This is the second installment of a three-part interview with R. Bruce Connelly, the performer of Sesame Street‘s Barkley since 1993. Click here for part one. In today’s installment, Connelly talks about being a slice of bread in a Wayne Brady sandwich, saving Rosemary Clooney’s life, dancing with Harry Belafonte, the hazards of taking a restroom break as an elephant, and destroying Bob Iger’s office as a Muppet monster! You don’t want to miss this one! (This interview has been edited for clarity.)
RBC: One thing Brian [Muehl] told me was “Make sure you maintain the integrity of the costume, because he’s gotta be a real dog.” There was one day, my second or third season there, that I had to jump up on Gabi’s bed. Barkley was having a sleepover, and Elmo was there as well. Elmo was up through a hole in the bed, so Kevin [Clash] was under the bed with his arm up through the hole, and Gabi was next to Elmo, and Barkley was supposed to jump up on the bed.
They had built the bed to a height where I couldn’t really get on it. I’d have to jump on it. The problem was, in order to jump on it, I’d have to bend my elbows. Now, a dog’s elbows are backwards. Can you picture that?
RBC: I figured it out while everyone was at lunch. I said to a writer, “The problem is, it’ll betray the fact that he’s not a real dog.” They said, “He’s not a real dog.” I said, “Hmm. What do I do with this?”
I suggested to the director, if I could jump from off-camera with my legs straight, so I leap and you don’t see the bend, I’d squish up like a really small puppy on the end of the bed as soon as I get up there. They said, “Great idea.”
Now mind you, I had just seen that movie Ed Wood. Things would go wrong, and he’d say, “That’s poifect, keep rolling!” You have to remember that line.
So I’m off-camera, Gabi says, “I’m in bed!” and Elmo says, “I’m in bed too!” Then I’m supposed to jump. Well, I jumped – but the problem was, I kept rolling on my big round head! I’m rolling, I see lights go by me, I keep rolling, rolling… and I go right off the bed. There’s no way for me to hold onto the bed!
TP: You can’t grip with those paws.
RBC: No! You can’t save yourself! I rolled right off the bed and landed on my back on the floor with all four feet straight up in the air. I’m waiting for them to say “cut” but nobody’s saying “cut.” It was just dead silence. I’m just staying here waiting, and I finally hear someone say, “Is he all right?” And then silence, and then, louder, “Are you all right?!” I jumped up and said, “I’m poifect; keep rolling!”
So when I jumped the next time I had to be careful of the momentum.
TP: Wow. Well, that speaks well of your commitment, that you cared that much about maintaining your moving like a real dog.
RBC: Yeah. And I understand that a dog will know its name… One thing I worked out is, when I’m in a scene and somebody says my name, I can throw my focus to them in case they want me. “Oh, they don’t want me? Okay, I can go follow this bug across the floor.” You have to know what a dog would understand and not understand.
One time I smashed the door on the Fix-It Shop. I pulled it off its hinges. I knew I was in trouble, and I was very sorry about it. I was playing with Big Bird, and he tied my leash to the door. He was practicing H-words, so he was saying, “Here! Here, Barkley!” So I was trying [to come to him], but the doorknob was keeping my back, so I just leaped. It was quite a scene. The door smashes to the ground.
The next scene is Maria cleaning up the glass, and Big Bird and I are in disgrace, and it’s just terrible. Big Bird says he can’t play with me anymore, and of course I wouldn’t understand that. I understand when he walks away that he’s not playing with me, but I don’t know why. We then went to the park, and Big Bird tried to show me it’s okay to throw a stick, but then he’s afraid I’m going to knock something down.
That’s a funny thing, too: They throw a stick and I run off-camera, and then I have to come back with a stick in my mouth and I can’t see. I have to run off, and Russ, the prop guy, puts a stick in my mouth, and then I have to count, “Okay, five steps back to Big Bird…”
TP: You’re talking about so many challenges you have playing that character, that I guess none of the other puppeteers have, in that exact way.
