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My Take on MuppetFest

By Annika Abel
Photos by Phillip Chapman

My MuppetFest experience was a little different from that of most Muppet Centralers. My excitement and desire to hear every word and see every video clip had to be tempered with the needs of my eighteen month old daughter. Sometimes I missed parts of panel discussions because we had to go out into the hall where she could run around or make noise without disturbing others. It also meant that I got two views of MuppetFest: I saw MuppetFest for myself as a lifelong Muppet fanatic who grew up with Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, and I experienced it through the eyes of my daughter who is just discovering and falling in love with the Muppets. Consequently, I cannot write in depth commentary on a panel because I missed bits of all of them. What follows are the high points of MuppetFest, as I experienced it. I hope that by sharing these moments, those of you who were unable to attend will be able to feel a little of the magic.

My excitement grew with every step as my husband, daughter, and I crossed from the hotel to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. 'MuppetFest' was spelled out on in great big letters on the electronic sign. Muppet fans were gathering outside the building-- oh! maybe we should have arrived earlier, there's already a line. Andy Wolf's collectibles booth was visible through the windows and it was crammed to the gills with wonderfully Muppety goodies. To our delight, we discovered that people who already had their preferred seating tickets didn't have to wait on line; our hands were stamped and we went right in. Creation opened the doors early allowing us to purchase souvenirs without missing anything on stage. It also meant that once we had stocked up on t-shirts, hats, pins, photos, and dolls we had time to take our treasures back to the hotel rather than dragging them around all day.

Back at the auditorium I was overwhelmed-- I wanted to see everything immediately. While we tried to decide what to do first, Karen Prell came up to us. She saw my Muppet Central button and said she was looking for people from Muppet Central. She said she was one of the puppeteers. This information did not really compute for me at first-- I simply could not fathom that a puppeteer, a Muppeteer, was approaching me-- MuppetFest had yet to officially begin and it was already unbelievable. After taking pictures with the wonderful Karen Prell, we found our seats-- the first row of preferred seating, center section and one seat from the aisle so we could whisk a crying baby out quickly; great seats!

Then it was off to the Museum. Wow! There they were-- Kermit and Piggy, Animal, Fozzie, and Rizzo, Gonzo and Camilla, the Swedish Chef, and Statler and Waldorf. We've all seen the still photography done with these posable Muppets and that made seeing them in-person all the more amazing. At this point only the press were allowed to take photographs in the museum so we leaned in as close as we could and admired the Muppets. Hard to believe we were actually standing in front of Muppets! But there was so much more to see in the Museum; a whole scene set up from Muppet Treasure Island with Kermit in the ship's webbing and various evil pirates. Gorgeous creatures from the Dolittle movies including a tiger and much more.

And there were demos! Amy Van Gilder was going to sculpt foam. She was getting set up and visiting with some friends. She signed a book for me and talked about making the snake from Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas. She said he was a 'really neat little puppet' and the markings on his skin were made from hot glue. She seemed a bit at a loss for what to do with the demo. She had a small piece of foam and said she was supposed to make something, but didn't think people would really be interested. I told her I couldn't wait to see the foam sculpting. I checked back throughout the day and her table was always surrounded by throngs of autograph seeking fans and friends so I never did see any actual foam sculpting, but there's always the Second Annual MuppetFest, right?

There was also a clay sculpting demo. A hippo head was being designed out of clay and my husband, a big hippo fan, spent a lot of time there. He learned that they always begin with a clay sculpture and rely on photographs of the animal and, when possible, study the living versions. Once the clay form is done it is used as a mold for a plastic 'skin' which becomes the base of the puppet or costume. Once the skin is finished, the clay is recycled. Hard to imagine they spend all that time creating incredibly detailed and elaborate clay sculptures just to mush them up into something new. Those sculptures could be sold to collectors for awfully large sums, but the Creature Shop, like Henson in general, doesn't think about profits first; they are about creativity and that sense of fun showed in the attitudes of every Henson employee I met.

As we were leaving the museum we ran into Sweetums making his first appearance! He was just leaving the backstage area and there were only a few fans around. We were able to take several pictures with him. One of the most amazing parts of the weekend was how accessible everyone was. With the exception of the autographing at the end of the day on Saturday, the only lines were for food.

Back at our seats I could hardly sit still. MuppetFest was about to begin! Finally! Thinking back on it I get the panels all mixed together. I'm not sure what happened Saturday and what happened Sunday. It was all pretty amazing and it was difficult to believe I was really experiencing it.

