Joe Apel is one lucky Muppet fan. In 1990, he got the extremely rare opportunity to visit the set of Muppet*Vision 3D, at which he met both Jim Henson and Steve Whitmire. His visit would be filmed for the classic resurgence of The Mickey Mouse Club, but due to Jim Henson’s unfortunate passing, the episode never aired.
If anyone out there happens to be a former Mickey Mouse Club crew member and has the unaired footage in a storage locker somewhere, Joe would love to see it again. For the rest of us, please enjoy Joe’s recollection of his rare and exciting experience on the set of Muppet*Vision!
In 1989, I was a young teenager. I was a fan of animation (particularly Roger Rabbit and the Looney Tunes all of whom I’d draw all over my school notebooks) and the Muppets (characters who I would ALSO draw all over my school notebooks). Even at the age of 14, I already had some kind of sights on what career I wanted to have when I was older: an animator or a puppeteer for the Muppets. Then a big announcement was made by Henson Associates and the Walt Disney Company… Jim Henson was merging the Muppets with Disney!
This was mindblowing to me as a kid, and it quickly started setting the wheels in motion of deciding that being a puppeteer for the Muppets, a Walt Disney Company, was what I wanted. At around this same time, a new Mickey Mouse Club had started airing on The Disney Channel. I would watch the show after school daily. If you don’t remember this new Mickey Mouse Club, it featured a bunch of adolescents who acted in bits, sang and danced and not ONE of them made a name for themselves! (Unless your name is Keri, Britney, JC, Ryan, Christina or Justin.)
Each week, the MMC would feature a segment called “What I Want to Be” where a kid would write in stating a career they would like to have when they are older. There were marine biologists, veterinarians, and an assortment of careers. At the end of each segment, they would put up an address to submit a postcard with what you wanted to be when you were older. In September of 1989, I thought, “eh why not?” and quickly got a postcard and wrote how I wanted to be a puppeteer for Jim Henson’s Muppets and how excited I was that they were now going to be a part of the Disney family. So call it good “synergy”, but I thought the Mickey Mouse Club and the Walt Disney Company would be interested in somehow promoting this new venture.
I sent the card in and a few weeks later I received a formatted postcard from the Mousketeers, saying, “thanks for being a fan”. Well, I thought that was the end of it. Flash forward to a cold Michigan afternoon in mid-January of 1990, I received a phone call from the new Mickey Mouse Club. The producers of the Mickey Mouse Club wanted to know if I still wanted to be a Muppeteer. I of course said an enthusiastic “Yes!” They asked me to send a picture of myself, a detailed letter of why I want to be a Muppeteer, and anything else relating to wanting to be a Muppeteer.
At the time, I was designing my own Muppet, so I included the drawings of the puppet that I was making with my mom. The week seemed to drag by. I kept getting phone calls from the Mickey Mouse Club saying I am one of 20 kids who might be picked to do the segment on the Mickey Mouse Club (I’m not sure if all of them wanted to be Muppeteers or not). All I had to do now was send them questions I would like to ask Steve Whitmire, the Muppet performer I would be meeting that day, questions for any other Muppet performers I might meet, and the big guy himself, Jim Henson.
Soon after the call, it was down to 10 kids. Then it was down to 5. Finally I get a call saying that the Mickey Mouse Club will be flying out one parent (sorry Dad) and myself to Burbank, California to meet Jim Henson on the set of the new 3D film, Muppet*Vision 3D, being filmed at the Walt Disney Studios. So that Sunday morning, my Mom and I flew out to Burbank (It was a shame I was going to have to miss my end of the semester finals… darn!). We wouldn’t actually get to the set until the next day.
Suddenly the big day was here. A chauffeured Town Car picked my Mom and I up early Monday morning. We arrived at the front gate of the Walt Disney Studios. This was before any of the changes that you see there now. There was no ABC building. There were no Seven Dwarfs as pillars. No Sorcerer’s Cap animation building. At the time, I had seen the 1941 feature, The Reluctant Dragon on the Disney Channel, and the studio definitely had that kind of feel. We approached the security post. It was a small, brick building with green doors, green interior and a big bay window.
After waiting a few minutes, the “What I Want to Be” segment director showed up and introduced himself along with the cameraman and soundman. I was given my official Mickey Mouse Club shirt and Mickey Mouse Club jacket to wear. We were quickly escorted to Soundstage 3 where they were filming Muppet*Vision 3D. It was a huge soundstage. There were so many people, walls of lights that reached the ceiling, black and green director’s chairs, blue and silver cases, but I didn’t see any Muppets.
