Andy Walmsley has been a set designer for nearly 35 years, and his credits include dozens of high-profile TV shows and theater productions, including one of Jim Henson’s last TV series. This year, he got the chance to work with Muppets again when he served as the production designer for The Muppets Take the Bowl live shows in Hollywood. Recently, Andy talked to us about his work on those remarkable shows, as well as his previous experiences in the Henson & Muppet worlds. He even helped us come up with the questions!
Were you a fan of the Muppets before you designed the show at the Hollywood Bowl?
OMG, I’m like a super fan! I follow all the fan sites — Tough Pigs, Muppet Mindset, Muppet Central, Muppet Wiki… Am I missing any? I have all the TV shows, movies, books, the Master Replica posers, the busts, the clock. My second bedroom at home is kind of a Jim Henson shrine.
Did the producers of the Hollywood Bowl show know that about you?
Well, sort of. It’s not very professional to be a fan boy when you’re in the inner circle. I tried to play it down, but when I showed up every day with a different Muppet t-shirt and printed Muppet shoes on, it was kind of out the bag. I still tried to play it down, but if any of the performers or producers read this article the jig is up! As bad as it was for me, the host of the show – Saturday Night Live alum Bobby Moynihan – was almost as closeted as me. He’s an uber-fan, too. We kept sneaking into corners together to giggle like schoolgirls because there were five Miss Piggy puppets on a table next to us!
When did you first develop your Muppet obsession?
I remember as clear as day the very first episode of The Muppet Show airing. I was 10 years old (yes, I’m old), and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I wasn’t so much a fan of the characters and material the way perhaps you are… I was much more fascinated with the technical side – how the hell were they doing it all? My parents were both variety theater entertainers and I had grown up backstage with them at various theaters, and they often worked with puppet acts. So I was already fascinated about puppets, especially as I was just 10, but I had never seen puppets like the Muppets. And the fact that the show is partially set backstage in an old vaudeville theater (just like the ones I had grown up with touring with my parents), I could really relate.
I was hungry for info on how this was all being done. Obviously it was before the internet and before Jim allowed the public to glimpse behind the curtain but now and again there would be a double spread magazine article showing the puppeteers and how they worked and I would pin them all on my bedroom wall. Other kids had sports stars and rock stars on their walls, I had pictures of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz. At the Bowl, I spent a lot of time with Dave Goelz, which frankly was a childhood dream come true. I didn’t dare tell him he was literally my childhood pin up.
The Muppet Show was taped in the UK. Did you ever get to meet any of the performers?
Well, not at first. I lived in Blackpool, which is a Northern town, and the guys were shooting at Elstree in London. However, a highlight came in 1979, when Jim, Richard and Dave, with Kermit, Gonzo and Sweetums came to my home town to switch on our famed Blackpool Illuminations, which is essentially a seasonal light show that they always have a big star name switch on. I was the very first person on site at 8:00am and stood in front of the makeshift stage. By 11:00am they delivered the barriers to separate the crowds from the stage and I was pressed up against that barrier, front and center, for ten hours until I witnessed my heroes literally 10 feet in front of me when they did the ceremony.
So when did your Muppet fandom turn into actually working for Jim?
Well, this is one of the truly most amazing stories of my life. After being so curious about how the Muppeteers worked and how The Muppet Show was actually shot, I struck up an interest in scenery design and started making little scale models and generally teaching myself to be a TV set designer. This really was heavily influenced by this fascination with the Muppets.
Eventually I went to college to learn formally and the very last day of my three years at Leeds University I got a job interview in Newcastle. I was very excited and got on the train to do what was a pretty formal interview for a position assisting a designer on a new nine-part TV series. At the end of the intimidating process, I was asked to leave the room and then called in 10 minutes later to be told “You’ve got the job.”
I was about to leave the room in shock, thinking to myself, Well, that was easy. Three years of college and you get a job in television the very day you leave. My hand was on the door handle when I realized I hadn’t been told what type of show I would be working on. I turned and nervously asked the suits and they said, “A new Jim Henson puppet series called The Ghost of Faffner Hall.” I was in utter shock… talk about the law of attraction! I ran around the block to call my mom in a red British telephone box (they hadn’t invented cell phones yet). I was in tears when I called her.
I spent five very happy months working alongside Jim, Richard Hunt, Louise Gold, Karen Prell, Mike Quinn… and the highlight of that incredible experience was on the final day of the shoot, when we where doing one of those classic Henson puppet crowd shots and Richard Hunt shouted in his inimitable, not-so-quiet voice, “Who wants to be a puppeteer?”
Now you have to bear in mind I had spent many hours in front of my mom’s bedroom mirror with our new prized possession video camcorder, performing puppets that I had made and other Fisher Price Muppet dolls that I had pulled apart to turn them into working puppets. I was by then (and am to this day) a pretty damn good puppeteer, so I ran over to Richard and said, “I can do it, Richard!”
He handed me a red Frackle and said, “Let’s see…” Then as he watched critically he said, “Damn, kid, you’re a natural!” (He thought it was my first time with a puppet on my arm!) And so there I was, standing in front of the cameras for a change, operating my Frackle. And one of the crew took a shot on his still camera, and it is to this very day my favorite photograph of me of all time.
What was it like working with Jim Henson?
Jim was a megastar by then and very busy with so many projects all over the world, so we would only see him for a day every few weeks. He’d come in and stand very quietly watching the monitor, and I’d edge as close as I could to try and eavesdrop on his conversations. One day I was in line behind him at the staff canteen — me and him holding our trays! To me, I might as well have been standing behind Elvis, Sinatra or Michael Jackson.
