Today on The Muppet Mindset, we have a very special interview with our good friend Louis Henry Mitchell. Louis works as the Associate Design Director of Special Projects for Sesame Street. We got into contact with Louis through his thread on Muppet Central Forum discussing his close friendship with Kevin Clash (Elmo). He talks about this and much, much more in his interview, so let’s get started, shall we?
RYAN: First off, Louis, I have to say that it’s great to have you here for an interview. You hold the honor of being our first person from Sesame Workshop to be interviewed on the blog. Hopefully not our last, though!
LOUIS: It is my absolute pleasure. I like what you’ve done with your website and I’m grateful for the fans who keep The Muppets SO alive and well. I consider myself among the biggest of Muppet fans and we are like a Tribe at this point- especially because of the long period of time that the classic Muppets (Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, etc.) have not been in the limelight as much as we would like. Thank goodness this is changing!
RYAN: Getting started, your title in Sesame Workshop is “Design Director of Special Projects.” What exactly does that job entail?
LOUIS: The actual title is Associate Design Director of Special Projects. The reason it is so non-descript is because over the years I have done SO many different projects beyond my original job title of Character Designer, and then Senior Character Designer, that they didn’t know what to call me when they wanted to promote me. What I do is review product- primarily from Universal Studios, Japan, but I also look at other products- domestic and international- when the other designers need a hand and I am not too busy. I look at reflective artwork, sculpture and plush items. I have art directed walk-around costumes (like the ones at Sesame Place and the Sesame Live shows) and I design and co-sculpt the Sesame Street balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (one of my favorite parts of the job!!). I didn’t do the last balloon, Abby Cadabby, because a dear friend of mine and co-worker, Janis Beauchamp, was doing practically all of the work on Abby and I thought it was only fair that she designed the Abby balloon for Macy’s. She had done the Kermit balloon when she worked at Henson so I knew I could assign Abby’s balloon to her and it would come out great. I also designed the Sesame Street 35th Anniversary float- the one featuring the most famous Brownstone building in the world in an exploded perspective. That was a particularly challenging assignment that turned out great in the end. Director of still photography- which includes designing all the new DVD covers- is another one of my hats. Whenever you see Sesame Street Muppets in a still photo the odds are it is one of my shots. Another hat is as storyboard artist for Sesame Street and its video outreach programs- which includes influencing the Sesame Street AM (Anything Muppet) assembly for particular characters. The only Sesame Street Muppet I actually assisted in designing is Kami, the South African HIV Positive Muppet- another challenging story that ended very well- I hope to do a second interview with you so I can tell some of these stories!! I do SO many other things like realistically drawn gift portraits of employees and agents, etc., with their favorite Sesame Street Muppets to thank them for their service or to say bon voyage if they are leaving us. When our President and CEO, Gary Knell, made 5 years as our leader I was asked to draw him with Snuffy- I did a full color illustration of Gary as a knight in shining armor riding Snuffy as he was bucking backwards. It was SO fun to do. There are other things I do- all kinds of special projects like designing the Adler Planetarium Full-Dome show which also had a Chinese version I had to design almost from scratch… Our new version of The Electric Company needed illustrated versions of the human cast for children’s books and graphic novels and I did those designs… I help train artists all over the world to create art for Sesame Street… I create original artwork myself for licensing and merchandising… it goes on and on and I have to admit… it is nothing but FUN!!! I haven’t “worked” in years!
RYAN: When and how did you get involved/hired at Sesame Workshop?
LOUIS: To be honest it started back in 1966- when I was 6 years old. I saw The Muppets on The Ed Sullivan Show when one night Jim Henson came out and still had a Muppet on his hand- even though I didn’t know who he really was it was THEN that I realized that a MAN was doing the Muppets. When you’re a kid you don’t usually think about how puppet shows and cartoons are done. You just enjoy them. Jim Henson changed my life when he revealed himself as the puppeteer behind my favorite puppets. Then 3 years later I saw “The Muppets on Puppets” on PBS. Because of the music and performance I just went NUTS- a whole WONDERWORLD opened up for me then and I started drawing more and writing stories- even snuck into the basement to teach myself how to play the piano so I could write music for my stories! (And I was FIERCELY afraid of that basement at 6 years old! But Jim Henson inspired me beyond that fear- all I wanted was to be creative like him!!!). Not to make this TOO long- that was when I was HOOKED and developed the desire to work for him. I wanted the Classic Muppets- but over the years he seemed to consider Sesame Street his most important work. So the dream became to work on Sesame Street. I had no idea how I was going to attain this! I just KNEW I had to find a way. Beating some serious odds and some discouragement that my Mom helped me beat with her astounding encouragement I offered my work to The Muppets and after several tries I was called in by a man named Jim Mahon (my teacher and mentor for drawing Muppets). He was the character designer and art director at that time and he pretty much hired me on the spot after we met for the interview. That was back in 1992. In 2000 they called me while I was working as an artist for MTV and I was hired into his position. I have been promoted since then to my current position. I am very grateful to Jim Mahon!!
