Part 1: The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie
Part 2: Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Star Wars
Part 3: More Fraggles, Little Muppet Monsters, and No Strings USA
From Mokey Fraggle and Cotterpin Doozer to The Dark Crystal“s Kira to Gaffer the Cat to Yoda’s right hand, Kathy Mullen has been front-and-center with the Muppet troupe since the ’70s. So of course, we were incredibly pleased and honored to get the opportunity to sit down with her and get the scoop about her career with the Muppets and Jim Henson, including her work on The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, The Dark Crystal, The Christmas Toy, and even The Empire Strikes Back.
We’ll be presenting our interview in three parts over the next week or so, and when the final portion goes live, we’ll also present the audio from the interview. So if you’re the type to prefer listening to people talk about Muppets rather than read the words, feel free to hold off until then.
Also coming up in part 3 of our interview is a description of the project Kathy (along with her husband, Muppet designer Michael Frith) is currently involved with: No Strings Films. As of today, they launched an Indiegogo campaign to try and raise the funds they need to complete their project, which involves producing puppet films for kids living in Syrian refugee camps. It’s a wonderful project with gorgeous puppets, and we hope you’ll consider donating. We’ll have more details about the project soon, but since time is of the essence, we wanted to inform you all about No Strings Films right away. Click here to visit the Indiegogo campaign site and learn more about the project.
And now, on with the interview! Ladies and gentlemen: The wonderful Kathy Mullen!
ToughPigs: Thank you so much for joining us for this. First of all, we want to know how you first got involved in puppetry and how that led to working with Jim Henson and the Muppets.
Kathy Mullen: Well, it was a complete accident. Never intended at all. I always wanted to be an actress. That never happened, but anyhow. I moved to New Orleans in my early 20s and I met a woman named Nancy Staub who had a puppet theater. She hired me and I worked with her for four years doing live puppetry. I’d never worked with puppets before. It was just so much fun! So I stuck with it for those four years, and then I came up here [to New York] with the idea of being an actress and started doing children’s theater. Meanwhile, Nancy became head of Puppeteers of America. It was 1979, and she was working on a big festival with Jim Henson as the co-chair. So she and Jim were working on the big festival, and I was doing my children’s theater, and in the summer I had no work because we worked in the schools. Nancy came up to visit to work with Jim and I said, “Oh, I’ve got to get a summer job, what am I going to do?” and Nancy said, “You know, the Muppets are doing a movie and they need help in the shop. I’ll get you in.” And she did. So I started working in the shop, and she apparently behind-the-scenes said to Jim, “You should audition her.” I didn’t know this until much later. So he did, and he hired me to work in the shop and to do background puppets for the Muppet Movie.
So I ended up going out to LA, this was my first summer with Muppets, the summer of ’79. I went out and spent a couple of months out there, and Jim asked me to come back to UK to work on The Muppet Show. It was the second half of the second season of Muppet Show. The reason he did that was because he was working on The Dark Crystal at the time. They had already been working on that for, oh, a couple years easily by then, researching and developing. He never felt like he needed women puppeteers, and there weren’t many because as far as Jim was concerned, the funny part was a guy playing the female character, like Piggy. And he was right, that was funny! So why would you necessarily need female puppeteers. He didn’t. But he felt very strong that he needed that on The Dark Crystal. He wanted a real female on this one. So he said to me, almost out of the box when I got there, “I’m doing this thing and I think I want you to do this part. You need to come and get into training.” So I went back to The Muppet Show and I started to work. Now, mind you, I was totally new to this world of television. The puppetry I was doing with Nancy was [holds up hand like she’s performing a “Mr. Rogers”-style hand puppet], sometimes it was rods and occasionally we would do mouth puppets [uses hand as a mouth, Muppet-style], but I didn’t know where to look on a monitor, I didn’t know anything. I knew NOTHING! I learned it on The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show.
KM: Everything from making a pair of eyes for Piggy to… I can’t even remember, it was a long time ago. Making the eyes for Piggy, I remember that. When she was diving on the guys, when she was having her big battle with the bad guys in the Muppet Movie. She had this one shot where she had to have these big, wide eyes, I remember making those. A lot of stuff like that, little stuff, because I was not a master builder by any stretch.
TP: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you were in the pond with Jim for “Rainbow Connection”. Is that right?
KM: Yeah. I wasn’t actually in the pond. He was inside the submersible. Steve [Whitmire] and I were just making the hands on the radio-controlled banjo work. Then he came out for close-ups, and he didn’t have to be in the submersible. I can’t remember exactly what I did, but Steve and I did it. We were just doing hands for him. I did a lot of hands for Jim through the years, through those Muppet years. I right-handed for him a lot and for Frank a lot. That’s good training. What exactly, I can’t remember everything. [Laughs]
KM: Muppet Movie was a revelation, needless to say, to me. It was a lot of fun. Everybody was having a great old time in Hollywood. It was a first for the Muppets, so everyone went Hollywood! Rented big houses, had big cars, it was hilarious. I didn’t realize how hilarious at the time. It was “disco summer,” if you could imagine… the summer of ’79. It was Donna Summer singing “MacArthur Park”. That was the summer. There were parties… it was crazy! And it was fun. It was very different when we got back to London.
One of the sillier things we did was when we went up to Monterey to do the driving stuff, and we all stayed at a hotel in Monterey with this giant hot tub. The entire cast and crew got into the hot tub and were sucking down margaritas through a tube. Then we had to get up bright and early the next morning to shoot Big Bird walking along in the desert and meeting the guys in the car. We were all so hung over (every one of us) and I’m trying to put someone into the bear suit. Whoever was driving the car had to get into a bear suit to do the real driving, and then we’d do a close-up of the Fozzie puppet. But the actual driver was a person in a bear suit. So I was trying to pin this person into the bear suit. “Ow, ow!” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” But that was only one day. We were not hung over usually.
