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Welcome to part 3 of our interview with Bonnie Erickson, former head of the Muppet Workshop and current Executive Director of the Jim Henson Legacy. Click here for part one, and here for part two! Today’s installment might just be the best yet, as Ms. Erickson goes down the list of her most notable contributions to The Muppet Show, and talks about the evolution of puppet-making over the course of Jim Henson’s career and beyond.

TP: Let’s talk for a minute about the Swedish Chef.  How did the approach to the design change when you knew you were making a puppet with real hands?

BE: Jim was the primary mover for that puppet.  Jim and Frank and Jerry Juhl, and you probably even know the story of how that came about.  Everyone comes to Muppets and says, “Oh, I think I was the inspiration for this or that,” but Jim, if you look at his career or you look at his childhood, there are these things that keep happening that show up in a much more blown-up way later in life.  I think he met some chef or some Swede somewhere along the way, and that happened. As it happened, I only knew a few things in Norwegian, which I would say and we played around with all that part of it, but this was Jim’s creation.

Jim really did build that puppet…  I helped, I did some finishing on it for him and stuff, but Jim had the idea for it, and the sketch originally came from Mike Frith.  Caroly Wilcox did costuming and some of the sketches for that, and we can see them on the pattern… It’s really fascinating to see that stuff after all these years, see the pattern pages that we all worked on, and some of us would make sketches of what we were doing at the time.

The reason they did the live hands was that there was no other way to manipulate the materials in the way they wanted to.  It was unique — again, here’s another “Muppet look” — but you know, none of these things is typically new.  I go to see so many things that are reminiscent of things that Jim did, and then when you get into the history of puppetry you see that that’s reminiscent of something that somebody else did before that.  Everybody’s adapting these things to their own use.

The hands were a particularly practical way to approach the Swedish Chef.  The only way to throw that stuff around.  And believe me, I know they threw it around, because half the time I was sitting under that table when they were shooting, and shredding that stuff, saying, (adopts Swedish Chef voice) “Reeya reeya runkin, hessen hetta blonkin!”  They would make up their own silly words.

We had fun.  I can only hope that when people are watching these shows or these reruns or even the new things, that they have as much fun watching them as we did when we were doing them, because we were cracking up all the time.

TP: The Swedish Chef is one of the few characters that doesn’t have eyeballs.  He just has eyebrows.  How do you think that affects the character?   We hear a lot about eye focus, but he doesn’t have eyes.

BE: If you look at some of the Anythings on Sesame Street, there are a number of puppets with no eyes.  They have brows or whatever.  They become sort of a one-trick pony, but once you know who the character is, it doesn’t seem to matter.  It’s sort of like Piggy — she’s shy, she’s seductive, she’s flirty, and her eyes never move.  Her pupils don’t move; they’re staying in the same place.  That is the skill of the puppeteer, who is making you believe this and who has transferred all of that performance into the tip of his fingers.

I don’t know what the comments from people have been about the brow stuff, but it creates feeling, it’s a graphic look, it’s a signature characteristic.  And monobrows mean things to people. So we always thought that was great. If we could find fur fabric that made a good eyebrow, we were happy people.

TP: Going back to the Country Trio… Was it difficult to create a puppet likeness of your boss and your coworkers?

BE: No, it never occurred to me that it would be a problem! (Laughs.)  It was fun. I did the sketches first, and Jim saw them and liked them and said go ahead and do it, and I don’t recall that it was for anything special… We used them, but I think it was just because I thought it would be a fun project to do.

At that time, that’s what those guys wore.  Jim was wearing a lot of country-western kinds of things, with the fringe and things like that.  It’s the period. It’s so set in that time frame.  And the Jim puppet is down at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta now, so you can go take a look at it there, but I always liked to see the three of them together, because it was such a great point in time.

TP: With the humanoid puppets that you built for Bremen, was it difficult finding the balance between puppet and human?  Was it always the intention for those characters to be humans with puppet heads?

