1 The Muppet Mindset: January 2010

Jan 31, 2010

Interview with Muppeteer Bill Barretta, Part 1

Ryan Dosier - In honor of today's huge interview, I can now reveal another big moment for The Muppet Mindset. I now own the domain name www.muppetmindset.com. Yes, now you don't have to type in a long, semi-difficult to remember address. All you have to do is simply type muppetmindset.com into your web browser and you're here! We also have a brand new interviews logo designed by our good friend Justin Piatt. But that's not nearly as exciting as our interview with none other than... Bill Barretta.

That's right everybody, Bill Barretta. The legendary performer of Pepe, Johnny Fiama, and Bobo the Bear took the time to answer some of my questions--three parts worth, in fact. I really hope I don't need to give him much of a back-story. Every Muppet fan should know exactly who this extremely talented man is. It is an extreme honor for me to have the opportunity to discuss the Muppets with Bill and we both hope you enjoy the interview!

Bill Barretta Interview
Part 1

RYAN:   Bill, first of all, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview with The Muppet Mindset. It is such an incredible honor to be able to ask you questions that only obsessed Muppet fans could possibly come up with or really want to know the answer to. Anything you’d like to say to said fans before we get started?

BILL:   Hello…How are you?...You look great in that shirt…Why aren’t you wearing any pants while reading this?

RYAN:   As a Muppet legend, it’s almost required that you have an interesting back-story about how you got involved with the Muppets. I know that yours involves cleaning toilets; would you care to elaborate on that?

BILL:   Legend? Uh, well yes it’s true I first met Brian Henson while working for the Operations department at Sesame Place in Langhorne Pennsylvania. We became friends and tried to stay in touch over the years as we went our separate ways. Eventually after Jim had died I moved out to Los Angeles and during my first six months there, Brian came out to produce the show “Dinosaurs”. Since I was a struggling actor at the time I asked if there was any position that I might be able to help with, production assistant, cable wrangler, toilet cleaner, anything to get me closer to the business. He said that there was a character in the show that was a lot like Jackie Gleason from the Honeymooners and that he remembered me fooling around and impersonating him at one time, which was true. I love Ralph Cramden. Anyway, he said there were auditions to be inside of a large rubber suit like the Ninja Turtles film they had done, and would I be interested in auditioning for that type of job. I of course jumped at the opportunity! Since I had been studying as an actor and my training was rooted in interpreting a scene through moment to moment “behavior” (Meisner technique), what better way to apply those skills by being inside of a suit where I didn’t have to necessarily memorize the dialogue, but interpret it through what I was doing in the scene. This is kind of an odd thing, but when I heard it was a Dinosaur and that I would be judged on my behavior, I immediately shaved my head (so that I would look more like a reptile) and began practicing how to move like a reptile and incorporating human characteristics.

Anyway, sorry if this is a lot of acting mumbo jumbo, but I auditioned and after they reviewed the tapes and apparently watched the audition with the sound off, (I had to do the dialogue for the audition and improvise as the character) Brian and Michael Jacobs decided that I should play Earl…or they just needed someone really stupid to get inside of an 80lb. rubber suit for 14 hours a day and who seemed excited about the whole thing.
From Dinosaurs I began to mess around with some of the background hand puppets and assist the other puppeteers when I wasn’t inside of Earl, which wasn’t that often. I had very little experience in puppetry but I knew my lip-sync was pretty good and that I loved creating characters.

As a child my brother Gene, who is four years older than me, used to plan all of our creative activities. Either we were going to make movies, put on some sort of show, get me to jump off the roof of my house or even build puppets. He’s really the reason I’m doing what I do today. He always encouraged me to perform and I loved doing it. One day he decided to write to Jim to find out how to make a Muppet. Well, Jim amazingly sent back a great letter and directions on how to do so. I think this may have been 1971? Well, Gene found the closest foam & fabric store near us and got us to start building and performing puppets. I have to say, that period probably lasted for about a year I think, but my mother continued throughout my life to buy me different types of puppets on special occasions, so even though I never thought I would become a puppeteer, somehow she knew.

RYAN:   Your first big job with the Muppet people was as Earl Sinclair’s body on Dinosaurs. How does a huge, full-body, more-machine-than-reptile character like Earl work?

BILL:   Well all of the characters on Dinosaurs were highly collaborative situations. In the case of Earl, there are three parts to the performance. One - I was inside the suit moving everything except all of the facial manipulations and jaw, Two – An amazing puppeteer like Dave Goelz for the first season and Mak Wilson for the rest of the series, manipulated all the facial manipulations, jaw and provided the production guide vocal. And Three – Stuart Pankin provided the final voice for Earl. But there are many other people who helped Earl come to life such as the designers, builders, dressers, writers, Henson technical crew, production crew, who without them Earl could not have existed.

