Checking In…with the Muppet Show Muppeteers

Whatever happened to predictability, the milkman, the paperboy, evening TV…and the talent behind all your favorite Muppets, and some you’ve forgotten, on The Muppet Show?

“Dad, what’s a Muppet?” “Well, it’s not quite a mop and it’s not quite a puppet, but man…so to answer your question, I don’t know.” Oh, but don’t worry Lisa, unlike Homer, we know that a Muppet, a word first used in 1956, is a combination of “marionette” and “puppet.” And since 1955, when Kermit the Frog showed up on Sam and Friends, the first of dozens of Jim Henson productions, the Muppets have appeared in TV shows, movies, books, toys, clothing lines, and my dreams.

Flash-forward 20 years, and Kermit is now the host of The Muppet Show, featuring a wide variety of now-famous Muppets like Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, Fozzie Bear, Rowlf the Dog, and seemingly hundreds more. The Muppet Show ran on syndication for five seasons and 120 episodes, and you weren’t celebrity in the late 1970s and early 1980s if you didn’t stop the hallowed Muppet Theater.

But who were geniuses behind the creations? Take a look below, and see what they’re doing today.

Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot, etc.)

In the first season of The Muppet Show, of all the now well-known mop/puppets, Gonzo was the one who seemed most out of place. The voice and personality weren’t there yet, and his biggest weekly contribution was not hitting the gong during the theme song. Eventually, though, both Gonzo and Goelz found their voice, quite literally, and the character became enough of an icon that the Whatever was the main Muppet in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and Muppets in Space. Zoot’s been awesome since the beginning, though, and Goelz has voiced Dr. Honeydew throughout the years. (Goelz also took over as Waldorf after Jim Henson passed away in 1990.)

Goelz also played sad-sack Boober, as well as various other Fraggles, in Fraggle Rock; General SkekUng and Kira’s pet Fizzgig in The Dark Crystal; and wannabe knight Sir Didymus in Labyrinth. He works almost exclusively for the Jim Henson Company, including Muppets Tonight and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (as Humungous Chicken), and will reprise his various roles in The Muppets.

Louise Gold (Annie Sue, etc.)

Although Louise Gold doesn’t have a namesake Muppet on the level of Fozzie, she has played a variety of characters over the years, including Afghan Hound, Annie Sue, and Mrs. Dilber. Gold’s the only British member of the Muppet Show team, and she has also worked on Sesame Street and The Secret Life of Toys, among other Henson productions. She has a long, impressive stage history, too, including playing Phyllis Rogers Stone in Follies and Isabel in The Pirates of Penzance (she portrayed Kate in the 1983 movie). Gold continues to work in the theatre, most recently in Oliver! and Mexican Hayride.

Jim Henson (Ernie, Guy Smiley, Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef, etc.)

Let’s take a minute to cry while watching this video of Big Bird singing “Bein’ Green” at Henson’s funeral in 1990. And then let’s remember everything good he gave us, not only The Muppet Show, but also The Dark Crystal, Dinosaurs, Labyrinth, Sesame Street, “The Rainbow Connection,” Yoda, and so much more. Muppet Babies! All the Muppet appearances on Saturday Night Live over the years! The Storyteller! Muppets Tonight! Fraggle Rock! This video! Movies! Except for Muppets in Space! Thank you, Jim, and we miss you.

Richard Hunt (Beaker, Janice, Scooter, Statler, Sweetums, etc.)

According to an interview with Richard Hunt’s mother, Jane, posted on Muppet Wiki (which is an amazingly well-researched website — who else would notice that Princess Lulabelle and Shakey Sanchez were made from the same fabric? Who else would even know their names? — that everyone should go to, when they’re done reading this article, of course), Hunt began working with Jim Henson after cold calling him. According to Jane, “Richard had been watching Sesame Street, and he realized there might be an opportunity there. So he went to a phone booth, called Henson Associates, and asked them, cold, if they were hiring puppeteers. Jim was auditioning people that very day.”

Hunt has been consistently described as the man who seemed to take the most pleasure out of working with the Muppets. Outside of The Muppet Show, he also worked on Fraggle Rock, as Gunge and Junior Gorg; Sesame Street, as Elmo from 1981-1984 and the Two-Headed Monster (with his buddy Jerry Nelson); and Charlie in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Hunt also directed a handful of Henson productions, including an episode of Fraggle Rock and Elmo’s Sing-Along Guessing Game.

As mentioned above, he also performed as Sweetums (he took over for Nelson, and made the character his own). How? According to Muppet Wiki (see!), “Sweetums’ performer uses his right arm to either operate the mouth or the right arm. When the right arm moves, the mouth can’t move on its own, and vice versa. Usually, whenever Sweetums moves his mouth, his right arm is pinned to his body or stuffed and hung to just swing freely. The eyes and eyebrows move by remote control.”

Sadly, in 1992, Hunt passed away from AIDS-related complications.

Kathryn Mullen (Gaffer, Mrs. Appleby, etc.)