RYAN: I got into contact with you through your thread on Muppet Central Forum about your friendship with Kevin Clash. What can you tell us about your friendship with Kevin? What about just Kevin in general?
LOUIS: Kevin Clash is among the most beautiful and generous people I have met in my life. Part of the discouragement I received back when I was dreaming of working on Sesame Street was that they didn’t hire black people at Sesame Street (from a college instructor no less)- a really horrendous lie. Being African-American I had been discouraged about becoming an artist because of my skin color but that one really hurt. I was 19 when I was told this and believed it. My Mom asked if that teacher worked at Sesame. When I said “no” she asked me why I was listening to him! Years later a day or two after I was hired as a freelancer I decided to devour All of the video I could find on Muppets at The Museum of Television and Radio, as it was known at that time. While watching “The Jim Henson Hour: The Secrets Of The Muppets” I saw, at the very end of the Muppeteer lineup, this young African-American man with Leon, the Muppet dragon. Jim Henson said his name was Kevin Clash… I had not heard of him until then- but after doing some research I realized he was one of my favorite performers!!! Elmo, Baby Sinclair, Splinter from TMNT 1 and 2… I was BLOWN AWAY!! The lie about not hiring Black people was revealed even further than me actually being hired. I wrote to Kevin telling him how proud I was of his accomplishments. I told him my story in that letter and sent it to Henson’s NYC headquarters. Not long after that I got home from picking up my son from school and found a message on my phone. It was KEVIN CLASH!! He thanked me for the letter and said he wanted to meet me. He invited me to the studio but needed a couple of weeks to put it together because he had just become a father. This gave me time to create a congratulatory gift for him. I did a painting of Baby Sinclair with a word balloon saying, “Congratulations, Kevin! Now YOU’RE not the Momma!”. The day I showed up at the Set of Sesame Street to meet him it was just MAGIC! When I gave him the gift he exploded with joy and ran away with it! He showed it to everyone on set and really was SO happy with it. We became instant friends and we now measure the length of our friendship by the age of his beautiful daughter who will be 17 this year. That visit to the set also presented another challenge that I will share if we do another interview but it, too, ended so well! I am REALLY pitching for a part 2 of this interview, aren’t I!!!
Kevin is the reason I do storyboards for Sesame Street now. Whenever he directs an episode of Sesame Street or one of the other productions for outreach, etc., I do virtually all of his storyboards. We have a GREAT time!! One of the best parts is when he is reading the script out-loud thinking about how he wants to stage something. He will read it in character! Suddenly Elmo appears (in voice only) and I just can’t get enough of that! And, yes, I have a couple of great stories to tell about working with him in part 2 of this interview (I hope, I hope!). I am trying not to be TOO LONG in this interview. I have been working with Sesame and Kevin for the whole 17 years and So much has happened! It is just WONDERFUL!!!
LOUIS: I won’t reveal anything! It is part of the joy and surprise to see what we are doing without any “spoilers”. It is too precious to me and I know my own joy when I read or see something we are working on for the first time! FINALLY I will keep my answer short!
RYAN: Will Ernie and Bert reappear in their puppet forms this season? Or will they stay clay?
LOUIS: “The Adventure of Bert and Ernie” is not a replacement of the classic duo- it started out as an international production but was SO well received that we decided to air it on the domestic production. I was the first art director on this production and want to just say it was our producer, the late Arlene Sherman, who not only insisted I be the art director but is the most important reason I am now director of special projects. It was such a departure from the norm and she wanted me to guide it through. It has since left my hands but I am grateful to Arlene for allowing me to get it started. She was a brilliant and gifted woman.
By the way, Jim Henson would have been the champion of experimenting with Bert and Ernie this way. He tried ALL kinds of art forms and encouraged his staff to INNOVATE everywhere they saw a genuine opportunity to evolve the Muppets!
RYAN: Are you involved at all with the exciting release of the 40th Anniversary 2-Disc DVD set coming out the same day as the season premiere?
LOUIS: I was originally to design the cover and do the photography direction. The Home Video department had an idea they wanted to try so I did not do the design or photography direction. It is going to be a fan’s DREAM!!! I will not spoil this either but NO ONE who loves Sesame Street will want to miss this!!! There are special features that will absolutely BLOW EVERYONE AWAY!!!
