At some point I went back to Washington, D.C. My at-the-time wife worked for a private key club in New York. She was basically the breadwinner at that time I was working as a waiter, but I wasnt making that much money. They wanted her to work in their Washington club, and that would be more money, so we moved.
I got a job at the Arena Stage in Washington as a first season apprentice, and worked a season there. That was a great experience to work with people like Phil Bosco who was one of those actors who everyone saw and went "Oh, that guy." You dont know the names, but great character actors.
Then I got a chance to go up to Gateway Playhouse on Long Island, and I did my second season apprenticeship there and got my Equity card as a result of that. It seemed like it took me forever, but I was warned by a very good acting teacher I had at one point, Logan Ramsey, who said, "You know, when you go to New York, its going to take you five years just to start and get any work at all. Not to make a living, just to get any work at all." And he was right. It takes a long time. Like the joke I heard the other day:
At one point, my step-daughter told my wife, "I want to be an actress", and my wifes reply was, "Oh great. Just what we need Another waitress."
I hadnt had any real puppet experience at that time. I think maybe when I was twelve I had seen a marionette when we went to Oklahoma to spend Christmas with my grandparents. It was a little jointed one with screw eyes. It was a clown, I think. And I had a policeman. The policeman had a billy club, and the clown had a pole which he could kick up from his foot onto his hand and then toss it into the air and balance it on his nose, just by a series of strings. From those, I got the idea of how a puppet works You try to make it real. That was my puppet experience. I didnt do any character, voice or story.
When I went to see Bil, I was wearing cowboy boots, and I think that helped a lot, because Bil was from the west. He had an aluminum traveling stage set up, which was basically just pipes with clamps, with about a 31-inch between the front and back bridge and about a six foot drop to the floor. He said, "Have you ever done puppets before?" and I said, "Oh, sure." So when people ask me how I got into puppetry, I say I lied and wore cowboy boots.
Bil had given me this character that was one of the goons from either the show "Davey Jones Locker" or "Man In The Moon". The Goon had a trench coat, a slouch hat, and a machine gun. It was a bigger marionette than I had worked with, and definitely had a bigger, more precise control. So I took my boots off and climbed up the stage and he said to step across. He asked if I was okay and I said "yeah" so he said, "Okay, get familiar with it. Ive got something to do. Call me when you feel comfortable and Ill come have a look."
So he went off to do his thing, so I just got familiar with it. When youre high up in the air, you have to be comfortable moving across the gap with no trepidation. I got familiar with the character, and eventually I guess he got tired of waiting for me to call, so he came over and sat on some steps and said, "Well, are you ready?" I didnt miss a beat I just pointed the gun at him with this character and said, "Listen here, Baird The mob thinks this kid Nelsons all right. They wants you should give them a job, okay? Think about it very carefully."
So that clinched the job right there
NELSON: I think it probably did. He told me to walk across the stage, turn around, and walk back, and I did. He said, "Hang im up and come on downstairs." He took me downstairs and said, "We found our other puppeteer."
So I went on the New England tour, and I was also part of the show in the Chrysler Pavilion at the Worlds Fair. It had a section with dancing girls
Like a can-can?
NELSON: Yeah. There was also a black-light portion with a scarf and a steering wheel that had a song that they cut out called "Soft Shoulders and Dangerous Curves". It was a fun show to work, and working at the Worlds Fair for 2 seasons - May to September. We had an hour off in between shows, so wed go over to the Lowenbrau place across the street for some Weinerschnitzel, Lowenbrau, and mashed potatoes, or over to the Korean pavilion and have something else. There was great dining there.
Immediately after the Worlds Fair, in 1965, Bobby Payne, who worked on the show with me, asked me, "Do you know who the Muppets are?" I said, "Yeah," because I had been a page at WRC - NBCs affiliate in Washington - after I got out of the military and before I went to school. At the same time, Jane and Jim were doing "Sam & Friends". So Bobby said, "Theyve moved to New York. I think you ought to go see Jim. I think you guys would get along."
Did you speak to him at all when you were a page?
NELSON: When I was working there, I used to walk across delivering mail and Id see him setting up and rehearsing something, but no contact. So I went to see Jim after speaking with Bobby, and it turned out that, at that time, Frank Oz had been drafted.