As soon as I walked into the studio, it was a whirlwind. Instantly the Mickey Mouse Club cameraman started filming me. The first person my mom and I were introduced to from the Muppet*Vision 3D crew was one of the producers. He said my Mom could have a seat in Frank Oz’s director’s chair. Unfortunately Mr. Oz was not going to be there that day. The producer showed me around the soundstage. He pulled out a large black binder, illustrating to me what the storyboard of the film looks like (my first time ever seeing a storyboard in person). He specifically showed me what the scene they would be shooting that day looked like in storyboard form. The producer also showed me the final script of the film. At first, we were flipping through the pages of the script when, on a whim, decided to give me two copies of the script! I would’ve been happy with just one!
Next, I was whisked away to the Muppet workshop in the soundstage. It wasn’t very big, and it reminded me of my dad’s workbench and tool pegboard set-up he had in the garage, but instead of tools hanging on the pegboard, there were MUPPETS! Finally I got to see some actual Muppets! In a way though, it was kind of creepy. Over a workbench were Kermit, Gonzo, and Fozzie, hanging there lifeless. The producer explained to me that this is where the characters get fixed and costumed. Well at least I got to see Kermit, boy to frog.
The producer was called away on something important (I’m sure more important than talking to some kid from metro Detroit). I was then introduced to Steve Whitmire, Dave Goelz, and Richard Hunt. The three puppeteers took me behind the set of where an army of, what looked like, toy soldiers from the revolutionary war were to march around. There were “soldiers” on tall carts, about four on each, and then two handheld soldiers with drums that Mr. Whitmire and Mr. Goelz would pretend to play the snare drum and spin their heads at the same time. Mr. Hunt and other puppeteers would push forward the “cart soldiers”, as they would pull and push levers underneath to move the soldiers’ arms, legs and heads. They practiced the routine with me watching wide-eyed, right behind them. Mr. Whitmire and Mr. Goelz seemed to have a difficult time playing the drums and spinning the heads in unison. (In the final film, the scene they worked on lasts roughly five seconds. They practiced and filmed the scene for at least two hours.)
It was time to roll film. I was asked to step behind the camera and just watch the puppeteers perform magic. The MMC cameraman had the camera to my back as I was watching the Muppet performers. I suddenly had a tap on my shoulder. I looked back at the MMC cameraman and then looked right into the camera (which I’m sure wasn’t something I was supposed to do). He was pointing to his right kind of frantically. I looked up to where the cameraman was pointing and there stood Jim Henson, right behind me. He was watching the puppeteers, just like I was (I imagine with a more critical eye). I distinctly remember mouthing the word “Wow”, because not only did I know I was being filmed, but also, I didn’t know how else to convey that I was seeing my idol for the first time.
The Muppet performers did a few takes with the soldiers and then everyone took a break. I was introduced to Mr. Henson right away. He was very cordial and thanked ME for being there. I certainly feel that I should’ve been the one thanking (maybe even bowing? Groveling? Kissing the ground he walks on?). Soon after Mr. Henson got there, the Muppet*Vision 3D crew, my little MMC crew, my mom and myself went to a small makeshift movie theater. We all took our seats, and my mom and I sat right behind Jim Henson. We were handed 3D glasses and were informed that we would be watching the “dailies” of what was filmed the previous Friday. As the film ran, we saw a brick wall blowing up, a brief cloud of smoke and a crowd of people in a town square looking at the hole in the brick wall. In the crowd were tourists, costumed characters. I distinctly remember Pluto and Sweetums jumping about. It was obviously made to look like either Main Street at the Magic Kingdom or New York Street at what was then the Disney/MGM Studios. A fire truck then backs up to the screen with an audio-animatronic Kermit sitting on the edge, assuring us that everything is fine. (This is a bit different than the final attraction. Now Sweetums comes out into the audience, but if you look at the film at the same time, you can barely make out Sweetums in the crowd on screen.) The lights then came up. Mr. Henson made a few comments, and then everyone went back into the soundstage.
At this time, Steve Whitmire took me (with the MMC crew following) to a practice area in front of a large mirror with practice Whatnot Muppets. Mr. Whitmire took an orange boy Muppet and handed me a yellow girl Muppet. He taught me how to hold the Muppet well above my head and to keep an eye on the monitors below to see where the Muppet is placed in the scene. One of the key things, Mr. Whitmire, mentioned is to not be ashamed of acting silly. He suggested for me to come up with a voice for my character. Being a girl Muppet, I of course came up with a deep male voice. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I was afraid of looking like a fool, exactly the opposite of what Mr. Whitmire JUST said. He instantly encouraged me to go with the voice (even though it probably seemed like a weird choice) and we acted out a brief scene. It was a quick, but effective, introduction to being a Muppet performer.
