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My Version of Behind the Scenes of "The Muppet Movie"

Discussion in 'Classic Muppets' started by Tim, Apr 14, 2006.

  1. Tim

    Tim Well-Known Member

    Hi All!

    I was also an extra pair of hands on "The Muppet Movie" rainbow scene, and while my story is similar to "Ernie's", I thought I would offer my own recolections.

    At the time (1978) I was coresponding with Jim Henson. He wasn't so busy back then that he couldn't drop me the ocasional personal note. His mail was handled by a personal assistant, Lynn Klugman (you see her name in the end credits of the film) and I got to know her pretty well also. When I heard the film was to be shot out here, I got up the nerve and called the studio. Lynn checked with Jim, called me back and said "Jim would LOVE to meet you!". For an 18 year old puppeteer and Muppet fan, you can imagine my reaction.

    Also a fan of Hollywood history just being on lot was a thrill. Not only did I find the old "My 3 Sons" house, the "Gunsmoke" street and Gary Cooper's sherriff's office from "High Noon", but I even found the exterior for the "El Sleezo Cafe'"!

    I got to spend about half a day on set, watching them shoot the screening room scene, from Dog Lion tearing out the seat right down to the paper airplane getting caught in Sam Eagle's wing (a blooper left in the film!). It was strange seeing the now empty "Sleezo" set directly behing The Sweedish Chef's projection booth!

    Although I finally got to meet Jim, he actually apolgized to me for not having any time to talk, and suggested I come back on a slower day for him. Back I came a week or so later only to find myself on the old "Mary Tyler Moore" stage and a cabin set of a mad scientist! It was Mel Brooks-one of comic idols, along with the great Charles Durning! Jim spent most of the morning actually sitting with me and giving me a crash course in Muppeteering! When it came time to prepair for Kermit and Piggy's close-ups (there were "tied up" at the moment!) guess who's arm was used to block the scene while the final camera and lighting adjustments were made? Jim asked me back for a few more days to help them with this kind of blocking, but because I was so young, non-union, and lacked a lot of on camera puppeteering experience, I was never able to actually contribute to a scene, until one day...

    "You're finally going to get your chance to puppeteer with us!" was Lynn's words to me by phone! A few days later and I was back on the screening room stage once more (this time the "Sleezo" was replaced with the log cabin where Kermit and Piggy had dinner) with all the Muppet Perfomers, every professional puppeteer in Los Angeles, and just about every Muppet ever made! I knew I would be lost in this crowd, and wanted to be sure to see work on "the big screen", so while assigning parts, I made my way over to the "Big Guys" unit hoping to be given Fletcher Bird or maybe even Timmy Monster. No such luck, and I was shuttled off to Sesame Street, which worked out a lot better. First I was given 2 character to perform-Little Bird and Momma Twiddle Bug, and my position on set was to the extreme stage left (or the very right side of the screen). Even though due to the shot, my characters were omong the last to come into frame and the first to be lost (with Sweetum's tear-through the movie scrren), a very obvious bit of bright yellow on a black background can be clearly seen in the film. My work was also seen in two Muppet photo books and the ViewMaster reel of the film-not bad!

    We got a total of $78.00 and a chicken dinner (paid for by Mr. Henson) for about 14 hours of work all for 43 seconds of film. But the perks were incredible! Imagine getting to try nearly ever Muppet built-from Bert to Wendel Possum, from King Ploobis to Cookie Monster! Imagine having lunch in the Muppet office along side of Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Dave Goelz. Imagine getting Miss Piggy a new glass of soda water when she clumsily broke her's during a still shoot with Mel Brooks ("Oh, thank you dear.."), or meeting a young lady on her very first ever puppeteering job ever-by the name of Kathryn Mullen. Imagine seeing Uncle Deadly picking his nose between takes (not kidding), Big Bird's head on a shelf, and his legs 10 feet away (YIKES!), Kermit getting his collar sewn on, or a headless, naked Miss Piggy! Imaging actually working the REAL Kermit The Frog, sharing an elevator with Frank Oz, seeing Fozzie Bear getting new eyes glued on-while two more Fozzie clones sat on either side! Imagine meeting Kermit's "swamp creature" friend-a character from a scene cut from the film! Imagine posing for a Nancy Moran "official group portrait" or having James frawley insisting on meeting you because "he wants to know everyone on his set". Imagine seeing a box full of "Muppet Movie" t-shirts, jet black with the film logo in a rainbow hologram on the chest being sent off to who knows where, and not getting one-or ever seeing one again. Imagine making up for it by collecting a pocket full of real Big Bird feathers for souveniers!

    The best memory I have was during the dinner break. I was exhausted and fooling around with one of the Muppet frogs. I must have looked really tired, 'cause Jim came up behind me and as he did for so many others, put his hand (THE hand!) on my shoulder and asked "How ya doing old man?". His concern for everyone one the set-even me was astounding. I've heard back from so many who were there that day and they all say the same thing.

