Coverage of Fran Brill and Zoe in Chicago, Part 1

Danny Beckwith – The weekend of November 13-14th (Note – The Programs for Saturday and Sunday were switched.) was a very memorable one in Chicago. The Gene Siskel Film Center began its Jim Henson retrospective with two great programs and one (or should I say two?) very special guest.

Here is how the Gene Siskel Film Center billed the first event:

Fran Brill and Zoe in person!

Jim Henson & Friends:
Inside the Sesame Street Vault
Various dates, Various directors, USA, 83 min.

This super-entertaining program highlights the contributions of Jim Henson and his early Sesame Street collaborators, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, and Caroll Spinney. In addition to old favorites, there are some extremely rare clips from specials and guest appearances on other television programs. Beta SP video.
–description courtesy of the Jim Henson Legacy

Emmy Award-winning puppeteer, actress, and voice-over performer Fran Brill will host the program on Sunday, November 14, accompanied by Zoe, her signature Muppet character.

Barbara Scharres, the Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, took to the podium at 7:30pm. She began by introducing Fran Brill and listing her credentials from her amazing body of work. It was a wonderful introduction for a wonderful lady.

Fran Brill was simply glowing as she approached the podium to introduce herself and what the audience was about to see. She briefly gave some context to Sesame Street and setting up the first clip that would allow fans to get a glimpse of Sesame’s humble beginnings.

1969 – “The Ed Sullivan Show”

Clip was in color at screening.

Kermit and Grover appeared six months after the first season off Sesame Street aired. Kermit is playing a piano and singing, “What kind of Fool Am I?” Grover enters and does his classic, “Hey, froggy!” and slap. Kermit will not let Grover sing, so instead Grover pulls out a banjo. Finally, after an exasperated frog has had enough of Grover’s antics and calling Grover a “furry dumb dumb,” Kermit lets him sing. Grover calls in more Muppet monsters to help.

Fran came back up to the podium while the audience laughed. Commenting on how we were laughing at the odd amount of time Ed Sullivan shook Jim’s hand. She explained that Jim and Frank were probably the funniest duo of puppeteers, with Frank being the catalyst. She mentioned that Jim and Frank were great on set, but they didn’t really socialize outside of it.

“The Dick Cavett Show”
Ernie and Bert start off trying to look and act cool for the show. Ernie has convinced Bert that in Hollywood, everyone talks and looks a certain way, much to Bert’s reluctance. Dick Cavett enters and Bert begins talk in a very ridiculous fashion, using the same words that Kermit did as an agent in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Ernie, meanwhile, is quiet and slowly taking off the silly clothes. Dick wonders what is going on, and Ernie, much to Bert’s chagrin, looks quite normal.

Grover gets to help Dick with the lead in to the commercial. Grover, who can’t seem to see to cue cards, has the cue card man bring them closer. Even though they are close, Dick wonders why Grover can’t read them. Grover admits he can’t read. Dick helps him successfully make the lead in. Oscar the Grouch also gets to help with a lead in. Oscar just wanted to get to the trash on the show and wonders where the commercials are.

Dick then has a conversation with Carroll Spinney, still in his Big Bird legs, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson. Dick wonders if Carroll only got the job as Big Bird because of his legs. Jim then explains about Anything Muppets and Jim, Frank, and Jerry perform the song, “My Favorite Letter P.” (Available on This clip actually had a side-by-side comparison of the recorded segment and the live performance.

1970 – “The Flip Wilson Show”
Big Bird makes an appearance as a guest star and performs the song “ABC-DEF-GHI” with Flip Wilson.

1970 – Bob Hope Christmas Special
Big Bird makes an appearance and of course makes a crack at Bob’s nose. Bob wonders what kind of birds are Big Bird’s parents and what that makes Big Bird. Big responds with, “A chicken with a gland problem.”

1985 – Night of 100 Stars
Big Bird sings a song with Carol Channing.

1973 – “Julie on Sesame Street”
Julie Andrews did special with the Sesame Street characters. It was filmed in London and you could tell that a replica set because of the raised curbs. The real set did not have real curbs, they were painted on. Highlights include Kermit and Julie singing “Bein’ Green” and Biff, Ernie, Bert, and Julie performing hilarious versions of “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls, with a great ending, and “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity with Cookie Monster almost devouring Julie.

