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How MuppetFest Saved a Life

By D. W. McKim
Photos by Phillip Chapman and Kevin Williams

All of us fortunate enough to attend MuppetFest each carry with us some of the most incredible moments, stories, and experiences; many collective, some individual. In a way, that makes writing about the experience a challenge because so many of us laughed at, cried at, and loved the same things which makes it hard to not reinvent the wheel and write the same events that others have detailed. Especially since Tom did such an amazing job encapsulating the weekend in his series, I knew that anything I could add would best be done from a personal approach - focusing on the moments that were more singular and unique.

Yet by taking that approach, I'm immediately faced with another challenge; in order to accomplish such an undertaking honestly and truthfully, I would ultimately have to reveal one of my deepest secrets. Granted, I could easily just take a more narrow approach and just focus on the smaller scattered snapshots but as a writer and as someone who's spent much of his life with an artistic mindset, I know I can't cheat and not place those smaller events and moments into a larger perspective. To do so would be too grossly incomplete and ultimately negate the purpose of a personal account. For me the importance of MuppetFest is not just the microcosm of a single weekend but also where that weekend fits in the larger context of everything else.

Over the last few years, I've secretly been fighting a losing battle with severe depression. My will to live has been quite miniscule and usually the bravest thing I do on a daily basis is get out of bed and face another day. There's been many times where all I want to do is sleep and just spend the day in dreams and stillness. As signs of things getting better were few, far between, and not big enough I had made a pact that if I didn't see any indication of my life getting better by the time I reached my third decade, I would terminate my life before I allowed myself to turn 30.

As fate would have it, that date happened to be December 8, 2001: MuppetFest Day 1. (Quick side note: I know people here at Muppet Central go birthday crazy whereas I tend not to celebrate or acknowledge mine so no one should be embarrassed that they didn't know about it. I generally kept it under my hat!) A week that might have otherwise have been spent detailing all that should be done before leaving the earth was instead preoccupied with packing and preparing for Santa Monica. Like Cinderella escaping the abuse of her stepfamily and poverty for the sanctuary of a previously forbidden dream, I left behind all the problems and horrors at home as I boarded a Greyhound to whisk me off to an event I've dreamed about for a lifetime. Not being that financially well off, such a trip carried a great deal of sacrifice but I figured if I'm going to face the trauma of turning 30 after all, then I may as well get my money's worth out of my last days in my 20's and try to get some kind of emotional refund for the lack of joy that's defined the latter half of that decade.

That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made and adventures I've embarked on. The whole experience was a huge joyride and practically an alternate universe to what I'd been accustomed to...where much of my life had been gray and dark, here was a rainbow connection. Throughout everything that went on, the people I met - both fellow fans and those with the Henson Company - is what really defined the weekend and made the fest all that it was. With the people from Henson, I had grown up with their magic and felt I knew them quite well in many ways already, but to personally see how genuinely nice, humble, and untouched by the whole egoism that tends to swallow up those who end up becoming a part of the entertainment industry machine was a wonderful affirmation of what makes Henson unique as a company and as an artistic collective: the hearts of everyone inside. It's the same with the fans. I had known many people there via my interactions with them online over the years, but when one actually gets to meet and experience the living breathing people on the other ends of the screens and telephone lines and see that almost without exception that they are even more amazing and kind in person, it really reaffirms one's faith in humanity - that in an overwhelmingly ugly world, there are actually a number of very special people with strong hearts and souls. The only downside to being with such a large group of such people is that there just wasn't ample time to interact with everyone as much as I would have liked and there's too many people I really wish I could have spent more time with or paid more attention to.

Moving into specific moments, I mentioned earlier how anyone reading this has either been there themselves or read enough accounts on the Fest, so in offering the following highlights, I'm focusing more on the ones that were more personally unique:

CLAUDIA BLACK!

Just seeing her at the fest was a treat in itself (I wasn't expecting anyone from Farscape since I met Virginia Hey when she came to a sci-fi con in Phoenix and she mentioned no one had asked her about MuppetFest even though she's been on the convention circuit. I then e-mailed Henson and Creation and both replied that they wanted to keep MuppetFest and Farscape separate) but then during the autograph session, I asked Brian if Claudia would be available tomorrow for autographs or anything since I was a huge fan but couldn't afford to attend both MuppetFest and the earlier Farscape con AND HE CALLED OUT TO CLAUDIA IN THE GREEN ROOM TO "SIGN AN AUTOGRAPH FOR ONE OF YOUR FANS"! Even though I love the entire ensemble of Farscape, Claudia/Aeryn probably stands out a little more as my fave actress/character and I really can't express what an amazing surprise that was!

Dr Honeydew and Dr Van Neuter

I've always actually wanted to see a scene with those two together and as expected it was hilarious. It's just too bad their respective assistants weren't present as I always imagined Bunsen and Phil chatting each other up while Mulch chased around poor Beaker in the background! Phil Van Neuter is one of my favorite new characters and even though it appears he was there more by accident than design, it was fantastic to see yet another appearance of my fave demented veterinarian post Muppets Tonight. Johnny Fiamma and Sal are also huge favorites of mine and seeing Sal trying to shoo Bill Barretta from underneath Johnny had me rolling on the floor! Then at another time during the Muppet Q&A's, there was the CUTEST little girl waving to Elmo that was at the end of the aisle in my row and several of the puppeteers with their puppets actually fell over each other getting out of their chairs and OFF THE STAGE to get up close and give a personal greeting to the girl! That was just the sweetest heart wrenching moment!

