REPORT: Dave Goelz Q&A at the Center for Puppetry Arts

Published: September 18, 2023
Categories: Feature, Reports

This report was written by guest contributor Paul Neil. Thanks for this detailed writeup, Paul!

Photo by Leia

Sometimes, you have to seize the day. Or at least, seize the tickets.

When the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta posted a few weeks ago about an event featuring original Muppet performer Dave Goelz on September 6, 2023, it took about two minutes for me to decide to buy a pair of tickets. Now, I don’t live in or even near Atlanta. In fact, it’s an eight-hour drive away. That means gas, hotel, meals, and using a couple of days of leave from work. Would it be worth it?

Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes, it would be.

Because of the fairly short notice, my wife couldn’t attend. But my dad, who has had a front-row seat to my lifelong Muppet fandom, agreed to go with me.

Now, I’ve been to the Center for Puppetry Arts a couple of times before. But from the moment we pulled into the parking lot, this time felt different. People streamed up the long ramp,  smiling and chatting. As we entered the door, Dad leaned in and said to me,”Everyone is so friendly!”

“Of course!” I answered. “These are Muppet people!”

Inside the atrium, attendees milled about, many decked out in Muppet-related finery. More than one wore human-sized versions of Gonzo’s chili-pepper shirt. A lady who ended up in the seat next to me sported a Bunsen and Beaker shirt with the slogan “Because … science!” Another young lady wore a dress fashioned from Muppet Treasure Island fabric. One fan carried homemade versions of Gonzo, Kermit, and Elmo.

The Center’s staff were helpful and attentive. Many attendees visited the museum galleries while waiting for the theater doors to open. If you haven’t been to the Center for Puppetry Arts and you’re on this website, make it a priority. The Henson wing is chock-full of things that are amazing to see in person.

But I digress. We’re here to hear from Dave, right?

The theater stage was set up with a black-draped table, two folding chairs, and a large display cabinet also covered with a black drape. Dad and I took our seats in the third row, and were shortly joined by people on both sides. I chatted with the lady in the seat next to me. Another lady sat down next to her, and I asked her if she was from the area. “No,” she said, “I’m from northern California.” My eyebrows raised. “I’m actually married to Dave,” she added.

Wait … what? Yep! I was seated just one place away from the lovely and talented Debra Freeman Goelz – novelist, Muppet wife, and former VP of finance with the Jim Henson Company. I jokingly told her not to mention to her husband that I drove so far for the event, since it might make me seem crazy. Ms. Goelz assured me it didn’t seem crazy – especially in comparison to a particular gift from a fan they received at their home address.

Also in attendance in the row behind us was Leigh Slaughter, Vice President of Muppet Studios and Live Character Strategy for the Walt Disney Imagineering.

Beth Schiavo, the executive director of the Center, emerged onto the stage. After plugging current and upcoming shows and events, Ms. Schiavo introduced the man of the hour, Dave Goelz, and those of us in the audience welcomed him with loud applause. They sat, and thus began 90-ish minutes of hearing insights and answers from a delightful, interesting, kind, creative man.

Full disclosure: I didn’t take notes during the talk. I basked. I listened. I laughed. I nodded along. Some of the stories I had heard before – but never from Dave himself, sitting fifteen feet in front of me.

As I share highlights from what Dave said, it should be understood that all of this flowed from questions asked by Beth Schiavo for the first 30 minutes then members of the audience – both in person and online – for the next hour. Before opening it to the audience for questions, Ms. Schiavo made the point that due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, Dave would not be able to answer questions directly about shows or movies, so questions should be formed accordingly. This led to some funny moments throughout the evening as Dave tried to answer questions while honoring his commitment as a union member.

Dave talked about his long-running prank war with Muppet builder Don Sahlin. Early one morning he found himself waiting in the airport in London with Don, who was slumped in a chair and dressed in a rumpled brown coat. Dave looked at him and said, “You look like a potato.” From that point on, Dave said he often called Don “Spud-lihn.”  

Bill Barretta was watching the event online, and Dave gave him several shout-outs – both friendly and insulting. He talked about a game of sorts that he and Bill play: The Animal Game. Dave makes an animal noise – he demonstrated by growling like a dog. Bill responds by looking somewhere at the imaginary dog.

Dave makes another sound, such as a bird. Bill then “places” the imaginary bird by looking where it would be perched. Dave continues to add sounds, and Bill continues to place the imaginary animals by looking at them. This goes on until Dave is doing multiple animals while Bill has to remember where he has placed each one.

Besides the fact that Dave’s animal noises were great, the concept really tickled him! He shared an anecdote about seeing Bill on a quiet street one day. Dave hid behind a parked car and began The Animal Game right there in the street. Isn’t that a great thought? Two grown men, playing a silly game in the street with no other purpose except to amuse themselves and each other. What a great friendship! 

When an audience member asked what it’s like to take over a legacy character like Waldorf, Dave shared sentiments he has expressed in interviews before: He doesn’t ad-lib with Waldorf because he doesn’t feel like the character comes from within him, and in what may have been the biggest heart-tugging moment of the evening, he said that, with Waldorf, he considers himself to be just filling in until Jim Henson gets back. 