    It was a magic time.
  2. Beauregard

    Beauregard Well-Known Member

    Wow!!! That is an AMAZING story!!! Every bit as worth hearing as Ernie's. I love it! Wow! Three clone Fozzies! My illusion has been shattered...or, maybe they were stunt doubles? Wow! Uncle Deadly picking his nose! That is so going in a fanfiction next chance I get because it is seriously visual! Muppet Movie T-Shirts! Never seen them! I wonder what became of them? The hand!

    You, sir, are the luckiest man on earth! And from the effort you put in, I think you deserve it!

  3. Muppet Matt

    Muppet Matt Well-Known Member

    You can say that again!!! Did you "try on" Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Piggy or Rowlf? Did you get all the Muppeteers autographs?
  4. Barry Lee

    Barry Lee Well-Known Member

    Very cool.... Beau the tee-shirts were just for the production crew. I have seen a picture with Mel Brooks, Jim Henson, and Frank Oz wearing them.
  5. minor muppetz

    minor muppetz Well-Known Member

    So you do know about deleted scenes from the movie. Do you know about any others? Do you happen to know if that swamp creature appeared in the finale? At www.toughpigs.com, there is a multi-part article about an early draft of the script, and mentions a scene not in the film where Kermit greets some kind of swamp creature. I guess that's the scene you are refferring to.
  6. Tim

    Tim Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the kind words back. The whole experience was a little unerving. John Lovelady gave me a tour of the temporary Muppet Workshop set up in a trailer on lot. It was the first time I had seen the characters up close and with their "new legs". I didn't get to try on any of the special puppets, but John let me touch them a bit. Fozzie's fur felt like a shag carpet and his hat was startched so stiff it was almost hard. Kermit had thin wire inside his tiny fingers, and Piggy's snout felt bristley. Finally John gave in and let me put on Scooter complete with his "organic popcorn" tray. I returned the favor by picking off the last of the glitter from one of Crazy Harry's screening room explosions imbedded in his fuzzy fleece face. The details lost to televison were probably the most interesting. A naked Miss Piggy body, hands cut off and the strand of pearls actually sewn around the neck hole, or the original Droop puppet still in use at that time, the fur on his hands rubbed off right down to the backing. Fletcher Bird's eyes being nothing more than huge styrofoam balls, Scooter's jeans actually a small children's pair of pants and not even hemmed at the bottom, looking more like a ragged cut-off skirt. Crazy Harry's dynamite plunger just a wooden box with a dowel shoved down it, or the cracks along the bridge of Sweetum's large painted nose.

    Like I said-unnerving.

    I told John the only one I didn't recognize was the swamp creature. he lookied kind of like a charcoal colored Oscar with red or yellow eyes. Never saw him again, but I do have a copy of an early draft of the film where he is mentioned. (Also in the script, Kermit and the gang are much more interested in being rich than famous. They are always talking money, there are bags of cash in Lew Lord's office, and the last shot is actually to say that the Muppets themselves are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.)

    It wouldn't have been professional to ask for autographs (although people did!) but if I had been at the wrap party and had a bound copy of the final script I would have made sure everyone signed it. No luck, though. I'm just sorry they didn't let me bring a camera! I'v gotten most of the Muppeteers autographs as I wrote to them over the years, along with personal responses, photos, an original Carol Spinney drawing and a hand-written HA! Christmas card from Jim to me-so I could do with out asking for another signature on set.

    They day we shot the rainbow scene, they actually gave us time on the set to "play" with the puppets! Knowing it was a once in a lifetime experience for all of us, they kind of threw out the "no one but a Muppeteer can put that on" rule. Stacks of black packing cases were up on one of the platformed sets still standing (the log cabin, I think) while litterally piles of Muppets grouped by production lay about long tables looking like some bizare swap meet or garage sale. Althought once again the "special" puppets (Kermit, Fozzie, etc.) were "up and away" from us, sitting nicely on their stands, I can honestly say I had my hand in nearly 100 of my televison friends. Finding out how Bert's eyebrows moved, and seeing him and Ernie with BLUE not white eyes (like all the "Sesame " characters)! Accidently pulling off Beaker's head (he has the worst luck). Checking out Cookie Monster's "throat hole" and noticing how worn and torn the Koozbanians were along the bottom edge.

    The Emmit Otter characters were just beautiful, with incredible attention to detail. The Sesame Streeters seemed to be the best constructed, and most of the Muppet Show charcters seemed to look a lot cheaper in person since they were mostly paineted foam and not fabric. The Saturday Night Live charcters all felt like wet sponges from the morning's rehersal and Scred's eyelids cable control stuck a lot.

