Editor’s note: Today’s article was written by guest contributor Andy Walmsley. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming tomorrow, in which we take a video tour of The Muppet Room and Andy’s collection!
I am the very proud owner of the world’s largest collection of Muppet puppet replicas, displayed in the world’s only fully-realized, fully-accurate themed room based on the Muppet Theater Backstage from The Muppet Show.
But how on earth did this happen? Read on!
I had a very unusual childhood in my native country of The United Kingdom. My father was a famous standup comedian performing on TV, in theaters, and in the now-defunct 1970’s cabaret night club circuit. My mother was a fire-eater (Yes, really!) She also worked on TV, in theaters, and occasionally in the circus.
I grew up spending more time around their adult friends, who were all fellow performers, than around kids my own age. Not only did I travel with my parents from town to town watching them and many others perform, but our house became a sort of refuge for all types of vaudeville (known in the UK as “variety” ) performers.
One week we would have an escapologist staying in the upstairs apartment and a juggler in the downstairs spare room, The following week, a magician and a contortionist. A couple weeks later there would be a house party with strong men, musicians, shadow artists, and clowns.
Being in this bizarre environment, I was influenced and fascinated by these unusual trades fascinating. “Teach me a card trick, Uncle Paul!” I’d say, and then all I wanted to be (at least that week) was a magician. “Teach me to tap dance, Aunt June!” and then I’d be beating up the kitchen floor for a couple weeks. I couldn’t settle on a potential career choice, but the ventriloquist acquaintances, and particularly a marionette act, were obsessions that lasted more than a couple of weeks. Perhaps my destiny was to work with puppets… but then a seismic event took place.
It was 1976 and I watched my first episode of The Muppet Show. I was ten years old, and I was hooked. I wasn’t so much hooked by the show itself, although of course I found it hysterical, but having dabbled with all kinds of puppets I was absolutely fascinated by “How are they doing this? How do these puppets work?”
Obviously this era was pre-internet so information was hard to come by. The Muppet Show was shot in London on my home turf, and perhaps because of this, British journalists were granted easy access to go “behind the scenes,” and every few months a random magazine article would pop in the UK press showing rare behind-the-scenes photos of the puppeteers at work.
I was enthralled. I carefully cut out the articles, and up on my bedroom wall they went. Pop stars, footballers and Farrah Fawcett in the red swimsuit were for my school mates. My pinups were Jim, Frank, Richard, Jerry and Dave. Of course another reason that I truly identified with The Muppet Show was that it took place backstage in a variety theater, with jugglers, escapologists, magicians and weirdos just like my very own environment. It was my personal experience reflected on the TV.
I wrote a letter to Jim on my mom’s typewriter and a couple weeks later by mail a signed autograph “To Andrew from Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog” dropped onto our doormat and took pride of place on my bedroom wall.
That Christmas I received the Fisher Price stuffed Kermit doll from Santa, and instantly but carefully cut a hole in the base, removed the stuffing and made a kind of Kermit puppet. I spent hours in front of my mom’s bedroom mirror working him.
The following Christmas my mom had promised me she would make a Miss Piggy. My mom made all her own costumes for her fire-eating act and was pretty nifty with a sewing machine. With absolutely no internet and no “How to Make Miss Piggy” book, she started in October… working up to December… but by Christmas Eve all there was to show was a Miss Piggy body with no head.
She had tried and reluctantly given up, but without knowing it she had given me the best Christmas present ever: the life lesson to NEVER ever give up! The experience of watching her throw the towel in (and I don’t blame her at all) has been with me my whole life and now I never give up on anything.
In August 1979 it was announced that the Muppets were to come to my home town of Blackpool (a gritty British Northern town that can best be described as “Reno and Atlantic City had a baby”). Every year the celebrity of the day turned on our famous Blackpool Illuminations and this year it was to be the Muppets.
Friday August the 31st rolled round, and me and a friend (I was 13 now) took our place at the bottom of the Town Hall steps where Kermit and pals were to turn on the lights that evening. It was 9:30am and no one was around. At noon a truck arrived to set up the barricades and build the stage on the Town Hall steps. We stepped aside then stepped right back in place dead center and reclaimed our spot against the barricades 12 feet from the stage, still the only ones there.
We took turns going to get food or finding the nearest public restroom, and by the afternoon crowds had started to assemble. As afternoon turned to evening we were pushed up against the barriers with thousands of people behind us. We had the VIP spot.
Then with no one but me noticing, Jim Henson came out quietly with some officials to inspect the stage. Richard Hunt also passed between the stage and the barricade and paced up and down to feel the space. I instantly knew I was watching a naked Sweetums rehearsing! At 9:30pm with the crowd now at fever pitch Kermit was introduced and he popped up from behind a specially constructed desk and he was freaking 12 feet away from me!
