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.
If you have seen Elmo, Abby, Zoe, Wembley, Gobo, or a Muppet Newsman with a nick in his lip, then you have seen Rollie Krewson’s work. Some of her pieces are now behind glass in museum exhibits, but you most likely saw them singing, counting, blowing something up, running away from something about to blow up, or maintaining a running gag.
Rollie has been a puppet builder and designer for The Jim Henson Company for almost 50 years, long enough to have assisted in puppeteering during the Muppets’ one year on Saturday Night Live, to have right-handed Rowlf alongside Jim Henson on The Muppet Show, and to have seen two productions she originally built puppets for – The Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock – return for a new generation.
From building her first puppets – Koozebanian Pups – for pilot of the Muppet Show to sending Sesame Street puppets via Uber to performers’ homes during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rollie has been an integral part of helping create the Muppet universe. Or, as she would describe it, part of the family.
“That’s what I like about the workshop. It’s like family,” she said. “Like all families, at times it’s dysfunctional. But it has always been interesting.”
A few signs from Rollie’s life would have pointed to her future career. When she was a child, she liked hand stitching clothes out of felt for little things, like her Troll dolls and Barbies. She helped build sets, props, and costumes for theater productions in high school and college. She even took a puppetry class in college that culminated in a final where they adapted The Sword and the Stone for marionettes. They built a castle with a drawbridge that came down to show the stage. Rollie built and designed the puppets and did all the costumes.
In 1973, because of an internship program her senior year at Denison University in Ohio, Rollie went to New York City where a bunch of students from her school got to work for Broadway producers and people in the arts. Her original internship as a research assistant at a television show called Almanac got cut short when the host got called up to be a newscaster. But before she left, the host connected Rollie with Henson Associates and Rollie landed an internship there.
Rollie started at the original workshop on 3rd and 67th Street where the team of designers and builders was a small group, mostly on one floor.
Dave Goelz had recently started in the workshop building puppets before he became a regular Muppet performer. Other designers and builders in the workshop included Bonnie Erickson, John Lovelady, Caroly Wilcox, and Don Sahlin as well as Faz Fazakas who was responsible for many of the puppet mechanisms and special effects. Puppet builders Kermit Love and Mari Kaestle would come by occasionally and Jim Henson made regular appearances.
Rollie described them as all characters with a “commitment to the practical joke.” Shy and quiet, Rollie ended up a target of many of these jokes.
Don, especially, set up various surprises for her in the elevator over the weekend to greet Rollie early on Monday when she was usually the first one to come to the workshop and unlock the elevator. He would rig up a mannequin to scare her or make it so opening the elevator door set off an elastic with a ball of fluff attached that would skitter across and down the hallway in front of the elevator. She loved the antics and fun atmosphere of the workshop.
“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she said. “I thought, this is the best place ever.”
She especially liked working with Dave Goelz, who was always looking out for her. They have stayed friends as he has gone on to become beloved performer of Gonzo and Boober, among many other characters.
“He was always fun to work with,” she said. “Certain people I like to make puppets for because they appreciate it more.”
He also worked with her on the first puppets she built – those Koozebanian Pups, which are now on display at the Museum of the Moving Image Jim Henson exhibit. Other Muppets she created also be seen at museums, including at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
The Muppets in the beginning was a place where everyone pitched in. Rollie did some costumes and puppet wrangling. She took puppetry workshops and dabbled in puppetry. She liked doing right-handing, including for Rowlf at the piano because she happened to play piano.
“I like being on set,” she said. “It’s a different creative environment. You have to just improvise if you don’t have what you need.”
While she has enjoyed all the sets she has worked on, she said The Muppet Show was the most fun and collaborative. The Muppet Workshop and Muppet performers were relocated to London, so were all away from home and tended to hang out together. The puppeteers had a green room right off the workshop, so the builders could call them in to try things on, giving the whole show a creative back and forth. Jim would come through all the time.
“The workshop was two steps away from the set,” said Rollie. “At any moment, somebody would run in and yell, ‘Hand me that shark!’”
Rollie was still relatively new and had a lot of skills to build, but she credits mentors Caroly and Bonnie, as well Don and Jim, for making it easy to learn.
“They were so gracious and generous with their time, skills, and creativity,” she said. “A couple of things happened that at any other place, it would have been awful. But they just said, ‘Ok, we’ll make do.’”
One of those mistakes involved the first Muppet Newsman. Bonnie had sculpted his head and it just needed to be sanded down. Because Bonnie knew she liked sanding, she let Rollie take it down to the sander.
“If you lose your focus for a second, that machine takes the puppet and throws it across the room,” Rollie said.
Rollie lost her concentration and the Newsman got nicked. They didn’t have time to make another head and Rollie, despondent and sure she would be fired, sat on the steps of the stairwell and cried. In the end, Rollie stayed and the first Newsman went on with a little divot where it would have been smooth.
“They didn’t make me feel terrible,” she said. “It was ok to make mistakes. That’s the way you learn.”
Rollie liked working on The Dark Crystal because she got to see one character from beginning to end – the feisty creature Fizzgig. Everything on that set was created by hand. For Fizzgig’s teeth, it was all in dental acrylic that they made a mold of and polished. She still has some Fizzgig teeth and was able to loan the teeth and a paw to the creators of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance as they recreated the character.
For Labyrinth, she only saw a limited part of the entire process of the movie – making goblins and the Wiseman. However, she did get to play one of the terrifying Fierys that took off its leg to whack one of the other Fiery’s heads.
While she did not work on The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, she was very involved in rebuilding or refurbishing the puppets for Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock, which just finished its first season and is in production on its second season. All the foam in the original puppets had totally disintegrated and needed to be replaced. Thankfully, they still had yards of the original fleece left and were able to create new fleece skins for many of the puppets.
As she worked with them, she noted how simple the puppets are compared to many of the characters she builds now. The Fraggles are simple in the way they look and how they work. Thinking of a character like Wembley, you can see the whole shape of the hand inside. This matches how she saw Jim puppeteer where the head fits close the hand and the movement comes from how you move the hand.
“Building puppets, and Muppets in particular, has gotten more complicated and further from the hand,” she said. She said puppeteers now also want different grips on the thumbs. And while many puppeteers used to live close and come in often, now there are so many new ones, including some that fly in for just a few days a year, she doesn’t know all of them the way she used to.
Not the way she knows Dave Goelz, who stopped by to go to lunch with Rollie after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade where he had been performing Uncle Traveling Matt. He was concerned that the workshop was a little too quiet. She assured him they were just being on their best behavior for “Muppet royalty.” While not so zany as she when she first started, they still have buckets strung over each other’s heads that might tip pom poms without notice.
Rollie has thought about leaving a few times over the years. She was even offered a job during the Muppet Show by a London theater company to run their props, but she decided she would rather build puppets. Every other time she has considered doing something else, she will be in a place where background music is playing and a Sesame Street song will come on, her sign to stay on a little longer. That “little longer” is now almost five decades and hundreds of Elmo puppets later. Although she still loves building the characters she has become known for, every once in a while, she will grab an Anything Muppet to build just to mix things up.
While her career would seem astounding to anyone, it certainly leaves her in awe.
“I never would have thought anything I did would have made a difference to kids all over the place,” she said. “Because of Sesame Street, especially, my work is seen all over the world.”
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By Drake Lucas