A Chat with Jerry Nelson, part 1

Published: December 8, 2009
Categories: Feature

Part 1 Part 2Part 3


I don’t think I have to tell you who Jerry Nelson is. If puppetry was music, Jerry would be a Beatle. He’s performed countless roles (and one Count role) on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and just about every Muppet production from 1970 to today. Jerry was kind enough to meet with us for an interview, which we’ll be posting here on ToughPigs throughout in the week in three parts.

But you didn’t come here to listen to me talk about Jerry Nelson; you came here to listen to the man himself. Take it away Jerry!

ToughPigs: How did you get your start in puppetry?

Jerry Nelson: It’s kind of a long story. When I was a kid, about twelve years old, I was visiting my grandparents in Oklahoma and I saw a little marionette, maybe about twelve inches high, a policeman. I was fascinated by it, so I asked for it for Christmas and I got it. I figured out what strings to pull to make him walk and run and jump and pick up his billy club. I got another one the following year, it was a clown. He had a barbell, he could kick it up on his nose and balance it, or throw it into one hand or the other. I played with those for a year or so and then they were kind of forgotten. When I was about 15, we got our first television set, and one of the things on television was a lot of puppet shows. Burr Tillstrom, Bil Baird, the Bunin Brothers from Pinhead and Foodini. I watched that because that’s what was on, but I didn’t think much about it.

I had been in the service, came back from the service, and worked as a page at WRC, the NBC affiliate in Washington DC. That’s where Jim and Jane first started with Sam and Friends. I’d never met them, but I’d see them rehearsing in the studio. I watched their commercials, and then life went on. In 1963, I came back from a stock job in Lake George, acting. A friend of mine told me about a news article saying that Bil Baird was looking for a puppeteer. He said, “You do voices, you oughtta call them up.” I said I should probably do that. Usually when people ask me how I got started in puppets, I say “I lied, and I wore cowboy boots,” because when I went to that audition I wore cowboy boots, and when he asked me if I’d done puppets, I said, “Oh sure, I used to do shows for the kids in the neighborhood.” Not exactly a lie, an embellishment perhaps. Any good actor knows how to do that. Surprisingly, I got the job. And that was the beginning of work.

Cameo.jerry03Bobby Payne, who was one of the puppeteers I worked with at the World’s Fair, asked me if I knew who the Muppets were. I said of course, since I used to work at WRC. He said, “Did you know they moved to New York? You should give Jim a call, I think you’d get along.” So I did. I had a meeting, and that was at the time when they were doing The Jimmy Dean Show and Frank was drafted. Frank was Rowlf’s right hand and prop-passer on the show. I guess they wanted a replacement for Frank, and I had an audition with Jim. He asked me to make a tape so he could hear some voices. I went right home and made a recording, took it back in the next day, and I got the job. As it turned out, Frank was not drafted, but he had some other things he wanted to do, so I took over. It was right toward the end of The Jimmy Dean Show, and I finished doing the show with Jim. And then Jimmy Dean took his show on the road, and it was a nice long tour, mostly arena stages. I kept working for Jim for about a year. Eventually, the work settled down and there wasn’t enough. At the time there was only Jim, Frank, Don Sahlin, and Jerry Juhl, and since I was the last person in, I was the first one out. I went back to work for Bil for a while, and I’d gone out to San Fransisco and LA for a while, and in 1969, Jim started Sesame Street. I came back around the end of November of 1969 and I was at an afternoon Christmas party and someone had a TV on. I saw these monsters being ridiculous and doing the alphabet and great animation, and I was blown away by the show. It was so outre, it was like nothing I’d ever seen, and I knew it was a good show. So I called Jim and made an appointment. He said, “We’re not doing much right now, but we’re having a workshop in June, we’re doing a show and we need a lot of puppeteers.” So I gave my other job two months notice, and that turned out to be The Great Santa Claus Switch. We did that show up in Toronto, the puppeteers were mostly from that workshop. Fran Brill, Richard Hunt, Danny Seagren, Marilyn Sokol, a whole lot of people, many of whom continued to work for Jim for a while. At the end of that show, Jim asked me if I’d like to work on Sesame Street. So I started working and never stopped.

TP: When you started on Sesame Street, do you remember the first characters or first sketches you worked on?

2963-A6JN: At that time, the first things I did were right hands and some background characters. People in Your Neighborhood, those kinds of things. My first main character may have been Herbert Birdsfoot. I’m not sure about that, but that’s how it sits in my head. And S.A.M., the Super Automated Machine. Eventually they said, “You don’t have a monster yet!”, so Herry Monster became my monster. I think around the second or third year I was there, the Count became a character. Norman Stiles, who was a young writer on Sesame Street at the time, told me he was writing this character who was like a vampire, but he wasn’t interested in bloody things, he’s interested in numbers. I went right to Jim and said, “Norman’s writing this character, can I do it?” So he said let’s hear it, and I probably did a bad Bela Lugosi kind of thing, “Bleh bleh!” And the character’s changed over the years. He was kind of scary the first year, with the music and the cape.

TP: You’ve sung a lot of the songs on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Do any of them stand out as your favorites?

JN: The things that really stand out are the ones that I did with the guests. Many of the guests were people who, as a child, I’d go to see in the movies like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. And all of the sudden, here I am, working with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. I would have never believed it if you had told me that as a kid. “One day son, you will work with these people!” But it happened, and those are stand-out moments to me. Singing scat with Dizzie Gilespie, that’s gotta be a major stand-out in my head. Goofing with Pearl Bailey in “Good Old Summertime”. I’ve always loved singing. I’m still learning songs.

TP: Do you ever go back and watch the old videos?

Pearlbailey1JN: Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, originally we’d all go up to the office and watch the show after it was editing. I did a lot of cringing. Afterward, down the road when I’d go back and visit the same things, I’d say, “Wow, we did some really good work!?” We really put together a fantastic body of work.

TP: In the past few years, some of your characters have been performed by new puppeteers. Is it strange to see your characters performed by someone else?

JN: Originally, when Disney took the characters, they were kind of haphazard about that. A few years ago, we had a dialog, and they asked me if I would be interested in working toward addressing keeping those characters with some kind of consistency. So I recommended Matt Vogel, because I’ve worked with Matt and he has a sense of who I am. And when I tried things out, he had a pretty good take on who the characters are. And I think they’ve pretty much gone with that, and that’s nice. Because those characters should really have a consistency to them, and the fans notice when they don’t, and it hurts us when they don’t. Anything else would be a disrespect to the characters and to the people who created them. And Matt is incredibly talented. He does the manipulation of the Count while I do the voice. We do that live in the studio, because it has more of an immediacy and more consistency.

FredTheWonderhorseTP: We heard that you did a few scenes with Frank Oz in the latest season. How was it working with Frank again?

JN: It’s been a while since we’ve worked together, and it was great. We did some Grover and Mr. Johnson and Marshall Grover and Fred the Wonder Horse.

TP: Have you seen the more recent Muppet productions like The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz and Letters to Santa?

JN: I’ve seen a few of them, but I haven’t seen them all because nobody tells me anything. I’ve seen Sid the Science Kid. The animation is so cute and clever. They really took it to the next level. The Jim Henson Company has always been innovative in that way. Last year, my wife and I went to see the stage adaptation of Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, and it just blew me away. The new material that Paul Williams wrote was fantastic. He got to revive an old favorite song, “Born in a Trunk,” which is a wonderful song.


Click here for part two of our chat with Jerry Nelson when we talk about his memorable Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock characters!

Click here to do your Bela Lugosi impersonation on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes – joe.toughpigs@gmail.com

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