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Part 1: The People, Performers, and Puppets

By Tom Holste
Photos by Phillip Chapman

Last month, Kermit the Frog invited a whole bunch of his closest friends over for a party. And I was one of the lucky ones who got to attend.

On December 8 and 9, 2001, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the Jim Henson Company, in association with Creation Entertainment, held the first annual MuppetFest, a convention celebrating the life and works of Jim Henson, with specific emphasis on the 25th anniversary of The Muppet Show. When MuppetFest was first announced, Muppet Central webmaster Phil Chapman told us to post the kind of things we’d like to see at the convention, because people from Henson and Creation were interested in our feedback. I composed a rather long list of things I’d like to see, and to their credit, nearly everything I asked for was done in some form or another, right down the line. (The one exception was the Muppet Impressions contest, with Statler and Waldorf as judges, which was originally advertised but then mysteriously left off of the final schedule. There was an unofficial contest held by the Muppet Central crew at the dinner the night before, but a delayed plane prevented me from participating. Aargh!) All in all, though, it was a fantastic experience. For me, MuppetFest can be defined by nine P’s: the people, the performers, the puppets, the presentations (of the video archives), the props, the purchases (read: merchandise), the performance, the problems, and of course, the penguins.

THE PEOPLE

MuppetFest was a wonderful and, for the most part, well-run convention. But even at the worst-run conventions, there’s something that I love: getting to meet and talk with a group of people who are as passionate about something (in this case, the Muppets) as I am. It’s especially fun when you’ve only known people online, and you get to connect names to faces. I had great fun talking with Phil and Cindy (Kermit and Piggy), who gave me a terrific Pepe button on Saturday and went with Matt (The Dude) and I on Sunday to get “breakfast” at the gas station. I also particularly enjoyed standing in line with Mar and Michael (Statler and Waldorf) and Dave (Beauregard), because it allowed me to actually talk to other fans for an extended period of time. I have to say a special thank you to Mitch (KermitHead) for allowing me to carpool with him both nights, and for showing us that great Italian restaurant. I also had a lot of fun having dinner with him and Cory (Gadzooks-Technobeaker) and his mom, D.W. (Fleet Scribbler), and Ken (TravelTravel) on Saturday night, losing all track of time talking with them about Muppet stuff. I had fun standing in line with Kevin (Fozzi3B3ar) and Scott (Scarecroe) and several others, waiting for autographs. It was also great meeting Carolyn (Apple), Chris (Cardboy), Danny, Kynan (Carl the Big Mean Bunny), Travis (SuperGrover) and his sister Karie, Anakin (Borg5of5), though my time talking with any of these people at the convention was less than 10 minutes. Anyway, I really enjoyed meeting you all, and my only complaint is that we didn’t have more time to get to know each other. (And please accept my apologies if I forgot to mention your name! There were just so many people, it’s impossible to remember them all at this point.)

Of course, that’s just the people I knew from this site. Another great pleasure was meeting Muppet fans who have never posted here before, or are in “lurker” status on Muppet Central. I had a lovely time talking to Nancy, who stood in line directly behind me, and ended up sitting almost right behind me as well. I sat next to Lori, who was getting autographs in her Creature Shop book “No Strings Attached” from everyone in attendance. I also had a great time talking to Michelle, who sat behind me both days at the Auditorium and at the Palace Theater for the gala. I tested the patience of poor Rafia, sitting at the end of my aisle, as I would repeatedly move past her in an attempt to get one more picture. And I enjoyed carpooling with Peter (from Australia!) and some of the MC regulars to the gala on Sunday night.

This is the great part: I wouldn’t dream of walking up to a complete stranger on the street and striking up a conversation with them, but here, I already had something in common with every single person attending. The camaraderie wasn’t limited to the auditorium, either. Dawn was just a stranger riding down in the elevator with me Saturday morning, until she overheard me asking for directions at the front desk, and said, “MuppetFest!” Instantly, I had a new friend. The people I was carpooling with on Sunday night and I also met a couple of others at the In & Out fast-food restaurant because they were practicing the “Hi-ho!” greeting we had learned at the Fest. I had a great conversation with others sitting next to me at the Sunday evening gala, even though I had never met them before. Even our waiter at the Italian restaurant seemed like a “normal” person until we mentioned the Muppets. Then he started talking about how Beaker is the best Muppet, how he couldn’t believe Frank Oz didn’t attend, and how much he liked “that guy in the clown suit who throws the fish” (Lew Zealand). He practically had to be restrained from taking Cindy’s Piggy button! The Muppets were creating a sense of togetherness everywhere I went. What better thing could you say about the convention than that?