MuppetFest officially began with the band playing Muppet songs. Over the course of the weekend they played 'Cabin Fever,' 'Movin' Right Along,' 'The Rainbow Connection,' and other classics. When they weren't on stage, band members could be seen taking in the convention and appeared to enjoy it all.

Kevin Clash and Bill Barretta were scheduled for a meet and greet during the History of The Muppet Show panel. I didn't want to miss the panel, but I also wanted my daughter to meet Elmo's voice and I wanted to meet them, too. So I took the baby and left to hunt down the meet and greet. The first Creation employee I spoke to sent me to a second, who sent me outside to a third, who sent me to the box office to a fourth. He sent me back to the third person.

Eventually someone got on a walkie talkie and told me where the meet and greet would likely take place and that they were running a little late. I hung out at the back of the auditorium where I could see a bit of the panel discussion and duck out every few minutes to see if the meet and greet was starting. Eventually a Creation person told me he would find out the details and let me know. So we waited by one of the merchandise tables. After about fifteen minutes I decided I hadn't flown to LA to stand in a hall through MuppetFest so I went back into the auditorium. When I checked back five or ten minutes later the meet and greet was over. Later I heard when Kevin and Bill got there no one was there to see them. So, Kevin and Bill, should you read this, we definitely wanted to be there and I hope you aren't discouraged from trying these sorts of things in the future-- it was just a scheduling error.

We wandered back into the museum later in the day and discovered the no photos rule had been abandoned! We joined all the other fans posing in front of the Muppet gang. Probably the fastest we've ever taken a roll of film. It was great. The fans were positively gleeful at being able to snap photos. People were quick to offer to take pictures for others. It was great fun. While we were in the Museum, Jerry Nelson came in! Of course we rushed over to meet him and take a picture.

The highlight of the panels was, of course, Q&A with the Muppet Performers and the Muppets. It was absolutely amazing to see the Muppets come alive right there in front of us. It was equally amazing to watch the reactions of the performers as they would try to subtly slip out a new Muppet while someone else answered a question. Naturally we fans went nuts every time another Muppet appeared. There would be a sort of reverential hush followed by "oohs" and "aahs" and wild applause as each Muppet was recognized by the mere tip of a head or the end of an arm coming out of the black box beside the performer. The Muppet performers seemed surprised by the extent of our excitement and delight. I think one of the best aspects of MuppetFest was getting an opportunity to express just how much we love the Muppets to the people responsible for them. The cheers don't quite translate into fan letters or on-line tributes.

Yes, there were technical difficulties, particularly on Saturday. Yes the sound was poor. For us, it didn't matter. MuppetFest was a terrific success and we loved it. We would have been happy had they stood on stage with a megaphone. The warmth of the people from Henson, and most of the Creation folk, more than made up for the technical problems. Given the necessity of postponing and relocating the event, a few glitches were to be expected. We were just happy that Henson and Creation persevered and did not cancel MuppetFest outright after the September attacks. MuppetFest, in addition to fulfilling many a dream, provided a much needed break from the tensions of the world.

A number of fans brought homemade puppets and most took time out of their days to interact with my daughter. That brightened her days considerably. One gentleman had an old puppet made by Jim Henson and he sat with my daughter and played with the puppet-- thank you to that very kind man. (Additionally, several people gave Muppet toys to my daughter, particularly Andy Wolf, and I cannot thank them enough for their generosity.) Fans asked many a question about working for the Muppets. Brian Henson explained that if one sends in a video it will be watched. He said they hold open auditions infrequently and those who have sent tapes get priority at the auditions. Several of the other performers encouraged would-be puppeteers to get puppets and start working them. Jerry Nelson advised them to study people and animals and their mannerisms. Sunday, Steve Whitmire made a beautiful little speech about finding what we love and doing it. If puppetry is it for us, we should do it in our hometowns, at birthday parties, on local TV. The important thing is to do what makes us happy and not to get caught up in the idea that we can only do it for the Muppets. It was, I feel, an important idea to express that weekend and it was eloquently stated.

Kermit, as always, was grilled about his relationship with Piggy. And, as always, Kermit gave a simple, straight forward answer; he and Piggy have a working relationship and he has no plans to change that. He added that he is available.

Gonzo was bugged about his relationship with Camilla and why it is that he seems to go after other women. He responded by saying something to the effect of, 'Hey, I'm just an alien looking to date poultry.' At another point in the weekend, however, when asked about his stylish clothing choices, Gonzo did note there was a hand painted image of his 'girlfriend Camilla' on his tie. (He also said that he gets new clothing about every five years and proceeded to ask Floyd why he has been wearing the same shirt for 25 years. Floyd said he owns several of the shirts and he does have them laundered.)

