1 The Muppet Mindset: Steve Whitmire Saturday

Sep 5, 2009

Steve Whitmire Saturday

The year was 1978. A 19-year old, scraggly-haired, tall, lanky puppeteer approached a bin of puppets. These weren't just any puppets, mind you, these were the Muppets. This young man had his wish granted by truly the greatest genie of all time, Jim Henson. A man who, to this young puppeteer, was on the same plane as John Lennon is to a musician, Albert Einstein is to a physicist, or Thomas Edison to light-bulb enthusiasts. This young man picked up a puppet, came up with  a voice, and was immediately a featured player on The Muppet Show. The most widely aired show ever.

This young puppeteer was named Steve Whitmire, and this is his Saturday.

STEVE WHITMIRE

Main Characters...
Kermit the Frog (1990-still)
Rizzo the Rat
Beaker (1991-still)
Statler (2002-still)
Ernie (1990-still)
Wembley Fraggle
Sprocket

Secondary Characters...
Foo Foo
Lips
Marlon Fraggle
Bean Bunny
Waldo C. Graphic
The Muppet Newsman (Disney Xtreme Digital)
Link Hogthrob (Muppet Party Cruise)

All About Steve
Steve often talks fondly of the first time he met Jim Henson and auditioned for the Muppets. This story can be seen and heard here in an interview (1:57 in) portion of The Muppet Show Live! from MuppetFest in 2001. Steve Whitmire eventually (of course) joined the Muppet team in 1978, and it's been an uphill ride for him ever since. According to Muppet Wiki, Steve's first day of shooting was March 24, 1978. He started out like all Muppeteers do, performing background characters and right hands for live-hand characters (such as Rowlf), Steve slowly began to work his way up the Muppet ladder (which, surprisingly, is not a talking ladder). Steve was soon performing and speaking in the forefront of the show. He would perform such one-note characters as Winky Pinkerton and Liberace's security guard.

Soon enough, Steve gained his own characters on the show. Including Miss Piggy's precious pooch Foo Foo, the Electric Mayhem's freelancing sixth member, Lips the trumpet player, and, most notably, Rizzo the Rat.

Before long, Rizzo became Steve's main character. He had a small part as a bell-hop at the Happiness Hotel in The Great Muppet Caper and a larger part as a waiter at Pete's Luncheonette in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Rizzo was quick to garner popularity after that, becoming a main character for The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets From Space, and beyond. Here, Rizzo began to play off Gonzo the Great and Steve's chemistry with fellow Muppeteer, Dave Goelz, shone bright.
In The Muppet Movie, Steve performed characters for the Muppeteers who had more than one of their own characters in the scene (e.g. If Fozzie and Miss Piggy both appeared in a scene, Steve performed Fozzie while Frank Oz performed Miss Piggy). The picture at left (from Muppet Wiki) shows Steve holding Kermit (no doubt Jim Henson was underneath Rowlf or Dr. Teeth at the moment) on set of the film. The young puppeteer surely had no idea that he would one day BE the Frog.

After The Muppet Show ended, Steve was recruited by Jim Henson for the new kid's show Fraggle Rock. Steve was chosen, for the first time, as not just one, but two main characters; the eccentric Wembley Fraggle and the lovable dog Sprocket. It was here that Steve really came into his own as a performer. He became a beautiful, talented singer with songs like "We Are the Children of Tomorrow," "Free and High," and "Scare Them Boo!" He also came into his own as an amazingly talented puppeteer. Watching any of those clips shows how amazingly life-like Steve's puppet control is. How very much ALIVE he makes each and every one of his characters seem. If you still disagree, simply watch this clip of Sprocket and I know you'll be swayed.

After Fraggle Rock ended, Steve continued to work exclusively with the Muppets. He was featured in such projects as The Christmas Toy, The Tale of Bunny Picnic (introducing the world to Bean Bunny), and The Jim Henson Hour. In the latter, Steve was chosen by Jim Henson to pioneer an entirely new puppetry medium. Jim chose Steve to perform the character of Waldo C. Graphic--the first ever fully-digital puppet character. Obviously, Jim Henson had an extreme amount of respect for Steve's puppetry and talent, or he wouldn't have picked him for such an experimental and revolutionary character. Today, most of The Jim Henson Company's productions are done in the medium of digital puppetry.

By 1990, Steve fit very nicely into the Muppet mold. He had his own main/secondary characters, and he performed his own minor characters. The Muppets at Walt Disney World was Steve's last performance with Jim Henson. Muppet*Vision 3D was the last project released that they worked on together.

Jim Henson died on May 16th, 1990.

Steve Whitmire wore a bright green tuxedo to his funeral service.

Jim, no doubt, would've loved it.