Then up popped Gonzo, and finally Sweetums (with Richard Hunt now safely hiding inside) walked down the stairs and along the barricade. I held my hand out and touched Sweetums’s fur and sacking garb as he stomped by. I was in heaven and now I knew more than anything that my career was to be a Jim Henson puppeteer… but if only I could get my hands on a Muppet or two to practice!
The years passed by, and like many 16- and 17- year old kids, I had moved on from my Muppeteering ambitions and actually found scenic design as my new obsession (thanks to making scenery for my puppet theater). I followed this dream as ambitiously as I had my puppeteering goals and eventually went to college to learn the trade.
Here’s where the story gets weird, folks (yes, I know it’s already been a bit weird). The very last day of my three years at college — and I must emphasize the actual last day — I had the first job interview of my life. I had to miss my graduation ceremony, and at age 20 I took myself on the train to a TV studio in Newcastle, where I was grilled by three scary men in suits.
I was young and stupid and knew the job was to be a four-month contract assisting a set designer on a new TV show, but hadn’t thought to ask what the show would be. Stunningly, I was offered the job, thinking “Oh, this is how life works. You to go to college for three years then get a job the day you leave.”
As I stood to leave — and I swear I can see this in my mind even today, as clear as a video clip — I opened the door and turned and asked the suits, “What will the show be?” They replied, “Oh, a new Jim Henson project.” I left, stunned, and ran around the corner to one of those British red telephone boxes. I called my mom and we both cried on opposite ends of the phone. Destiny, Part 1.
A couple of weeks later, I found myself working in a TV studio with Jim Henson on the show The Ghost Of Faffner Hall. I was stunned. Jim only popped in every couple of weeks between flights around the world, but Richard Hunt, Louise Gold, Karen Prell, Mike Quinn and director Peter Harris (original director of The Muppet Show) were there daily and we all bonded while working crazy hours six days a week together.
For several months I was learning about TV set design on the job but I was also working with my heroes — quite literally the men and women who had adorned my childhood bedroom walls. I never dared tell them my dirty Muppety secret. I wanted to be treated as a professional designer, not a fanboy stalker.
I particularly loved Richard Hunt. He was so much fun in the studio, especially when we would all go for a meal after the show. He would always comment how much he liked my striped rugby shirts… Looking back now I realize this was the same kind of shirt that he wore in all the magazine cuttings on my bedroom wall a few years back.
The very last day of the four-month shoot was sad, but it was also to be one of the greatest days of my life. They needed to shoot a crowd scene with lots of puppets. In addition to a new cast of sculpted latex characters, the cast included background Muppets from The Muppet Show… penguins, Frackles and the like.
When Richard Hunt asked the small crew on the studio floor who wanted to “have a go” and flesh out the scene, no one replied — apart from me! Richard put a big red bird on my arm that I had seen many times on The Muppet Show. Of course Richard had no clue I’d been practicing with my makeshift puppets in front of my mom’s bedroom mirror for ten years at this point.
I was a damn good puppeteer so he proceeded to give me a two-minute master class, just me and him, in a corner of the studio. As I followed his instructions he was genuinely taken aback to see how good I was, and exclaimed “You’re a natural, kid!”
Thankfully, one of the crew had a camera with some film in it and one photograph was taken of me surrounded by my childhood heroes puppeteering an actual Muppet. Destiny, Part 2.
Years passed by, and my career progressed from assistant designer to designer in my own right. I was fortunate to create many famous shows, not least Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and a show called Pop Idol whose executive producer and my boss was Richard Holloway, who had been the original Stage Manager on The Muppet Show, Richard knew of my Muppet obsession, and any chance I could I’d ask him to tell me stories from his past with Jim and the others.
On the final day of Pop Idol Richard approached me carrying a stuffed flowery pillow case. He announced how happy he was with my work and said he wanted to give me something. Somehow I already knew what was in that pillowcase. There inside was one of the original background Muppets from The Muppet Show! It was a grey cat that Richard had acquired when the show wrapped and Jim didn’t want to ship all the puppets back to New York. I finally owned an actual Muppet. Destiny, Part 3.
Pop Idol was incredibly successful, and it was decided it would go to the USA as American Idol. I had been working on and off in the States but Idol was my chance to move permanently stateside, and off to Hollywood I went.
One of the first things I did was rent a small office at The Jim Henson Company lot, and I got to know Brian Henson. As I was the only set designer on the lot, he occasionally asked me to design props or even full sets for puppet projects like Late Night Buffet and a very early pilot for the 2015 docu-style sitcom The Muppets. I even designed sets for The Muppets Take the Bowl at the Hollywood Bowl and later the O2 shows in London, working closely with Dave Goelz and the new vanguard of puppeteers. Again I kept my fanboy history to myself.
