Muppetology 101: Intro to Muppet Performers, Part 1

Muppetology

Ryan Dosier – Welcome back to class! Professor Ryan is back in session and excited to return to the classroom in 2015 with even more Muppety knowledge for your consumption. To kick off the first class of the year, we thought we would start by discussing and explaining the who’s-who of Muppetdom: The Muppet Performers, or Muppeteers. Here, we attempt to familiarize the uninitiated with the names and characters of the men and women who bring the Muppets to life. We start with six of the most well-known and prolific of the Muppet performers…

Jim Kermit TMM

  • JIM HENSON
    • September 24, 1936 – May 16, 1990
      • First Muppet Production: Sam & Friends (May 9, 1955)
      • Final Muppet Production: Muppet*Vision 3-D (1990)
      • Characters: Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog, Ernie, Dr. Teeth, Guy Smiley, Swedish Chef, Waldorf, Cantus the Minstrel, Convincing John, Link Hogthrob, The Newsman, Mahna Mahna, Bip Bipadotta
    • Everyone knows Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets. Born in 1936 in Mississippi, Jim always showed interest in the arts and especially television. While in college, Jim worked as a puppeteer for money, never expecting it to take off as a career. It did, of course, and according to Jim Henson: The Biography, Jim first coined the term “Muppet” in 1954, in 1955 his first Muppet television program, Sam and Friends, premiered on an affiliate station in Washington, D.C. From there, Jim’s popularity rose in a series of commercials for various products (Wilkins Coffee, La Choy Chow Mein, etc.) which put him in the eye of the producers of a groundbreaking new preschool television series: Sesame Street. In 1969, Jim created new Muppet characters for the series, characters who would go on to become household names for over 40 years. After many pilots and television specials, Jim found immense success in another series: The Muppet Show. The show ran from 1976 to 1981, attracted the biggest stars of the era, and ran in over 120 countries–an unprecedented feat.The success of The Muppet Show led to three Muppet movies (including The Great Muppet Caper, directed by Jim), numerous television specials, two fantasy films (The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth), and two more television series Fraggle Rock in 1983 and The Jim Henson Hour in 1989. Jim’s final creative leap came early in 1990 with the technological marvel that is Muppet*Vision 3-D, an attraction for Walt Disney World’s MGM Studios theme park. The attraction still runs today and stands as Jim’s final work. Jim passed away from a pneumonia related infection on May 16, 1990. His work and legacy continues through the people he worked with, the timeless characters, shows, and films he created, and the work of the Muppets Studio, Sesame Workshop, The Jim Henson Company, and The Jim Henson Legacy.

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  • FRANK OZ
    • Born May 25, 1944
      • First Muppet Production: Right-hand performing in various appearances, including The Jimmy Dean Show; Various commercials as principal puppeteer (both 1963)
      • Most Recent Muppet Production: Sesame Street Season 43 Episode 4315 (February 15, 2013)
      • Characters: Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert, Animal, Sam the Eagle, Marvin Suggs, Chuck Stoat, The Snowths, George the Janitor
    • Frank Oz was born into a family of circus performers and sometimes puppeteers, so he literally grew up with the craft he would one day perfect. At age 19, Frank was one of the first puppeteers hired by Jim Henson on a permanent basis. Frank started with Jim performing right hands for various characters as well as featured puppeteering in Wilkins and Wontkins commercials, though Jim dubbed every voice. One of Frank’s first featured performances was as the body of the La Choy Dragon in numerous commercials. After paying his dues for many years, Frank was brought on to Sesame Street as Jim’s primary partner, creating the characters of Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster. It was on Sesame Street that Frank became a master puppeteer, carrying those skills over to The Muppet Show in 1976, bringing forth more beloved characters including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam the Eagle. Frank continued to perform all of his characters through six Muppet movies (including The Muppets Take Manhattan, which he directed), numerous television specials, appearances, Muppets Tonight, and more. Frank also co-directed The Dark Crystal with Jim Henson. Frank also performed Yoda (both voice and puppetry) in five Star Wars films. Starting with Little Shop of Horrors in 1986, Frank began to shift his focus to directing films. He has since directed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), What About Bob? (1991), Bowfinger (1999), and Death at a Funeral (2007). Frank permanently retired from performing his Muppet Show characters in 2001 and semi-retired from Sesame Street around 1997. Frank makes an annual appearance performing on Sesame Street, usually performing Grover or an Anything Muppet character. He has been called the greatest puppeteer of all time by many of his peers, and his vast catalogue of beloved characters seems to reflect that.