I'll allow Steve to explain what happened next in his own words: "I have been told that Jim had said something about it to Frank. Not that I would perform Kermit when he died, but that he would need somebody else to do Kermit some of the time because he was so busy. He never said that to me, but I heard that through somebody that it had been talked about. Just that the two of them were so busy, that they may need to have to find stand-ins for their characters, so I guess it had been mentioned, but the actual time I was asked was by Brian. We were in Disney World for something. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but I think it was the big tribute they did for Jim, and we went down for that. While we were there, one night I went over and met with Jane Henson, Brian, and Frank, and Brian mentioned me doing it. I was just overwhelmed by the request. It was a huge honor, and it also just scared the daylights out of me, the thought of trying it." (Muppet Central Interview with Steve Whitmire)

So Steve Whitmire would become Kermit the Frog. The man nicknamed "Kermit" in high school for his love of puppets, the man who shares a birthday with Jim Henson, would become the character that most people consider to be the exposed Jim Henson himself. This daunting task fell to Steve, and his first performance as Kermit was in November of 1990 in the special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. Kermit came in at the end of the song "Just One Person" and Steve spoke as the Frog for the first time.

Responses were mixed. Some fans thought that the character shouldn't be allowed to continue without Jim Henson.  Some even thought the Muppets shouldn't be allowed to continue without the guiding light of Jim. Others were thrilled to see them continuing. Jim Henson obviously wanted them continue: "It's hard to say how long they'll live. I think this is something we're waiting to see from the audience. If the audience want these characters to live, they will." (A&E Biography: Sesame Street)

Whatever your opinion, Steve Whitmire saved Kermit the Frog. That is a fact. It can also be inferred that Jim Henson would have wanted Steve to save Kermit.

Steve also took over the role of Ernie on Sesame Street after Jim's death, and Beaker after Richard Hunt passed away in 1991. Steve has continued to perform them both ever since.

By 1992, Steve's first feature-length outing as Kermit came with The Muppet Christmas Carol. This is where Steve and Kermit finally stuck with most fans. Songs like "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas" and "Bless Us All" hearkened back to the days of Jim Henson. Kermit may not have played the lead role, but as Bob Cratchit Kermit (and Steve) put on an amazing show. By Muppet Treasure Island, Steve had settled into his role as Kermit, and so had the Muppet fans. Kermit portrayed Captain Smollet in this film. I challenge any naysayer of Steve as Kermit to watch this film and tell me that Kermit does not give a perfect performance. That STEVE does not give a perfect performance (not just as Kermit, but Rizzo too!). Steve's puppet movements are distinct and incredible. They aren't necessary, but they add life and breath to Kermit. Life and breath that Jim Henson added. Life Steve Whitmire continues to add.

One can not mention Steve's great Kermit performances without mentioning It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. Kermit wishes he had never been born--and his wish is granted. Steve plays the role of "freak out" Kermit very well when in the alternate world. He's concerned for his friends, he's optimistic for Fozzie (even though he's a pick-pocket), and he goes to see Miss Piggy, just to try to make her Christmas better. Some may attribute these great scenes to writer Jim Lewis--but I (and most likely Jim Lewis) will credit Steve with the brilliance here. Anyone can read lines off of a script in a Kermit voice, but it takes a tried and true performer like Steve Whitmire to provide life and depth to a character. Especially one as renowned and well known as Kermit the Frog.
In more recent productions, A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa and Studio DC: Almost Live!, Steve and Kermit have been true (and sometimes the only) highlights. In Studio DC, Steve performed an unprecedented feat of puppetry magic with Kermit as he performed "Bop to the Top" from High School Musical with Ashley Tisdale. Many fans consider this the one bright spot of an otherwise mediocre special. Watching Kermit's flying flippers dance across the stage is incredible. Steve should be proud of his work here--and so should Muppet fans.

In Letters to Santa we saw Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo return as the famous trio they once were in projects like The Great Muppet Caper. Here, Kermit once again takes the reigns as the leader--the one with his head on straight, the one with the rational thoughts. Steve shines here, once again. Anyone who can watch Kermit at the end wish his Muppet family and we the viewers a Happy Holiday and not be touched... has no heart. Steve was, once again, brilliant here. Around this time, Kermit also made the rounds to the talk shows promoting the new project, and Steve was priceless as the frog.
On Muppets.com, Steve performs Kermit, Rizzo, and The Muppet Newsman. Kermit has his own "pad" and hosts a series of hilariously funny videos starring the frog himself. He's classic, he's funny, he's perfect Kermit. Rizzo also appears in the site opening, providing maintenance with the other rats. The Newsman has his own "ticker" that can be accessed for the site.
Steve hasn't performed as Kermit since his talk show appearances in December of 2008. Fans are clamoring to see him again soon.