THE PERFORMERS

I’ve been to other conventions, and to me, the “celebrities” were always the least interesting aspect. Too often, the guest roster consists of actors who appeared briefly as a guest star in a particular production, or walked around in a costume in a movie without even providing the voice. These bit players then tour the country, charging outrageous prices for autographs, and any attempt to simply compliment them on their work rather than buy their autograph results in hurt feelings. (There are notable exceptions, such as Virginia Hey at Dragon*Con this past fall.)

By contrast, the Muppeteers behaved most graciously. The actual stars of the various Muppet productions – the people who play well-known characters like Kermit the Frog, Gonzo, Floyd, Elmo, Pepe and Sal Manila – were there, and they were all so remarkably humble. Autographs were given freely and with a smile. The autograph session went on even longer than planned so that more people could get a chance to have their things signed. After several people had come down during question-and-answer sessions to thank the performers for coming out for the Fest, Steve Whitmire actually thanked us for the appreciation we were showing them. On top of all of this, the puppeteers actually performed for us, both in the question-and-answer sessions and in a rehearsed stage show on Sunday night. How often do the “stars” of a convention do that? We gave many standing ovations over the weekend for all the people involved. They deserved it.

Muppet writer Kirk Thatcher was our MC on Saturday, and he was a lot of fun. He started the festivities by making us stick our arms in the air for a really long time, and then explaining to us that he was helping the audience to appreciate “what the Muppeteers go through every single day!” He then taught the audience his idea for a Muppet greeting, a la “Live long and prosper” for Star Trek fans. When Thatcher put his hand up in the air and said “Hi-ho!” the audience had to respond by putting our hands in the air, and the guys would say “Wocka wocka!” and the girls would say “Kissy Kissy!” Fellow Muppet writer Craig Shemin hosted the Fest on Sunday, and I have to thank him personally for one of the best moments I had at the entire convention. He offered a signed copy of the script for that evening’s gala as a reward for answering a trivia question correctly – and I was the fortunate person who got the question right! * A few others also won copies of the script and other prizes, but I’ll leave them to tell their own stories.

The question, in case you’re wondering: what are the names of the two directors who alternated directing episodes of The Muppet Show? The answer: Peter Harris and Phillip Casson.

THE PUPPETS

There were a couple of panels that involved just the puppeteers talking about their craft and the history of various productions. While this information was important because (from what I gathered) it was brand new to a lot of people in attendance, for many of us this part was simply review. The heart of the convention, though, was in the question-and-answer sessions, when the performers put on their most famous characters, and the audience could ask anything of any performer or puppet. At this point, the audience really came alive, being able to see their favorite characters up close and personal, and the performers became re-energized, using their considerable improvisational skills to play off of both the audience and each other. Jerry put on Floyd first (notably, wearing his Sgt. Pepper outfit rather than his costume from later years or his more modern clothing from the “Frog Likes to Get Funky” bit), Kevin Clash put Elmo on his arm, Steve Whitmire put on Kermit, Dave Goelz started with Gonzo, Bill Barretta had Pepe on his arm, and Brian Henson used Sal Manila. Most of the performers had more than one character with them, so throughout the two days the audience was also visited by Clifford, Rizzo, Bean Bunny, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Johnny Fiama, and Dr. Phil Van Neuter (who was apparently only sent there by mistake). For some strange reason, Jerry only had Floyd with him, and the audience eventually ran out of questions to ask him. By Sunday afternoon, poor Jerry was so bored he pretended to fall asleep! Next time, let’s please give him at least Robin, if not Lew Zealand and a couple of his other characters too.

The introduction of each new character brought another burst of excited applause from the audience. A typical audience would have applauded for Kermit the Frog; this audience cheered enthusiastically for Dr. Van Neuter. We know these characters, and we were thrilled to see them in person. Hopefully, after a few fizzles at the box office and in the Nielsens, the performers and creators of these programs were encouraged by the fact that there is an audience out there who appreciates what they do.

