The Muppets Take Brooklyn

Published: November 22, 2009
Categories: News

On Saturday, November 21, The Brooklyn Public Library hosted a day of Sesame Street events. (Did you miss it? It’s not like we didn’t warn you!) Thankfully for us (and our lawyers), everything that Sesame Workshop advertised came true. There was music and art and puppets and panels, and we were there firsthand to see it and give you the full report. You can thank us later.

The day began just like any other, with a concert by Bob McGrath (what, he doesn’t come to your house to sing you awake every morning??). While wearing one of Bill Cosby’s sweaters, Bob sang a few songs, which asked if we were happy (and if we were aware of the fact then we should clap our hands), about letters of the alphabet, funky dinosaurs, and he even sang a few Christmas tunes. (Before Thanksgiving? Too soon, Bob!) Sadly, Bob did not break out into “Sir Duke” like we’d hoped. Throughout the show, Bob was interacting with the kids in the front row, which was too adorable for words. Especially when a mother sat her baby on the stage next to Bob for a photo op, and the baby broke into tears of sheer horror. Who knew that Bob had it in him to actually scare someone?

After the show, we had a few hours to check out the exhibit in the library. The front cases held photo puppets, original scripts and sheet music, claymation Bert and Ernie, the Teeny Little Super Guy, an invitation to Maria and Luis’ wedding, an Emmy, and of course, lots and lots of photos. It’s always impressive to see this much Muppet stuff in one room, and moreso to see it all be given the museum treatment it deserves. Behind these cases was a set of framed art, with original art from Sesame Street storybooks (including one from our favorite, “The Together Book“). It’s easy to forget that Sesame Street has published so many books. I’ll bet they could fill the entire library with illustrations by guys like Joe Mathieu, Michael J. Smollin, and Jack Davis.

One thing on my checklist that we weren’t getting done was to get one of the new Elmo library cards. The advertisements said that they were for “new accounts”, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. When I asked, the librarian told me that they were “for kids.” As if that’s ever stopped me! But when I pressed further, she told me that I could request one, but only if I wanted to deprive some other child of getting his or her own Elmo library card. Needless to say, Elmo does not grace the cover of my card. Curse you, librarian guilt!
The main attraction for the day was the panel discussion, moderated by Louise Gikow, and featuring Chris Cerf, Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente, puppet builder Rollie Krewson, Bob McGrath, and Fran Brill. (Sesame Workshop CEO Gary Knell delivered the introduction, and he revealed that Iftah Ya Simsim, the Kuwaiti Sesame Street, is back in production.) After the customary how-did-you-get-started questions (Bob was big in Japan! Fran cold-called Jim Henson for an audition!), Louise Gikow did a great job at keeping the conversation moving and interesting to both the casual fans and the seasoned vets.

One of the most interesting bits to me was the inclusion of Rollie Krewson, who doesn’t normally get to sit on panels like this. Krewson talked about getting her start as Henson’s first intern (the first puppet she ever built: a baby Koozebanian, or “Koozie-pup”, with the help of Dave Goelz). Another interesting tidbit she gave is that she prefers to sculpt characters before building, rather than sketch them out like other puppet builders. I for one would love to see some of the early sculpts for familiar characters. Yet another tidbit: Krewson’s daughter came up with the idea to put sparkles in Zoe’s hair (or is that fur?).

Chris Cerf, who lost his voice the day before, spoke briefly about working at Random House (“It helps when your father owns the company”), being in the army with Jeff Moss, and attending Harvard with Joe Raposo. He said that he got his start writing songs on Sesame Street because he “knew rock and roll”, which is how his first song, “Count It Higher”, came into fruition.

Bob McGrath talked about having trouble in his first year of Sesame Street because he couldn’t figure out who his character was supposed to be. Jon Stone gave him the direction to “be himself”, because kids can tell in an instant when an adult is faking it. Fran Brill spoke about the creation of Prairie Dawn, and how she started as “sweet, innocent and docile,” but soon became a “neurotic perfectionist.” According to Brill, the difference between Prairie Dawn and Zoe is that “Prairie would never go near a puddle, while Zoe would jump right in.”

A few short tidbits from the panel: Fran Brill is 5’4″, and sometimes has to wear 7″ platform shoes, but she has never fallen. While performing a live-hand puppet, Frank Oz would sometimes rest his left hand over the right to keep the second puppeteer from over-gesticulating. Chris Cerf once wrote a sketch after receiving a letter from the Dairy Goat Association, in which a dairy goat apologized for a previous cartoon featuring a goat eating a sneaker (of course, it ended with a non-dairy goat asking, “are you going to eat those sneakers?”). The puppeteers and writers love Zoe’s pet rock, Rocco, but they felt that he made Zoe “a little too bossy” (thankfully for all you Rocco fans, he’ll be back in season 41). The Mr. Snuffleupagus costume weighs 115 lbs. While Paul Simon was on set in between takes, he walked past Oscars can, and Oscar popped out and said “Boy, you are short!”. Paul Simon was not amused (Caroll Spinney said, “I don’t know why I did that! I love Paul Simon!”).

The highlight of the panel was an impromptu concert with Chris Cerf and Bob McGrath. Unfortunately, Cerf’s voice was almost completely lost at this point in the night, so it’s better in theory than in practice. But that doesn’t stop these guys from being living legends, so enjoy this video of Chris and Bob singing a few famous Sesame tunes!

A million thanks go out to the great folks at Sesame Workshop and the Brooklyn Public Library for organizing this event. It was a lot of fun, we learned a lot, and we were thrilled to see so many people attend and show some love for Sesame Street.

If you’d like to see the exhibit, it will be on display at the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza until February 21, 2010.
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Written by Joe Hennes

Co-owner and Editor-in-Chief.
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