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Part 4: The Problems and Penguins

By Tom Holste
Photos by Phillip Chapman

The flaws in MuppetFest were very few; I only mention them here in hopes of having the best Fest possible, should there be another one in 2002:

I have to admit that I was wary of the convention being run by Creation, as they had done various things with Farscape and Star Trek conventions that had angered both fans and people who run smaller conventions. Many of my friends dislike both Creation and, by association, Henson. Still, I tried to keep an open mind in the weeks before the Fest.

However, I had numerous communication problems dealing with Creation, many of which involved correcting an address error I had made. It was hard to reach anyone during Creation’s stated business hours. Even if the answering machine happened to be on (which wasn’t often), I’d never get callbacks from the messages I left. Finally I talked to someone from the company who assured me that they had my address and would be sending out the tickets shortly. Five days before the convention, I called to ask why my tickets hadn’t been sent out yet—and I was told it was because they didn’t have my address. (Mind you, I’m giving you the short version of this story.) I’ve heard a rumor that Creation was separating from a parent company and moving into new offices, thus the reason for all the confusion. I certainly hope so, because I’d hate to go through something like this next year.

On a more positive note, everyone I dealt with from Creation at the convention itself was pleasant, friendly and helpful.

At the Fest itself, there need to be a couple of breaks scheduled throughout the day so that people have a chance to stretch their legs, use the restrooms, look at more merchandise, talk to other fans, etc. At the end of the first day, I learned to my horror that several of the puppeteers had been waiting outside in the lobby at various points during the day for Meet & Greet sessions…and no one showed up. We were all inside the auditorium, because we didn’t want to miss a minute of what was happening onstage! I do hope that the performers didn’t take it personally, and that we made it clear to them at the autograph session that we’re very interested in meeting them.

The audio/visual problems, obviously, will need to be worked out by next year. Clips would run either without sound or without an image, especially near the beginning of the con; there was a lot of difficulty with getting the right mics on at the right time; the technicians would repeatedly forget to lower the house lights when a clip started, etc. After a while, I began to wonder if the Swedish Chef was running the projector. The funniest moment, though, was when the stage for the musicians kept lowering and rising, seemingly completely out of control! It is notable, though, that the Muppet performers and MCs kept things moving along beautifully. Since a large part of their humor comes from going on with the show in spite of everything supposedly going wrong, it seemed entirely appropriate that the Muppets were going on with the show when everything was really going wrong! (Two important points here: first, the A/V was handled by union technicians hired by the Civic Center Auditorium, not Henson or Creation; second, many of the problems were fixed by the second day.)

I know the doors weren’t scheduled to open till noon, but they really should have opened the doors a little sooner on the second day. Many of us had been deceived by Saturday’s beautiful 80-degree weather, and were standing outside shivering, hoping that they’d open the doors early again like they did the day before. They didn’t.

There was a band that played familiar songs like “Happiness Hotel” and “Movin’ Right Along” at various points during both days of the con, while video clips ran in the background. The band was fine, but when we’re being dismissed at the end of the second day, there’s no need to bring the band back out. At that point, we’re all tired, and we’re all anxious to get back to our hotels and change, so we can be at the gala in time to get good seats. I felt embarrassed for the band’s sake when they were called in to close the Fest, and nearly everyone in the entire Auditorium (including me) quickly vacated. Next time it’d be best to just play Muppet music on a CD through the sound system while we leave. (Also, someone should gently tell the band that the Village People song sung by the Viking pigs is “In the Navy,” not “Macho Man”!)

Before the gala, we had to wait in an extremely tiny lounge area where we were pressed in like sardines for about an hour and a half. This area could have been called “Claustrophobic’s Nightmare.” Hopefully next year the Gala can be held somewhere that allows the patrons a little more breathing room.

Again, I don’t wish to throw rain on the parade. Overall, the entire Fest was far more than I could have hoped for. I only offer this as constructive criticism in hopes that, should there be a Fest in 2002, it will run even smoother.

Suggestions for the 2002 Fest

The following isn’t a list of complaints, but rather things I’d like to see them do a little differently next time around, just to keep some variety in each year’s Fest.

--I’d like to add my voice to the large group of Muppet Central people that want the Fest to be in New York City in 2002. New York has long been an important base of operations for the Henson company, and Sesame Street is still produced there, which makes it convenient from the company’s standpoint. From the fans’ standpoint, many of us have never been to New York and would simply love to visit. Also, many online fans who couldn’t come this year said that they would be able to attend if it were held in the New York-New Jersey area. (I hope it’s held in September, though. I don’t think I want to be freezing in New York come next December!)