RYAN:  Is it difficult to provide the body movements for a character when you’re not the one controlling the voice and the face?

BILL:   Yes at first it was very tricky. It was really important to “listen”. I think to perform these characters we all needed to be good listeners. We all had earphones and microphones inside so that we could not only communicate with our personal puppeteer on the head, but so that we could communicate with everyone involved in the scene, including the director. Try and imagine being on a party line with up to 12 to 15 people everyday for hours on end. It’ll drive you a little crazy.

I guess what I was trying to say at first was that after a while the listening is what allows you to instinctually begin to know what or how your partner on the head is going to react or respond during a scene. Aside from the written dialogue, you still need to keep the character alive and so all of those small moments also become a millisecond give and take between you and your partner. It’s pretty amazing how you can become so in tuned to someone else and I think that’s why we all became very close on that production.

RYAN:   You got involved in The Jim Henson Company thanks to Brian Henson and the two of you really seemed to have a good rapport ever since. You would perform numerous, hilarious, character duos such as Johnny Fiama and Sal and Seymour and Pepe along with Dr. Phil van Neuter and his hands. What are some of your favorite memories of working with Brian?

BILL:   I have to say I really loved Johnny and Sal. I recently looked at the two of them on The Jerry Lewis Telethon and it was pretty darn funny. I think by that point we had really found the balance of these guys and it was a blast! I don’t know if you ever saw this, but Johnny and Sal did a version of what has now become the Internet record-breaking Muppet event, “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the telethon. And it was just the two of them performing the song. We changed the lyrics and choreographed a hysterical routine. That I think, was my favorite Johnny and Sal moment, but there are definitely the moments (which are always my favorite) that are smaller, less in your face moments. Little glances, asides and even a moment in “Muppets from Space” where they ended up avoiding the blame for cutting Gonzo’s welcome cake for the aliens.

RYAN:   While we’re on the subject, did Brian come back to perform Sal for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video?

BILL:   Actually, no, I don’t think Johnny was even supposed to be in the video but he was sent to the shoot. When they decided to add him, we felt that he shouldn’t be there without Sal, so it was a last minute thing but I’m glad they made the cut.

RYAN:   Whatever happened to Seymour? He hasn’t been seen since Muppets Tonight. Did Pepe hire somebody?

BILL:   You know I’m not really sure why or who decided to fizzle Seymour out…It may have been Brian, but I loved Seymour, he was so sweet and biiiig. A great character and I loved his design, small trunk and great hands…Loved him!

RYAN:   Where did you get the inspiration for the character of Johnny Fiama? He could have so easily become a one-note character, but you developed him into something incredible and extremely three-dimensional.

BILL:   Well, thanks. Again I love to create characters and most of the characters I come up with are usually based on people I know or have observed in every day life. I love observing people and seeing how they communicate and deal with their surroundings and situations they find themselves in…Even if they’re strangers. It’s intriguing to me.

Johnny was initially based on two people, my grandfather Paul Giordano Sr. and my dad, Gene Barretta Sr. And maybe the similarities would not be so obvious, but I try to pluck those elements of their personalities that make them entertaining people to watch and they were both interesting characters. If you knew them you’d probably get it. Unfortunately they’re both gone now, but they both got to see Johnny.

I first created Johnny Fiama as a character to perform as myself. This was just before Dinosaurs started and I had this crew cut (Dinosaur look I mentioned before) that was growing out. I was messing around with this bad Italian entertainer idea and one time when my brother came to visit in L.A. we shot an improv video at my house of these two brothers. The Fiama brothers…Johnny & Frankie. Well we had so much fun that a few years later when my brother moved to L.A. we decided to shoot a mock documentary of their last performance together called The Last Swing. We got some friends involved and my wife Cristina who was my girlfriend at the time, and shot it over a weekend. Actually my brother decided to start posting some of our old videos and movies on YouTube, so if you want to see the original version of Johnny, search The Fiama Brothers – The Last Swing. Its in four parts so try to watch this twenty-some minute thing if you’re up for it. It’s pretty funny even though we threw it together and its all improv based on an outline.

RYAN:   Will we be seeing more of Johnny and Sal in upcoming projects? They’re near the top of my “most missed Muppets” list.

BILL:   I hope so, but that ultimately would be up to the Muppet Studio folks.

RYAN:   What is your favorite Johnny and Sal moment? I think mine has to be Johnny singing “What the World Needs Now” to Beaker.

BILL:   I have to say I have a hard time remembering that one, but I think I may have answered this earlier. It’s funny I don’t know whether I have just a bad memory like my wife says, or if when I’m performing I kind of get lost in it, live it for that moment and then move on. Maybe it’s both?