    I had a brief encounter with Kermit during the Mel Brooks scene. As the crew broke for lunch, and I was leaving the stage, I noticed something on a table in a dark corner. There was the frog, still wearing his dinner date suit (sans collar) STILL tied up, and tossed onto his puppet stand in a careless fashion, his head flopped off to one side like and old sock. Don't worry-even though I wasn't allowed to untie him, I did at least get him placed right on his stand so he wouldn't have a stiff neck for the afternoon's shoot. I felt a little better about that. I wandered around lot only to see what looked like a gigantic chicken covered with red feathers being moved from one of the prop departments. When I saw the film, I realized I had actually seen the giant Animal head still unfinished (no face), but by this time the unusual began to seem everyday.

    It wasn't until we got the rainbow scene shot a couple of weeks later that I finally got my chance with alone Kermit. On set the builders used a "portable workshop" created from abig black old fashioned baby buggy. Inside were all the tools need for quick repairs of the puppets. Tape, hot glue, needle and thread along with grooming and replacement items including a clear plastic sectioned box of eye pupils (black velveteen adhesive backed paper) cut into circles of all sizes-and a few "frog shaped" ones as well! On top of all this was a lifeless, legless Kermit. Though probably not the same one used in the shot, he was well-worn and very available to my greedy hands. I didn't care if they kicked me off the set and refused to pay me, I was putting him on (besides my work was already "in the can" so I couldn't be cut out of the film anyway!). For about 30 seconds, Kermit was "alive" again, and only an arm's length away, only it was my hand that was making him move, turn and do that "sour face" thing-and THAT was creepy! I noticed that no one was looking, and he and I were literally 3 feet from the opened stage door. It was dark out, and my car was parked right around the corner..himmm..how about the ultimate souvenier? No, Kermit belonged with his friends..but BOY that was tempting (so I took some spare chicken feathers I found in the buggy instead! hey-I didn't get a t-shirt!)

    I often times drive by the studio just for old time's sake, but the "Big Brother" house or the ghost of "The Tom Arnold Show" just doesn't seem to make it for me. At least they shot "Dinosaurs" there on the same stages we used, and the West Coast Creature shop was nearby for some time.

    It's still not the same.
  7. minor muppetz

    minor muppetz Well-Known Member

    Have you read the other thread about the behind-the-scenes info on the finale of The Muppet Movie? There were a few questions asked there that Was Once Ernie was asked but didn't know the answers to. Maybe you know.

    I saw that you joined here in 2003. If you had joined more recently, would your user name have been "Was Once Little Bird and Mama Tweedlebug"? :p
  8. Tim

    Tim Well-Known Member

    I think the answer to his question of who was the other "celebrity" is TIM BURTON! Very young and still animating at Disney (or even still at CalArts) at the time. We are trying to identify him from the stills we have, and will post when and if we do.

    And I wouldn't have used that name-too wierd a monogram!
  9. minor muppetz

    minor muppetz Well-Known Member

    Do you happen to know if there were any characters brought to the set who ended up not appearing in the finale due to a shortage of performers? Of course, I've read that most of the puppeteers who performed main Sesame Street characters only got to perform one character each, so I guess there must not have been a shortage of performers. I did notice a few full-body characters who weren't there. It does make a bit of sense that Sweetums and Mr. Snuffleupagus weren't there, but I wonder if there ws any consideration to include Sam the Robot, Thig, or The Mutations.

    Did you play with any of the monsters? I would especially be interested to know if you performed/ examined Behemoth (the monster who sang Under My Skin in the Vincent Price episode) or Gorgon Heap (the purple monster who tried to eat Kermit in that same episode). They have been seen eating other muppets, and sometimes those muppets have peeked their heads out of the monsters mouths, so I am wondering if it takes both hands of a performer to perform the mouths of those monsters, and another performer to perform the hands.
  10. Tim

    Tim Well-Known Member

    I think that everything that was shipped from New York or the UK was used in the film. Puppet historian Alan Cook was in the old New York shop at the time and tiold me "there were maybe 3 Muppets left in the whole place"-an exageration, but I don't think they would have shipped anything they wouldn't have used. There was one puppet used only in that film, and only for the finale however. They made up a puppet of the director James Frawley. You can see him right near Kermit at the end, and if you have the old People Magazine from that time, there is a great picture of Frawley holding the puppet.

    A for the monsters, I didn't get to check out those particular puppets since they were part of the "Big Guys Group" (as it was called on the set), and isolated from us, but I would imagine that they are both one person puppets, since there was no time to co-ordinate manipulation with anyone else (Even Sesame Street's "Two-Headed Monster" was done by one person.). It might be that due to Behemoth's size the peformer could wear the figure on his/her shoulders, and use both hands to move the Mouths, but I think that both if not just Gorgon are basicly just very large hand puppets.
  11. minor muppetz

    minor muppetz Well-Known Member

    Was Once Ernie mentioned in a thread once that he saw the James Frawlry Muppet but couldn't remember if he was in the finale or not. I remember seeing Kermit in front of Miss Piggy and Fozzie (I used to think he was between them, but on closer examination he is in front of the middle of them), and I know Rowlf was standing next to kermit, but I don't remember any unfamiliar characters standing close to Kermit. I'll have to check that out next time I watch that scene.