RBC: Yeah, everyone has something different. They’re rolling around with their backs in an odd position on those rolly carts.
TP: Right, and holding their arms up in the air.
RBC: Right! And of course, Caroll [Spinney] would have his arm straight over his head for a whole scene manipulating Big Bird. That was one of my favorite things, was working with Caroll; we would have long days together. Often I was with him, as a big Muppet.
I don’t know that I ever worked with Snuffy. I’ve been the rear end of Snuffy a few times, when Bryant [Young] wasn’t available. I’ve been a visiting Snuffy. There was Uncle Abe Snuffleupagus, and Grandma Snuffleupagus. I worked with Noel [MacNeal] and Noel plays the front end.
TP: You’re usually the rear end, in those cases?
RBC: Always. I’m always the butt of Snuffy. Then Frankie [Biondo] will go, “Hey, Connelly, you’re still an animal!”
RBC: Once I was a little frog. “We Are All Earthlings” was the song, and all I had to do was pull these two little wires to make his feet move back and forth. I didn’t even break a sweat. That was the oddest thing, to be working with the Muppets and not sweating. Just pulling a tiny, tiny little leg.
Once I was a slice of bread. We made a sandwich.
TP: That was the song “Between” with Wayne Brady?
RBC: Yes! He saw me after we filmed it and I was eating a bagel, and he went, “Cannibal!” [laughs]
TP: I should ask you, because the Muppet fans would be mad at me if I didn’t ask: Who was playing the other slice of bread? I don’t think we have that documented.
RBC: Oh, right. I don’t think I know his name. I can picture him, but it’s not somebody I worked with often. It was funny because the issue with the slice of bread was that they had used Barge cement to put it together, which is a very good glue.
The problem with Barge cement is you really want to be in a ventilated area, and one of the painters was very concerned when she realized we were going to be standing in big slices of bread that had been glued together so we wouldn’t have the proper ventilation inside.
They stopped taping for safety’s sake until the painter brought out her special ventilator. It’s like Darth Vader, in a way. You’re breathing through something protective. Then they said, “One take. One take and get them out of there.” They were very concerned about the slice of bread.
RBC: We only had one note: “Really want to make that sandwich.” He and I were REALLY pressing Wayne Brady. The song is about being between, so it was a Wayne Brady sandwich and we were really squeezing into him to make a sandwich.
And Frankie – again it comes down to Frankie – he said, “Bruce, I know you haven’t been on the show very often, but you are one angry slice of bread!” [laughs]
TP: That’s good. That means you really sold it!
RBC: Make it come to life. Keep the integrity of the bread going. They were beautifully made. They looked like two big slices of white bread. The crust, everything. Amazing how they build these things, how they construct them.
TP: It looks like exactly like bread!
RBC: Oh! I can tell you how I saved Rosemary Clooney’s life!
TP: That’s amazing!
RBC: Yeah! Of course I knew Rosemary Clooney, so to be included in that scene was such an honor, and she was singing a jazz version of “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” The problem was she couldn’t walk. She had severe arthritis.
It would have been better for her to be in one spot, but the set was such that she had to walk over to Hoots the Owl – he was there with his saxophone, falling asleep on the fence [behind Hooper’s Store]. Then she worked her way through the neighborhood singing “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street,” and then realize that she’s already here.
RBC: Once she gets to the steps, there are kids behind her playing with a ball, and then Barkley runs in, runs around them, and goes over to the back door of Hooper’s Store. By the time she finishes her song, Sesame Street has awakened and everyone’s getting up for the day.
Because of her arthritis issue, they cut down the walking and they had her standing there with Hoots, and then I think they just moved her over to the 123 steps.
Here’s the thing about her: She sang that song… eight times? There were problems with Hoots – his toes popped off the fence, they had to staple them down. Eight times, and she’s singing it live! It’s not prerecorded.
TP: That was going to be my next question. Eight takes in a row, live!
RBC: Yeah. She had a wonderful voice, and her singing of it just got better and better and better.