RYAN:   Let’s discuss Pepe now, shall we? Pepe is one of my all-time favorite characters and I find him hilarious no matter what he’s doing. Why do you think Pepe went from being an elevator operator to one of the most popular Muppets?

BILL:   I don’t know exactly. Maybe timing? Or maybe he’s just a little bit more naughty than most of the Muppets and people like naughty puppets?

RYAN:   Although Pepe is very popular there are still some fans that can’t stand the poor fellow. If you could show these naysayers one Pepe clip to prove them wrong, which would you choose?

BILL:   Hmmm…I would suggest they take a look at themselves for a moment and see if there is anything about his personality that might feel a little bit too close to home. Or not…

RYAN:   Which characters do you think Pepe works with best?

BILL:   Rizzo. Steve and I have so much fun messing around with those two, but I don’t think people have really been able to see that yet. There was some of it in Muppets From Space, but they evolved into a funny pair. There are probably more moments behind the scenes that haven’t made it out there yet that would really show how fun these guys are together.

RYAN:   Pepe and Kermit have been sort of teamed up together in recent appearances (Extreme Makeover, America’s Funniest Home Videos) and it seems like, for two characters that are polar opposites, they work extremely well together. Why do you think this is?

BILL:   Well, they say opposites attract. But again Steve and I enjoy playing together, and in the end it’s the relationships beneath the puppets that create the relationships above. Kermit tends to let the others be who they are. He tries to be patient and understanding with Pepe and I think Pepe secretly respects and appreciates that, especially if he can ultimately get away with something he’s not supposed to.

RYAN:   A pairing that we don’t see too much of is Pepe and Miss Piggy. Are they too similar to work well together? Would Pepe flip if he knew I said he and Piggy were similar?

BILL:   I don’t think he’d flip; he’s just allergic to pork.

RYAN:   According to Jim Lewis, you were a big asset when he was penning Pepe’s book It’s Hard Out Here For a Shrimp. What did you help contribute?

BILL:   Jim, who I love, basically wrote an entire book and then mistakenly let me get involved. Poor guy. I would have to say that my contribution was working with him on helping get Pepe’s words onto the page, as Pepe would say them. Don’t get me wrong, Jim is amazing at capturing the essence of the Muppets, so I really just tweaked. Maybe a few points of view here and there, but Jim really wrote the thing and he did an amazing job once again.

RYAN:   Any favorite quotes from the book?

BILL:   There are too many, but off the top of my head I like, “I like my women like I like my coffee…a latte’” and “Excuse me, but is your seat taken?”

  Does Pepe have professional ballet training, or does he just like the form-fitting tutu?

BILL:   Yeah, well, that was a site gag that seems to hang on for some reason. Not my favorite, but I guess it makes people laugh?

   Beyond the tutu, Pepe has sported a good number of outfits in his tenure with the Muppets. From the classic blue hoodie and green shirt combo to the brand new olive green sweater and shirt combo that we saw on AFV, Pepe must have quite a wardrobe. What outfit is your personal favorite?

BILL:   I think I like his black turtleneck shirt and gold chain. That to me is Pepe. And he actually looks pretty good in his Bill “Bass” pinstripe suit with the electric blue shirt.

RYAN:   Pepe has also wooed a lot of women(s) in his day. Who were some of your favorite female stars to have Pepe work with?

BILL:   I had a ball with Joan Cusack. She was great. Pepe’s had so many women it’s hard to keep track at this point.

RYAN:   What was it like to be propelled into a main character role as Pepe in Muppets From Space after playing mostly one-note characters previously?

BILL:   Fun and exciting. Gee I hope the others weren’t too one note. But by then I think I was becoming more comfortable with the technical side of performing with the Muppets. I remember I would feel very comfortable with a character I was going to do and then I’d have to put the puppet on. Hopefully I’ve found a balance so that the complete character can come through.

RYAN:   Pepe doesn’t sing nearly as often as his fellow Muppets, but when he does it’s out of this world. A prime example of this is “Merry Christmas Baby” from A Green and Red Christmas. There really isn’t a question here… I just had to compliment you on that fantastic performance.

BILL:   Thanks. I love to sing and singing as Muppet characters allows me to not be afraid of trying to sing great. It’s more about the character in the performance rather than the expertise in the vibrato so to speak. Although, I do like Pepe’s falsetto “tribute” to Stevie Wonder at the end of that song. I think Stevie does that scream at the beginning of “Signed Sealed Delivered”?

RYAN:   Will we ever see Pepe in a one-prawn performance of Bizet’s “Carmen” utilizing his new-found opera singing powers granted to him by Santa Claus? Was that you singing Pepe’s operatic solo?

BILL:   I doubt it, but yes that was my attempt at opera…sorry.

RYAN:   Another excellent character of yours is Bobo. Where does he come from within you? He’s just so… different.