Here are some of my favorite moments from the weekend, though they may not always be in exact chronological order:

To start things off, Thatcher attempted to introduce a clip by Miss Piggy welcoming us to the Fest, but there were bugs in the A/V equipment. At first the audio would play but there was no video; then we finally got the picture but had no sound! While the technicians worked in the back trying to fix the problem, and Thatcher tried to stall as best he could up front, another image came up on the big screen behind Thatcher…an image of Pepe, and eventually Rizzo, Floyd and Clifford walking around backstage! They teased Thatcher with questions like, “Hey, Kirk, why don’t you stop messing up the show?” At first I thought it was another prerecorded bit and that he was just pretending to respond to them. Then it became clear that they were directly responding to things Thatcher said. At that point, someone pointed out to me that, from the angle we were sitting at, we could see the performers backstage. We were watching the Muppets perform live! This was the first of many exciting moments like that.

Finally someone on camera said something about needing to go to the bathroom; it’s still questionable as to whether or not they meant us to hear that. But at any rate, the other performers quickly picked up on the line and ran with it. Soon, all the characters were excusing themselves to use the bathroom! “I don’t need to use the bathroom,” Gonzo said proudly. Then he looked down. “Oops,” he said, “Yes, I do!” and he promptly left. Only Pepe lingered, wondering what to do. Thatcher finally said Pepe could leave too, to which Pepe replied, “Hokay!” and quickly trotted off.

This time, the Miss Piggy tape played almost the whole way through, with just a few “hiccups” along the way, but the decision was wisely made to just keep going and get on to the next part. Piggy ended her speech by introducing Brian Henson, who entered to a well-deserved standing ovation.

During the first session, on the history of the Muppet Show, Brian mentioned several who couldn’t be there, including Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl. When Brian mentioned Richard Hunt, there was a big burst of applause from several of us in the audience. When Jerry Nelson (the performer who’s always seemed to have been the closest to Richard) heard this, he got a big smile on his face.

Speaking of which, there seemed to be some confusion amongst the people onstage because there was no applause when Oz and Juhl were mentioned. Jane Henson wondered aloud onstage on Sunday if we knew who Juhl was. Believe us, Jane, we know and care about both these folks! It was just the way Brian happened to announce their names. When he said, “One of our chief performers was Richard Hunt,” people applauded. When he said, “Jerry Juhl couldn’t be here,” and later, “Frank Oz couldn’t be here,” well, who’s going to applaud that they couldn’t be there? Hopefully we made our affection for these two important people clear with our applause when their names were mentioned at the gala.

Another great moment with Jerry was when he asked the audience (onstage in front of everybody), “How many of you people are here from Muppet Central?” A bunch of us stood up and cheered heavily. Jerry said, “You guys have a great site there.” He reiterated the sentiment in the autograph line even before I thanked him for it.

Not exactly a favorite moment, but definitely a notable one: apparently, while I was in the restroom, Muppet builder Amy van Gilder mentioned that she works for Disney, which elicited a large “boo” from the audience! While I understand the audience’s reservations about the potential sale of Henson to the Disney company, I have to wonder if this was the best way to express that. (If Disney does own the company by this time next year, will they have another MuppetFest?) It should be noted that poor Amy wasn’t trying to slam the company she works for – she just wanted to illustrate the contrast between the working styles of the two companies.

At one point, someone asked Pepe a Muppets from Space question: “Did Gonzo ever find out why he was asked to build that Jacuzzi?” Pepe tried to shush the speaker, while Steve/Kermit said, “Hey, just don’t ask Rizzo – I can’t change that fast!” Gonzo kept looking around, confused, saying, “I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Gonzo took a moment to ask Floyd, “By the way, do you ever change your shirt?” Floyd responded, “This one is brand new.” (I’m unsure as to whether Jerry was just improvising in character, or if he said that because this was, in fact, a newly built Floyd puppet.) A relieved Gonzo said, “OK. Just checking!”

Someone asked Gonzo a question about what’s happened to the relationship between him and Camilla. Jerry (who didn’t have the Camilla puppet with him, either) let out a “Bawwwwwk” that can only be interpreted as, “Yeah, what is the story with us?” Gonzo gave an evasive answer, and when the audience grumbled discontentedly, Gonzo said, “Hey, what do you want from me? I’m an alien who loves chickens!”