BE: Jim wanted to do live-action, and he wanted to have the humans distinct from the animals, which were marionettes and puppets, so these were human costumes and puppets.  I didn’t have any problem with it, but I can tell you the puppeteers did. (Laughs.)  It was hot, it was sticky… I have a wonderful picture of Jim sitting with Caleb’s head sort of stuck back on his head, and he’s sitting forward in a chair with his pants rolled all the way up because it was so hot, and with these funny old shoes on…

Those costumes really were tricky, because they had to switch from performing as a full-body puppet, and then there would be a cross-cut, so we really had to match the shots and stuff like that with the puppets.  But again, it was something Jim wanted to try, and it was very different from anything he’d done before.

TP: I don’t think we’ve ever seen any humanoid characters like that since then.  Do you think that lends itself better to monsters and larger characters?

BE: I don’t know.  When you think of Dark Crystal, for instance, they’re not as humanoid, but it’s an extension of that; it’s just a more bizarre look.  It’s a much more fantasy world, but it functions the same way.  They were wearing those costumes, but they also at the same time had puppets for close-ups and doing special effect-type things.  So again, it just evolved.  The look of it changed, but the mechanism is still very similar to what we did on that show.  I haven’t seen it for a while, but I’ll have to go take a look, and I’m sure it’s rather “Oh my gosh, that’s how we did that then!”

TP: Do you revisit the old stuff very often?

BE: I do, every once in a while, and I certainly got all of the Muppet Show DVDs when they came out.  I’ve got children now who like to watch them, and when we tour the retrospective, I’ve introduced them a couple of times, so I get to see them again.

The things that knock me out are — there’s a section in there where Jim and Frank are doing guest star announcements, where they had to do one right after the other, and Jerry Juhl would write suggestions, and it’s Jim and Frank and sometimes Dave Goelz and other people, but primarily Jim and Frank doing these quick bits, and if you see them — bang, bang, bang — they’re hilarious.  Fozzie comes out with a puppet on his hand… Just really silly stuff, and those are the things that I get a kick out of.  I love seeing all of those, the revivals.  And of course with the Jim Henson Legacy, we often will do an evening where we’ll show some of these very special things that people don’t normally get to see.

TP: (Joe, to Ryan) Did we have any more character questions?

BE: I want to talk about George.

TP: Let’s talk about George!

BE: George the Janitor.  I thought he was underused. (Laughs.)

TP: I agree!

BE: When you ask me about my favorites… What is it about old men? I don’t know.  But I really did like doing George and Statler and Waldorf.  They were very fun to do, and George was very funny too.  I still have the picture in my mind that we did with Jim for TV Guide for the first year we did The Muppet Show, and they shot all the puppets we could possibly put together, and Jim in the middle as one of the heads.  When you look at those, and you go, “Oh, I remember that puppet — but look at this one!  It became famous.”  Partly because there was a look, or partly because there was a special piece that was written, or because the performer did something special.  You never know.  And we never really knew what was going to hit. Except for Piggy, of course, who had dreams.

That was just the way things worked, and so you had a lot of puppets who came to the foreground… George, after we did the Valentine’s Show, where you did see a little more of him, in The Muppet Show it was mainly “At the Dance.”  Mildred also was another one I did that sometimes got used, but I don’t know if she showed up later in other things or not.  There were a lot of characters that were really worthy.  Some of them worked out and got used a lot, some of them not so much.

The same thing has happened on Sesame Street.  They’ll do a character with the Anythings and then they’ll do it again and again, and it’ll become really popular and then they’ll get their own role.  So that happens.  You can still become a star.

TP: You built the Newsman also?

BE: I did.  Again, this was script-driven — they needed a newsman.  I always thought he had a sort of similarity to one of the Anythings that we did for Sesame Street. Sesame Street is very much circles, ovals, triangles, and things like that.  When we started to do The Muppet Show, we went a different direction, but he’s sort of a reminder of that style.

TP: And you built Zoot as well?

BE: Zoot.  Now there’s one I’d have to say is one of my favorites.  I guess all my children are my favorites. (Laughs.)  That one is because my husband Wayde Harrison and I went to see Gato Barbieri.  This was right after he did the score for a film called Last Tango in Paris, and he was playing at the Blue Note.  I always carry a little sketchbook.  I don’t always use it, but you never know.  And he was playing, and he’s very distinctive.  I love his music.  He was wearing a blue or brown hat, and he had on this sort of African shirt, and the dark glasses.  And as an aside, he now has macular degeneration, so I wonder if the sunglasses were a precursor to that as well as being hip.

