This past summer, I found out that Muppet performer and star of Broadway and television John Tartaglia would be performing in Disney’s Aladdin musical in St. Louis, only a few hours away from me. Obviously I booked tickets right away. I got in touch with John (thanks to the wonderful folks from Being Elmo) and got to meet with him before the show. He was incredible. So friendly and personable and open and funny. He was endlessly complimentary, humble, and charming. It took a few months after that for us to finally get an interview together, but we did it and, I think, it’s fantastic. It will be presented in two parts, so please enjoy Part 1 of my interview with my friend John Tartaglia.
Interview with Muppet Performer John Tartaglia
Conducted by Ryan Dosier
RYAN: John, welcome to The Muppet Mindset! Make yourself at home. Can I offer you anything? Food? Drink? Polka penguin?
JOHN: A nice wine would be nice. I find a Merlot goes lovely with penguin polka dancing.
RYAN: How did you first get interested in puppetry and the Muppets?
JOHN: Well, according to my mother I was Sesame Street obsessed as a preschooler. But, I remember getting the Muppet bug when I accidentally ended up watching Fraggle Rock on an HBO free weekend. It was like I had found the secret of life. I was entranced and my poor family had to endear a complete Fraggle obsession for quite awhile. That led to The Muppet Show and Labyrinth and Dark Crystal, etc. on home video and the rest is history. It was a good time for Muppet home videos. When I was 11 or so I wrote to Jim Henson and said how much I loved him and the Muppets and how my dream was to graduate high school and work as a Muppeteer in New York City. I didn’t hear back right away, in fact it was almost a year later when I sat down to write him another letter. I just figured he never got the first one, and no lie, that very day as I was writing him again, a knock came at the door and it was the postman (or post lady… I don’t remember but wanted to be PC) with a package for me from The Jim Henson Company! Inside was a gorgeous 8×10 Jim had made out to me and a letter from his assistant. It was amazing and I’m pretty sure I peed myself from excitement. As one does. What’s incredible is that as I’m typing this I’m sitting here staring at a picture of Jim here on the Jim Henson Company lot. It never is lost on me how lucky I am.
RYAN: What are some of your favorite moments from the set of Sesame Street?
JOHN: I think the unexpected moments. The ad-libs, the bloopers–we have a lot of em! And honestly the tender moments too–the Muppets have always had this way of making a touching scene extra touching. I just love those. I’m a sucker for moments like “Just One Person” or “Keep Christmas with You.” But honestly, as cliche as it sounds–my favorite moments are with the cast and crew. We really are a wonderful family–dysfunctional and bizarre sometimes, but a family. Seeing Frankie Biondo (our lead cameraman who’s been there since season one!) is something I look forward to every day. He’s one of a kind and I love him! A very special moment happened recently. A few years ago, an award was created called the Richard Hunt spirit award–it’s an award given by the cast and crew at our wrap party to someone that everyone feels continues the humor and spirit of Richard on set. Richard was known for keeping everyone laughing and motivated and in the grind of shooting a daily television series, sometimes that’s needed! Anyway, this season I was the recipient of it, and as this was my first season back full time for many years, I was shocked and truly honored. I broke down and cried actually. It’s my favorite award I’ve ever received above all others. I really mean that.
RYAN: Who is your favorite Sesame Street character and why?
JOHN: Oy, that’s a hard one! It changes all the time as the years go on and I feel like I’m a wembler about it, but most usually it’s Grover. Again, he can be hilarious but also very touching. Frank just had this ability to make you giggle uncontrollably on the set whenever he was in performing Grover. And then, if he was doing one of the talks with the kids, he could be so sweet and touching. So, for now anyway, it’s Grover!
RYAN: What is your favorite episode of The Muppet Show?
JOHN: That’s very hard to say as there are so many incredible ones. The funny thing is when I first got into Muppets they weren’t on TV anymore and were only on a home video in the best of compilations so I really didn’t know which show each skit belonged in! I still will watch the full season sets (where is season 4 and 5 Disney?!?!?!) and I’ll get excited–like–“wait–that’s from THAT episode?!?!”
I will say that one of my all time favorite moments that I think perfectly encapsulates Jim’s humor and awareness of the world around him is The Muppet Show version of “For What It’s Worth.” It’s gorgeous in the puppetry and singing and the cinematography, but still has a message tainted with humor. I just love it. And Jerry, as always, is heart breaking and sounds incredible.
RYAN: What about your favorite character from The Muppet Show universe?
JOHN: Without a doubt it’s between Janice and The Swedish Chef. Always hard to decide, but I’ll tell you this–When we did the concert at Carnegie Hall they basically had to (nicely) ask me to stop putting on the Janice puppet. Love her.
RYAN: You’ve expressed your love of Fraggle Rock numerous times. Would you like to talk a little bit about the show? It’s your favorite Henson production, isn’t it?