BILL:   I would have to say that Bobo is probably the most like me out of all my characters. Content with being content and grateful that people have allowed him to exist outside of the zoo.

RYAN:   A lot of Bobo’s funniest moments are when he’s paired with human guest stars; Cindy Crawford, Jeffery Tambor, Nathan Lane, etc. Which guest star do you think worked with Bobo the best?

BILL:   I’d have to say that Tambor and I have a special relationship, and still do. We just love trying to make each other crack up. He’s so brilliant and unfortunately there was quite a lot more to those two that didn’t make it into Muppets From Space. We just hit it off then and have remained friends since.

RYAN:   To round out Part One of our interview I’m going to say a series of random Bobo quotes and I just want you to say the first thing that comes to your mind. Ready?

Ding ding ding.

BILL:   Nathan Lane breaking up during rehearsal and takes.

RYAN:   The goat?!

BILL:   This was a milestone for me. Tambor told me back then that no one had ever made him crack up on film, that he was the one who got the others to break. So I made it my mission to try and get him to lose it during a take. Well, he couldn’t get through any of “the goat?” takes. If you watch the movie you can see him turn his head away from camera with a smirk just before they cut to the next shot. That moment was improvised and he wasn’t expecting it…I got him! And a few more after that.

RYAN:   Jalapeños, jalapeños, getting my friend some jalapeños.

BILL:   Ah, one of my favorite, made up, ditties. Also improvised. In fact, I think the production had to make sure that wasn’t someone else’s tune and clear the song. Happy little tune.

RYAN:   Careful you must be when sensing the future! Geez, what is this guy, dyslexic or something?

BILL:   Frank Oz.

RYAN:   And, finally: Hey, that’s a nice set of balloons ya got there. Maybe you’ll let me play with ‘em later.

BILL:   My wife.

Well, that's it for part 1 of our interview with the magnificent Bill Barretta. Check back on Tuesday for part 2 where we discuss Topo Sticky, "Bohemian Rhapsody," Tom Bergeron, and much, much more! You won't want to miss it!

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

Jan 30, 2010

Sesame Street Saturdays: When Families Grieve

Remember to check back on The Muppet Mindset tomorrow for yet another interview with a Muppeteer--this one even bigger than the last! And since I'm such a good sport, I'll provide you all with another hint. He now performs at least one of the characters in the picture below:

So, who is it? Do you have ANY idea?If not, then my diabolical plan is working! ...But anyway, just check back tomorrow to find out the identity of the killer! Er... the Muppeteer. Not the killer. (If the mystery Muppeteer IS the killer, I want the reward!)

It's Saturday again, so it's time again for Sesame Street Saturdays! Unfortunately, there hasn't been a lot of Sesame news circulating around lately so we just have a brief news item to discuss.

Sesame Workshop is producing another entry in their "Talk, Listen, Connect" series of specials starring the Sesame Street Muppets and celebrity guests as they help children and families learn how to cope with things like a loss of a job, a family member serving their country in the war, and family members injured in war. The most recent entry into the series is, "When Families Grieve."

The special, airing April 14th at 8:00PM ET/PT on PBS, stars news anchor Katie Couric and the Muppets as they showcase how families cope with the loss of loved ones. The special will also feature real families as they show the rest of the world their coping mechanisms.

As always, Sesame Workshop remains dedicated to helping families and children in need. Don't miss this sure-to-be excellent special airing on PBS in April!

For more information on "When Families Grieve" and the Talk, Listen, Connect program, visit Sesame Workshop's Press Room.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

Jan 29, 2010

News Update: January 29, 2010

NEWS UPDATE: January 29, 2010

Our good friends at ToughPigs have the scoop on the next Muppet Fairy Tale comic from BOOM! Studios. "Muppet Snow White" is set to be released in April 2010. Jesse Snyder will be writing the book and The Muppet Show Comic Book #0 - Pigs in Space artist Shelli Paroline will be handling interior art duties. As for the rampant cast of Muppets performing in the book? From the cover art, it appears that Kermit will be playing the prince, Miss Piggy will be the evil queen, Fozzie Bear will be the Magic Mirror on the Wall, and the Electric Mayhem (including Lips) will portray the Dwarfs. And who is playing the titular character? Believe it or not, it's Muppets Tonight pig hotty (what an awkward thing to say), Spamella Hamderson. You'll notice that there are only six dwarfs at the moment so it will be interesting to see who the seventh is (and if Spamella can remember her lines).

New York Entertainment magazine is reporting that Disney has out-sourced once again to find a new director for the new Muppet movie (still title The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made as far as we know). Disney has tapped James Bobin, director of the now-canceled HBO musical comedy show Flight of the Concords. The article says that no deal has been set in stone yet, but the film has been offered to Bobin if he wants it. Which is all well and good, but the really exciting part of the article is that the Disney insider who gave them this information also said that the film is expected to start shooting late this summer. Does it get any more exciting than that?