    The '3 Muppets in the whole place" line was probably an exaggeration. I've read that most of the characters created in the late-1950s/ early 1960s weren't there.

    I am assuming that you are refferring to the finale, and not elsewhere, like I was refferrng to. I was talking about scenes where they might need to move their hands, if they had another performer moving both arms (like how Frank Oz normally performed both of the Swedish Chef's hands while Jim Henson performed the body).
  12. Tim

    Tim Well-Known Member

    I'm sure everyone switched off at times. I mean, if they used my arm to block a scene for lighting, then anyone could jump in just to get a shot done.
  13. minor muppetz

    minor muppetz Well-Known Member

    Well, I just watched that scene two days ago (and I've started quite a few threads relating to The Muppet Movie since), and I looked for the james Frawlry Muppet, but couldn't find him. I kept replaying the scene, to see if I could see him near Kermit, but i didn't see him. I looked at everyone that was close to Kermit. Only recognizable Muppet Show characters.
  14. Tim

    Tim Well-Known Member

    I'll have to double-check the production shots I have, but if I remember, the puppet is just to the left and slightly behind the group of major Muppet characters. The puppet was lighter in color, and might be obscured by the rainbow scrim. Also, the camera move is pretty fast.
  15. Was Once Ernie

    Was Once Ernie Well-Known Member

    You know, I have a sneaking suspicion that some people didn't hold their puppets up for every take. The girl who had Oscar was right behind me and I can't see Oscar in any of the pictures. Maybe "Jim Frawley" didn't make the take that was actually used.

  16. Tim

    Tim Well-Known Member

    I know I have (somewhere) one other production shot probably not taken turing an actual take, that I'm sure shows the puppet right near Kermit and th egang. A couple of more eBay auctions, and maybe I will unearth it!
  17. Fozzie Bear

    Fozzie Bear Well-Known Member

    That had to be great fun working on that set. Did you and WasOnceErnie meet then, or only here at the boards?
  18. Tim

    Tim Well-Known Member

    Unfortunately, I only know "Ernie" online :(

    I did some checking, anf the Jim Frawley puppet is actually down fron with the other major Muppets, just to the left of Sam Eagle, and directly in front of Bobby Benson' Babies. I'd post the photo, but it's one of those in-house copyright thngs.
  19. minor muppetz

    minor muppetz Well-Known Member

    You said that you were on the set when the movie screening room scenes were being filmed. I've noticed that the first take in that room was a long take, with the camera moving in one take and many characters from the same performers talking at different times. I doubt that there would have been time for the performers to take their hands out of their characters and swithc characters before they had to speak (and it didn't look to me like any puppets were just laying there without performers operating them at any time). So my question is, do you remember if the dialogue for that scene was pre-recorded or if all performers performed the voices live on the set and the proper performers looped the voices later?
  20. Tim

    Tim Well-Known Member

    When Lynn Klugman walked me down to the set from the Muppet office, she had fully intended to introduce me to Jim, and than get back to work, leaving me on the stage. When we came up on the screening room set, we found everyone pressed into service under the scaled-down chairs each working a characters. We came up on Michael Frith standing nearby and when Lynn told me "Jim's under there somewhere..." Michael responded "EVERYONE'S underthere somewhere!"

    For that shot, where Doglion tears out the seat, Muppeteers performed the most dominant of the their own characters, while the rest were lipsynced to pre-recorded dialog. Frank Oz for example was doing Piggy and his other characters all had recordings.

    One funny thing, for the next shot, where Jim has Kermit enter Frank again was doing Piggy, but Sam had the line "Kermit..does this film have socially redeming values?". (That was the first time I ever actually saw Jim Henson in person-DOING Kermit live!) Frank pre-recorded that line half a dozen ways until they got one thy liked. I think it was a one-take (maybe two), but Kermit comes down the aisle, and does his exchange with Sam while the stage hands are off camera throwing popcorn and paper airplanes into the shot. Sure enough, one the planes gets caught in Sam's mounted wing during the take, and whoever was puppeteering Sam had him react. Kermit does his line "I dearly hope so Sam." then ad-libs "Sorry about that." and continues on with Piggy who was extra hyper since they knew they just struck gold. The director Jim Frawley litterally spun around on his heels at that moment knowing they got lightning in a bottle. At post, Frank had to loop that same line again, only adding a "gasp" to Sam's reaction to the plane.

    A lot of work for one maginc moment.

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