1 The Muppet Mindset: Interview with Muppet Designer Bonnie Erickson

Jan 6, 2012

Interview with Muppet Designer Bonnie Erickson

Today on The Muppet Mindset we are proud to present our first interview of 2012! And we couldn't be more pleased with our interview today, because it is with current Executive Director of The Jim Henson Legacy and designer and builder Muppets, including Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf. Bonnie worked on numerous Muppet projects, including The Muppet Show, The Frog Prince, Fraggle Rock, and The Muppet Movie, and also worked very closely with Jim Henson. Bonnie very graciously agreed to join us for an interview and answer a few questions about her work, her career, The Jim Henson Legacy, working with Jim, and much more. Read on!
Interview with Bonnie Erickson
Conducted by Ryan Dosier


RYAN:   Greetings, Bonnie, and welcome to The Muppet Mindset! Thank you so much for agreeing to the interview! It's such a pleasure to be able to talk to someone who has so much history with The Jim Henson Company as you do. I guess we'll start off with the beginning... How did you first get involved with The Jim Henson Company? What was your first job title?

ERICKSON:   Freelance costume designer. After an interview and a look at my costume design portfolio, Jim hired me to design... and build... the costumes for the Tales from Muppetland: The Frog Prince special. My educational background was in theatre and fine art. I had been working on and off-Broadway for several years as a costumer with a specialty in specialty costumes and masks.

RYAN:    You are now the Executive Director of The Jim Henson Legacy. How did this come about? What does your position here entail?

ERICKSON:   I joined the organization as a trustee in the mid-nineties, soon after it was established by Jane Henson along with Arthur Novell, Al Gottesman, and Richard Wedemeyer. For the past several years I have served as President working with Arthur Novell, our Executive Director. When he decided to take a less active role, the board asked me to take on the position. One of my first (and smartest) acts was to ask Arthur, who is still a trustee, to continue on as consultant.

Day to day I schedule board meetings, establish and oversee the budget, propose projects, and facilitate projects approved by the board, work with my staff to maintain our website. We function as a source of information and respond to the many questions that come to us. In the long term, we manage exhibits, loans and restorations of objects in the Henson Family Collection and work with our partners and the rights holders to make Jim's body of work available to the public in new and interesting ways.

RYAN:    Does The Jim Henson Legacy have any involvement with new projects being produced in the Muppet world? Or do you deal strictly with showcasing the great works of the past?

ERICKSON:   Although the Legacy is not involved in new projects from the Jim Henson Company, Disney, or Sesame Workshop, we do try to present the work of the past in new contexts that reach out to a generation that may not be so familiar to that work. Jim's work is still very relevant today... evergreen, like Fraggle Rock. Much has become iconic, such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, both of which have a lively following. There are community theatres where Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas has become an annual event. Young musicians are doing covers of The Muppet Show tunes. Still relevant and still kickin'.

RYAN:   One of the great new projects from the Legacy is Jim Henson's Red Book. How did the idea for this brilliant online resource come about?

ERICKSON:   Karen Falk, the archivist for the Jim Henson Company, wanted to find a way to use the diaries that Jim kept. She expanded on his entries with reminiscences from colleagues and photos she was able to find from the company files. Karen is also on the Legacy's board and worked with the Smithsonian to develop our traveling exhibition, Jim Henson's Fantastic World. She probably has more information about all of us than we can remember!

RYAN:    You are an incredibly talented puppet designer and you worked on numerous Muppet projects. What are some of the characters your work can be seen in the designs of?

ERICKSON:   Nice of you to say. The first project I worked on was as Muppet costume designer for The Frog Prince. Probably the best known characters are Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf. I also designed the Country Trio caricatures of Jim and Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson. The four human style puppets and body costumes for The Muppet Musicians of Bremen were my creations. Zoot, George the Janitor, The San Francisco Earthquake wrestlers, Dr. Strangepork, The Newsman, and others were my work. Jim and I developed Animal and together we built the Swedish Chef. Although I didn't do the design, I built Janice, Fozzie Bear, and Vazh for SNL's "Land of Gorch." I was at the right place at the right time and had opportunity to work on many characters for Jim. What fun it was!

RYAN:   You were the first to design Miss Piggy. What do you think is the most important aspect of her design?

ERICKSON:   Her ability to reinvent herself over time. She has evolved and grown into her role as an ageless diva. I'm proud of having given her an appropriate name. Frank Oz set the tone with the karate chop and the rest is history. I do think she has had some work done recently!

RYAN:   Can you talk to us a little bit about Jim Henson?

ERICKSON:   A subject near to my heart!

Jim's work has a whimsy and gentle anarchy that seems to appeal to people. It is not mean spirited but it is often irreverent. I believe Jim was one of the most confident people I have ever known and he inspired it in others. He trusted his judgement and because of that was able to rely on those he worked with to create the worlds he envisioned. He gathered about him people of different skills and disciplines who would often become lifelong friends.

He believed in the value of play. Experimentation was given great weight and nothing was wasted–not in the creation of characters or in the performance of them.

He was generous–with praise and with credit.

He believed in details and that even though a detail might not be apparent, it contributed to the cumulative effect of richness and texture that someone out there in the audience would notice.

He was a smart and fair businessman, multitalented, complicated and very tall!

RYAN:   I'd love to know your opinions on how the "Big Three" companies are handling Jim's characters and projects currently. Would you be willing to talk to us a bit about this?