RYAN: Who’s your favorite Muppet character? Have you had the pleasure of watching them perform?
LOUIS: If you could see my office at Sesame Workshop you would NOT have to ask me who my favorite Muppet character- favorite character PERIOD- is. In my office, or “Playroom” as I like to call it- are at least 300 Cookie Monster items! I adore him!!! And it’s not because he is blue or loves cookies. I aspire to be like him in one area of life- as much as he LOVES cookies he love his friends even more and would give his very last cookie away! I love what I do but I will NEVER put this before my family and friends. You don’t have to step on or neglect others in pursuit of what you truly and passionately love. He represents this in such a wonderful way!
Not only have I had the pleasure of watching him being performed on set but I have seen both David Rudman, Cookie’s current performer AND Frank Oz, his original performer, bring Cookie to life!! Great story about Frank Oz to tell if the opportunity presents itself. (Shameless!!) I truly am trying not to make this too long.
RYAN: You mentioned in your thread that you appear in an episode of Sesame Street this season. What can you tell us about this?
LOUIS: Not this season. I was in 2 episodes. The one where Elmo wanted a pet dinosaur and Snuffy helped him out in season 37, I believe, and the season 38 opener when Elmo and Tina Fey were “Bookeneers”. It is always SO great to see celebrities come to the set. They forget All about who they are and become “children” gasping and sighing… “Is that really Mr. Hoopers Store?” “Wow! It’s the Brownstone!!” “Oh, My Goodness!! It’s ELMO!!” Last season Adam Sandler walked all the way across the set and came straight up to me to introduce himself. I felt pretty special- then I realized why he passed everyone else to shake my hand- it was because I had my GIANT Cookie Monster I.D. badge holder on. He may have thought I was Cookie’s performer!. It was still really nice, though. Even recently when First Lady Michelle Obama was on set she was SO enamored with the experience and she did a fantastic job acting with Elmo!!
RYAN: What have been your favorite projects to work on within Sesame Workshop? I’m sure there are tons.
LOUIS: My absolutely favorite part of this is that it NEVER feels like work! At the top of the list of favorite things to do is working so closely with my friend Kevin Clash. It is just like hanging out with my brother drawing and eating the BEST food… especially when he makes his famous crabcakes!!! But we just have a great time and feed off each other in pursuit of keeping the Jim Henson legacy high up where it belongs. I am humbled by being sought after by Kevin and so many others to do my part of holding up Mr. Henson’s legacy. Doing storyboards is great. Designing the Adler Planetarium Project was So great. When I saw my name spread across the dome so big and wide- there are just no words! The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons and float- the products from Japan- it is all one gigantic ball of joy and I mean it. Of course as with any business there are challenges and some disappointments but the rewards are beyond measure and MORE than male up for anything that I am challenged with. I also work with the most beautiful team of people in the Creative Services department.
A special project was when Kevin called me and asked me to do chapter illustrations for his book, “My Life As A Furry Red Monster”. Then he asked me to re-design the cover and art direct the photo-shoot for it. It was a blast!
But when I read what he said to me in his acknowledgments… wow!
RYAN: Do you have a favorite episode of Sesame Street—either recent or classic? What about a favorite sketch or song?
LOUIS: On a happy note one of my favorite songs is “Rubber Duckie”. I do a fair impersonation of Ernie and I sing that song often. I think you can guess my favorite Sesame Street song of ALL time, though… ‘C Is For COOKIE”! I have it on my iPod!
On a sad note, my favorite episode is when Sesame Street addressed death. When Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, died the courageous geniuses at Sesame decided to write it into the show. It is my favorite episode because of Carroll Spinney’s breathtaking performance of Big Bird. You saw him go from happy and excited to confused to sad to angry… just every emotion. But you have to remember that Big Bird is built with a neutral expression in his face that does not ever change. But you still see All the emotions I just mentioned when Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper is not ever coming back. Search this out. Go back and see what true genius is and how much love goes into producing Sesame Street- not just in this episode but in them ALL! I was not on the staff when they produced this- it was 10 years earlier from when I joined- but it is among the most precious parts of why I am honored to now be part of the Sesame family.
RYAN: What special appearances and fan “goodies” can we expect to see this season on the show?
LOUIS: Again, I won’t give anything away. This is by choice because of how much fun it is to see things without warning. Just don’t miss an episode!!
RYAN: Do you have good relationships with any other Muppet performers? I’ve always imagined Sesame Workshop as a close-knit family where everyone messes around with everyone else.
