1 The Muppet Mindset: Interview with Sesame Street's Louis Henry Mitchell, Part 3

Nov 29, 2010

Interview with Sesame Street's Louis Henry Mitchell, Part 3

Ryan Dosier - Today on The Muppet Mindset I'm beyond thrilled to welcome back my very good friend, Louis Henry Mithcell! If you're new to The Muppet Mindset, or you've been asleep this whole time, Louis is the Associate Design Director of Special Projects for Sesame Street. What that basically means is that Louis directs and designs most, if not all, of the DVD covers, CD covers, book covers, and whatever else contains images of the Sesame Street poser-Muppets. Louis is also good friends and works closely with Kevin Clash, performer of that constant Muppet presence, Kingston Livingston III.


Louis's most recent achievement was directing the photo-shoot for the upcoming Sesame Street DVD, "Silly Storytime." Check out the picture of the DVD cover at right... Notice anything? No, no, not Zoe's ridiculously long hair! Kermit the Frog is on the cover!! Yes, thanks to Louis Henry Mitchell, Muppet fans everywhere can be thrilled to see that Kermit the Frog is gracing the cover of a Sesame Street home video release for the first time in over ten years (the last being "The Best of Kermit on Sesame Street"). How did Louis pull this off? Read on, Muppet fans, and find out for yourself! It's a great story and I'm so excited for my friend Louis and his incredible opportunity!

Another Interview with Sesame Street’s Louis Henry Mitchell!

RYAN:   Greetings, Muppet fans! I’m here once again with my very good friend and yours, Louis Henry Mitchell! As you should all know by now (since Louis has been hanging around The Muppet Mindset since the beginning), Louis is the Associate Design Director of Special Projects for Sesame Street—but more importantly he takes all of the fantastic official photos of the Sesame Street Photo Muppet. I’m thrilled to have Louis back for another interview, and I’ve been meaning to do it for awhile… so let’s get started, shall we? Louis, welcome back my friend! Can I get you anything?

LOUIS:   Hello, Ryan! You’ve already given me what I want--another chance to be interviewed for The Muppet Mindset… but I could use a COOKIE!!!

RYAN:   Last time you were featured here on The Muppet Mindset was when you were wishing us a happy one year anniversary—thank you for that, by the way—and at that time you mentioned a recent experience with Kermit the Frog that you described as “life-changing.” Would you care to tell this story for us?

LOUIS:   I have been blessed with the opportunity to direct a photo shoot featuring Kermit the Frog as the Reporter! This was an indescribable and hugely significant landmark in my life and career. That might seem a bit dramatic but I will explain; when I was about 6 years old I was watching the old Ed Sullivan Show. There were only two reasons I watched that show at that time--one was to see Topo Gigio, the little mouse puppet, or The Muppets! I did not care one bit about The Beatles or anything else back then. So I would just draw or play with toys while the show was on in the background listening for Mr. Sullivan to announce, “… and now here are The Muppets!” At the end of virtually every Muppet appearance Jim Henson would come out and shake Ed Sullivan’s hand--but I didn’t care anything about Jim Henson either. I was 6 years old and I didn’t really get who he was.

… but THEN…

One day after the Muppet performance Mr. Henson came out and he still had a Muppet on his hand--I really do seem to remember it being Kermit, then a lizard-like puppet. He was not a frog yet. If you look at the book “Jim Henson: The Works” on page 45 you will see a picture of Ed Sullivan and Jim Henson still wearing Kermit. I do believe that was the image I saw back when I was 6. And, as I believe I said in a previous Muppet Mindset interview, a WHOLE WONDERWORLD was opened up to me. I thought to myself, “You mean a MAN was doing that?” When you’re a child you don’t really think about how your favorite cartoons and puppet shows are done--you just enjoy them; or at least that’s how I was. But that day was the most significant landmark event I had encountered as a child and, to be honest, there are few that rival that moment in my life. Jim Henson is the one who plugged me into the world of creativity that I am enjoying now because he was generous enough to walk out and show a little “behind-the-scenes” with Kermit. And now as one of the key artists for Sesame Workshop I am just beside myself with joy and humble gratitude that I get to influence what Mr. Henson considered his most important work! Even though I was discouraged by my hero college teacher when I shared my dream of being a Sesame Street artist, I made it! And it has been an ever increasing joy and blessing beyond even my beginning to describe! So directing Kermit for that DVD I designed was a full-circle experience! From watching Jim Henson on TV when I was 6 to directing Kermit for a Sesame Street video… I just cannot put it into words. I am so very grateful.