Steve Whitmire was called away to practice a bit more on the soldiers’ scene. He mentioned that I would talk to him later. At that time, a meeting was being held in the middle of the soundstage. A group of people, including Jim Henson, were surrounding Miss Piggy dressed in a Statue of Liberty outfit, without the dress, but instead wearing a girdle, and some lingerie underneath. The group was discussing what was funnier for Miss Piggy to wear underneath. Mr. Henson said the lingerie might be a bit too risqué and suggested maybe cowboy boots. Mr. Henson made a quick, a little off color, joke about the lingerie, and everyone laughed. He quickly said he should watch his language when the Mickey Mouse Club is around, looking directly at me. The entire crowd laughed heartily, me included. How could I not? He was including me in on the joke!
Mr. Whitmire had some time again, so I interviewed him on how he chose to be a Muppet performer. He said he fell in love with the Muppets at an early age. He also mentioned that when he was in high school, with his mom’s help, he created his own versions of the Sesame Street Muppets. Mr. Whitmire would perform puppet shows for family and friends quite often. He just loved performing. I then showed him the sketches of my own Muppet that I was creating with my mom’s help. He seemed quite interested.
The rest of the time I was on the set, we posed for pictures with Steve Whitmire and the camera crew. I also brought my sketchbook, which included a drawing I created of my favorite Muppet characters. I asked Mr. Whitmire to sign it. He wrote, “Joe, Thanks for being here. And don’t forget, be a fool!”. I thanked him profusely before he had to leave to work on the next scene. Well, now I was off to ask Jim Henson for his autograph and picture. Mr. Henson gladly took the time out of his busy schedule to pose for a picture with me. He also signed my sketch of the Muppet characters. Mr. Henson not only signed it from himself, but from Kermit as well. As he signed his and Kermit’s autograph, Mr. Henson described the swirl on Mr. The Frog’s “G”, with a little of Kermit’s voice coming out of him, “and a big swirly ‘G’ right there.”
Mr. Henson politely said goodbye and went to oversee another area of the production. The “What I Want to Be” director then took my mom, myself and the cameraman and soundman to the backlot town square. We saw the actual brick wall that was blown up in Muppet*Vision 3D and the streets, buildings, and homes that were filmed in classic Disney movies including The Absent-Minded Professor and the Shaggy Dog movies. The MMC crew sat me down on a nearby bench and asked me to relay the day and my thoughts on meeting both Jim Henson and Steve Whitmire. After a few words, we went back up to the front gate. The “What I Want to Be” director asked for the Mickey Mouse Club jacket back. I was surprised I couldn’t keep it, but I was able to keep the shirt. The director mentioned the segment should air on a Mickey Mouse Club episode sometime in September. The crew said goodbye, and my mom and I took a Town Car back to the hotel.
The next day, we were on a flight back to Michigan. Our trip just flew by. When I arrived back at school (with make-up final exams awaiting me), the school newspaper wanted to do a story on my experience of meeting Jim Henson. For a little while, I felt like a celebrity. Months went by. On a spring day in mid-May I came home from school. The school bus just dropped me off and I saw my mom waiting in the doorway of our house, crying. She told me that Jim Henson had died earlier that day. I couldn’t believe it. I had just met him only a few months before. How could he have died? Mr. Henson seemed to be in such good health.
I watched news segments all day. I was in such disbelief. My mom suggested that I mail a condolence card to the Henson Company and Steve Whitmire. In the card, I included the pictures we took that day with Mr. Whitmire and Jim Henson. The merger between Henson Associates and the Walt Disney Company seemed to be in turmoil. After a few days, it was official; the Henson/Disney merger was off. Well at least my segment would still air in the fall. Boy, was I wrong.
In late May, I received a package in the mail from the Mickey Mouse Club. In it was a short letter from one of the show’s producers. The letter stated that due to Jim Henson’s untimely death, my segment wouldn’t air. The producer also said that at least I had the wonderful experience of meeting Jim Henson (which is very true). Included in the package was a plastic Mickey Mouse Club wall clock. I just didn’t understand. How could they not air the segment? Wouldn’t they want to air something that special?
I had to have an explanation, so I called the number on the letterhead from the Mickey Mouse Club to speak to the producer. When I got her on the line, she explained that before his death, Mr. Henson never signed the contract to air the segment. I asked if I could at least get a tape of what was filmed. Again apologizing, the producer said that the footage is property of the Walt Disney Company. So that was that. I have the pictures, the framed autographs, the Mickey Mouse Club shirt, the Mickey Mouse Club clock, and most importantly the memories of meeting Jim Henson, a man who has brought joy and warmth to people all over the world.