When Dave switched over to Bunsen, Bunsen confessed to the audience, “You know, there was someone tall traveling in this box with me, and all this time I thought it was Beaker. But it turns out it was someone else.” At this point he pulled out Dr. Van Neuter. (While clearly Van Neuter wasn’t intended to be there, there is still some contention amongst fans as to whether or not Beaker was really supposed to be in the box. Dave could have been improvising in character based on what Dave himself actually thought to be true. However, in all other cases, the boxes were grouped according to performer, so if Beaker was meant to come along, it seems more likely he’d be in Steve’s box.) “I wonder if the fans might like to talk to [Van Neuter],” suggested Bunsen, which drew another round of applause from the audience. Brian was less happy about the idea, probably because as a two-performer character, Van Neuter is harder to do in a setting such as this than the other characters that they brought along. Still, since everyone was cheering for him, Brian put Van Neuter on, with Bill putting down Pepe so that he could work the hands. (Apparently, the hands are usually Bill’s responsibility anyway.) Dave caught Brian’s unease with his suggestion, and Bunsen quipped, “Uh, oh. Looks like I might be out of a job soon!” Brian was telling us how Van Neuter was operated, and explaining a little about Van Neuter’s personality, when Bunsen commented to Van Neuter, “You know, we’re both science-minded people. I can’t believe we’ve never worked together before.” At that point, Dave got up and walked Bunsen over to Van Neuter, officially creating this first-ever team-up! (Camera flashes were going off like crazy all over the Auditorium.) Bunsen gently commented to Van Neuter on how high-strung he seemed. Then Bunsen asked him, “May I twiddle your ears?” and proceeded to do so, getting a big reaction from the audience.

In another unusual team-up, Bill put on Johnny Fiama, and came over to talk to Floyd about them possibly doing a gig together. (Someone held the one of the mics close to Johnny’s mouth so that he could be “heard.”) Bill had to get on the floor next to Jerry’s chair to put Johnny and Floyd at the same height, and Jerry couldn’t resist having Floyd tell Johnny that there was a strange man underneath him. “Hey, Sal,” Bill/Johnny called back to Brian (who had switched back to Sal by this point), “there’s a guy under me! What’s he doin’ there?” Sal got very angry and came up right next to Bill and shouted, “Hey, you – get outta Johnny!” After they figured out that wasn’t going to work, Sal told Bill he could stay, but that he’d better watch his step.

Someone asked Floyd a question, and Jerry’s response was something of a double-entendre. Elmo started asking Floyd, “What does that mean? Elmo does not understand. And on Sesame Street, when you don’t understand, you’re always supposed to ask!”

Speaking of Elmo, I’ve never been his most ardent admirer, but there were several great moments with him at the Fest. First, when he started getting a little too hyper at the beginning, Kirk told him, “Hey, don’t take over the Fest now. You’ve already taken over Sesame Street!” Then, when a father and her little girl came up to ask a question, Elmo asked the little girl’s name, and told her that “Elmo loves you,” getting a big “Awww” by the audience. Later on, a little girl (about 2 years old) came and stood by the side of the stage, waving excitedly at Elmo. Kevin noticed her first, so Elmo waved back, and eventually all the other puppeteers caught on to what was happening and had their characters start waving as well. The next thing you know, the performers are rushing to the side of the stage to say hi to the little girl. Kevin got there first, and he had Elmo give her a big hug. (They were almost exactly the same size!) Bill, with the best of intentions, tried to have Pepe hug her, but she didn’t recognize him and was quite unwilling to get anywhere near him. Pepe became very indignant about it!

Overall, though, Pepe fared quite well with the ladies. At one point, an attractive female came to the microphone to announce that she was single and wanted to know more about Pepe. After giving her some of his personal information, Pepe told her, “Call me, hokay?” (Meanwhile, us non-felt people weren’t getting hit on by anyone at all. There’s no justice! Hey, ladies, I can speak with a fake Spanish accent too, okay?)

A Spanish-speaking individual came down and attempted to address Pepe in his native tongue…at which point Bill had to admit he doesn’t really know much Spanish! The guy made a list of common Spanish phrases for Bill, along with a very nice Kermit illustration, and gave it to him in the autograph line.