And, finally, while we at the Mindset are still over-joyed by the fact that we hosted our first interview with a Muppeteer yesterday, we are extremely excited to announce that in just two days we will feature another. That's right, this Sunday we will begin with the first of our three part interview with a true Muppet legend. I can't reveal who it is, but I can give the readers a hint... He performed a whole bunch of characters in "Bohemian Rhapsody."

What? That wasn't a good enough hint? Well... sorry. You'll just have to wait until Sunday!

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

Jan 28, 2010

Interview with Muppeteer Pam Arciero

Ryan Dosier - As mentioned yesterday, today marks The Muppet Mindset's very first interview with a Muppeteer. Who is the lucky doll-wiggler? None other than Pam Arciero: lifelong puppeteer, and Sesame Street performer for over twenty years. Pam's most well-known character on the Street is Grundgetta, Oscar's girlfriend. She has also been the right hand of Telly Monster for quite some time. Outside of the Sesame world, Pam performs Leonna the Lion on the PBS show Between the Lions and is heavily involved with the O'Neil Puppetry Conference (which she'll discuss).

So enough out of me, let's hear from Pam, shall we?
Pam Arciero Interview
Conducted by Ryan Dosier

RYAN:   First of all, Pam, thank you so much for doing an interview with us here at The Muppet Mindset. It is always such a treat to hear the inside stories of Sesame Street and Muppet productions from the Muppeteers. I’m going to get this question asked early so we can move on without anymore flack from the media: How does it feel to have your character, Grundgetta, spring-board a firestorm from the likes of FOX News and The Colbert Report?

PAM:  I am thrilled to have her in the center of all of this. Although the words were written by Belinda Ward, one of our Sesame Street writers, I loved the script from the start and I believe that the best way to poke fun at politics is with the Grouches. I also believed every word she (Grundgetta) said.

RYAN:   Is POX News really the trashiest network around?

PAM:  Unfortunely, yes.

RYAN:   How did you first get involved with Jim Henson and the Muppets?

PAM:  I auditioned for the Muppets after I finished my graduate degree in Puppetry from the University of Connecticut. I had met Kermit Love and Carroll Spinney when I was finishing my undergraduate degree from the University of Hawaii when they came to visit. They both suggested I audition for Jim at that time, but I wanted to finish my degrees.  When I did audition for the Muppets, it was a workshop/audition that was once a week for 4 months. That final audition had Jim Henson, Jane Henson, Dulcy Singer, (Executive Producer of Sesame) and John Stone, (Director) auditioning me.  It worked out for the best, I think.

RYAN:   When did Grundgetta first come about? I know that Brian Muehl performed her originally and you took her over. What was that transition like?

PAM:   Brian performed her for a year (1982?) before he quite Sesame Street to write and act. (He has a great new book out called Suck It Up!) I knew Brian before I joined Sesame and was able to talk with him in depth about Grundgetta before I took her over from him. It mostly consisted of “ She’s a female grouch! You know what to do. What more do you want to know?”  Brian performed Elmo, Telly, Noble Price, Grundgetta, Alphabet Bates and Barkley. When he left, a lot of us got his characters. He was very good friends with Richard Hunt, as was I, so we hung out quite a bit in those days. They made fun of my diligence.

RYAN:   Grundgetta is, of course, one of the only Grouches Oscar can stand. What is it like to work with a true television legend like Carroll Spinney so closely?

PAM:  Carroll is a blast, a child at heart and he is both the Grouch and the Bird at different times. You can sit at dinner and be talking with him in Big Bird mode, and someone will do something stupid and Oscar will blast out of him at full force. My favorite Oscar quote is “If you don’t want to be a murderer, don’t hang out with people who should be killed.” Grouch words to live by. He also is a wonderful storyteller and a great friend.

RYAN:   What are some of your favorite Grundgetta moments?

PAM:  Oscar and Grungy almost got married, and they had a fantasy about having grouch kids. They decided it might make them happy, so they bailed out of the wedding. Little did they know that way to be truly grouchy is to get married.  They also went on vacation to Camp Mushymuddy, and they did a wonderful song floating down a swamp in an old tire. Andrea Martin played Edith Prickly as a shoe salesman, and she tried to get Grundgetta some shoes. Jerry Nelson played Professor Piggens (as a human) who tried to teach Grundgetta to be a real grouch a la My Fair Lady. That was just great.

RYAN:   You have served as Martin Robinson’s and Telly’s right-hand woman for many years now. Do you feel a personal connection to Telly? Or is he just another furry hand?