So there he was with his saxophone, so I made this quick sketch that I brought in to Jim, which was part of some sketches I did for the band.  A lot of us did different sketches.  I brought in this sketch of Gato, and that became Zoot.  It was Dave Goelz who built that, and he’s gone through some changes too, because he’s bag-o-toast, the original.  That was scott foam. Beautiful blue skin, but it just did not last very long.

As a matter of fact, when the Muppet crew was here last year doing the NBC Rockefeller Center Christmas special, I happened to be up there for that just to say hello.  Debbie McClellan [of Muppets Studio] was with the performers and had been in the park, and her dog met another dog, and the two [dog owners] got to talking, and it turned out to be Gato Barbieri’s wife.

She said, “I think my husband is the inspiration for one of the puppets.”  Debbie wasn’t aware of that, but she came back and told Dave Goelz.  So Dave let me know, and I got in touch with Gato, and we went to hear him again, and I now have his album signed from Last Tango, and I have a photo of him with his son.  And his son evidently heard about this because I had done a film presentation in Argentina, which is where Gato’s from.  His son reads the Spanish papers, and saw this article that mentioned that I had done Zoot who was inspired by Gato Barbieri.  So you just never know…This is how many years later?  So it’s a wonderful story, and he’s still as good a musician as he was then.

TP: Was there a specific way puppet-building was assigned?  Would Jim say, “You build this character, you build that character”?

BE: Initially Jim would assign things.  When I became head of the shop, I would probably be instrumental in deciding what was happening, based mainly on schedules. There wasn’t anybody who couldn’t do what we needed to do.  As time went on, people seemed to develop an affinity for a certain style, and that would be taken into consideration, but for the most part, everyone was a skilled builder.  Everyone learned and shared their skills.  And again, people came from different backgrounds, and learned what needed to be learned to do it.

TP: It sounds like you had a lot of freedom as far as building the puppets… Were there ever any instances where you or another builder would create the puppet and Jim would say, “No, that’s not quite what I had in mind”?

BE: Usually it was script-driven. There was the one puppet we did that appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show called The Musician, that was purely something I did as experimentation with this carving technique, and Jim said, “Put a tuxedo on him, we’ll throw him into the show.”  For the most part, I would say things were predetermined as time went on, and we didn’t have much free time on our hands.  When we did, we would experiment.

When we had actual assignments, Jim would come through always to see what the work was after somebody was given a job to do, and you just had to wait to hear what his “Hmmm…” would be like.  Because “Hmmm…” meant that there was still some room for something, and we all got very good at interpreting what that was.  He also could articulate the kinds of things that he wanted.

An enormous job, and another challenge, was the Trash Heap for Fraggle Rock.  This was done by Jane Gootnick, and Jane agonized a bit over what had to happen, because there was so much going on in that thing.  It was enormous!  So there was a lot of back and forth of Jim coming to see what he wanted added, and of course he was also thinking of it from a performable point of view.  What kinds of things we can add later that we’re not going to use now.  So that was a challenge.

Later on, as things became more specifically drawn and illustrated as far as what was going to be seen, Jim was looking at that and deciding if that was what he wanted in the final product, so there wasn’t as much room for improvisation… The jazz of building puppets.  That was certainly true when they got to movies.  They were watching budgets, they had to know how much material would be used, they were using other people who had specific skills. Just the choreography and how it all worked together in the end. I mean, can you imagine, some of those things from The Dark Crystal, those tall, walking characters, the Landstriders? I often think about that when I see The Lion King [on Broadway], for instance.  Yes, Jim made this possible. All these puppeteers doing new and old work have looked at what other people have done and used it as inspiration, as Jim did.

So I would say… yes, he gave us a lot of feedback. (Laughs.)

Thanks once again to Bonnie Erickson for her time, insight, and memories! Click here to express your love of George the Janitor on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

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