After Faffner Hall, when did you next work with the Henson company?
Well, I had started dating Maria Boggi, one of the puppet designers from the Creature Shop on Faffner Hall, and we moved in together in London. So I was always at Henson parties or meeting her after work at the original Hampstead Creature Shop.
Actually, here’s another fun story. We’d arrange for me to meet Maria at 6:00pm when she finished work now and again, and when I arrived everyone would be leaving, but Maria would say, “I need 30 minutes to finish this Mutant Ninja Teenager or something-or-other. Go and amuse yourself upstairs.” The building was an old repurposed post office, so with just me and Maria in the building I’d go to the second level, and there in the high-ceilinged room were cardboard boxes, floor to ceiling on shelves, each with a label: “FOZZIE,” “TRAVELING MATT,” etc. And I’d one-by-one take them out put them on my arm and remind myself that just 11 years previously I’d have literally killed someone for the chance to put these things on my arm.
But in regards to working on a Henson project, it was actually many years later. I developed a great career doing game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and music shows like Pop Idol, later to become American Idol when it came to the States. I worked with Richard Holloway and Martin Baker who had both been the lead stage managers on The Muppet Show. When I worked with them they were big mogul executive producers, but they never did get pissed at me when I repeatedly asked them to tell me Muppet Show stories. They relished it.
Eventually I moved to LA to do American Idol and I wanted to rent a little office. I was having dinner with Martin Baker and he suggested the Henson studios. He arranged a meeting for me and I rented a small office on the lot, where I got to know Brian Henson, who asked me to do the occasional pilot. I did the very first sizzle reel for the Muppets sitcom, I did the first Muppets appearance at the Hollywood Bowl ten years ago, and I did Late Night Buffet, a puppet late night chat show pilot with Brian and Bill Barretta. That’s when I first worked with the lovely Bill.
How did you end up working on The Muppets Take the Bowl?
Well, I woke up one day to a bunch of texts from friends who know of my Muppet obsession, telling me that the Muppets had announced the Bowl shows for 2017. I jumped out of bed and bought two tickets immediately, fearful of a sellout. Next I e-mailed Debbie McClellan, who is the head of the Muppet Studios at Disney. She is so lovely and I was worried she wouldn’t remember me from the Bowl show ten years previously but she did and I begged her to do the show because all I had wanted my whole life was to see The Muppet Show live and in person. And to be also working on it… Wow!
Tell us about designing The Muppets Take the Bowl.
Phew, it was hard! One of the hardest shows I’ve ever done – and I’ve done countless West End and Broadway musicals and Americas Got Talent, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Slumdog Millionaire… I’ve done some massive stuff but this was truly one of the hardest.
Well, firstly it’s super-technical designing for the Muppets. Take a piece like the desk for the Muppet Labs scene. It might just look like a desk to you, but the height has to be just right for Dave Goelz and David Rudman plus their right hand puppeteers Mike Quinn and Bruce Lanoil. Then it has to be on wheels to roll out fast but must also brake on a dime and not roll away during the sketch. Then it has three wireless LCD screens hidden behind it so the puppeteers can see what they are doing and see the TelePrompter. Then it has to have a gag that makes the iPad spark as Beaker gets electrocuted. Then it has to have two CO2 jets to blast Beakie and Bunsen up to the clouds – and the reels turn, the sign lights up, etc., etc.
It’s complex stuff and that was just one of dozens of pieces for the two-hour show. Also bear in mind the Hollywood Bowl was awesome and iconic, as it isn’t a theater, it’s a concert venue. You can’t fly scenery and there are no wings to store scenery, literally none, so I had to create a fake proscenium (the old Muppet Theater feel) and hide all the elements for the sketches behind until they got rolled out.
Add to the mix we only had four hours a day to rehearse because each evening before our shows John Williams had his shows. So every morning at 8:00am we loaded in the entire set, rehearsed for 4 hours in 103-degree direct sunlight (Did I mention the Bowl obviously doesn’t have air conditioning?), and then took every single piece out before Mr. Williams arrived with daily damage to my pieces and repairs happening in the rear parking lot. (And did I mention the 103-degree freak heat wave?)
What were some of the highlights from that show?
Oh, so many. Having a full-on conversation with Noel MacNeal while he was inside Sweetums and then realizing, I’m standing here chatting to Sweetums. Trying to talk to Bill Barretta about a serious situation while he has Pepe on his hand and trying oh-so-hard to maintain eye contact with Bill… So many moments like that.
Probably my favorite was the week we all spent together in a small rehearsal room two months before the Bowl shows trying out the material… Me standing feet away from them as they performed “Mahna Mahna,” “Pigs in Space,” etc. It was an out-of-body experience that I will never forget.
Do you have any future projects coming up with the Muppets?
Oh, who knows? I have a record of working for them about every ten years! Of course we are all hopeful that perhaps the shows we did at the Bowl might have a future elsewhere somehow and I’d love to be involved with that. I truly hope my life-long adventure with Jim’s merry men and women continues. What I love most about working with these people is they are all so damn nice, Jim created a company culture that long after his passing remains a culture of professionalism but fun. Lots of fun.
Any last thoughts?
Yes. The moment at the Bowl when we did the first rehearsal with the 60-piece orchestra and they played the Muppet Show theme for the first time, my eyes watered knowing that the kid from England who was obsessed with the Muppets had made it to Hollywood and was working with the Muppets — the very essence of the story of the Muppets following their dreams to make it to Hollywood.
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