TP: Going back to The Muppet Show, do you remember the first speaking character that you played?
KM: I did this old lady frog, who was the scout leader of the Frog Scouts… Robin’s scout leader. I don’t remember anything else about it.
TP: Mrs. Appleby?
KM: Appleby!! Yes, I didn’t remember that. That, and then I did a little girl singing with an beetle puppet…. Alexander Beetle. But I wasn’t speaking, I was singing. That was the first bit that I did. What I remember is that I’d never done this before, and it was The Muppet Show, and the one that was kind of training me was Frank. I was so panicked, Frank was up in the office, and I actually sent a PA up there to beg him to come down to the set to help me. He did, with a “Whaddya need? Whaddya want?” that was always Frank. His humor was always so dry, “Okay skirt, whaddya need?” He was joking. I’d go [whimpers] “…can you tell me what to do?” and of course, he did.
TP: Was it particularly difficult being only one of two or three female performers at the time?
KM: A couple of women came in and out, Karen Prell was one of them, she came for a season or a part of a season. Another woman, a dancer, came in. And there were some women before me. But the only one who stayed was Louise Gold. So Louise and I were there all the time. And of course, all the gals in the shop. So we never lacked for women, we only lacked for women performers. And you know, Jim didn’t need, at that point, a lot of women. “Let Frank do it!”
TP: Was the bar set really high for you to try and be as funny as the other performers?
KM: You know, I’m not a funny person. I’m not a funny performer. It’s not my strength. So it wasn’t a challenge, I just knew I couldn’t do it so I didn’t bother. You’re either a funny person or you’re not. So I’d just try to do a good job and I eventually became a very good puppet manipulator. I think one of the things that was true in the puppet world, at least in Jim’s puppet world, was that men were better manipulators than women. For whatever reason, there weren’t a lot of women who could really wiggle the dolly well. I was probably the first one in the Muppet world. Now we have many women, we have Heather Asch, Jen Barnhart, Stephanie D’Abruzzo and many that I don’t even know. There are many wonderfully talented women, but they got brought up on it. People like me came in very late in life. I was already into my 30s when I started this stuff.
KM: Yes, that was my little training course.
TP: Was that a character that was created especially for you?
KM: Jim wanted a cat, and he said, “Give that to her, let her practice.” That was his way of making it easy for me to get really used to the monitor and following things and it was a little training exercise. It was very effective.
TP: Is it difficult being on screen with a character who doesn’t really move much, you’re kind of stuck in the wall…
KM: I’m sure it was very difficult, but I have no memory of it. [Laughs] Or I blocked it out. What I do remember is that it was an exercise in paying attention the whole time. Because when I was in the background, I couldn’t go dead. There was all kinds of stuff happening in the foreground. There were three cameras, so I couldn’t go dead and then, “Oops, I’m in this one!” I had to stay alive the whole time.
TP: Did you meet your husband [Muppet designer Michael Frith] on the set of The Muppet Show?
KM: I met him at the shop. Michael’s office was at the back of the shop. So the table where I was sewing Kermits for The Muppet Movie was exactly next to Michael’s office.
TP: That’s serendipitous.
KM: Yes, very romantic!
KM: Jill, Bill and Gil.
TP: Did they basically tell you to do an impression of Kermit the Frog?
KM: We all did impressions of Kermit the Frog. They didn’t tell us, we said, [whispers] “Let’s all do Kermit, okay?” So we did and everybody laughed, so we kept it.
TP: That’s just how frogs talk.
KM: Yes, that’s what we decided. We were just going to do it and see what Jim says. Jim liked it! [Laughs]
TP: I wanted to ask about “Free to Be a Family”. You got to go to Russia to perform Miss Piggy?
KM: That was in Red Square, we did that in Red Square. It was a very, very strange trip.
TP: What was it like going to Russia at that time?
KM: It was very weird. We stayed in this giant, old Soviet hotel with high ceilings, and nothing else, barely a rag to sleep on. We were shooting in the offices of the big state-run television station. Jim was there, me and Jim and Michael and Norman Stiles and Chris Cerf. We were supposed to shoot in this room, and there was this woman sitting outside, a big Soviet woman. The Russian producer says, “We’re shooting in here this morning,” and she says, “Paper? You have paper?” “You’ve had the paper, we sent it to you, you’ve had it for weeks.” “No paper, no go.” She wouldn’t let us in the place. We sat there for easily an hour, me, Jim, Michael, all of us sitting there until somebody called somebody who was at his house down on the Black Sea somewhere, and finally they got the word and they let us in to do the shoot. And now we’ve got no time, so we’re doing this little thing with Kermit and this little pig character that was a children’s favorite in Russia, and I was doing Piggy for Frank, because Frank didn’t want to come. Jim was having this conversation with the little pig character, and we do a take or two and Jim says, “Um, I think we can do that funnier.” And the Russian director says, “Is funny enough.”
TP: That seems like the Russian motto.
KM: “Funny enough, let’s go.”
TP: It seems like a long way to go for such a short segment.
KM: They were supposed to do a lot more. But we did do Red Square and driving around, we did some stuff that we could’ve done in front of a blue screen.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Kathy Mullen, in which we tackle The Dark Crystal, performing the right hand of Yoda, and Fraggle Rock!
Click here to drink margaritas in a hot tub on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com