Great Steve Performances
Steve has given countless numbers of great performances in his 31 years with the Muppets, and his 19 years as Kermit. Here's a list of some of my favorites (that are available on YouTube):
Why Do the Muppets Need Steve Whitmire?
This is a question I never thought I would have to answer. Asking why the Muppets need the man who created and breathes life into Rizzo the Rat, Wembley Fraggle, and Sprocket? Asking why the Muppets need the man who brought Kermit the Frog (and Beaker and Statler and Ernie) back from the ashes? Asking why the Muppets need the man who has carried on Jim Henson's heart and vision for 19 years? ...They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but come on now!

Steve Whitmire is truly one of the most talented puppeteers of all-time. Watching Kermit and Rizzo in Muppet Treasure Island with the sound muted is astounding. The small, intricate moves Kermit does with his hands and his face are astounding. They aren't at all necessary, but Steve's adding them in makes the frog seem so much more alive. Rizzo, albeit not nearly as hysterical without the sound, shines here as well. His body movements are distinct and incredible. Even the varying degrees with which he opens his mouth are sensational--when he's trying to crack a bad joke, his mouth opens WIDE, all the way down to his neck. When he's timid and cowardly, it barely opens at all.

Steve's irreverent charm, wit, and heart are why the Muppets need him. He's hilarious, he's passionate, he's moving. He's Steve Whitmire. He is Kermit the Frog. He is Rizzo the Rat. He is Wembley Fraggle. He is one of the two remaining original cast members of The Muppet Show (along with Dave Goelz). Steve brings knowledge and history to the Muppets that is matched only by Dave Goelz. He knows Kermit inside and out (literally) and after 19 years, truly no one could understand the Frog better.

Why the Muppets do not need to replace Steve Whitmire as Kermit
As of late, some fans have been saying that Steve should be recast. That Steve should no longer perform Kermit. That is the most ridiculous, uncalled for, unbelievable proposal I have ever heard. You honestly mean to tell me that you think that Steve Whitmire, a man who has worked with the Muppets for over thirty years, a man who was thrust Kermit after his idol, his mentor, his friend Jim Henson died, a man who ressurrected the frog from the ashes and has continued to perform him to his highest degree for NINTEEN YEARS should be made to give up HIS CHARACTER?

No. Way.

Steve Whitmire is Kermit the Frog. You may not agree with every single stingle word that comes out of his mouth as Kermit, but like it or not, he is Kermit. He HAS BEEN Kermit for NINETEEN YEARS. He will continue to be Kermit until he CAN'T anymore. JIM HENSON knew Steve Whitmire. Jim saw Steve's talent and Jim (I think) had a hand in choosing Steve as Kermit. Frank Oz has said that, "Steve loved Jim and Jim loved Steve, taking on Kermit was not easy for Steve." Steve Whitmire has worked his tail off to be Kermit the Frog for the past NINETEEN YEARS and asking him to change that is unthinkable. The thought of bringing in an entirely new performer for Kermit the Frog after Steve Whitmire has performed him for NINETEEN YEARS is laughable, is inconcievable, is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

After NINETEEN YEARS of Steve Whitmire as Kermit the Frog, there is no question that Steve Whitmire IS THIS CHARACTER. From the voice, to the mannerisms, to the head/hand shape--EVERYTHING ABOUT KERMIT IS STEVE WHITMIRE.

Steve Whitmire is Kermit the Frog. All others are just impersonators. Anyone who is not Steve Whitmire that slips on the puppet of Kermit the Frog is an impersonator.


Steve Whitmire is Kermit the Frog, and Muppet fans should fight for whatever they must to keep it that way.

Even More Steve
Special thanks to Steve Whitmire for all of the joy he's brought and continues to bring the world!

6 comments:

  1. Steve Whitmire's Kermit is a total jerk. That song with Kermit and Miss Piggy on America's Got Talent, on the other hand, was much more like it. THAT Kermit was likable, even though the voice was a bit off.

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  2. The first poster obviously missed the whole point.

    Good job, Ryan on the article.

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  3. Hey did you take those pics of Dave and Steve at The Atlanta History Center?? I was there that day too!! (And I agree with you. Steve = Kermit.)

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  4. ...Has Steve really not performed since Dec 08?? That's... not good...

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  5. To answer some questions...

    No, the pictures weren't taken by me. I found them on someone else's Flickr page back when the session was held.

    And I was thinking about it earlier today... and Steve HAS performed since then. He appeared as Beaker accepting his Webby Award earlier this year--and we can assume he was performing as Kermit and Rizzo at Disneyland a few weeks ago.

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  6. One word,just one: SAWAEHB. That's all I have to say :P

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