Kathryn Mullen joined The Muppet Show in its third season. She began performing mostly background characters, and her first big roles came in the form of The Dark Crystal as Kira (Lisa Maxwell provided the voice) and Fraggle Rock as Mokey and Cotterpin Doozer; she later had a large role on The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, as Morton the Elephant Bird, among other characters, and performed the titular character on Allegra’s Window. But she had plenty of important behind-the-scenes work, too: as Yoda’s performing assistant in The Empire Strikes Back, voice director of Fox’s Dog City, and designer for The Muppet Movie. Mullen’s a co-creator and puppeteer of PBS’ Between the Lions, and with assistance from No Strings International and her husband Michael K. Frith, former executive VP of Jim Henson Productions, filmed The Story of the Little Carpet Boy, an educational film on the dangers of landmines.

Jerry Nelson (Camilla the Chicken, Crazy Harry, Lew Zealand, Pops, etc.)

While Jerry Nelson performed as a number of memorable Muppet Show characters, including Camilla the Chicken, Crazy Harry, Lew Zealand, and Uncle Deadly, he’s better known for his work on Sesame Street. He’s the voice of Sherlock Hemlock, the original Mr. Snuffleupagus, and Count von Count. Nelson was the main Fraggle, Gobo, on Fraggle Rock, and voiced SkekSo and SkekZok in The Dark Crystal and the Ghost of Christmas Present (the best of the three) in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Nelson also had one of the best singing voices of the Muppet Show staff, belting out tunes as Floyd of the Electric Mayhem and Scred on Saturday Night Live (check out this video of him singing “I Got You, Babe” with Lily Tomlin).

In 2001, due to health complications, Nelson retired most of his Muppet Show characters, but continues to work on Sesame Street. In 2009, he released his first album, Truro Daydreams, with guest appearances from other Muppetters, including Kevin Clash, better known as Elmo.

Frank Oz (Animal, Hugga Wugga, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Sam the Eagle, etc.)

This is too fascinating not to share, from the Jewish Journal:

[Oz’s] Jewish father furtively dug a hole in Nazi-occupied Antwerp to bury a marionette he’d secretly carved of Adolf Hitler. The puppet-caricature, which had a funny mustache and a uniform sewed by Oz’s lapsed-Catholic mother, Frances, was too dangerous to carry on the road. So, his father, Isidore, carefully covered it with spadefuls of earth before he and his wife (who was sometimes disguised as a boy) fled south to catch a boat to England…After the war, Oznowicz returned to Antwerp to dig up his puppet, which later occupied a place of honor in Oz’s childhood home in Oakland, CA.

Frank Oz, who met Jim Henson when he was 17, has the most impressive post-Muppet Show history. He was the puppeteer and voice of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (and just the voice for the CGI’d newer trilogy, which we shall never mention again), and Bert, Cookie Monster, and Grover on Sesame Street. Oz has directed a slew of movies, including The Muppets Take Manhattan, Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?, and the original Death at a Funeral, and he co-directed Labyrinth. He provided the voice of Fungus in Monsters, Inc. and will reprise the role in prequel Monsters University, to be released in 2013.

In the past few years, Oz has distanced himself from the Muppets, saying in a 2007 interview with Ain’t It Cool News, “I’d done this for 30 years, and I’d never wanted to be a puppeteer in the first place. I wanted to be a journalist, and really what I wanted to do was direct theatre and direct movies.” Speaking of: Oz will direct Scott Bakula in the play Terrible Advice, beginning in September.

Steve Whitmire (Foo-Foo, Lips, Rizzo the Rat, etc.)

On The Muppet Show, Steve Whitmire developed Rizzo the Rat, and although it took awhile for the forever-hungry rodent to become a major star, he eventually did, thanks to a scene stealing performance in The Great Muppet Caper, and has since become one of the most beloved Muppets. Whitmire also performed as Foo-Foo and Lips on The Muppet Show, and later, in other productions, Bean Bunny, Robbie Sinclair on Dinosaurs, Wembley on Fraggle Rock, and SkekTek in The Dark Crystal. After Richard Hunt passed away, he took over for Beaker, and after Henson died, Ernie (on Sesame Street) and Kermit.

On his first time voicing the frog in public, Whitmire said, “I always had this fantasy that the first time I performed Kermit it would be a nice, dark little moment in the studio and it would be 5 or 6 of the main guys…What it turned out to be was that the closing scene of that special had about 50 puppets in it. So it was basically every puppeteer I’ve ever worked with in New York City, which was probably 25-30 people.” Whitmire also became Statler (beginning with the music video for Weezer’s “Keep Fishin’”) when Jerry Nelson retired. In the upcoming The Muppets, Whitmire will, according to IMDb, perform as Beaker, Bean Bunny, Kermit, Rizzo, Statler, and Link Hogthrob, of Pigs in Space fame.

Whitmire was recently the special guest performer at the 2011 National Puppetry Festival.

Josh Kurp ranks the Muppet movies, from worst to best, as such: Muppets in Space, The Great Muppet Caper, Muppet Treasure Island, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Movie, and The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Checking In…with the Muppet Show Muppeteers