Along those same lines, an audience member asked if Dave has ideas or plans for who might take on his characters when the time comes that he’s no longer performing – “When I’m dead, you mean,” Dave clarified, to much laughter. He said that if he is able, he would like to be part of training and mentoring his successor.

Dave dodged several variations of questions regarding which character is his favorite, but he did have an answer when asked to name a character he’d like to revisit: Digit, from the Jim Henson Hour.

A young fan asked about voices for Dave’s different characters and whether it’s hard to keep them straight. Dave said that it isn’t, and delightfully did very brief snippets of Gonzo’s voice, Bunsen’s voice, and a generic “monster” voice.

Many members of the audience erupted into applause when someone asked about Figment, the character Dave voiced for the “Journey Into Imagination” ride at Epcot in Walt Disney World. Dave’s expression was bemused and slightly amazed. “I just don’t get it,” he said. The audience member asked about the process of creating the character. “It was a couple days in a recording studio. What else can I say?” He really seems to find fans’ interest in his part in that character baffling. 

He did talk about the process a little, and said that they played him recordings of Billy Barty’s original Figment voice from the previous incarnation of the ride. He recorded the lines, and much later, he heard the finished product and realized the Imagineers had tweaked his voice to make him sound more like Billy Barty! (Two days after this event, I spotted Dave in photos from a Disney Parks event announcing a meet and greet with Figment at Epcot. Like it or not, Dave, people love you as Figment!) 

The Puppetry Arts staff made it clear that Dave would not be available for photos or autographs due to Covid concerns. BUT, with the audience’s mass approval, Dave agreed to sign one woman’s arm so that she could have it made into a tattoo. Dave donned a mask and autographed her arm with a HUGE loopy signature that will join tattooed autographs of several other Muppet performers who have previously signed that fan’s arm.

At one point, Dave recounted stories of Jerry Juhl gleefully writing him into difficult situations – including putting him on a roller coaster with Uncle Traveling Matt or placing him in the middle of a chicken coop.

As someone who became interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of puppetry at a young age, I especially enjoyed hearing Dave retell the story about going to see Frank Oz perform at Mills College in 1972. He perched himself in a window high and to the side of the stage so he could see behind the screen that was obscuring Frank from the audience’s view. Dave compared his setup to that of a sniper, only instead of a weapon he had a camera with a zoom lens.

I don’t recall hearing him tell this second part of the story: Dave then stayed for Frank’s second show and watched from a spot in the middle of the audience. He said as Frank performed, he was able to feel the warmth and love from the audience, and that experience solidified for him that this was something he deeply desired to do. 

Dave spoke eloquently about his early nervousness and eventual joy and wonder at getting to work with the guest stars on The Muppet Show. He had a particular fondness for Peter Sellers, and told a lovely story about sitting at dinner after a rehearsal day with Peter and other Muppet folks. He described how he sat in awe while Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson did bits with the famed comic actor. 

During the evening, Beth and Dave unveiled Gonzo in the display case. This is the first time the Center has had a Gonzo on display, as the carved scot foam nose deteriorates with age, prompting Dave to quip, “Enjoy this while you can, folks!” Gonzo is a long-term loan from the Disney company, and the figure itself was built in 2020 by Michael Bush, a senior artist at Puppet Heap.

It wasn’t clear whether it’s performable or simply a photo puppet. The character is wearing a costume featured in The Great Muppet Caper, and the placard tells the viewer that the costume was created by Danielle Obinger (who started working with the Muppets in 1980 and now works at Puppet Heap), and the vest was knitted by Carol Spiers. 

As we stood to leave the theater, I turned once again to Dave’s wife, Debra. “Please thank Dave for us. This was absolutely worth the trip.” She asked my name and said kindly, “I will tell him.” On the way out, Dad leaned in and said that he thought the whole thing was wonderful, and he especially appreciated Dave’s quick wit.

As I think back on the evening, the words that come to mind to describe Dave – perhaps appropriately – both start with G… G for Gonzo and G for Goelz, of course, but also G for Gracious and Grateful.

He isn’t just quick-witted, though. Dave treated every audience member with kindness and respect, and he spoke of Jim Henson and the other Muppet folks with a sort of reverence. After fifty years, he still retains a bit of impostor syndrome, and he said that in his mind, the real Muppet performers are Jim, Frank, Jerry, and Richard.

But I’m here to say different: For my money, Dave Goelz is the epitome of a Muppet performer. We’re lucky to have him, and I consider myself blessed to have been in the room that night!

According to the Center for Puppetry Arts, Gonzo will be on display in the atrium until October 31, 2023. As far as I can tell, there’s no word on where he’ll go from there, but since it’s a long term loan, it’s possible that he will be moved into the Jim Henson Gallery. If you’re anywhere near Atlanta, drop by and visit Gonzo!

Click here to make animal noises on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Paul Neil

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