Hollywood Squares
Big Bird and Oscar both appear as the secret square, though at different times. Someone asks what kind of bird he is and Big responds with, “I’m a Lark!”

“What’s My Line”
Big Bird appears as a guest.

“Family Food” with Richard Dawson
The Hungry family from Twin Forks, South Dakota appears on the show. (Available on YouTube.)

1984 – “Out to Lunch”
The Electric Company and Sesame Street take over ABC while the news anchors are out to lunch. The special included Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman, and Carol Burnett (who also happened to be on lunch break). This contained a great Grover and Kermit sketch. Grover unwittingly is supposed to jump the Grand Canyon, as Grover Knover, on a motorcycle and turns it around on Kermit, who ends up plummeting to the bottom. It also included The Nighty Night Show where Cookie Monster plays Johnny Carson and Guy Smiley plays Ed McMahon.

1975 – “Johnny Carson”
Kermit and Jim Henson as guests.

1976 – “The Dinah Shore Show”
Jim and Frank are guests. Dinah asks if Frank is funny and Jim responds with, “As a man, he’s not that funny.” Jim recognizes though that Frank is a hilarious puppeteer. Jim then brings out Kermit and they chat. Frank brings out Grover and they discuss the Grover and Kermit relationship with the classic, “Hey froggy!” and slap to Kermit’s back. Kermit also says it’s his 21st birthday and Grover did not get him anything. Grover asks Kermit what he wants and it can be anything. Kermit asks for Grover not to slap him on the back anymore. Grover responds with that is a very big request!

Fran then took to the podium again and explained the idea of Muppet inserts on Sesame Street. She said that they would try to film four inserts in one day, which was not a lot. Especially with Frank being somewhat of a perfectionist, they could do many takes, taking up a lot of time. And when Frank said it was the “Do or Die” take, that meant the absolutely last one. What followed was a series of classic inserts.

Episode #0279 – “Fish in the Cowboy Hat” Ernie and Bert
Episode #0494 – “Beat the Time” Cookie Monster, Guy Smiley
Episode #3594 – “Oklahoma!” Kermit, Forgetful Jones
The Sesame Street Special – Robert MacNeil, Kermit as an attorney, and Cookie Monster
Episode #2538 – “Captain Vegetable” Eddie, Andy, Captain Vegetable
Episode #2797 – “Exercise” – Betty Lou, Grover, four Anything Muppets
This clip showed behind the scenes footage of Fran Brill and Richard Hunt puppeteering. Richard was doing Grover.
Exercise #2773 – “The Honker-Duckie-Dinger Jamboree” Ernie, Honkers, Dingers
The clip also featured behind the scenes footage of the puppeteers.

1976 – “Mike Douglas Show”

Kermit sings a “new” song for the time, “A Song From Kermit.” Dom DeLuise also appeared on the show. After Kermit’s song, Dom promptly wipes Kermit’s mouth clean with a handkerchief and then tickles him. He also tries to give Kermit some water while the end credits are scrolling.

After the compilation of videos finished, Fran came back up for a Q&A session. She explained how she got started with Jim Henson while he was looking for puppeteers for the Ed Sullivan Show Christmas Special and how she and Richard Hunt went through training together. She answered a question about the difference between Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, and how the characters –with the exception of Kermit – did not cross over shows. She explained Zoe’s origins and then much to everyone’s excitement, took out Zoe!

Zoe answered some questions as well, with the help of Fran. After some more Q&A, Barbara Scharres informed the audience that Fran would be out in the lobby to take pictures and cut the cake!

Yes, there was a reception with cake afterwards hosted by the Chicago Reader! But not just any cake. A three-tiered cake adorned with Sesame Street characters including Grover, Ernie, Bert, Oscar, Big Bird, Count von Count, Elmo, and Cookie Monster. It was delicious. Oh yes, and there was sparkling wine.

Fran and Zoe cut the cake, with a little help. Zoe mentioned her favorite flavor of cake was chocolate and hoped the first layer was chocolate (which was actually the last layer!). After cutting the cake, Fran and Zoe took pictures and chatted with anyone who was still around, including Ryan and myself.

It was a great night lasting an impressive four hours. Fran Brill was an extraordinary speaker with an astonishing story and talent. But that was not the end of the wonderful world of Fran Brill – the fun would continue the next day!

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

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