RYAN:   How on earth did you goad the Disney lawyers into allowing Kermit on the cover of a Sesame Street DVD? That hasn’t happened in over ten years!

LOUIS:   It was not at all easy--but I never look at things as hard OR easy. I follow my heart and see where it leads me. I didn’t have to “goad” Kermit from Disney, although their first answer was a resounding “No!” But their reasons were respectful and absolutely legitimate, which I will discuss later on. I just had to figure out a way to make this work.

The idea came from my friend and colleague Len Forgione, the art director who handles the finalization of the DVD graphic designs after I submit sketches based upon his recommendations concerning the content of the video. When he realized that Kermit was such a huge part of the content he called me and asked me if we could possibly get Kermit from Disney for this cover. The DVD is called “Silly Storytime” and it is made up of spoofs of some of the fairytales featured on Sesame Street. Reporter Kermit did some “Sesame Street News Flash” segments--classic stuff all performed by Jim Henson himself. Len’s instinct was correct in seeing if we could get Kermit. My heart immediately aligned with his idea and I started the process.

The first step was to contact my dear friend and the man who runs The Jim Henson Company NYC workshop, Jason Weber. He contacted Disney as the first step. They still have a relationship with Disney, although I am not aware of the full extent of it. Jason put me in touch with the right person at Disney and I made the request for Kermit. After a few days I was told that they would not approve any new photo shoots featuring Kermit as they were preparing for the new Muppet launch in 2011. They wanted and needed to control all marketing and promotion of The Muppets and felt that featuring Kermit, even as the classic Reporter made famous on Sesame Street, would be confusing in the market place as to where Kermit officially belonged. This, as I mentioned earlier, was a totally legitimate and respectable position for Disney to take. But I felt I would not have been doing my job honestly for the fans and the families purchasing the video if I left Kermit off of the cover. So I appealed to Disney from my heart as well as reassured them that the scheduling of the release of our DVD would not conflict with the re-launch of The Muppets. Disney was very supportive and understanding of our genuine need for a depiction of the content being honestly represented. Kermit was the key to the content and really the anchorman--or I should say the “anchorfrog!”

After going back and forth for a week and a half and getting legal support from the Sesame Workshop legal department (just to reassure Disney that there would be no conflict whatsoever with their needs) we were pretty much at a stand still. But then… I took my son to his favorite restaurant for his birthday and we had a great time. When I got home I just had to check my work email. I rarely do this but I just wanted to see if there was any progress on Kermit. Sure enough on my son’s birthday I got a gift! The full approval to do a brand new photo shoot with Kermit the Frog. Disney said they would send the Frog to me via FedEx.

To say I was thrilled would be a flat out lie! I was EVOLVED! I became a new creature--growing in faith and belief in the greatest dreams coming true. I already believed that but this accomplishment pushed me into a new realm--a new dimension of belief in dreams!!!

RYAN:   What was the process of posing Kermit like? Did you have a plan of what you wanted to do with him? Did Disney stipulate anything you could and couldn’t do with the frog?

John E. Barrett
LOUIS:   I have to answer that question with a little bit of how the day went. I had the back inserts of the cover to direct--all based upon sketches I am required to do for all internal approvals. Kermit was at the photo studio and had been dressed and prepped by the Henson stylist, Heather Asch. (As mentioned in a previous interview I work with the photographer Jim Henson hand-picked as THE Muppet photographer, John Barrett). I instructed her to set up all the other Muppets for me so I could focus on them because I knew once Kermit was on set I would be in a different place mentally and spiritually. I didn’t want to take anything away from all the other Muppets who deserved all the love and attention needed to do the best work I could for them. I didn’t want Kermit until after lunch. I didn’t really eat much because I was SO excited. This was a monumental occasion and I really did not want to be in any way distracted.

After lunch I walked onto the set… and there he was! I got choked up and really felt just so honored to be in the position I was in. A phone call and a week and a half of negotiating and there was Kermit the Frog. For ME!! He was waiting for ME to go in and direct him based upon my own vision for how I wanted to pose him! Shortly after I started working to announced to everyone not to pinch me!