Someone asked the performers what was the most difficult or challenging position they’ve had to perform in. Steve talked about his experience as Kermit in 1996 as the Grand Marshall of the Rose Parade. He set a record for the longest continual performance of a puppet – 2 hours, 45 minutes – while most of the time he really had to go to the bathroom! Dave spoke of a video shoot where he had to perform a puppet in an actual plane, flying in the sky, all the while trying not to throw up. Kevin related an experience on the set of Dinosaurs in an episode where Baby Dinosaur was getting potty-trained, so Kevin had to perform by putting his hand up through an actual latrine. After it was over, he needed help getting out of position, but of course the “helpful” crew took pictures of him instead!

A discussion about Don Sahlin, the chief Muppet builder for many years, began to focus on the practical jokes Sahlin would like to play around the workshop. He’d rig miniature bombs to go off at people’s desks, he’d create a fake mouse on a pullstring that would race around the office when released, etc. One time, Dave tried to get “revenge” by hiding in the workshop after hours with some drape over his entire body except his hand. Since he knew Sahlin liked to come back when everyone else was gone and get some extra work done, Dave put his hand right where the light switch would be in the pitch-black room, so Sahlin would get a good scare when he came back. Unfortunately for Dave, Sahlin never came back that night!

When asked who his favorite character was, Steve Whitmire replied that of course he loves Kermit, but the one he identifies with the easiest is Rizzo. He told us, “The older and crankier I get, the easier it is to do him!” He then explained how the group of original rat puppets (from which Rizzo came) were meant as rod puppets only, and had very limited mobility. Basically, you had to bounce them up and down on a stick (as he hilariously demonstrated with the current Rizzo). It was only after he made some clothes for Rizzo, and after a new puppet was built that allowed Steve to stick his hand inside Rizzo, that he began to evolve as a character.

When Brian Henson was asked why he thinks Muppets Tonight didn’t last longer, Brian explained that he had resisted ABC’s repeated requests for them to do a new Muppet series because he was afraid the Muppets on TV had become too associated with Sesame Street. Brian only agreed to do the new series after getting ABC’s word that the network would put a strong promotional effort into reminding audiences that the Muppets were intended for both kids and adults. ABC failed to follow through on their pledge, though, and all audience testing indicated exactly what Brian thought would happen – that parents mistook the show for “something to set the kid in front of while I’m making dinner” rather than a savvy show for all ages. Thus, the show quickly disappeared.

When asked what became of older Muppets, such as the original Kermit, Wilkins and Wontkins, etc. – do they just stuff them in a box, do they keep them in a museum, or do they send them to a Muppet retirement home? – the response was that while some of the puppets are at the Smithsonian, and others are sent out on touring exhibitions, the rest all reside in safe storage with the rest of the Muppets.

When asked about how new puppets were built for current characters, Amy van Gilder attempted to answer before being interrupted by Gonzo, who launched into a delightfully nutty monologue: “At first you’re a big block of foam. Then they start cutting, trying to get down to you. … Occasionally Amy nicks your nose.” Eventually, Pepe said, “You lying, man. You don’ know what you’re talking about!”

In a moment that didn’t involve any puppets, Jerry Nelson, Bill Barretta and Kevin Clash came out to sing with the band that had been hired for the event. Jerry and Bill took turns scatting on “Mahna Mahna,” and Kevin’s vocals in particular helped on “Cabin Fever.”

Everything else had been running a bit overtime, so by the time they got to the Fraggle Rock/Labyrinth/Dark Crystal panel, they had to cut it a bit short. There wasn’t even a Q-and-A section for this panel. Still, I was glad they were willing at all to talk about these often-ignored Henson projects. The panelists on this one were Brian, Steve, Dave, Jerry, puppet builder/caretaker Jane Gootnick and … Karen Prell (a.k.a. Red Fraggle)! It still hadn’t been officially confirmed prior to the Fest that the former Muppeteer and frequent visitor to Muppet Central would actually be on stage speaking, so it was a thrill to see her up there. She even wore a big Red Fraggle hat! The group discussed some of the joys and trials of producing Fraggle Rock, particularly regarding the international versions. Steve portrayed Sprocket in both the American and German versions, and apparently it took quite some convincing to get the German actor playing Doc to look at the American tape to see how Doc was performed. Poor Steve was completely lost, not knowing any German and not being able to tell from the actor’s performance how Sprocket was supposed to react! (More on Dark Crystal and Labyrinth under the Creature Shop heading.)