By the time of my move to LA we did have the internet, and I discovered a guy in Hoboken who was making what I called “Black Market Muppets.” This guy is infamous for anyone who knows who I am referring to, and now isn’t the time to delve into that, but he made me a few of the principal characters and his build quality was first class even if his reputation was not.
The years ticked by and I got a few more Muppet puppet replicas from this guy, then discovered another guy doing the same. I’d play with the puppets now and again but they’d live in road cases in my spare bedroom, never displayed. Fast forward to a few years ago, and with the growing trend of cosplay and replicas in general, there are perhaps as many as a dozen people around the world making pretty good Muppet replicas.
I went about completing the collection so that I had all the principal characters. I never set out to acquire the world’s largest collection. It just kind of crept up on me, and now I have 35 Muppet Puppet Replicas (36 if you include my full-size walkabout Sweetums).
And here we are now in 2023, some 48 years after this obsession began. I’ve worked with Jim and many of the original puppeteers from The Muppet Show, I puppeteered one of the Muppets on a TV show, I had an office at the Henson studios, I designed the biggest live Muppet project — at the Hollywood Bowl, no less! — and I own the largest privately owned collection of Muppet replica puppets. But I don’t have them on display… yet!
My wife and I bought a new house in January of this year and one of our requirements when hunting was a room — perhaps a detached casita or a garage — to house a man cave of sorts that could display my collection. We found the perfect house in a large bedroom with twelve-foot tall ceilings (crucial for the lighting rig I had in mind).
Being a professional set designer, I had no problem designing a highly detailed replica of the backstage area from The Muppet Show. True Muppet fans know this space well — the staircase, the three dressing room doors, the crumbling brick, the old gas lamp fixtures, etc.
I went about having the room built by a scenery builder, Robbie Berkheimer. He was about to retire and this would be his very last project. I spent months searching for all the props to dress the space while Robbie was busy building in his workshop. The Muppet Theater playbills had to be perfect, and through the many Muppet Facebook groups I found Dave Hulteen.
Dave is a Muppet nut and does incredible illustrations of the Muppets. He set about reproducing those famous playbill posters. I searched and searched for the exact gas lamps that adorned the walls but they were hard to locate due to the small scale. (The whole room is a little smaller than the original set which was already not full sized.) I finally found them on eBay in Paris.
I had an iron worker in the UK build the cast-iron corner brackets holding up the green wooden beams. A theatrical drape company (Rose Brand) made the famous red curtain, and over thirty theatrical lamps were shipped from Hong Kong. As the scenery was loaded in, my neighbors observed the brick walls and diminutive doors coming off a truck into the house and declared, “We know you’re building something in there!”
Once the scenery was assembled and in position I had Tom Umholtz, a professional scenic artist, come in to age all the brick and woodwork. Next up all the props and dressing were added to make the space look cluttered and lived-in just like the real Muppet Theater. The Muppet Room 3D printed sign arrived from Kingdom Treasures in Liverpool UK, and finally the lighting was focused and lit by professional lighting designer Jon Farber.
Once the room was complete I invited in all the neighbors to show them what had been going on the previous weeks. They walked in the room and their jaws dropped. Perhaps they still think I’m crazy but at least it put a stop to the speculation!
A couple of weeks after completion, I had the official opening night of The Muppet Room and invited 50 or so puppeteers from around the country. A great time was had by all. One of the guests brought four of the original Mr. Rogers puppets from their own collection, and after drinks and snacks and official tours of The Muppet Room we all crammed into the room to do lip-synced performances (many of the videos are on the Muppet Room Facebook group).
Several celebrities have visited The Muppet Room in the last four months, including ventriloquist and America’s Got Talent winner Terry Fator and magician David Copperfield. Both were like kids playing with the puppets and perhaps this was a full circle moment — with ventriloquists, magicians and all manner of performers hanging out in my house as their counterparts had in my childhood home.
Many people are astonished to hear that in December of this year I will be dismantling The Muppet Room after just seven months of existence. It’s hard to explain, especially to Muppet fans who can only dream of having such a space in their house. But my whole life I have been very goal-oriented, very ambitious, and the childhood goal of owning a Muppet has been more than achieved.
The whimsical notion of building “backstage at The Muppet Theater” in my house has also been achieved and shared with others, so now it’s time for a new obsession and a new goal. I will be turning the space into a YouTube studio to make my own puppet series with my own characters for a project called Artie’s Show which will be a series of shows teaching children to paint and draw and make art. Finally it’s time to make a puppet TV show of my own.
To follow the transformation into Artie’s Show, please join my Facebook group The Muppet Room. I’d love also love it if anyone interested in the Muppets and puppets would subscribe to the you tube channel “Artie’s Show,” where I will be uploading videos starting in January 2024.
Stay tuned for part two of this series, in which Andy gives us a video tour of the Muppet Room!
Click here to have an encounter with destiny on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Andy Walmsley