PAM:   Both Telly and I, and Martin and I have a real connection. I am able to know what Telly is going to do sometimes before he does. It feels like we share a puppet brain.  A good right hand is a very special relationship, you have to be able to trust that the right hand is not going to do anything stupid, or out of character, and complete the character, as opposed to being a separate part of the puppet. Martin is one of the best puppeteers around and one of the best people as well. It has been a joy and a gift to be part of Telly.

  Working on Sesame Street is a dream of mine and I assume it must be like a dream going to work everyday. What are some of your favorite memories on the Street?

PAM:   It is a great job, and going to work is always fun and always something to look forward to, no matter what you are doing. Any time I do Grundgetta has been a favorite memory, working with Jim Henson and Richard Hunt are pretty wonderful memories. Richard was very funny and a big teaser; we always laughed when he was on set. Jim was a true genius, and he was always working on some other idea than just what we were shooting. He would use the time between takes to get us to work on some new thing. I remember there was a huge group of us and he had us put our bare hands together to make faces. It ended up being the well in Labyrinth.  I did Kermit’s elbows once, for a song called I Love My Elbows. It was fun and goofy and just great. I did Little Suzy Hammertoe for a Guy Smiley Game show about shoes. It was my real feet and that was all that showed. I walked in first in a mini skirt, and I was above Guy on a runway and it looked like he was looking directly up my skirt. After a lot of jokes and laughter, I ended up wearing pants for the shot…made us all laugh though. Anytime it was all puppet shoots (inserts) we had a blast.

RYAN:   Over the years, you have performed many Anything Muppet characters on Sesame Street. Do you have any personal favorites?

PAM:   I love doing the background cows. They are always funny, clumsy and a challenge. There have been a couple of little girls who were sweet...I think I have done something like 1000 shows, so they start to blend together…Chicken are also fun…But I love doing Anything Muppets, any time.

RYAN:   When performing an Anything Muppet character, how are you able to keep up with the well-established characters like Elmo, Telly, Oscar, etc.?

PAM:  Well, generally, you are working on a new character, so they don’t give you a whole lot of lines, but all of the puppeteers are very generous, and help you to keep up and give you space to shine a little.

RYAN:   You also perform baby Big Bird’s Nani Bird in the Sesame Beginnings series. I’ve never seen any of the installments from this series, so can you describe Nani Bird’s character for us?

PAM:   The Sesame Beginnings Series are home videos, so you have to buy them to see them. Nani is Baby Big Bird’s auntie from Hawaii. She is a large peach colored bird, in the flamingo family. She is very loving and devoted to Baby Big Bird, and would do anything for him. She speaks with a Hawaiian accent and is very local Hawaiian in demeanor. It’s a very lovely series, and I am sorry more people haven’t had a chance to see them.

RYAN:   Do you have any favorite Muppet characters (either Sesame or non-Sesame) that aren’t performed by you?

PAM:   Wow, so many of them! I love Forgetful Jones, who is no longer performed, Grover, Telly, Janice, Rowlf the Dog, Scooter, Lew Zeland, The Count, The Customer (fat blue with waiter Grover), Robin, Kermit, Pepe, Gonzo…almost all of them.

RYAN:   Many, many celebrities have visited the happiest street in the world over the years. Do you have any fun, personal stories with some celebs?

PAM:  It is always a thrill to meet the stars; the biggest ones are often the nicest. One of the more recent ones was Brendan Fraser, and he was so great with the kids, so natural and friendly. He was just like he is in the movies. Sandra Oh was fabulous and so in love with the puppets.  Alton Brown was also very accessible and when I asked for a picture with him, he took it himself of the both of us. Sally Field was tiny yet so present. Grundgetta did a show with Tim Robbins, and it was just after Bull Durham, so she gave him a grouch garter belt to give him courage. Tracy Ullman was amazing, so energetic, and she played a grouch seller of fish who was trying to teach Grundgetta to sound grouchy. We did a big number with like 30 puppeteers with Ray Charles, and a huge number with Tony Bennett. Tracy Chapman cried because she was so happy to be working with us. Cyndi Lauer made us wait two hours while she shaved her legs. The song “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” with Aaron Neville is very special and Jon Stone, one of the founders of Sesame Street, directed it.   We had all worked on the original with Jim Henson, and Aaron did a magnificent job on the song, which made it very moving for all of us.

RYAN:   Last year, you worked on A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa. Since you usually work on Sesame Street, how did this job with the Muppets come about? 

PAM:  We are all on the puppeteer “list”, and I have worked on other Muppet projects over the years. It’s often about location. There is a crew of East Coast puppeteers and a crew of West Coast puppeteers, so if a show is shot in LA, than it’s West Coast, New York is East Coasters. It’s usually background and double work, so we are somewhat interchangeable.

RYAN:   What did you get to do during the production? Did you get to perform some fun characters in the background?

PAM:   I did get to do Janice, as well as Camilla, Robin and Rizzo, for some of the time. I did Piggy’s legs for part of the mailroom scene. Some background rats running rampant in the mailroom and living room set. General goofy fun.