My family would take a trip to Walt Disney World roughly once a year and every time we visited, I had to see Muppet*Vision 3D multiple times. I still can’t believe the scene I witnessed the Muppet performers performing lasts such a short time in the final film. In December of 2001, my brother Bob and I attended Muppetfest in California. The event was a great experience. Among the Muppet performers there were Jerry Nelson, Bill Barretta, Kevin Clash, Karen Prell, Brian Henson, Dave Goelz, and Steve Whitmire. On the first night of the event, conventioneers lined up to get autographs from the Muppet performers. Having worked at a movie theater, Bob and I had Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets from Space movie posters in hand for the Muppet performers to sign. I also brought pictures of my visiting the set of Muppet*Vision 3D, with the hopes of Mr. Whitmire remembering me from 11 years before. The Muppet performers sat at long tables, while the conventioneers stood in line with something for the Muppet performers to sign. My hands were kind of full, so I just laid the photo album open, while I pushed it along. All of the Muppet performers were interested in seeing the photos, especially Kevin Clash and Bill Barretta.
I finally got down to Steve Whitmire. As I showed him the pictures, his face lit up. He couldn’t believe that I was there. Mr. Whitmire mentioned that he still has the pictures I sent him of my mom and me. I couldn’t believe he kept them! I asked if I could get a picture with him that day, but the line was extremely long and he didn’t want everyone to ask for a picture, so Mr. Whitmire asked if I could hit him up the next day for the picture. He thanked me for coming out there and then my brother and I moved on. The next day was another whirlwind. Unfortunately, the day was so busy I never got the second picture with Steve Whitmire.
A few years go by, and I never became a Muppet performer or even a puppeteer (although I did volunteer at our public library as a puppeteer for a couple of years). My other career choice of becoming an animator became real, and in 2004 I landed my first full-time animation job in Boston, Massachusetts at Soup2Nuts. One of my coworkers at the time, Cory Mitchell, was also a huge Muppets fan and was working with the site Jim Hill Media. He asked if I’d be interested in writing my story for the site. I said “Sure!” I wrote the article and then a few days after the article was online, Cory forwarded me an email from Broadway star, puppet performer, and creator of Johnny and the Sprites, John Tartaglia. He said in the email that HE was one of the kids that it was down to, to fly out to be on the set of Muppet*Vision 3D for the MMC. In fact, he said it was only down to me and him, but since that I lived in Michigan and he in New Jersey, they chose me, because I lived closer. I still can’t believe it was that close to me or the future star of Avenue Q to have this experience!
More time passes, it’s 2015 and I’m living in the Los Angeles area, working at Cartoon Network Studios as an animation director. The studio was invited to participate at an animation event for families at the Television Academy in North Hollywood. Cartoon Network asked me if I would represent the studio and share with Academy members and their families, how we animate a Flash animated series at Cartoon Network. I was happy to volunteer.
The event was set up like a mini-animation convention. Along with Cartoon Network, there were booths from Fox Animation, Stoopid Buddy Stoodios (the animation studio behind Robot Chicken), and the booth right next to me was the Jim Henson Company! Not only that, but performers Donna Kimball and John Tartaglia were on hand showing members how they puppeteer digital characters! What are the chances that I would be situated next to John so many years later?
At the end of the event, all of the booths were packing up to leave. I had just finished packing up my booth and I walked over to John whose back was to me. I said “John, hi I’m Joe Apel.” He turns around with a shocked look on his face and said, “Not THE Joe Apel!” I was amazed he even recognized my name! He gave me a big hug and said “Oh my God! It’s so nice to finally meet you!” I certainly wasn’t sure what kind of response I would get, but honestly, I really thought I’d have to explain to him who I was, but he knew right away! We talked like old friends for about 5 to 10 minutes. I told him how much my daughter loves the Netflix series Word Party in which he plays Kip the Kangaroo. John was happy to hear that. Soon, it was time to go, but before we left, we exchanged email addresses and he even offered to give my family a tour of the Henson Studios.
It’s like in the song, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”, we were “Old friends who’ve just met”. It was so amazing to connect with him and have my experience somehow come a bit full circle.
Another awesome thing that has since happened over the last few years, I have animated on the new Disney Junior series, Muppet Babies! Although I haven’t become a Muppet performer, my dream of working for the Muppets finally came through almost 30 years later.
Wow, what an amazing story! Many, many thanks to Joe Apel for sharing it with us!
Click here to write your own ending on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Apel