And of course there was Floyd's now infamous comment when asked if he and Janice are still tight; 'Janice ain't so tight.' 25 years may have taken a toll on Janice, but Floyd has definitely not changed. Jerry Nelson turned the tables on the audience when he asked to see all the people from Muppet Central. Several of the performers said how much they like the site and on Sunday most were wearing Muppet Central buttons.

One of my favorite moments came when Dave Goelz pulled Dr. Bunson Honeydew out of the box expecting Beaker to follow, only to discover that instead of Beaker, it was Dr. Phil Van Neuter who was keeping Bunson company. The hilarity that followed was priceless. Bunson wondered why, as they are both men of science, they had never worked together before, and asked if he might 'twiddle' Van Neuter's ear. Brian Henson and Bill Barretta did a wonderful job of working Van Neuter together in what was clearly a complete improv, despite the fact that Brian lacked a head mic which complicated the voicing process. At times Brian gives the impression that he undervalues himself as a performer and he shouldn't; he is not on that stage because he is Jim Henson's son, he's there because he is just as talented as the rest of the Muppet performers.

Listening to the older Muppets pick on Bean Bunny and Elmo for being cute was great. Elmo decided he and Bean should stick together. For a little red monster, Elmo is able to hold his own with that quick-witted group awfully well. Kevin Clash is amazing. I know it has been stated elsewhere but it bares repeating; either increase Clifford's role or give the man a new Muppet. He's great on Sesame Street but seeing him work with the classic Muppets leaves no doubt that we need more of him.

There was the very sweet bit when Steve and Kevin saw a little girl near the stage and dashed over, Muppets on hand, to greet her in person. There were no star trips. These people could not have been warmer or friendlier. They seemed to appreciate the opportunity to meet the fans almost as much as we appreciated getting to meet them. Not only are they the most talented group of people around, they're the nicest celebrity folk I've met (and I've dealt with a decent number).

When asked why there were no female puppeteers they said they honestly don't know. The last round of open auditions was exclusively for female puppeteers, Brian shared. He also said they make a more concerted effort to have equal representation of the sexes on Sesame Street. Karen, from the audience, quickly jumped in as proof that there are some female puppeteers.

Pepe probably got more questions then any other Muppet. He was definitely up to his usual scene stealing ways. When asked if he would be doing more in the future, Pepe turned to Brian to ask the boss. Brian described Pepe as a 'breakout character' and Pepe was quite pleased, saying, 'Oh stop. Go on, go on.' Rizzo was there with his usual touch of sarcasm. Sal and Johnny provided some wonderful moments when Johnny told Sal there was a man under him and Sal tried, and failed, to get the man out from under Johnny. We also learned that Sal was one of a number of puppets designed for the original opening sequence of Muppet Treasure Island.

Jerry explained that with some characters, key phrases help the puppeteers get the voice and personality. With Lew Zealand for example, Jerry always counts and he broke into Lew's unique version of numerical order. All the puppeteers said they have no trouble keeping the voices straight for all the different characters they do.

Dave described Gonzo's evolution saying Paul Williams thought Gonzo was 'soulful' when he wrote 'that wonderful song for him' in The Muppet Movie. Muppet Christmas Carol was another pivitol piece for Gonzo as it allowed Gonzo to express deeper emotions.

The one opportunity for autographs was at the end of the day Saturday. Creation tried to keep this an orderly and fair process by going row by row. This meant those who purchased the $300 gold tickets got first priority, followed by preferred seating, and ending with general admission. Of course some people dashed into empty seats in the gold rows, but Creation did their best to check arm bands and tickets so that those of us who played by the rules were not penalized. This was important because they said there would only be an hour and a half for autographs and everyone would not get through the line.

I was quite anxious as we watched the first few gold rows slowly progress through the line. Creation continued to announce a limited period of time for autographing and most of the general admission folk gave up and went home. As the gold rows made slow progress, many of the preferred seating ticket holders also left. We did some quick calculations based on how long it took for the first two rows to get autographs and figured that our row would be dangerously close to the hour and a half cut off point.

We needn't have worried. Everyone who waited got signatures. Again, we were dealing with an incredibly generous and considerate group of people. We were told not to stop and talk, to get our signatures (one per person) and move along to give everyone else a chance. The line did move fairly quickly, but the puppeteers still managed to make it personal. Dave saw me trying to snap a picture of him between people in the line and he dodged bodies and grinned so I could get my picture.