While most of the weekend was a retrospective, one panel in particular involved looking ahead to the next project: Kermit’s Swamp Years. Scheduled for release in August 2002, this direct-to-video prequel to The Muppet Movie tells about a 10-year-old Kermit’s first adventure away from home with his swamp buddies (played by Bill Barretta and John Kennedy). The new 10-year-old Kermit was brought out alongside the normal Kermit for a fascinating side-by-side comparison – slightly smaller body, slightly bigger head, etc. Steve explained how he tried to follow Jim’s lead by the way Jim voiced baby Kermit during the Muppet Babies segment of Muppets Take Manhattan. Steve tried to tweak his own voice so it was somewhere in between Jim’s version of baby Kermit and his own interpretation of the adult Kermit. Muppet writer Jim Lewis commented that the script was filled with references that only diehard Muppet fans would get. The production was shot on digital film, and the clip they showed of it looked fabulous! (It was quite a contrast from the clips they were showing from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with picture and sound that hadn’t been restored.) I still have some reservations about the project, but this panel definitely heightened my curiosity and made me want to know more.

One Muppet who I didn’t think would show up at all made an appearance at the very end: Fozzie Bear. No, Frank Oz wasn’t there, but the puppet was brought on stage during the “You’re the Star!” presentation, in which Victor Yerrid demonstrated the proper technique for operating a Muppet, allowing randomly chosen members of the audience to try it out for themselves. Phil got to go up onstage and work a puppet himself! Most of the puppets used in the demonstration were nondescript background Muppets, but Yerrid decided to bring out the one and only bear himself for the finale. An audience member worked Fozzie to a prerecorded track of Fozzie singing “America the Beautiful,” apparently taken from The Muppet Movie. The whole demonstration was fun to watch, but seeing Fozzie was definitely the icing on the cake.

There were many more wonderful moments, but of course, there’s no way I can remember them all. At any rate, I had a great time, and so did the audience. And it looked like the performers did, too.

In addition to the action onstage, Sweetums came out and walked around the back of the Auditorium both days to have his picture taken with audience members. (Apparently, it was actually John Henson in the suit!) Also, there was an appearance by Bear in the Big Blue House. Whether it was actually one of Bear’s performers from the series or just someone who wears the suit for exhibitions is still open to debate. There was also one panel on Bear, and while I’m thrilled for Henson that the show is such a critical and ratings hit, I must admit it didn’t hold enough interest for me to stick around during that presentation. I took the opportunity to walk around and stretch my legs, which was much needed. I saw a lot of other people getting up at the same time, so they must have been thinking the same thing!

The Creature Shop

I guess I’ll file this under “Puppets” in order to keep with the “P” theme, though it’s certainly big enough to get a category all its own. While, as noted, most of the weekend focused on the Muppet Show anniversary, some time was given to other productions and other areas of the company, including the Creature Shop. I’ve always enjoyed their work, but what I saw this weekend impressed me even more. Among the highlights:

David Barrington-Holt (or “D.B.H.,” as Kirk Thatcher likes to call him for short), creative supervisor of the Creature Shop, came onstage to talk about the progress of the Creature Shop since Jim founded this branch of the company to work on The Dark Crystal 20 years ago. Clips from some of Henson’s own productions were screened, such as The Storyteller and Dinosaurs, as well as a lot of the work that the Creature Shop has done for non-Henson productions, such as Dreamchild, Ninja Turtles, Babe, Lost in Space, and Cats and Dogs. We also got to see some very interesting test footage for Dragonheart – did you know the Creature Shop had done some preliminary work for that movie? The studio eventually decided to opt for a CGI dragon instead…which may be one of the reasons why the Creature Shop has started to move into that field itself.

Of course, a clip from the ever-popular and acclaimed Farscape was also screened. After the clip was shown, D.B.H. introduced us to our first surprise guest: Claudia Black (Farscape’s Aeryn Sun)! She wasn’t scheduled to be there at all, but she stopped by to say hi to the Henson folk and had been coaxed to go on stage, to a warm welcome from the audience. Claudia thanked us all for being there and told us that the reason she had wanted to audition for Farscape was because she knew it was being produced by the Henson company, and she loved the Muppets so very much. She was only on stage very briefly, but all of us fans were very grateful!