The Kermit photo Muppet is different from the Sesame Street Muppets I pose and direct. I am used to having traditional aluminum armature wire underneath--the heavier gauge for the spine and other gradually thinner gauges for the thinner limbs and fingers. With Kermit there was a jointed armature underneath. It was more mechanical and had great limitations that helped me keep in character. Every time I direct a photo shoot it is what I call a “still performance.” Everything I have learned and continue to learn about the Muppet characters comes through as I pose them. This is a key reason why I still watch Sesame Street at every opportunity and any other Muppet performances. I have an extensive DVD and VHS collection that I use to watch and study from. All the Muppet movies, special releases like “The Ghost of Fafner Hall”, I have the Ed Sullivan appearance collection--just a whole library of many Muppet things right in my office at Sesame Workshop. I watch pretty much all day and feed upon the brilliance of the work. Watching The Muppet Show in rotation from seasons 1 through 3 has been such a blessing. I had no idea I would be directing and posing Kermit! So my still performance of Kermit was based upon Jim Henson’s performances. Let me be clear that I am taking absolutely nothing away from Steve Whitmire who is doing a marvelous job- which has to be among the hardest jobs because of whose shoes he had to fill. God bless you, Steve and THANK YOU!!!

Once I accomplished what I envisioned for Reporter Kermit, and Len Forgione did the official layouts with the photography and graphics, we sent it to Disney for their approval, which was part of the agreement. There was a bit of back and forth even at this stage because, again, they did not want to confuse the market and make it look like Kermit was officially still part of Sesame Street. I came up with the idea of putting a starburst on the cover stating that Kermit was a special guest and that served Disney’s needs. We got instant approval after they saw that solution.

The one absolute restriction that came from Disney was that we could only feature Kermit as Reporter Kermit--he had to wear his reporter outfit. We could not feature him as strictly Kermit the Frog. Perfectly understandable for their marketing control needs.

RYAN:   One has to assume that it was incredibly cool to have Kermit, Elmo, and Zoe posers in the same place at the same time. Can you talk to us a little bit about that? Were any other characters considered for the cover?

LOUIS:   Len and I had a backup cover featuring Elmo just in case anything went wrong with the Disney negotiations and approvals. But I honestly never had a doubt in my mind that this would happen--I just had to be prepared as a professional so I would not stagger the confidence of my superiors at Sesame Workshop. You must always show that you respect the work enough to prepare for anything you can anticipate and be flexible for things you cannot anticipate. It’s a dance I do daily and it’s the LOVE I have for the Muppets that helps me do it--as well as the team of great artists and other essential people who make it all work.

Looking out over the table where we keep the Sesame Street Muppets waiting for me to call for them to be placed on set is always a treat. But THIS TIME… Kermit was there, too! WOW!!!

RYAN:   You even managed to get Kermit on the side of the DVD as well. Did that require even more prodding with Disney’s lawyers?

LOUIS:   What many fans saw online was an early version of what was proposed. Disney required us to take Kermit off of the spine, again, as to not confuse the market or misrepresent his official presence as a guest star. The final package has Elmo in costume on the spine. We were grateful to comply with Disney for their professional courtesies and understanding of our need for Reporter Kermit.

RYAN:
   If I may say… in your hand, Kermit is posed better than he has been in years, my friend. Has Disney been in contact with you about doing any more photo shoots with Kermit or any of the other Muppets?

LOUIS:   As wonderful as it would be to direct ALL the Muppets I am under contract to focus on the Sesame Street Muppets. Even if Disney did approach me to direct the classic Muppets I could not. But that is okay because I do get to pose all of the Sesame Street Muppets and that goes hand in hand with my great dream to work for Sesame Street! And even then I got to direct and pose the ultimate Muppet of ALL time! I LOVED it!

RYAN:
   What was your favorite part about getting to work with Kermit?

LOUIS:   Thinking about Jim Henson. I really do love what Mr. Henson gave to us and left behind for us. I am honored to be able to influence his work and help continue his legacy. So my own private thoughts about Jim Henson while I had Kermit in my hands… what a joy.

Thank you, Jim Henson!

RYAN:
   Was this the first time that you have been in such close proximity to Kermit?

LOUIS:   Not at all. When I first started freelancing back in 1992 I worked under my great mentor and dear friend Jim Mahon. I had done some Sesame Street licensing art and had to present it to him for corrections or approvals. I had to meet him at the townhouse where Jim Henson Productions’ (as the company was called then) New York City offices were. When I arrived Jim was setting up a podium with Kermit and Miss Piggy on either side of it. As we spoke, Jim, in his consistently generous way, told me to step out in front of the podium for a picture with them!