So here she comes. She’s walking to the 123 brownstone steps, and I’m off-camera waiting for that moment to just run in past her. The kids are playing ball in the background, and they drop the ball – and the ball bounces and bounces… and rolls behind her… I thought, If she takes a step back, she’s going down!
I ran in, and I hit the ball with my foot – like my audition, the first day! – and the ball went sailing up in the air, and it landed in the hands of the kid who had overthrown it. His mouth became an “o” and his eyes popped out. I looked like Superdog! So I saved her life!
TP: That could have gone a lot worse!
RBC: Yeah, it was scary to think. But she was so good.
Another story: Sometimes they let me be a human being in the background. I was doing [the play] Uncle Vanya at the time, oddly enough, and I was exhausted. On a day off, they filmed this particular episode. It was Baby Bear’s porridge-making machine. The problem with the machine was that it kept shooting bowls of porridge out and they couldn’t control it.
They were teaching kids how to use a computer, so they said, “Just send an e-mail out to PorridgeLovers.com, and they’ll take care of it.” So they do that, and in one second all of us [porridge lovers] are at Hooper’s Store, standing in the window, eagerly wanting porridge.
For some reason, they gave me – I had Mr. Hooper’s bowtie on, and one of Bill Irwin’s moustaches.
TP: From Mr. Noodle?
RBC: Maybe, yeah. Maybe a Mr. Noodle moustache. But I looked bizarre. The director said, “Be really eager!” You’re telling somebody who does theater, who plays to the balcony. [laughs] So we all have our spoons and we’re all supposed to be nuts about porridge. They sit us at a table, and we’re supposed to sing “The Porridge ABCs.”
Now here’s where the problem is. It goes “A B C D E F G, H I J K L M N O P.”
Then it goes, “P is for porridge, yessiree! Q R S T U V. W X Y and Z, that’s the Porridge ABC!” Now you see, they threw that little thing in there? That’s a little tricky.
So we’re filming it, and there are kids sitting next to me, and adults, and we’re all going nuts and waiting for our porridge. I’m hitting my palm, like I’m Tiny Tim in Christmas Carol so eager to have the roast goose, I’m smacking my palm.
So I go – at the top of my voice, they said bigger so I’m playing to the top of the second balcony – “A B C D E F G, H I J K L M N O P. P is for porridge, yessiree. W X Y and Z!” See the problem? I left out Q R S T U V!
At which point, all the kids look at me in a panic. I’m like, “Stop looking at me and no one will know what I did!” And then dead silence. They don’t even say “cut.” Just dead silence. And Frankie says, “So, Bruce… You need cue cards?” [laughs] And then the Muppet next to me goes, “You gave him LINES?!”
I said, “All right! But in my defense, I have never sung this song on the show! All I do is bark!” [laughs] So the next time we did it, all the kids look at me to make sure I know Q R S T U V. I said, “I know it, I know it! Don’t throw the focus to me!”
TP: Do you have any other favorite Barkley episodes or moments? Or other puppets you may have performed?
RBC: I played Doglion. I don’t know if you know about this scene. When ABC and Henson were going to work together, they called everyone in to ABC’s studio over near Lincoln Center.
TP: Would this have been in the ‘90s?
RBC: Yes. They were going to announce that they were going to do shows for ABC. Bob Iger [then-president and CEO of ABC] was there, and it was a hush-hush press conference. All the media was there but they didn’t know why they were being called to ABC. There was a stage, and chairs for the media to sit in, and on the stage was Bob Iger and Brian Henson and a podium.
And at the podium came Kermit the Frog. He and Gonzo were handling that part of the announcement, and Gonzo was under the impression that they now own ABC. He took two Lear jets to get across town to the studio. Kermit’s saying, “No, we don’t own ABC. We’re gonna work for ABC! You can’t spend that money!” Gonzo says, “Oh, you better tell Piggy that.”
Now, as a gag on Bob Iger, they had rebuilt his office on another soundstage. They even had a [backdrop] of the views outside the windows that he had of the actual street. There was a big carved wooden Indian that he had – this one was plaster. There was a ship that he had built. There was an actual Edward Hopper painting on the wall behind his desk. And [they showed on the monitors that] Miss Piggy has taken over his office, thinking the Muppets now own ABC.