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  • JERRY NELSON
    • July 10, 1934 – August 23, 2012
      • First Muppet Production: Rowlf the Dog’s right hand performer on The Jimmy Dean Show (1965)
      • Final Muppet Production: Sesame Street Season 43 Episode 4411 (October 31, 2012)
      • Characters: Count von Count, Floyd Pepper, Robin the Frog, Gobo Fraggle, Herry Monster, Emmet Otter, Lew Zealand, Crazy Harry, Marjory the Trash Heap, Uncle Deadly, Pa Gorg, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Snuffleupagus (1971-1978), Statler (1992-2002), Biff, Sherlock Hemlock, The Amazing Mumford, Herbert Birdsfoot, Pops, Dr. Julius Strangepork, Camilla the Chicken, Two-Headed Monster, Scred, Architect Doozer, Little Jerry, Farley
    • Jerry Nelson began work as a puppeteer with Bill Baird in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1965, Jerry first performed with Jim Henson as a temporary replacement for Frank Oz. Jerry began permanent work with Jim Henson in 1970 as a puppeteer on Sesame Street, where his unique and incredibly ranging voice brought to life characters such as Count von Count, Herry Monster, Sherlock Hemlock, The Amazing Mumford, and the Two-Headed Monster. After proving himself, Jerry became a primary performer, with a major role in the television specials Hey, Cinderella! and The Frog Prince. It was in The Frog Prince that Jerry first performed Robin the Frog, Kermit’s nephew and one of Jerry’s most prominent characters. Jerry’s first starring role came with the beloved Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas in 1977, in which he played the titular character. On The Muppet Show, Jerry brought to life a menagerie of eclectic, adored characters such as Floyd Pepper, Lew Zealand, Crazy Harry, and Pops. When Fraggle Rock came along, Jerry was chosen to perform the main character of the show, Gobo Fraggle. He also performed Marjory the Trash Heap, Pa Gorg, and Architect Doozer. Jerry performed in six Muppet movies, 43 seasons of Sesame Street, numerous television specials, and even provided his famous announcer voice for The Muppets in 2011. Jerry passed away in August, 2012, providing his last performances as Count von Count in many episodes of Sesame Street‘s 43rd season.

Dave Just For Laughs

  • DAVE GOELZ
    • Born July 16, 1946
      • First Muppet Production: The Muppet Valentine Show (1974) as both puppet builder and puppeteer
      • Most Recent Muppet Production: Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
      • Characters: Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Boober Fraggle, Uncle Traveling Matt, Beauregard, Zoot, Waldorf (1992-present), Rugby Tiger, Large Marvin Fraggle, Fizzgig, Sir Didymus, Digit, Brewster, Bill the Bubble Guy, Philo, Sidebottom, World’s Oldest Fraggle, Randy Pig
    • Dave Goelz is currently the longest-working Muppet performer in the Muppets Studio troupe. Since 1974, Dave has worked as one of the primary Muppet performers. Although he started as a puppet builder, Jim Henson quickly picked up on Dave’s talent and hired him as a puppeteer as well. Dave’s first production was The Muppet Valentine Show in 1974, where he performed Brewster. When The Muppet Show was picked up, Dave was quickly handed one of the main characters, Gonzo the Great, whom he has been performing for nearly 40 years. Dave’s other characters include Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beauregard, and Zoot. Though Dave only had a few appearances performing on Sesame Street, he has been a primary performer in all eight of the Muppet movies and a crucial member of the puppeteer team on Fraggle Rock, performing the characters Boober Fraggle, Uncle Traveling Matt, and Philo. Dave’s other credits include a wide array of television specials, puppetry work in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, performing on the television series The Jim Henson Hour, Dinosaurs, The Secret Life of ToysThe Animal Show with Stinky and Jake, Bear in the Big Blue House, and Muppets Tonight, television show appearances, and providing the voice of Figment in Walt Disney World’s EPCOT park. Most recently, Dave performed in Muppets Most Wanted in 2014 and continues to perform his wonderful array of Muppet characters with no sign of stopping.