To help us better appreciate the work of the Creature Shop, D.B.H. then introduced the villainous Mr. Tinkles from Cats and Dogs, who came onstage (with the assistance of a small army of puppeteers) to sing Frank Sinatra's classic "That's Life". Seeing all the puppeteers pulling all the various rods, etc., did nothing to diminish the effect; in fact, one was all the more impressed at how much work went in to creating the startlingly life-like performance. As the cat finished his song with a flourish, the curtain was drawn back so we could see the final piece of the equation: performer Bruce Lanoil standing offstage, operating the mouth and facial expressions and providing the voice, all from one central control system. The audience applauded heartily for this bravura performance.

D.B.H. used this illustration as a clever segue to the next segment: “Virtual Muppet.” He explained that the Creature Shop was now exploring ways to utilize the technology we had just seen in every aspect of the company, including projects involving the classic Muppets. To this end, we were shown a computer-generated image of Kermit and Gonzo on the projection screen, as Steve Whitmire and Dave Goelz performed them offstage using the same type of system that we had seen Bruce use for Mr. Tinkles. Kermit and Gonzo could now do all kinds of things they had never done before. Both of them could make themselves really tall or really short with just the flick of a wrist. Kermit could snap his fingers to hypnotize Gonzo. When Gonzo became hypnotized, his eyes became really small! Dave then reversed the effect and made Gonzo’s eyes really large when looking at some of the ladies in the audience. He also could make his beak flip wildly upwards as though he were flicking a finger! Gonzo also discovered that he could bat his eyes rapidly or close them altogether, something that can’t be done with the eye mechanisms on the original puppet. (“No wonder I act the way I do,” commented Gonzo. “I haven’t slept in 25 years!”)

D.B.H. set the fears of many of us to rest when he said that these CGI effects were not intended to replace traditional puppetry. He said we would always have the original characters and the art form of puppetry with us (which got a round of applause from the audience), but that this was simply a new tool to help create effects that couldn’t have been achievable with the normal puppets. Steve commented that the design of the mechanism on his arm felt every bit as comfortable as if he were wearing Kermit himself. While the Kermit and Gonzo in the presentation didn’t quite look like their real-life counterparts, D.B.H. assured us that this was only a “real-time” version to capture the puppeteers’ performance, and that the image could be cleaned up in post-production to make the characters look almost exactly like the real puppets. The technology certainly has come a long way since when Steve played Waldo on The Jim Henson Hour; the “real-time” version of that character was barely a wire-frame figure. In fact, everything we saw was largely an extension of what Jim had begun attempting himself with a computer-generated Kermit head in 1983. I must admit I was completely won over by this demonstration. Jim always loved exploring new technologies, and this is just the latest expression of that. And the Muppets retained their ability to be funny, rather than getting lost in the effect, and that perhaps is what’s most important.

During the Fraggle/Dark Crystal/Labyrinth discussion panel, Brian related the famous story about how all the Universal executives walked out in silence after the screening of The Dark Crystal. What was previously unknown to me, though, is that a large part of the studio’s reason for being upset with the film was that Jim, wanting to create a completely new world, had done the entire film in subtitles, with each species speaking a different language! It was another example of Jim showing extraordinary creativity, but it was too strange to the studio execs. So they did another cut of the film – actually, two more cuts of the film, according to Steve – until virtually all the other languages were gone.

Karen mentioned one of my favorite stories while on the panel: how she met her husband Mike Quinn while working on Labyrinth. Mike had done some puppet work on Return of the Jedi (as Nien Nunb, Lando Calrissian’s jolly, big-eared co-pilot), and is currently doing some work for Episode II.

Apparently, there was also a sculpting demo held by the Creature Shop on Saturday in the exhibit hall, but since it was going on while there were other presentations on stage, I missed this. At any rate, the Creature Shop segments were overall a very satisfying element of the convention.

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Fan site Muppet Central created by Phillip Chapman. Updates by Muppet Central Staff. All Muppets, Bear
characters are copyright of The Muppets Studio. Sesame Street characters are copyright of Sesame Workshop.
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