TP: So this was a detail-for-detail recreation of his real office.
RBC: Absolutely. It looked like she was in his real office. And even that morning he had bought a Wine Digest magazine that he had showed his secretary, and she brought it in and put it on the set where he had it on the desk, for Miss Piggy to use. Miss Piggy looked gorgeous. She was very businesslike, and her hair was cropped short and flipped, and very tasteful.
But behind her, I’m rolling purple paint with a paint roller on the woodwork. Covering the walls with purple paint. I’m in the Doglion costume. Sweetums is on the other side, and he is tearing the curtains down, and he knocks over the Indian and it smashes on the floor.
Piggy is screaming at me, “Pink! I said pink!” I throw the roller down, and she calls for her phone. I pick up a French telephone, and I smash this model ship that the man took two years to build – of course it’s not his real one – and sweep it off the desk and slam the phone down. Then I take the Hopper painting off the wall and fling it across the stage. It’s smashed. And I put up the “Mona Piggy.”
I don’t remember what Sweetums was doing, but it was all destruction.
TP: Do you remember who was performing Sweetums for that?
RBC: Yeah, it was John Henson. We actually had our names on the door where we got into the costumes. We had names! I took mine home and put it on my bathroom door in honor of Daffy Duck. You know when Daffy goes to see Bugs Bunny and it says “STARRING BUGS BUNNY!” He’s complaining about his lack of star treatment, and his name is tacked to a dressing room door, and he goes in and you just hear mops and buckets being kicked around. He comes out and takes the sign off and it says “MEN.” So I put mine on my bathroom door.
So we keep smashing and crashing, and they keep cutting to Bob Iger, who’s gone white. Kermit finally gets through to Piggy and she says, “Hold it!” He says, “Piggy, we don’t own ABC!” She says, “What do we own, Disneyland?” “No.” “Manny’s Grill?” He says, “No! We’re going to do shows for ABC!”
She says, “Oh, so I can keep the office!” Then I throw papers all over the floor, there’s a big bowl of fruit and I’m eating all the fruit. The cops start pounding on the door.
Piggy says, “Okay, okay, okay! Hunker down boys, and call for pizza! It’s gonna be a long night. You’ll never take me alive, coppers!”
RBC: Now, poor Doglion. You know how some of the Muppets are made of foam inside. It was raining dried foam. I was breathing in the foam, going into my sinuses and everything. I think that was the last time they used Doglion.
TP: So he had not been refurbished in a while.
RBC: No, it was probably the last time Doglion was seen. You don’t want to breathe that stuff, but I was having the time of my life! Miss Piggy was yelling at me. Frank Oz said, “I know your vision’s not good in there, but if you can manage to pick up the office chair and you can slam it down at this angle, they’ll be able to see you and me through the wheels.” I was able to get it right on the desk, and the two of us hunkered down behind it waiting for the cops to break through.
Kermit apologizes to Bob Iger: “Uh, sorry, Mr. Iger…” Then Iger had to get up and speak. He said, “I, uh… I didn’t know they were going to do that… uhhh… Are there any questions?”
TP: So he had no idea that was happening, which meant for all he knew they were really in his office?
RBC: Right, and the great thing was at one point when the meeting was going a little dry, Frank said, “We have to get in there,” so he had Miss Piggy interrupt. She said, “I gotta go down to 14th Street to return a couple of wigs!” There was a long shot of his office, and it looked like a tornado had gone through. It was such a wreck.
Well, afterwards they bring him into the studio and show him, and it was such a great “gotcha” moment. So that was a real pleasure. I’ve always been a real fan of Piggy, of course, and to be able to be bullied by Miss Piggy was such a treat.
TP: Yeah, that is terrific.
RBC: Do you know about this movie Old Dogs?
TP: Yes, I wanted to ask you about that. That was with Henson puppets that were recycled from previous productions?