A couple of years ago The Jim Henson Company decided to donate the Kermit Muppet from “The Frog Prince” to The Smithsonian Institution. But before he was shipped off, John Barrett had to take some photos of him for archival purposes. He told me what he was doing and I asked if I could visit while he worked on the photos. He said yes even though I didn’t have a photo shoot booked there. He has been so good to me. So I got to handle the Kermit from “The Frog Prince.” He was armatured for display so I could not put my hand inside--which was just fine. I got to actually hold him! I remember seeing “The Frog Prince” when I was a kid.

But what John didn’t tell me was that the other puppets from that show would be there for photographing! It was great to see them--especially the King!! But I looked over onto the puppet table… and do you know who was there? Cantus from Fraggle Rock!!! I could not believe it! I LOVE Cantus! And it was one of the rare Muppets Jim Henson performed for that show. I held him in my hands! I was mesmerized!

Kermit, Frog Prince Muppets, Cantus… WOW!!!

Thank you, John Barrett!

RYAN:   I have to figure that this was a pretty large event within Sesame Workshop. Did a bunch of people turn out to see Kermit back in the offices of the Street once again?

LOUIS:   We had to keep it a bit of a secret but it still got out to a certain extent. We were, after all, at work and had to get a bunch of shots done within a certain amount of time before sending Kermit back to Disney. But the few who were there certainly deserved to be. Among them was my boss, Nancy Stevenson, my beloved son, Michaelanthony and a very, very special person to me who at the time was a very dear friend. Jacqueline Harvey who is a gifted actress and writer I met at church. We very recently got engaged! As wonderful as my life is, nothing compares to the moment she said YES to me when I got on my knee before her to “pop the question.” Having my son and Jackie at the most significant and full-circle career experience of my life brought it to a level I have no words for. I can only express my immense gratitude at this blessed life I have. I don’t take ANY of it for granted and I know I am so extraordinarily fortunate. This is one of the biggest reasons I am grateful to The Muppet Mindset. I get to share this information with genuine fans, of which I am a BIG one, and remind you all, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do NOT give up your dreams!! They are the substance of life and they are guiding forces that will lead to astounding fulfillment. Even if you don’t reach them all, each dream will guide you to each step of your purpose in life. It’s not always about achieving specific dreams but “listening” to them and following them so they can reveal the true wisdom and purpose of one’s life.

RYAN:   It’s always so great to see the big three companies—The Muppets Studio, Sesame Workshop, and The Jim Henson Company—work together as one. Do you consider this a breakthrough? Would you think that this will allow for more crossovers?

LOUIS:   This was definitely a breakthrough but don’t think it will lead to more of these types of crossovers. The truth is I like that because it will always make this DVD a special collector’s item and will help Disney grow into the phenomenal opportunity of singularly being the company responsible for bringing back The Muppets. Jim Henson was preparing to sell them to Disney before he passed away. If Jim Henson believed in The Walt Disney Company enough to prepare to sell to them then I really believe the fans should vote with Mr. Henson and give Disney the chance to prove him right. I am unspeakably excited about seeing what they will do with the classic Muppets and I support them in spirit if not in actually getting to direct any photo shoots for them.

RYAN:   What is the likelihood that we’ll see more of Kermit on Sesame Street or Sesame products again in the coming years?

LOUIS:   I really cannot say. This one was a surprise and I thank Len Forgione for coming up with the idea of trying to get Kermit for the DVD cover. I actually support Disney’s position of keeping the lines clear so that they can truly establish Disney as the home of The Muppets. It will help the new generations of Muppet fans focus on where the source of these precious characters is. But if there is a legitimate opportunity for more crossing over it would be a treat. In the meantime Kermit will still have a presence on Sesame Street in the classic reruns and online in the forms available like SesameStreet.org, YouTube, and Hulu.

RYAN:
   Moving away from strictly Kermit business… What were some of your greatest contributions to Season 41?

LOUIS:   Before I leave the Kermit business I do have to tell one amazing story of true heroism. I was to direct Kermit on a Friday. He was due to arrive the Thursday before. While I directed another shoot for a different DVD cover we waited for Kermit to arrive. After a while the photographer, John Barrett, said, “Hey, shouldn’t Kermit have been here by now?” John was right! We called Henson and we called Disney. NO ONE KNEW WHERE KERMIT WAS!! He was LOST!!! The classic Muppets are now refurbished and built by Puppet Heap in Hoboken, New Jersey and that is where he lives and was sent from. We all called there so they could track the package. When they called back we found out that FedEx delivered Kermit but TO THE WRONG ADDRESS!

