Pulling strings

They’re zany, absurd, foolish and sometimes crazy. Not Kermit, Gonzo or Big Bird – but the performers who give the characters life.

According to Brian Henson, CEO of Jim Henson Prods., the puppeteers search for contradictions and absurdities in people’s personalities and bring them to the characters. And he ought to know, having literally grown up with the Muppets, eventually performing puppetry in numerous feature films, including “The Muppets Take Manhattan” and “Return to Oz.”

“Puppetry was always what my father did and it was awesome to me – bigger than life,” says Henson. “But it wasn’t until I was 17 that I thought it was what I wanted to do.”

Although none of the puppeteers grew up having the Muppets play as prevalent a role in their lives as Brian Henson, most had a deep fascination with – and attraction to – the engaging characters and shows.

“I started watching ‘Sesame Street’ in 1972 and was so curious about the performers,” says David Goelz, a principal puppeteer with the company whose many characters include the Great Gonzo, Zoot, Philo, and Boober Fraggle. “I kept thinking ‘Who are the people behind these characters?'”

Goelz eventually met one of his idols, Frank Oz (whose A-list characters include Miss Piggy, Grover and Fozzie Bear), at a puppetry festival in Oakland. He accepted an invitation from Oz to visit the Muppet workshop in New York. A few months later, Jim Henson asked him to come work at JHP on a trial basis, as a puppet designer and builder.

Steve Whitmire, another principal puppeteer – whose characters include Rizzo the Rat, Foo-Foo, Wembley Fraggle and, since the death of Jim Henson in 1990, Kermit the Frog – became totally committed to “Sesame Street” while growing up in his native Atlanta, where the show aired twice a day.

“At age 12 I already knew which performers did what characters on ‘Sesame Street,'” says Whitmire. “I was fascinated by how the puppets worked and what it must be like to be the person underneath them making them work.”

Whitmire – like Goelz – got his chance to join the Muppet family at a puppeteering festival. He met and tagged along with Caroll Spinney (Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch), who saw promise in Whitmire. Spinney arranged a meeting between Jane Henson and Whitmire. Jim Henson’s wife was so impressed with the young puppeteer, she suggested he meet with her husband.

“I always got the impression with the Muppets that they were a tight and accepting group – a family,” says Whitmire, “and I know now that it’s also the company itself.”

And the puppeteers in the Henson family are the rough equivalent to the crazy aunt – which explains the madness of the Muppets. All the puppets have large pieces of the performers’ selves, whether noble or devilish, in their makeups.

“When I do a character I usually isolate some aspect of my personality, usually a flaw, and then try to figure out how to love it and make it endearing – it’s saved on years of therapy,” says Goelz.

Whitmire agrees. “People identify with the zaniness, but ultimately it’s the characters they love – and there’s undoubtedly a certain aspect of us that comes through in every character. The hardest characters to do are the ones that are the closest to the real us.”

“I love doing Gonzo,” says Goelz, “because he (does) whatever is the most inappropriate thing at the moment. And I always had this great fear of being inappropriate. People are attracted to the character’s foibles.”

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