Muppet Gals Talking – Lara MacLean

Published: July 10, 2023
Categories: Feature, Interviews

Muppet Gals Talking is a new series of interviews and spotlights on female puppeteers, puppet builders, and other creatives who’ve worked with Jim Henson and the Muppets. This series is researched, written, and expertly produced by journalist Drake Lucas.

All images in this article are property of Lara MacLean and used with permission.

Lara MacLean knows things, important things, like the recipe for Cookie Monster’s cookies, the number of travel bags Big Bird fits in, and how the crowd at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade sounds from inside Oscar’s can. As wrangler, puppeteer, puppet builder, and Cookie Monster’s personal chef, Lara (known as Lars) helps shape the Sesame Street world.  

It’s full circle for someone whose childhood was molded by the Muppets.

“My sense of humor in life is from the Muppets,” she said. “That’s my aesthetic. I’m kind of a retro type person.”

She describes herself as a product of the 70’s, someone who loves Barry Manilow and television theme songs with a disco flare. Born in 1972, she was the prime age for Sesame Street as it hit its stride and she became “addicted,” followed by The Muppet Show starting in 1976. She never missed an episode.

She relished catching glimpses of arm rods and started wondering who helped Big Bird into his costume. She realized there were more people working on these shows than she could see.

“I bet people are having fun there,” she thought and decided she wanted to join them.

When Jim Henson died her senior year of high school, she was moved to go to his memorial service. Her parents agreed to let her take the day off school, but wouldn’t drive her into Manhattan from New Jersey.

She found a ride and since she didn’t know what time things would start, she showed up early – early enough to be seated behind the human cast from Sesame Street and to get one of the butterfly puppets that fluttered throughout the service. She knew as she sat there that she had to work for the Henson Company.

While she was a student at Sarah Lawrence college, she convinced the University of Connecticut to let her join their puppetry program for her junior year as a guest student. She took as many puppetry classes as she could, unsurprisingly favoring puppetry for television. She also started building her puppetry community, connecting with other puppeteers who attended the University of Connecticut, such as Tim Lagasse, Jennifer Barnhart, and Mark Gale, and attending the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center over the summer.

She circled Sesame Street for a bit, first interning for the Henson Company in public relations during college, then an internship at the Henson workshop under the supervision of Connie Peterson where she made puppeteer headbands, sewed belts to hold batteries in the costumes for Dinosaurs, and did some sewing for The Muppet Christmas Carol.  She was wardrobe assistant for Sesame Street Live, followed by a summer of sorting Big Bird feathers. When an opportunity to be a wrangler opened up, she volunteered. That was in 1995 and she has been working for Sesame Street on and off (but mostly on) ever since.

Much of her time on Sesame Street has been as wrangler, where she knows the puppets and what they will need on any given day. For every script, she pulls the props and puppets needed and packs them up for set. She navigates legal approval, down to wrapping paper design and bottle shapes to make sure there is no copyright infringement if they are using something the workshop didn’t make. On set, she is a watchful eye, looking out for stray pieces of fuzz, viewing monitors to make sure the pins in the arm rod can’t be seen, and seeking out any other signs that will break the world for the viewers, denying them the mistakes she relished seeing as a child. She anticipates mistakes to prevent them, such as rushing over between takes to brush crumbs out of Cookie Monster’s fur so it doesn’t look like he has already eaten the cookie he is about to eat.

And she probably made the cookies that she brushes out of the fur. Frustrated that the recipe they used to use (spray painted rice cakes) didn’t look right when Cookie Monster bit into them, Lars was determined to perfect a recipe for a cookie that would look like a real cookie but not stain Cookie Monster’s fur with butter and oil. She spent a weekend developing something that looks like a chocolate chip cookies and is technically edible but involves mostly pancake mix with grape nuts, puffed rice – not Rice Krispies – instant coffee, and hot glue as chocolate chips.

Which has led to many, many hours since 2006 baking Cookie Monster’s cookies “low and slow” to ensure the perfect breakaway.

While Cookie Monster eagerly devours them, unsuspecting humans have had more trouble. When Adam Sandler made an appearance on Sesame Street and had to eat the same cookie as Cookie Monster, no one prepared him that it would not be sweet. He gamely made it through the segment but made a lot of blech faces to recover once the camera turned off.

In addition to prop cooking, Lars likes cooking shows and is a foodie in her own right. She completed 1600 hours of work study at the Institute for Culinary Education, enough to attend the school for free, but Johnny and the Sprites offered her a job as head wrangler plus assisting, so she decided her true path was still puppetry. She has the culinary certificate, though, in her kitchen while she bakes for Cookie Monster.

Lars counts herself lucky that she has gotten to see a lot on The Street, including original performers. When she first created the cookies, Frank Oz was still dropping by to perform Cookie Monster and other characters, and Carroll Spinney was still Big Bird and Oscar.

“It was always nice when Carroll Spinney was on set,” she said. “He was one of the last of the originals that was around for a long time. He always talked to me and told me stories.”

Lars considers Oscar the Grouch as one of her favorite characters and hints at a special bond.

“I definitely talked to Oscar,” she said. “Even though he acted like he didn’t like it, maybe he gave me a hug and a kiss. Maybe.”

All the time that she was wrangling, she was also learning. When she first started and Sesame Street had more of a budget and went “around the corner,” she had early opportunities to do puppeteering. She remembers performing her first puppet on Sesame Street – an orange honker at the Furry Arms Hotel.

Since then, she has assisted for puppeteers, including right-handing for Tingo on Sesame English and performing Heart’s eyes on Helpsters. She is one of the Sesame Street puppeteer mentees, which provides more opportunities for assisting. She has also done non-Henson related projects, including puppeteering the antennae for the Netflix series The Tick. She finds joy in assisting, but admits she is still waiting for her big break into the puppeteering world.

Short of achieving her dream of her own character, she is thankful to be working at a place that feels like home, where she loves the people and gets to be around puppets.

“Where else would I want to be?” she asked.

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by Drake Lucas

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