LOUIS: The performers are like… no- not like… they ARE family to each other. I enjoy being among them in the Muppet room where they all congregate while waiting to be called on set. I am one of the few non-performers allowed to leave my stuff in the Muppet room when I have to be on set. They treat me like family as well and I get to do special things for them. When Marty Robinson and Annie Evans, one of the writers, got married Kevin Clash hired me to do a wedding gift portrait for them. It was TOO fun to do. He wanted it to be a family portrait so I did a portrait of Marty and Annie along with Marty’s characters Telly Monster, Slimey The Worm, Snuffy and one of the Yip Yip Martians.
Fran Brill, who does Zoe and Prairie Dawn (among others) is an email-pal of mine. She sends me the greatest stuff she finds on the internet- any unusual artwork- both Muppet and Non-Muppet related. Abby Cadabby’s performer, Leslie Carerra-Rudolph is also a dear friend and fellow teacher- she is incredibly inspiring.
I have to say, though, my heart is filled SO much by Carroll Spinney! Still performing Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch from day one he is one of the sweetest and nicest people on earth! I was asked by Gary Knell to do a piece of gift art for Carroll to celebrate his 70th birthday. I illustrated Big Bird holding him in his arms saying “My Hero”, and Oscar on the side in his trash can saying, “My Zero!” When Carroll won a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award I was asked to do another gift for him. I illustrated Carroll as the golden Emmy Award but when you looked at the globe he was holding it was actually Big Bird’s head and the base was Oscar’s garbage can lid with Oscar’s eyes peeking out. Carroll Spinney is an incredible artist in his own right! He even did the portrait of Mr. Hooper that hangs in Big Bird’s nest area. It was part of the episode when Mr. Hooper died. He did all the cast caricatures in the same style for that show.
Carroll told me something that I will never forget. He said I am the only other artist hanging in his home beside himself. That touched me beyond measure.
RYAN: Can you reveal any sort of Sesame Street special projects coming soon that fans of the show may not know about?
LOUIS: You know what I’m going to say, right?
There are actually SO many projects and our brilliant marketing department will make sure the public knows all about them. I just HATE spoilers. If I get another chance I will explain why.
Well… Ok- the reason why is because I was told about a scene in a movie once by a friend after I told him not to spoil it for me. He just couldn’t resist and promised it would not spoil the scene. It did and I promised I would never become a Spoiler.
RYAN: What’s it like to work so closely with the performers of some of the most beloved characters in television? You get to see the men and women behind Elmo, Big Bird, Oscar, Grover, Cookie Monster, Abby Cadabby, and so much more so very much—that’s like a wonderful dream for most Muppet fans, myself included.
LOUIS: Ryan, there are no words adequate enough. I pretty much answered this question earlier- but I will add this. I am a HUGE fan myself and have been since I was a young child. I am one of the people with international authority over the handling and treatment of the Sesame Street Muppets after being told I would NEVER work at Sesame Street. I had a dream that many people tried to steal from me and kill. Some of the greatest life lessons I received are attached to Jim Henson. Ignore the naysayers! Reject the dream stealers! When someone says that you can’t do something it really means that THEY cannot do it! I am living BEYOND my dreams and it was because I never let go of them. I did learn that sometimes pursuing your dreams will reveal the TRUE dream deeper in you- believe it or not my dream of working on Sesame Street revealed what my TRUE dream is. I don’t mean tease here but I am about to reveal what that dream is as I have been working on it for MANY years and it is about ready to launch. I promise to contact you with the link to it when the time is right.
Do not get me wrong… Working at Sesame Street is still a DREAM COME TRUE!!! But the experience is SO rewarding that it revealed to me something that will allow me to share the dream in a bigger and better way and help others fulfill their own dreams. I can at least let you know it is a type of school. I just don’t want to reveal it just yet. I am almost done with the website and it will be revealed very soon! You will be among the first to know.
RYAN: Well, that’s all of the questions I have. Do you have any questions for The Muppet Mindset? (Though I don’t know why you would.)
RYAN: I think we can DEFINITELY arrange that!
Louis, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview with us. Your stories and experiences are so incredible, and I can’t wait to find out more in part 2 of our interview!
LOUIS: It is not time out of my busy schedule. I consider it part of my mission at Sesame Workshop to assist in all legitimate fan-based resources. Thank you for this great opportunity. It was really FUN!!
Another HUGE thank you to our good friend Louis Henry Mitchell for joining us for an interview today. Keep an eye on The Muppet Mindset for part 2 of our interview with Louis coming soon!
For more information on what is happening at Sesame Workshop: http://www.sesameworkshop.org