RYAN:   In the Sesame Place theme park, you’ve acted as director for some of the stage shows. How did you get this job?

PAM:   I have always worked in live theater, and my undergraduate degree is in dance, so you mix that with my knowledge of the characters and I am the perfect candidate to direct those shows. I have a real desire to see the walk around characters being true to the puppet character, and I can translate that information for the dancer/actors they hire to do the work. I also direct in both theater and television, so my skill set is pretty good. I direct shows for Sesame all over the world:  Port Adventura in Barcelona, Beaches Resorts in Jamaica and Turks and Caicos, Sea World Orlando, to name a few.

RYAN:   What are some of your favorite shows you’ve directed?

PAM:   The Halloween Show for Sea World and Beaches was wonderful, and the first show I directed for Sesame Place, Elmo’s World Live, was pretty special. I also love the Christmas Show we just did in Jamaica.

RYAN:   Along with being a principal puppeteer on Sesame Street, you are also heavily involved on another PBS show, Between the Lions. Tell us a little bit about your experiences on the show. 

PAM:   Between the Lions has been absolutely wonderful. Playing Leona is a gift, and a constant joy. I took her over from Kathy Mullen, which was an honor.  I feel the show does an excellent job of teaching reading and the characters are really well developed, as are the relationships on the show. It maintains very high standards of both educational and creative values. It’s funny and quirky, and the puppets are great to work. Jim Kroupa and 3/Design Studios built them, designed by Michael Frith. Kroupa is one of the best mechie builders in the business and the puppets are a dream to play with. Plus, they allow lots of creative freedom in performance, which makes the show come alive in a very special way.  We won the Outstanding Children’s Show Emmy this year and I am very proud to have been a part of it. We are facing, however, difficult financing this year. If any one would like to put in a good word to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting it would be fabulous. I would hate to see this show end, which is looking very possible.   http://www.cpb.org/contact/contact.html

RYAN:   Your Muppet Wiki page says that you graduated from the University of Connecticut with a Master’s degree in Puppetry. What was it like to go to school for puppetry? Do you think they would let me transfer?

PAM:   UConn is a wonderful program, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees. When I went to UConn the best part was the exposure to the many puppeteers with varied puppetry styles who came through and my fellow students. It was lots of hard work but very rewarding and challenging. It has enabled me to teach all over the world. I have taught at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, University of California, University of Hawaii, University of Connecticut, as well as the O’Neill and Sesame Street International.  Currently, it has developed into an amazing program with many great courses and puppeteers graduating from the program, under the tutelage of Bart Roccoburton.
You’d have to apply to transfer. How’s your GPA?

RYAN:   You are very heavily involved with the O’Neil Puppetry Conference, which was founded by Jane Henson. Now you’ve been named artistic director and it all just seems very wonderful for puppeteers. Can you tell me about the festival?

PAM:   The National Puppetry Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center is my legacy; I feel I can give something back to the art form that I love and has brought so much joy to my life. Along with my wonderful staff, we try to create a nurturing environment for the puppet artist, as well as support in as many areas as we can. We want to create new works of puppet art; and by the end of the conference we have as many as 35 pieces to show. We do two public performances, and each puppeteer who comes shows something at each performance. Jane Henson, George Latshaw, Margo Rose, Bobbi Nidzgorski, Richard Termine and Bart Roccoburton started it. We have had many of the great puppet artists teach and give workshops over the years. Jerry Nelson, Kevin Clash, Kathy Mullen, Martin Robinson, Albrecht Roser, Peter Schumann, Kermit Love, Roman Paska, Jon Ludwig, Eric Bass, and Paul Zaloom are just some of the artists who have come to work with us. This is our 20th year and we are very happy to still be working and developing new works of art.  Check the website for more info. www.oneillpuppetryconference.com

RYAN:   What are some of your favorite moments or performances from the festival?

PAM:   The conference has many parts; there are the ensemble projects, which are always good, but each participant who comes to the conference is encouraged to create their own 1-5 minute piece. Those have been the most creative, funny, moving and charming things to come out of the conference. We have had mountain climbing eggs, aliens at supermarkets, piñatas that come to life to chase the kids, cows being slaughtered in factories, wedding cake toppers that dance the fox trot, and true love found in Alaska in duct tape. They are often the seeds for bigger shows and have proven over and over to be the proof of what can happen when the spark of creative ideas are nurtured and developed. I love seeing all that can happen in one week.

RYAN:   After 40 years of sunny days, Sesame Street has touched the lives of countless people all over the world. What does Sesame Street mean to you as a Muppeteer?

PAM:   It has been my honor to be a part of something that has made a difference in the world. I love my job as a Muppeteer; it has given me so many opportunities and gifts, that I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to not have worked on Sesame. My Sesame Street family has always been a light in my life. I feel very fortunate and blessed.