JOHN: Well, I think people think I’m a little overdramatic when I say this, but I really do think it’s one of the best television series ever made, not to mention one of the best children’s series. To me, it’s everything a quality show for kids should be. And as an adult revisiting it, it’s amazingly profound. To think that they were never afraid to deal with death and loss and re-incarnation and spirituality–I mean, I can tell you as someone who creates children’s television today, that’s just not the norm. And yet, really, it should be. On a more Muppet-y level, I think it’s some of the best puppetry ever done by the Muppets up to that point- both from a performance and design level. You had Steve and Jerry and Dave and Karen and Richard and Kathy and that amazing Toronto team that really were on a high and at their best. When you talk to Karen Prell or the late great Jerry Nelson, they oftentimes said it was something they’re so proud of. It was just amazing. For me, I strive to someday create something that has impacted the world anywhere near as positively as that show has. I’m convinced Fraggle Rock is greatly responsible for shaping the lives of those of us who watched it in an important and positive way. Oh, and maybe it stopped war and stuff, so that’s good.
RYAN: I ask about all of these Henson realms because they were all brought together again–by you–for Jim Henson’s Musical World at Carengie Hall earlier this year. Can you talk a little bit about how this show came about and what your involvement in it was like?
JOHN: It was magical from the start, really. I had been incredibly lucky to have performed three times before with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall. The Pops are the best orchestra ever and Carnegie Hall is the most amazing concert hall in the world, so it was never lost on me how special those opportunities were. I had the idea one day of doing some sort of musical tribute for Jim and his worlds with the Pops at Carnegie Hall. When I pitched the NY Pops the idea they flipped as it turns out they’re all huge Muppet fans as well. The fantastic Craig Shemin joined on board to write the script, I directed, The Jim Henson Legacy produced along with the Pops and we were on our way. I’m beyond proud of it–I think because I’m such a fan at heart, I wanted to create the concert that I’d been wishing would happen for so many years. Muppet Family Christmas was, and still is my favorite Muppet special and I think it’s because of all of Jim’s worlds up to that point being together and celebrating. It felt like this was a chance to do the same for Jim. And I can’t gush enough about Bonnie Erickson and Arthur Novel and all at the Legacy and Craig and everyone at the NY Pops and Carnegie Hall and all three companies and all of the performers–everyone working together to make it happen–it was very Muppety in that way!
RYAN: What was the most challenging aspect of making this show–with characters owned by three different companies–happen?
JOHN: Well, it took two years to make it happen–as you can imagine, it was a LOT of logistics to work out now that all of Jim’s worlds and properties are overseen by three different companies. The amazing thing was everyone was so excited about it and really all jumped in whole heartedly to play. So many of the folks running those companies now either knew Jim personally or grew up with the characters and it wasn’t lost on anyone involved that this gathering of worlds hadn’t happened in over 22 years. Sadly, the last time they were all together was for The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. So, we felt a great weight and responsibility because of that.
The other hard part was just deciding what to include and what we just didn’t have time for. That really was hardest part–I mean, we wanted to do everything! And its incredible when you sit with the massive list of songs written for all of those television series and movies and specials and albums that Jim created. It just blows your mind how much material exists. When we were putting the show together there were definitely a few times things looked shaky or like they’d fall through and I’m not sure whether we were all stupidly naive or overly optimistic or what, but we just never doubted it wouldn’t work out, and thanks to so many wonderful folks, it did.
JOHN: Selfishly, singing with the Fraggles! My mother came to see the show and wept the entire time but wept hardest during the Fraggle medley. When I was a kid I’d sit there with my Fraggle puppets and dolls and put on shows for my family and sang all of the songs along with the albums. So, to be standing up there singing with the actual Fraggles and their performers in a concert I had conceived was very emotional for both her and me. Very full circle I guess. Plus, this was the first time the new Wembley puppet had been used and Steve hadn’t performed him since Jim’s memorial. To have Wembley and Red and Traveling Matt singing to me was amazing. I recommend it to everyone!
JOHN: Without sounding precious, there were many. But, a moment that stands out was when we all gathered together to rehearse for the first time at The Carriage House, which is one of the original Muppet studios from back in the day, still in use. In that studio were so many incredible, talented, wonderful people, several who hadn’t worked together in years. To look around the room and see Bob McGrath from Sesame and Karen Prell from Fraggle Rock joking around and Kevin Clash as Elmo next to Dave Goelz holding Gonzo was just surreal. That’s when the enormity of what we had accomplished in gathering everyone together hit me. Plus, there was just this extra special feeling in the room–I’d like to think that Jim and Richard and all those who’ve gone on were there too somehow. It was amazing. I went home and cried. And watched the Golden Girls.
RYAN: I know that there was no video taping of the show, which is unfortunate but understandable, but are there any plans to do the show again? It seemed like it was a major success back in April.
JOHN: We really hoped that we’d be able to do it again in some form. But, to be honest, it was most likely a once in a lifetime experience. Since it was so much work for everyone involved and all of the logistics had to be handled and performers on different schedules in different places had to come together, and all of those factors, it was a miracle that we pulled it off once! But, I still have hope that it will happen again in some way. There were many who thought it would NEVER happen at all and it did, so, who knows!! Never say never. And in the meantime, that’s what YouTube is for!
At John’s insistence… here’s video from the Carnegie Hall show! For more, check out The Muppet Mindset on YouTube!
Check back next week for Part 2 of our interview with John Tartaglia!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org