RBC: Right, I guess they were from shows that hadn’t gone or hadn’t been picked up. I think there were five. There was a buzzard of some kind, and I was Bozark the elephant, which was a great costume. You stand on your own two feet for that. He’s crenelated silk to make it look like elephant skin, and swinging your head you can really get that trunk moving. It’s really a terrific costume. There was a double-headed horse, and then there was a dragon. We were characters in Bernie Mac’s character’s kiddie show.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The buzzard was Beak, a character built for an unfinished Henson project called Muppetmobile. The two-headed horse was YesNo and was built for the same project. The dragon was Scales from the unaired Little Mermaid’s Island pilot. Read on for more about Bozark! Thanks to Muppet Wiki for info!]
RBC: In that part of the movie, Robin Williams is taken to see Bernie Mac’s show, and to meet him. They’re going to get Robin Williams into Bernie Mac’s show to impress his kids. I think that’s what’s going on. You see clips of the show with Bozark and the buzzard standing back to back, and then we start dancing. I did a booty drop, but it didn’t make it into the movie. Then there are showgirls dancing… When you look at the movie, you think, What kind of a show is this? [laughs]
RBC: The director asked, “Can you go down stairs?” I said, “Let me try!” I found I could get down stairs, so we did a backstage clip where it’s just me coming down the stairs and up to where Robin is waiting. And then I’m in the background, so I think I’m in a total of about fifteen seconds of the movie.
But we did that scene of me coming down the stairs… eighteen, nineteen times? It’s like three or four steps, but it’s doable for the costume. And Robin started incorporating me into his scene. He would say things like, “Good show!” John Travolta was focused in his own way, but Robin was so interactive. As soon as they cut, Robin was on. He was telling jokes, jokes, jokes jokes jokes jokes. Until they called “five, four” – he’s still going – “three” – he’s still going – “two” – he’s in character – “one” – he’s quiet and he’s in that kind of sensitive thing that he plays so well.
The crew got a huge wind fan for me so I could stand in front of it and get air inside. The director was not a Henson director, and he hadn’t worked with these kinds of costumes before, so we were in there for a long period of time. As long as I had that fan on breaks, I was fine, but it’s a long time to be in a full suit.
Robin Williams would do things like squeeze my elbow through the elephant’s elbow and say, “We’re going to get it on this take.” He had that feeling of what it’s like to be inside one of those big suits, and connect with the person inside the suit, as opposed to the director who’s directing the costumes.
But here’s the funny story. They gave us this ten-minute break. I went, I’d better get to the men’s room just in case. Now, you have to picture this costume. It unzips around the chest, or maybe around the stomach. It unzips and the top comes off, and then you’re wearing the elephant rear end and legs and the tail. And there’s suspenders holding it up.
RBC: I go to the men’s room, and there are three stalls, two of them regular-sized stalls and one big one, but somebody was in there, so I go into a regular-sized stall. Picture the stall in your mind: one side, you have the metal toilet paper [dispenser]. On the other side is the metal thing that holds the tissue [seat cover] if you want to sit down.
My concern was, I don’t want to tear the costume on either of these metal things. I’m being very careful getting into the stall, and I’m about as wide as the stall in this costume. I get in eventually, and I heard some creaking, and then I realize: The stall doors open in.
TP: And now you have to close it.
RBC: Right! I have to close the door. So I’m trying to reach behind me and find the door and I finally find the door and push the door closed. Then I realize, I can’t open the door! I’m stuck. The width of the costume, I couldn’t turn. I’m trying to turn and pull the costume in and not tear it on those two metal things. As I’m trying to turn, I’m hearing creak, creak, creak.
All of a sudden, the door comes flying open, but it opens out. I thought somebody must have pulled it open. At that point there’s a lot of space for me to turn around, and I turn around and nobody’s there. I go out in the room, and I realize: I’d broken the stall. The wall of the stall is bent, and that’s why the door felt like it flew open. I pulled it right off the hinges! America’s Funniest Home Videos, if they had filmed me in there – which is illegal, I guess – I would have been $10,000 richer. But I didn’t tear the costume!