Richard Scooter 2

  • RICHARD HUNT
    • August 17, 1951 – January 7, 1992
      • First Muppet Production: The Great Santa Claus Switch (1970)
      • Final Muppet Production: Muppet*Vision 3-D (1991)
      • Characters: Scooter, Beaker, Janice, Statler, Sweetums, Forgetful Jones, Placido Flamingo, Junior Gorg, Gunge, Gladys the Cow, Bobby Benson, Wayne, Don Music, Elmo (1984-1985), Sonny Friendly, Sully, Two-Headed Monster
    • Richard Hunt was hired as a Muppet performer when he was 19 years old, as an assistant puppeteer on The Great Santa Claus Switch television special in 1970. After that, he was brought on as a primary performer on Sesame Street, where, over the course of 20 seasons, he performed Forgetful Jones, Sully, Don Music, Placido Flamingo, Gladys the Cow, and the Two-Headed Monster. In 1976, Richard was one of the five main Muppet performers on The Muppet Show, where he performed Scooter, Beaker, Janice, Statler, Sweetums, Wayne, and a crazy collection of minor characters. Those characters followed Richard through the first three Muppet movies and many television specials, including Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and A Muppet Family Christmas. On both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Richard had a reputation as a prankster and a goof. He would take new puppeteers under his wing and make it his mission to make the cast and crew laugh. In 1983, Richard was brought onto Fraggle Rock as one of the main performers, bringing to life Junior Gorg, Gunge, and many one-off characters. Richard directed “The Honk of Honks” episode of Fraggle Rock as well. After Fraggle Rock, Richard performed main characters in the short-lived series Little Muppet Monsters and The Ghost of Faffner Hall and in the television specials The Christmas Toy and The Tale of the Bunny Picnic. In Jim Henson’s failed television pilot Puppetman, Richard performed onscreen as one of the featured actors. Richard’s final Muppet productions came in the early 1990s with The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson and Muppet*Vision 3-D. He passed away of AIDS in January, 1992, leaving behind a legacy of love and laughter.

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  • STEVE WHITMIRE
    • Born September 24, 1959
      • First Muppet Production: The Muppet Show Season 3 (first day of performing on March 24, 1978)
      • Most Recent Muppet Production: Muppets Most Wanted (2014); various appearances as Kermit the Frog in 2014
      • Characters: Kermit the Frog (1990-present), Rizzo the Rat, Ernie (1993-present), Wembley Fraggle, Sprocket, Beaker (1992-present) Statler (2002-present), Foo-Foo, Bean Bunny, Lips, The Newsman (2008-present), Link Hogtrhob (2000-present), Waldo C. Graphic, Skeksis Scientist, Andy Pig, Mr. Poodlepants
    • Steve Whitmire was born near Atlanta, Georgia and was always incredibly interested in puppetry. He was such a big Muppet fan growing up, that in high school he earned the nickname of Kermit. When he was 18, Steve auditioned for Jane Henson and swiftly hired by Jim Henson and brought on as a background puppeteer in the middle of The Muppet Show‘s third season in 1978. By the end of the season, Steve had speaking parts on the show, including Liberace’s door guard. In Seasons 4 and 5, he began performing three of his primary characters: Rizzo the Rat, Lips, and Foo-Foo. In The Muppet Movie in 1979, Steve acted as the secondary puppeteer for Fozzie Bear when Frank Oz was performing Miss Piggy in the same scene. After The Muppet Show, Steve became one of the primary Muppet performers, getting two main characters on Fraggle Rock: Wembley Fraggle and Sprocket. Steve performed in The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan, as well as the television series The Jim Henson Hour. Rizzo the Rat would gradually become Steve’s primary Muppet character, and eventually became one of the most prominent of any Muppet characters, especially in the films The Muppet Christmas CarolMuppet Treasure Island, and Muppets From Space. Steve also originated the role of Bean Bunny in The Tale of the Bunny Picnic in 1986, and Bean continued to become one of the main Muppet characters, appearing prominently in The Jim Henson Hour and Muppet*Vision 3-D. In both of those productions, Steve also performed the digital character Waldo C. Graphic, the first digital puppet ever created. Following Jim Henson’s death in 1990, Steve Whitmire was chosen by the Henson family (and some say Jim himself) to perform Kermit the Frog. Starting with The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, Steve has been the performer of Kermit for 25 years. In 1993, Steve also began performing Ernie on Sesame Street, which he shared with other puppeteers when his schedule wouldn’t allow him to perform. He also took over the roles of Beaker from Richard Hunt in 1992, Statler from Jerry Nelson (after Richard Hunt) in 2002, Link Hogthrob from Jim Henson in 2003, and the Muppet Newsman from Jim in 2008. Steve also performed in The Dark CrystalLabyrinthDinosaursThe Animal Show with Stinky and Jake, and Muppets Tonight. Steve remains one of the primary Muppet performers, mostly for The Muppets Studio as Kermit the Frog. He is one of the most vocal supporters of the Muppets having only one performer and fair treatment of performers as well.

Well, that’s the first part of this lecture series on the Muppet performers! Look out of part 2 next week, where we cover six more of the men and women who bring the Muppets to life!

Muppeteers

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, muppetmindset@gmail.com

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