Kirk Thatcher's Bowling Trophy

On Saturday, writer Kirk Thatcher served as emcee and brought out one of his awards. The next day Craig Shemin joked that despite receiving nominations, he's never won any awards himself except for a bowling trophy years ago! I had thought about telling Craig if I ran into him at any point that on behalf of all the fans, we've awarded him an honorary "Fred Award" (even though it would still ultimately be a bowling trophy!) Then towards the end, Craig revealed that his award WAS actually one of the "Fred" props from the Phyllis George Muppet Show episode - and ended up in the deserved possession of Chris Smigliano!

KAREN PRELL!

I was so happy to see her there in an official capacity on the panels. Not only is she a much-loved Muppeteer, but was also a part of The Muppet Show itself so it was good that she was thus recognized! During Sunday's panel discussion on "Muppet Performers and Their Characters", she wasn't a part of the panel. Someone had asked about the apparent lack of female Muppeteers and Karen got up and goaded the men on stage! Seriously though, while it was great that Frank, Jerry Juhl, and Richard Hunt (LOTS of applause when his name was mentioned - YAY!) were acknowledged, no mention was ever made all weekend of Louise Gold, which was kind of sad since she was such an important part of The Muppet Show team. Likewise, Kathy Mullen's name only came up in regards to Fraggle Rock.

The Original Muppet Show Network Pitch Tape

I've always wanted to see this since Jerry Juhl mentioned it in my interview with him a couple years ago and it was even funnier than he described! Many other rare gems were shown that had never been seen either at all or in their entirety by the die-hards, and I really must applaud the time and energy that must have gone into searching out the archives.

The Muppet Show Live

The live show (okay, this is the one part where I'll go ahead and mention some stuff that others have already touched upon) - high points were seeing Bill as Rowlf and Brian making his debut as the Newsman (the first time he's actually played one of Jim's characters). My favorite part though was that they performed Mahna Mahna as the opening number - not only because Mahna is one of my all time fave characters (not just the song/routine itself - but the actual character), but it was all the more hysterical since one of his eyes was loose and wiggling around! Then they ended the bit by cutting to a video display of Mahna exiting the theatre, getting into a limo and CRUSISING AROUND HOLLYWOOD (sipping a drink from In & Out Burgers which I had visited on my way over to the theatre!) and finally calling the Snowths from a payphone! We also got to see just how long that extension cord is in order for Kermit to take it from backstage out to the Snowths!

Miss Piggy via Prerecorded Video

Speaking of rarely seen Muppets, Miss Piggy was represented via a few prerecorded video feeds during the fest and the show...I'm going to go out on a limb here though and guess that it wasn't actually Frank performing her - it was VERY convincing...certainly enough to fool a group of diehard fans...but the voice just had a slightly higher timbre than if Frank was performing her. Frank or not, this was definitely Miss Piggy and if in fact JHC was using the MuppetFest audience as a "test crowd" to try a new Piggy out on before debuting her to the general public, they've certainly succeeded in their recast!

The Auctions

I appreciated that in addition to the auctions done at the show, they also did one at the fest since most of us could not hope of competing with Hollywood bigwigs. Even though I was salivating at some of the scripts they were auctioning, there was no way someone in my financial situation could have ultimately won them, but it was nice to at least momentarily have a chance! (I did at least later receive a signed script of the evening show due to trivia knowledge).

Friends and Fans

As mentioned earlier, in addition to the fans, everyone from Henson were just absolutely marvelous...I had some great personal chats with Karen Prell, Jerry Nelson, Jane & Heather Henson. Heather is just the absolute coolest - she reminds me so much of someone I've known forever!), and David Barrington-Holt. All are marvelous people, but my fave encounter was with Charles Rivkin. Before MuppetFest I knew nothing about him except for his credentials/business bio, and I was really taken aback by what an absolute doll the guy is! I had a chance to tell him that all the fans are in strong support of his attempt to lead the company buyback and he was very genuinely flattered and expressed his fears that many of us have had regarding the possibility of someone else taking control of the company who may not have Henson's best interests at heart and turning it into the opposite of what it's always been. It was amazing to hear such refreshing honesty and humanity coming from a CEO - but then that's just exactly what makes Henson the kind of company it is! In a similar vein, my first Henson sighting was Brian and John walking out into the parking lot Saturday morning for no other purpose but to adjust a sign. A very cool reminder of how untouched they are by the whole Hollywood chain-of-power mentality.

All in all, the weekend was all I had hoped it would be and so much more. Like all good things though, it had to come to a conclusion and I was soon back on the Greyhound (coach turning back into pumpkin) to return only to find that everything at home had blown up and become even worse during my time away; back from the heavenly dream and into a horrific nightmare with not even a left-behind glass slipper ensuring a visit from a Prince Charming to rescue me. Since then, I've had to really struggle to hold onto my sanity, which has been dangling by a frayed thread. For the last decade it's seemed that when anything really good happens, it's immediately negated by something much worse so in retrospect it would be very easy to feel sour about the weekend but on the contrary, assuming everything here would have happened anyway, I'm so incredibly thankful for having such a special time with such incredible people for if it was not for that I know I wouldn't be making it through at all right now.

The family of "old friends who've just met" has been a large blessing. I still fight daily with depression, still treasure any extended times I can get in buried in bed, still often find myself wishing abortions had been more socially acceptable 30 years ago...but what keeps me going is the memories of the weekend and the continuing friendships of the people at Muppet Central including those of the people that weren't able to attend. When I can get a chance to spend 30 to 60 minutes reading through messages and forum postings from the people that I've come to love and care for deeply - sharing the news, jokes, and occasional trials - it takes me back to that special place inside where I can hold on to the knowledge that even beyond the fog that clouds my windows, there are scattered throughout the world decent people who I consider treasured friends. Perhaps with a little luck, I may even live to see the age of 35 (though by that time, I'll probably only start to be willing to declare that I am in my 30's instead of "29".

 
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