TP: I’ve always been weirdly fascinated with that Bozark puppet. It was on a Henson show called Animal Jam where the character would just come out for five minutes and breakdance. It’s such an interesting puppet. The fact that it’s designed for dancing – is it easier to move around in than some of those big puppets?
RBC: Yes, it’s much lighter. It’s bulky, but not heavy. It has great movement. It’s beautifully constructed, and he’s got a funny face. That light silk – he’s of a width, but he’s not heavy. Doglion is heavier than he is. There’s a nice freedom to Bozark. The tricky thing is, there’s a space in front of your face in his chest where you can get air through. That’s why, when there was a break, having that great big fan blowing on me was such a pleasure.
Something Michelan Sisti came up with — when I started with Barkley, they just had a cardboard fan, and they would just wave it at my mouth. You use up so much oxygen in the galloping around – you really need gulps of air. So Miche told me about the Ninja Turtles [movies] where they used hair dryers and took the heating coil out of them, so then they would just stuff the dryer right in their faces, and it dries you off as well as giving you a lot of air. I mentioned that to [the Sesame Street crew] and they made one for me that worked wonderfully. I would finish a take and they would just shove a fan in my mouth until they were ready to go again.
TP: When I was Googling your credits, I came across your LinkedIn, which mentions something you called “Bossman with Harry Belafonte.” What was that for?
RBC: Oh, yes! That’s a great costume! I think that was from The Muppet Show.
TP: What did you perform that for?
RBC: They were giving out awards for couples from New York who had changed the city. That kind of thing, and Kermit and Piggy had gotten the award – as well as some human beings.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: An inquiry to the Jim Henson Company archivist Karen Falk reveals that this event was most likely a 1999 benefit for the charity Save the Children, which honored Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney, and featured Harry Belafonte as a guest performer. Thanks, Karen!]
RBC: What was cool for me was, I had worked with Harry Belafonte when I was sixteen. I changed scenery in a tent circuit – stars would travel around from tent to tent in northeast America. You’d have Harry Belafonte one week, and then Mitzi Gaynor one week, and Liberace, and “On a Clear Day You See Forever.” They’d do a musical. It was pretty cool.
Harry Belafonte was one when I first started there. I mostly mopped the stage, and then at one point he calls for a stool and I brought the stool down. I’d always loved Harry Belafonte so that was a cool thing for me, but now here I was getting to do a number as a Bossman standing next to him.
RBC: There’s that big head, and huge feet, and that’s one puppeteer. Rick Lyon was the feet and the head, and the head was on a fishing pole if I remember correctly. I was standing behind him, and I had these ten-foot long poles I was holding onto on each side, and I was the hands. The hands were very lightweight, floppy things, so when you get the technique of it you can wave them across. We would reach out and put our arm around Harry and pat his shoulder.
And we could pat people’s heads in the audience, and the head could go way out over the proscenium. He’s a surprising puppet – he’s big, and you don’t realize how close he can get to you. Even though he’s standing up on the stage, he can stretch right off the stage. That’s quite a workout, too.
I think there was a weather front coming, and I had a migraine. I remember I was sleeping backstage with my head on one of the Bossman’s feet while I was waiting for our turn. When it was time to get going, they brought Kermit and Piggy out, and Kermit was in a green bag and Piggy was in a purple bag.
This cracked me up, and it relieved my headache – Frank reached in the bag and pulled out Piggy, and she was already alive. And she had an attitude. She looked at him and flipped her hair, and the look she gave him was “How dare you put me in that bag?” And she turned away from him, and walked away from him! It wasn’t “I’m here and I’ve gotta get my puppet on my hand now.” It was: Piggy was there, and she knew she’d been put away in a bag.
TP: She was immediately the character.
RBC: Immediately. She gave him such a look and walked away from him. Then they went onstage and their sketch was so much fun.
Stay tuned for part three! Thanks to Muppet Wiki for images and research assistance! Click here to smash Bob Iger’s model ship on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com