The biggest problem was that Puppet Heap put the correct address on Kermit’s box. The delivery person for FedEx simply brought him to the wrong place and the person at that address signed for the package. So we got the information and the name of the person who signed but we had no idea whatsoever where Kermit could be! Manhattan? Brooklyn? The Bronx? Connecticut? Everyone was just stunned--especially Len Forgione, the art director. But I must admit something here: I am a man of faith. It took faith to believe I could convince Disney to let me have Kermit for the shoot in the first place. It may be hard to believe but I had absolutely no doubt that Kermit would show up in time for his shoot on Friday. I just kept a positive attitude and tried to reassure the others that all would be well. This is how I live--by faith. And it has always worked for me when I really embraced it. But Len was really upset and told me he was extremely worried about where Kermit could be. I tried to reassure him but he could not relax. After a while we noticed that Len was nowhere to be found. We figured that he actually decided to go out into the neighborhood and search for Kermit.

About an hour later Len walks in with a big black box! HE FOUND KERMIT!!! FedEx delivered him only a half a block away from the photo studio to the FOX television studio. They get so very many FedEx packages that the delivery person just assumed it was for them without really checking the address carefully. And the person who signed for it has to sign for SO many FedEx packages that they just signed and put the box in the holding area. Len told us that when he walked up to the delivery center he saw the big black box and asked the security guard about it. When Len saw the address he was thrilled. He showed his I.D. and signed to take the package back to John Barrett’s studio.

LEN FORGIONE RESCUED KERMIT THE FROG!!

We were all really proud of him and truly happy. But, again, after all it took to finally get approval I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Kermit would arrive. I didn’t know how but I KNEW it.

Thank you, Len Forgione. And ultimately I thank God for the entire thing working out and keeping me at peace while we waited.

Now--back to your question--I did some storyboarding for some segments. As mentioned in other interviews I work very closely with Kevin Clash and I do most of his storyboarding when he directs. My photo shoots vary from DVDs to all kinds of promotional materials so my contributions varied depending on the needs.

RYAN:
   One of the greatest parts of this season has been Super Grover 2.0. Did you have a hand in the design of Super Grover’s new costume? Did you get to take the publicity photos of Super Grover 2.0?

LOUIS:   Jason Weber of Henson’s NYC office designed Super Grover 2.0’s costume and I was on the review team for it. I was fortunate enough to be asked to direct all of the promotion and publicity photographs. Part of that was being on set for all of the production so I would know how to do the still performances for the photo shoot. What a blast! I had SO much fun watching everything and Eric Jacobson did a fantastic job with Grover, as he always does.

RYAN:   You’re very good friends with Kevin Clash. Have you spoken to Kevin about the Katy Perry controversy? What are your thoughts on the matter?

LOUIS:   We spoke very briefly about it. I really do feel it was blown out of proportion. Our producers and writers are very responsible and conscientious about the content of the show. If it was inappropriate they would have spotted it--and done something about it during production. I didn’t see a problem but people’s opinions do matter and we know that Sesame Street is a sacred trust among children and families. So what was done had to be done for those who felt uncomfortable with what was shown.

RYAN:   What are some of your favorite moments from Season 41?

LOUIS:   I really am excited about Super Grover 2.0. It is really funny and fresh! But ultimately I am excited about the fact that Sesame Street is still going strong 41 seasons in! WOW!!!

RYAN:
   Is there any other exciting news you have to share with us, my friend?

LOUIS:   I want to say it again; I asked my Jackie to marry me and SHE SAID YES!!!

RYAN:   Congratulations, Louis!! That is FANTASTIC, my friend! I'm so happy for you! Do you have any questions for me, Louis?

LOUIS:   Sometimes I think about The Muppet Mindset and think of how I can be of more help and lend more support. I truly love what you have done and are doing. It’s not that you need my help--I just would like to know how I could do more for this crucial and exciting website? All I can ask is that if you think of anything I can do to please give me the opportunity.

RYAN:
   You know if I need anything Sesame related, Louis, you’re the first I come to—I’ll let you know if I think of anything! Well my friend that’s all the questions I’ve got… I’ve interviewed writers, directors, performers… and I always love having the chance to ask you some questions, Louis. Thank you so much for yet another interview! I’m sure it won’t be our last.

LOUIS:
   Thank you, Ryan, and I thank the fans of The Muppet Mindset for being open to me sharing my Muppet life here where it truly belongs.







The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

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