Muppet Gals Talking is a new series of interviews and spotlights on female-identifying 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.
“Frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and things” take on new meaning in a line of bags and shirts designed by illustrator and former Muppet Show performer Betsy Baytos.
Betsy designed a merchandise line for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organization. Each product–including t-shirts, bag, and mugs–features a mother with its baby animal and the slogan “We’re someone, not something.”
Betsy, best known to Muppet fans as the performer of Betsy Bird from Season 5 of The Muppet Show, said she tries to do with her illustrations what she did as a performer: “I work really hard to capture the essence of movement and connect with the audience.”
In this case, she is illustrating whales swimming, cows nuzzling, and chickens cuddling to promote the message of respect for animals. But in previous work as an animator and eccentric dancer, she studied animals and movement as a way to entertain.
At 18, she was one of few women accepted into Disney’s trainee program to recruit young animators. She wasn’t an animator yet, but her sketchbook samples earned her a place to work with Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the renowned Disney animators known for creating the original animated classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Peter Pan, and Cinderella.
When she was paired with animator Cliff Nordberg she started to act out the movement of characters for him to animate. She was active in dance and theater and was particularly drawn to eccentric dancing, which is individualized, exaggerated movement. Think of Charlie Chaplin walking and moving. Or, for that matter, Goofy. Betsy modeled that character’s movements for “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.”
For the Disney film Pete’s Dragon, she did all the steps of the dragon Elliott by sporting a big foam tail and moving around a parking lot. For the mom in the 2009 animated film A Princess and A Frog, she created a gait for someone short, squat, and a couple centuries old.
“The beauty of it is that when you see a character move, you know exactly who that character is,” she said. “It is all about character, how you walk, sit, and move.”
In 1980, through a connection, she was able to get a meeting with Jim Henson at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills when he was visiting California. To prepare, Betsy had studied ostriches and emus at the zoo to create bird walks and neck movements, ways the wings would move, and how the tail feathers would shake.
“I must have seen them on television,” she said of the Muppets. “I thought that I could do that as a big bird – with all the dance and animation I had done. I thought I would love to do a 3-D animated character and that’s what I set out to do.”
In a meeting room at the hotel, she cleared space in front of a fireplace and got out her boom box and drawings of the character she developed, excitedly handing them to Jim. Then she started to move like the bird character she had developed.
Jim saw something in it because she had a training session with Frank Oz on how to puppeteer and joined The Muppet Show set in London.
Betsy Bird appeared in two numbers in the episode hosted by James Coburn. Betsy developed the costuming with Cheryl Blaylock and Caroly Wilcox. The bird had billowing feathers in bright oranges and yellows. She looked out of the neck of the puppet and didn’t speak while dancing – Jim Henson performed the head in close-ups.
She had three days to memorize the body language and movements, including high kicks and shaking tail feathers. For the first number “The Varsity Drag,” she didn’t have much space, so she had to memorize body positions that didn’t take up much room as she choreographed the steps for the dance hall bird. In another number called “Bird Walk,” she had more room to strut with walks and kicks and backbends.
She also helped out with other puppeteering.
“They knew I could position myself well,” she said, “so they put me in the strangest of places, like in a pirate ship with a pig pirate at the end of my arm.”
She also experienced what she described as a bit of hazing from the other puppeteers on her first day. They asked her to stand on top of a huge ladder and hold a chicken hawk puppet in the air. As she waited for the signal to go, she felt the blood draining from her arm as it went numb and she was horrified to realize that she would not be able to move the chicken’s mouth for the one line of dialogue she had. When the moment finally came, she couldn’t move the puppet mouth a bit, and everyone laughed and applauded.
She went on to perform all varieties of puppets, but she was especially drawn to the full body characters. She was working with them and in them to see if she could figure out a way to have better movement in the huge costumes. Given the amount of space between the body and the inside of the costume, the movements have to be especially exaggerated to get any expression from the puppet, limiting the amount of choreography possible.
She remembers dancing as Timmy Monster in the Shirley Bassey “Fire Down Below” sketch.
“You can move like crazy on the inside and nothing registers on the outside,” she said.
She came up with other characters she said she would “drag” Jim in to show. In one she attached a tail and would crawl across the floor like a lizard, but if the whole scene was turned sideways, it would look like she was crawling into a tree.
“I was always doing other characters. I don’t think Jim quite knew to do with me,” she laughed. “He was very quiet, but always open to it.”
The Muppet Show was ending and she had an opportunity to go to Broadway to perform in Stardust, which showcased her eccentric dancing, so she didn’t end up staying with the Muppets. She has gone on to research and begin making a documentary on eccentric dancing, as well as to illustrate and write a series on animals and climate change for teenagers. She is also planning to do more designs for the PETA line.
While the Muppets are not known for their gentle treatment of animals – I’m looking at you, Swedish Chef – Betsy takes it all in stride.
“It’s comedy,” she said. “And you do what you need to do with that character to reach an audience.”
She remembers one time Jim asked her how chickens would fly. Betsy took the chicken puppet and studied the wings and rod, working on different ways the chicken would move. In the end, the puppeteers just threw the chickens across the stage.
“I was like, that’s it? That’s how you would make a chicken fly?” she said. “But you have to go beyond reality to make it fun.”
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by L. Drake Lucas