ERICKSON:   Sure.

RYAN:   Terrific! Let's start with Disney and their work with the Muppets.

ERICKSON:   Well, The Muppets movie has just come out and I believe the affection Jason Segel obviously feels for the characters comes out in the film. I'm delighted to see them back on screen. The performances of the puppeteers are wonderful and have lost none of their charm and quirkiness. The promotion was extraordinary. The trailers just got better and better, capturing that self-aware irreverence of the Muppets. As The Pig would say, I want more!

RYAN:   How about Sesame Workshop?

ERICKSON:   The focus for Sesame Workshop is certainly more international, with partnerships in many countries. That can't be a bad thing. Sharing the values of Sesame Street within the context of different cultures has to be a step toward more understanding and tolerance. Certainly this is one of the things Jim Henson espoused and would applaud. Here in the States, it continues to produce award winning programming for young children that a parent can trust! And it does it with humor. Another good thing.

RYAN:   And The Jim Henson Company?

ERICKSON:   So much is happening at the Jim Henson Company. The company continues to explore the possibilities of digital visual effects, animatronic creatures, animation, and soft puppets for the international media industries. Always developing new projects, the company has taken on a very important task of bringing science to pre school kids with Sid the Science Kid and natural history to them with Dinosaur Train. It has a new show Pajanimals for preschoolers, and a live show of puppet improv, Stuffed and Unstrung, for the adult audience of post schoolers!

RYAN:   How willing are these companies to work with the Legacy to showcase Jim's work?

ERICKSON:   All of these entities have been wonderful to work with and happy to help tell the Jim Henson story.

RYAN:   Is it easy to get Muppeteers and others connected to Jim involved in Legacy functions? Everyone I've ever talked to has always been thrilled to work with the Legacy in any sort of capacity.

ERICKSON:   Just as you say, we have had a wonderful response from our friends and colleagues, for which we are very grateful. Many have participated by introducing and doing Q and A sessions for the film retrospective we have toured nationally and internationally and that is currently part of the weekend programming of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. We have very generous colleagues.

RYAN:   Are there any upcoming Legacy events or surprises that you can share with us?

ERICKSON:   There was a Jim Henson Legacy: Amphibian Alumni Associates Reunion recently at the Museum of the Moving Image, the first one to invite anyone who ever worked with Jim or the Jim Henson Company. We had a huge and enthusiastic international crowd for a whole day. There were people exploring the newly renovated space, seeing the Jim Henson's Fantastic World exhibit, viewing a loop of rare Henson clips and attending a presentation of images from the past in the beautiful main theatre at the museum. The raffle of vintage collectibles mainly from our president, Craig Shemin's personal collection was a big draw. Richard Termine, provided a photo setup for everyone next to a large space where people could catch up with old friends.

But the latest news is that the exhibit at the museum has been so popular that it has been extended until March 4th, 2012. Also, there is a musical tribute to Jim planned for Carnegie Hall on April 14th, 2012. And that's just the beginning part of the year.

RYAN:   What are your favorite Muppet projects?

ERICKSON:   Sorry, I love them all. The movies are great. I've just seen all of them again on the large screen. The Muppet movies are so different from The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth but the attention to detail makes them all endlessly interesting to me. Emmett Otter is so sweet. But I think, because it was the harbinger of things to come, I have a special place in my heart for The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence from 1975.

RYAN:   What about your favorite Muppet characters?

ERICKSON:   No favorites. Nuh uh! None. Like 'em all! Just the same! Yup!

RYAN:   Carrying on Jim Henson's Legacy is obviously a hugely important task. What do you consider to be the most important aspect of Jim's Legacy?

ERICKSON:   The positive attitude he had about life and work. He never gave up and he took enough pleasure in the process to not be too worried about how it would work out. He loved what he did and I loved doing it too. I believe we all did.

RYAN:   Why do you think Jim's work lives on and flourishes as well as it does—even so long after he has gone?

ERICKSON:   So many people have come up to me at the film tour and the exhibits to tell me what good memories they have of the time they and their family or friends spent with Jim's work. There is nothing cynical about it. His characters are forgiving and accepting and tolerant of each others foibles. But they're not saccharine or cloying. He obviously believed that evil could be vanquished. That's also a good thing.

RYAN:   How can we, as Muppet fans, carry on Jim's legacy?

ERICKSON:   Keep believing that you can write your own ending! Follow your muse. Do what you love. All that stuff!

RYAN:   Finally, Bonnie, what is your favorite Jim Henson quote?

ERICKSON:   Actually, it's not one from Jim, but one written about him by his friend, Jerry Juhl.

"What Jim always wanted to do was to sing songs and tell stories, teach children, promote peace, save the planet, celebrate man, and be silly."

RYAN:   Bonnie, thank you so very much for this interview. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it! Thank you for everything you've done to carry on Jim's legacy as well. We Muppet fans are thrilled to see all the work done with it.

ERICKSON:   It was entirely my pleasure, Ryan.

All of my thanks to the lovely and kind Bonnie Erickson for agreeing to this interview. She is a true treasure to the world of Jim Henson and the Muppets and we are all lucky to have her working for the Jim Henson Legacy to keep the spirit and magic of Jim Henson alive.

Also my thanks to my friend Arthur Novell for helping to set up this interview.






The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, muppetmindset@gmail.com 

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