next to me arrived more or less drunk – I know they had been drinking because they walked in carrying their drinks. They felt the need to video large parts of the show, hiding their phones when the attendant stuck their head in. They seemed particularly eager for everyone around to know how they felt about the characters on stage, most notably squeeing “OH! Big Bird!” when he appeared on stage. (Yes, we’re all excited to see Big Bird; however those of us who are adults are able to contain our excitement.) When the NZSO took a few minutes to play music from The Dark Crystal (which is really wonderful music), they sat and talked to each other because presumably they didn’t care if there weren’t Muppets on stage. They left the theatre multiple times during the performance, and then walked out during the final song of the performance.

In short, while the show was fantastic, brilliant, everything I would have wanted, my experience fell far short of what I wanted because my seat was terrible and the women next to me were awful people. To be honest, every time I think about the show I feel an overriding sense of frustration, and I have to remind myself about all the incredible experiences I did get to have that far exceeded my concert disappointment; sure, I wasn’t as close to Kermit as I would want, but I got to actually meet and talk to Ernie and Bert.


The final screening of the series was The Muppets Take Manhattan, which I realised is probably the Muppet movie I’ve seen most often. I remember going to it in cinema as a kid, I remember watching it on TV broadcasts on multiple occasions, but it has been years since I last saw it, and it was fun to revisit. Thinking after the movie, I was struck by the large gap in time between the release date of The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) and Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), with the latter coming a couple of years after Jim Henson died, and I found myself wondering whether there had been any unmade Muppet movies that Henson had been involved in. So I took advantage of the Q&A to ask about it. Apparently the idea that was closest to being made was a movie called Into the Jaws of the Demons of Death: The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made, which sounds great. The premise was that Gonzo is the director of the film, but after he wastes almost the entire budget on a massive opening title sequence they’re forced to drastically cut costs, reusing the exact same street for every exotic international location or gradually downgrading the film stock from 35mm to 16mm and ultimately to B&W 8mm. Apparently the reason it was never made was ironically because the effects required to produce the cheapest Muppet movie ever would be too expensive and would blow the budget. But these days, with effect costs being so much lower, this seems like a great idea for a uniquely Muppet movie, and I would love if one day someone could resurrect that script and produce it.


The final session was called Celebrating Jim, essentially just a discussion between those who actually knew Jim Henson when he was alive – performers like Dave Goelz, Karen Prell, and Carmen Osbahr, Muppet designer Bonnie Erickson, Arthur Novell, who was Henson’s PR manager and who founded the Jim Henson Legacy, and Craig Shemin, former writer, Muppet historian, and President of the Jim Henson Legacy. And it was just a chance for them all to reflect and tell stories about their time working with Henson. Some of those stories were stories I’d already heard told over the past fortnight, some were new. One of my favourites was a reflection on the relationship between Henson and Frank Oz, and in particular how their personality differences were brought out in the characters of Bert and Ernie, with Henson’s exuberance and excitability coming out in Ernie and Oz’s caution and care defining Bert. At one point they described a time when the two went on a roller coaster together; the photograph of the two of them together on the ride showing Henson laughing with delight and Oz wide-eyed in horror, exactly as their characters would be.

One thing I was fascinated to learn was each episode of The Muppet Show would take three days to shoot, but each episode’s special guest star would only be required for the first day. Between their involvement in the behind-the-scenes plotlines and their multiple on-stage performances, the guest stars feel like they really are a dominant part of the show, so it’s surprising to realise just how little they actually were in the show.

There was some discussion about the use of guest stars. Apparently, after the first season when the show had established itself, they generally didn’t have too much difficulty getting guest stars who were willing to be on the show, and that when they were turned down it was usually due more to scheduling conflicts or the hassle of someone flying to Britain for such a short time than people not wanting to do the Muppets. The main difficulty they had was finding appropriate people to ask. Being in the UK, they had easy access to plenty of British performers, but they couldn’t just rely on British celebrities, because the show was being sold internationally so they needed names that would be recognised everywhere. So the British performers tended to be big-names – John Cleese, Elton John, Peter Sellers, or Spike Milligan – while the overseas performers might not be quite as well-known but would have had a general recognition internationally.

This challenge in finding guest stars at the appropriate level apparently led to one of the final episodes in the series, where they needed to find a guest last minute after a scheduled guest had to cancel, but they had pretty much run out of sufficiently famous UK stars to appear on the show. So they found themselves asking one of the show’s writers, Chris Langham, who was basically a complete unknown, to be that week’s guest star. And then they built the entire show around the fact that he was an unknown – the joke of the episode was that he was just a messenger who happened to be at the theatre when the scheduled guest cancelled. But despite the fact that Chris was part of the show's staff, they still treated him like one of the celebrities, sending him a limo to bring him to the studio, and then buying the entire cast and crew autograph books so they could press him for an autograph when he arrived.

One of the things that I really appreciated  the entire event was having the chance to meet all of these performers and people who have contributed to Henson’s work over the years. And the great thing about that final panel was that pretty much everyone involved in the event was there, whether they were actually speaking as part of the panel or were just in the crowd listening. And so afterwards I had a chance to go around and see these people one last time, to wish them all well, and to thank them for coming and for their work which does mean so much to me, whether they were working on these shows at the time I was watching them or they are continuing Henson’s work for future generations to enjoy.

Finally, I also feel I do need to acknowledge the wonderful Square Eyes Film Foundation which was behind the event, and particularly the work of creative director Nic Marshall in bringing it all together. Over ten years Nic has apparently been working and negotiating to bring this to Wellington, and it was not an easy task, especially when you remember that the rights to these characters are now all over the place – the Muppets with Disney, Sesame Street with Sesame Workshop, and Fraggle Rock and the other properties with the Jim Henson Company. Bringing all these companies together and coordinating all the pieces to allow this celebration to take place must have been a massive and daunting task, but it meant we all got to enjoy a fantastic event. And for all her efforts to achieve this, I was very grateful.

1 comment:

Jo said...

We only made it to the concert, it was amazing! We too had seating issues though. Really enjoyed reading all of this Matthew. Life long Muppet fans!