And then it was our turn! My daughter, thoroughly worn out and quite hungry at this point, was curled up in my husband's arms. I had made her a Kermit costume, but she would not wear the hat. Steve told my husband that he had seen them in the crowd and how cute they were. There was a plate of food next to Brian which struck me as kind of cruel-- how could he eat when he was constantly greetings fans, signing pictures and books, and passing them down the line? Brian offered us some of the food and persisted until my husband ate some. Bill Barretta complimented me on my jacket (I quilted various Muppets on it, some using Quilting with the Muppets patterns and some from my own designs). He even interrupted Steve to get him to look at it. Wow! That was quite a moment for me.

The absolute high point of MuppetFest for my family came from Dave. As he had mentioned 'I'm Going to go Back There Someday' earlier in the day, I told him that it is our daughter's favorite lullaby and we sing it to her every night. He said that he had sung it to his children as well and then he turned to my daughter and sang the first verse to her! Naturally it brought tears to my eyes. Dave Goelz singing to my daughter! I cannot begin to describe what that meant to us. And what a wonderful note on which to end the first day of MuppetFest.

The best part of the second day, aside from more Muppet Q&A, was Jane Henson. What a lady! She is simply lovely. During her presentation she was taken aback every time she saw herself on the large video feed. When asked if, during the early days, she had specific goals she said she never had goals, that 'Jim had goals.' She provided my favorite MuppetFest one-liner; when asked how a Muppet came to be involved in The Empire Strikes Back she replied she had no idea because she was home with the kids. Maybe you had to be there, or maybe you have to be a full-time mom, but it struck me as awfully funny. She seemed somewhat surprised by the enthusiasm of the fans. In fact, when I said something about the next MuppetFest to her, she asked me if I really thought the fans would want another one! We were able to take pictures with her and she was quite sweet to my daughter. If every child had a grandmother half as wonderful as Jane Henson the world would be a much better place.

It was great to see some clips from Kermit's Swamp Years. As part of the artwork for the movie in the Museum there was a sketch of Kermit going from a tadpole to an old frog bent over a cane. During the panel discussion, Steve brought out the preadolescent, post-tail Kermit puppet and handed 'regular' Kermit to another puppeteer. It was fascinating to see the two Kermits side by side. Twelve year old Kermit truly looks young. Despite live snakes and alligators, it sounds like they had a lot of fun making this movie and they put in a number of little bits just for us Muppet fanatics.

During one panel, the performers described a game they like to play with one another when dealing with big wigs. While one person is trying to have a serious conversation with someone of note, one or two of the others will stand in their line of sight and make funny faces. Of course being the Muppet performers they take this much farther than most people would and they shared some wonderful stories about Jim trying, and failing, to keep a straight face.

The virtual Muppets were a hoot. Gonzo discovered that, for the first time in 25 years, he could close his eyes and promptly began snoring. The crowd burst into applause when we were told that while virtual Muppets are a wonderful tool for things that cannot be done with real Muppets, the Muppets will always remain foam. Part of the fun of this presentation was seeing Dave and Steve figure out the controls and get comfortable with them. It gave us a glimpse of how they work, as opposed to seeing the polished finished product. Watching the performers play off each other it is clear that one of the secrets to the success of the Muppets is how well these people work together.

Charlie Rivkin was quite accessible, walking around the floor both before and after his speech. He met with fans and was incredibly polite. I asked him if they would be releasing a video of MuppetFest and he said they were taping it but hadn't thought of selling a video. He went on to say they 'probably should make it available on the web site or something.' Here's hoping they do! Another fan spoke to him about the sale of the Muppets and he said their new home would allow them to get back to the creative projects they like to do.

The video tribute to Jim contained a wide assortment of clips, many of which we've seen many times. Still, they never get old and there was something different about watching them in that atmosphere, surrounded by people who love and admire his work and the attitudes he inspired in others. MuppetFest would not have been complete without a tribute to the great Jim Henson.

Rounding out the final day of MuppetFest was the auction and the opportunity for a few lucky fans to try their hand at working Muppets. Auction items included a Muppets Take Manhattan pack with a prop Playbill from 'Manhattan Melodies,' a Creature Shop eyeball, a Kermit doll with guitar signed by Steve, and a Muppet Show 25th Anniversary pack which included a copy of Of Muppets and Men and the press release and photo of Jim from the documentary. I was lucky enough to take that home.

All and all the first annual MuppetFest was a terrific success in my book. I look forward to many more MuppetFests and more opportunities to get to know my friends at Muppet Central.

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