Jim was doing Rowlf the Dog on "The Jimmy Dean Show". Jim did the puppet and Frank did the right hand. Jim told me to go home and make a tape and do some voices for him, so I did. I went home and made a tape with some character voices and brought it back to him. One of them
was (in Kermit voice) kinda like this, and he said, "Oh, you cant do that voice." Then he tried me out with puppets. So I took over Franks position as the right hand, and it turned out - and this is kind of a funny addendum to the story - I was sitting at the desk in the Muppet office the day that Frank was inducted. So Im sitting there thinking, "Wow. This is a great job. A great place to work." On 53rd Street they had a studio, a whole building, above a bar/restaurant called "Chucks Composite". It was a place where a lot of models hung out. It was a very trendy place.
So Im sitting at the desk thinking, "This is great", and Frank walked in the door. My jaw dropped. Frank said the expression on my face was one of total dread. He said, "Dont worry. They didnt take me, but Im going to go to England and visit some relatives." Which he did. So I worked the rest of "The Jimmy Dean Show" until it went off the air. Then we went on the road with Jimmy Dean. We went to quite a few cities, and most of the appearances were in arena stages, so Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, and myself had built a puppet stage that we could carry and hang all the props in. Something that we could carry down these long aisles and get set up in the dark, so Rowlf would be there when the lights came up, and Jimmy would go, "Oh!" and wed do our little bit, and then the lights would go out and wed pick up our little stage in the dark and find our way out.
Ive never heard of that stage show
NELSON: We did other stage shows as well. Frank came back, and although we mostly did a lot of commercials, occasionally we did a variety show.
This was around, what, 67?
NELSON: Well, Frank came back in 66, and up till 66 we did a lot of work, and then it kinda tailed off, and Jim said, "Well, I dont have enough work for all of us, and youre the last one to have joined, so Im going to have to let you go." So I went back to work for Bil Baird, and occasionally Jim would call me up and say, "Are you able to do an Ed Sullivan", and I would check with Bil to make sure it was okay he always said, "Yeah, sure." He liked Jim a lot and respected his work. So from then until 68 I would work on and off with Jim. He did a lot of projects that I didnt work with him on, but I did a lot of the variety shows. I went out to L.A. in 69 and stayed there for 8 or 9 months at the same time they were doing Sesame Street. I couldnt do anything out there, and I still wasnt a puppeteer in my mind, I was an actor. Nothing much happened out there, and my daughter from my first marriage became very ill, so I went back to New York to be with her.
While I was there, I saw "Sesame Street", and I was just overwhelmed I was floored. I went to a Christmas party at the end of 69 and I saw it and thought, "Whats that." Someone said, "Oh, its Sesame Street", and when I saw it was the Muppets I went, "Wow." So I called Jim and said Id like to come over and say hello, so we made an appointment. I told him how much I loved the show and what a great show it was and how I liked the work he was doing. He asked me what I was doing, and I think at that time I had just started to work for Aniforms, which was a company run by one of the Bunnen brothers. Their puppets were outlines and black light manipulated by rods, and the company would go out and do trade shows. So Jim asked me if I thought I would be free to do a workshop. He said, "Im putting together a workshop in June for something we want to do this summer." It was "The Great Santa Claus Switch" for Ed Sullivan. So I said, "Okay."
There were quite a few people in that workshop: Fran Brill, Richard Hunt, Danny Seagram, and a lot of other people who eventually worked for Jim started out in that workshop. John Lovelady might have been in that one. "Santa Claus Switch" used a lot of puppeteers, so a lot of them got work out of this. We did that show in the summer of 1970, and afterwards Jim asked me if I would like to be involved in "Sesame Street". So I started working regularly on "Sesame Street".
What roles did you start out with?
NELSON: I dont think I had any roles. Background stuff Letters, right hands.
Richard started at the same time, didnt he?
NELSON: No, Richard came in about a year or two later. At least a year later. I think I did Herbert Birdsfoot that same year. I think the Count came along in 72 or 73, but Im not positive about that. It was Norman Stiles, one of the writers, idea. All the writers used to come up and watch the show, because theyd get a lot of ideas watching us work. Thats the way the Two-Headed Monster came about It was Richard and I clowning around.
So it was that easy
NELSON: Even up through the years, we would all try out for stuff "Let me hear you do that character." We wouldnt always do that, but if it was a major piece of work, we wanted to make sure everything would work together.
And the opposite would happen, where hed just assign characters, right?
NELSON: Often he would just say, "Were doing this piece and Id like you to do this." It wasnt always one way or always another way. Its like Jim wouldnt always stick with one music guy He liked to use different ones. Joe Raposo would write something, and then for the next show he might go to Jeff Moss. He did that so the music wouldnt always sound the same.