RYAN:   If you had to pick one moment in the entire 40-year history of Sesame Street that defines its impact on the world, what would it be?

PAM:   C is for Cookie, that’s good enough for me!

RYAN:   What is your favorite letter? What about number?

PAM:   My Favorite letter is A, because it starts things out, and my favorite number is 9, because it’s as far as you can go without repeating yourself.

RYAN:   What sort of advice do you have for those of us who dream of working on Sesame Street or with the Muppets?

PAM:   Practice, Practice, Practice! You have to be able to work with a video camera, and you need to be able to act well, sing well and move well. You should study all of those things daily, and you should work on Improv and character development. You should have a good knowledge of both theater and of film/TV. You should be a good storyteller.  Then keep your ears open for auditions; auditions teach you about how well you respond to pressure; and there is a lot of it.

Periodically, there have been general calls for Muppet auditions. When those happen, take full advantage and show up for them. Perform shows whenever you can.

RYAN:   Finally, Pam, can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

PAM:   Keep your heart open and take the R train.

RYAN:   Thank you so much, Pam. It has been a real honor to be able to interview. Thank you so much for all of your years of singing and dancing and making people happy. Congratulations on 40 years, and here’s to 40 more!

PAM:   Thank you!

For more information on Pam, check out her page on Muppet Wiki, and her information on IMDB 
and Voice 123.

For more information on the O'Neill Puppetry Conference, please visit their website.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

Jan 27, 2010

Weekly Muppet Wednesdays: Grundgetta


Performed by
Brian Meehl (1982-1984)
Pam Arciero (1985-present)

Earliest known appearance...
Sesame Street Season 14: Episode 1736 (1982)

Best known role...

Oscar the Grouch's "girlfriend." One of the few female Grouches.

Pet name...

Name of pets...

Sylvia (worm), Itchy (rottendoodle).

Grundgetta is a Grouch. In fact, she's one of the grouchiest Grouches around. But no matter how grouchy she may be, that doesn't stop her from caring for Oscar. Somehow, the two have become close friends--though I'm sure neither of them would ever use the term "friends." Some have even gone so far as to label Grundgetta as Oscar's girlfriend--in fact, her official (albeit short) biography on SesameStreet.org refers to her as Oscar's girlfriend.

Yes, Oscar and Grundgetta are truly a Grouch couple made in heaven (or, more likely, the other place). Both of them share an irritation with anything happy, sappy, and nice, both of them have pet worms (Do I sense a romance between Slimey and Sylvia too? Hmmm!), and, well, they're both just grouchy!

It is perhaps their shared Grouch temperament that has kept them from tying the knot--after all, who wants a big, mushy wedding? Blech! However, I propose they reconsider the idea of marriage, if only so they can get divorced and make each other all the more miserable, thus all the more happy. (You know the old shtick.)

Grundgetta doesn't appear very often on the Street, but when she does it's always a fun ride. Some of Grundgetta's greatest moments include "helping" Maria pick out shoes, portraying "Sleeping Grouchy" in one of Oscar's fairy tales, giving Maria and Luis "insect attractant" and "sunburn cream" to take on their honeymoon, and, of course, her most recent claim to fame, basing POX News.

Yes, Grungie has recently become the target of a media firestorm against the Street for a joke in which Grundgetta claims that she's tired of watching Oscar on GNN because it's "too nice" and she's going to switch over to POX News--"Now there's a grouchy news show!"

For some reason, the pundits of FOX News (and elsewhere) blew the joke way out of proportion (as they always tend to do) and clips of Grundgetta insulting FOX News appeared all over the internet and various TV shows. Thankfully, most of the firestorm has blown over. However, we've still not heard Grundgetta (or her performer, Pam Arciero)'s side of the story. But maybe if you're interested, you should check back at The Muppet Mindset tomorrow. (Yes, it's a shameless plug! So sue me!) (Please don't sue me.)

No matter what the media and tabloids may throw at her, Grundgetta will remain as grouchy as ever. That much is most definitely certain.

Grundgetta is the main character performed by veteran Muppeteer Pam Arciero. Pam has taken Grungie with her to numerous puppetry events across the country, giving the Grouch and even bigger profile. Hopefully we'll see more of Pam and Grundgetta soon!

Grundgetta plays an odd role on Sesame Street as Oscar's true friend. She is one of the only things Oscar can stand to be around (or at least be grouchy with) and it's quite interesting that he cares for her so much. This allows Oscar to become even more rounded and three-dimensional, showing that he can have feelings for someone other than malice and annoyance (albeit not very often).

Grundgetta may not be a main, extremely popular character on Sesame Street, but she is equally as important and an equally fantastic character.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier
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