--Appropriately, the emphasis this year was on The Muppet Show’s 25th anniversary. That’s the way I wanted it; there’s often too much emphasis on Sesame Street and other productions. However, holding the Fest in New York would be essentially holding it in Sesame Street’s backyard, so it would be ridiculous not to focus more attention on it. I envision the puppeteers and behind-the-scenes people coming out to discuss Sesame’s history, much as they did with The Muppet Show this year, before bringing out the Sesame characters for question-and-answer sessions. I want to talk to the Count and to Ernie and to Oscar! Yes, with a Sesame emphasis, it would make sense for Carroll Spinney to be on the panels next year. We could then also get the perspective of puppeteers like Fran Brill, Eric Jacobson, and David Rudman. The Muppet Show (and the performers associated with it) could still be an important presence there, but the 2002 Fest could definitely have more of a Sesame slant.

--While I know Jerry Juhl isn’t technically part of the company anymore, it’d be great if he could make it next year.

--The clips should once again be a good assortment of ones we haven’t seen in a while—ones that aren’t readily available on “Unpaved” or in a video collection. How about the complete film used to sell Sesame Street, with Rowlf and Kermit agonizing over the name and one guy in the boardroom who suggests “Hey, Stupid!”?

--There was heavy emphasis this year on the most popular productions, as well there should be. If the Fest continues for multiple years, though, there can be a focus on a more eclectic group of shows. One panel could be all about The Jim Henson Hour and Muppets Tonight. Another panel could be on The Ghost of Faffner Hall, The Secret Life of Toys and The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss…and so on.

--This might be a stretch, but how about tours of the Sesame Street studio? There could be a shuttle bus that takes people for a 45-minute tour every couple of hours. Of course, there’d have to be at least one tour a day scheduled during non-convention hours, so those who don’t want to miss a minute of the convention can still see the tour!

--OK, so no Muppet Impressions contest this year. I can live with that. It has to happen next year. I mean it. ;-) Maybe people could make a recording in a designated area. For one minute, they can do as many characters as they want. This could happen on Saturday. The Muppet performers could review the tapes that night, and vote on the best ones. The top picks could be shown the following day at the convention, with the audience voting by cheering for the best tape. How about it?

--At times, the people on stage had trouble remembering bits of history that a lot of the audience knew the answer to. I don’t blame them. It’s our hobby to remember these little trivia facts, not theirs. By comparison, I can’t remember exactly what I did at work five years ago, either. My suggestion: next year, bring an expert on Muppet history with you. It could either be Phil Chapman or Danny Horn or someone else who owns a prominent Muppet website, or else perhaps someone like author Christopher Finch, who’s written a number of Henson-related behind-the-scenes books over the years.

--Thoughts for next year’s live show: hopefully, by then, a performer(s) will have been found to take over Frank Oz’s roles, and he/she certainly could debut at the live show, if he/she hasn’t already by that point. We want to see Piggy and Fozzie! (Yes, we’d love to see Frank Oz and have him sit in on panels as well, but I realize that may be too tall an order.)

--The show should either be another live Muppet Show, with heavy emphasis on Sesame Street characters, or perhaps it could be a live version of Sesame Street, with all the human actors and Sesame Muppets performing. (But I wouldn’t object to Muppet Show characters “crashing the gate,” so to speak! How would Pepe and Oscar get along?)

Well, those are just some ideas for those in charge to start mulling over, if and when there is another Fest. They met so many of my requests this past year, I’m confident that they’ll wow me again should there be another Fest.

THE PENGUINS

Last but not least, we come to the penguins. Long-time posters here will remember Luke Robbins’ hilarious “Gratuitous Penguins” post from December 2000, in which he complained about the inappropriateness of penguins in a Christmas display. (There are no penguins in any Christmas story, and real ones don’t live at the North Pole either. Yet in holiday decorations, they’re everywhere!) Since one of the Muppets’ staples is putting penguins in inappropriate places, like tropical production numbers, this post particularly jibed with the sense of humor of people on the site, and so was remembered (and brought back up again) repeatedly after the thread ended. So, when we got to MuppetFest, several of us were looking for signs of gratuitous penguins anywhere to bring back for Luke. Could we find a stray penguin on a flyer for the Palisades action figures, in the background shot of a glossy for one of the characters, or in some vintage storybook that we had all forgotten about? Nope. Despite our best efforts, we seemed to turn up empty-handed.

And then, in the big finale at the gala, when everyone is singing “Rainbow Connection,” a bunch of other Muppets come out to sing in the background. The other singers included Sam the Eagle, Scooter, Dr. Teeth and Janice…and TWO GRATUITOUS PENGUINS!! At last we spotted them. Sorry we couldn’t bring ‘em home, Luke, or even take pictures – no photography was allowed at the Gala. But the important thing is, the penguins were there.

Well, that’s just about every single thing I could remember from the Fest. I’d like to once again say thanks to all the people at the Henson company who came out for the Fest; to the people at Creation Entertainment who put the whole Fest together; and to Phil and Cindy Chapman and all the other wonderful people at this website who helped make this weekend one of the most fun and exciting vacations I’ve ever had. It was great spending time with every one of you. To paraphrase a certain frog, we’ll see you all next year at MuppetFest.

 
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