1 The Muppet Mindset: Interview with Muppeteer Gabriel Velez

Dec 28, 2010

Interview with Muppeteer Gabriel Velez

Today we have an interview that we're very excited about! Our friend Kevin Williams sat down for a wonderful, multi-part interview with Gabriel Velez. Gabriel has worked on numerous projects with The Muppets and Sesame Street, including The Muppets Take Manhattan, Elmo's Christmas Countdown, and starred as the asthmatic Anything Muppet "Dani" in the Sesame Street Special "A is for Asthma." Recently, Gabriel was part of Disney's Muppet understudy auditions, and has provided us with a unique, inside look at those auditions. Gabriel tells his story much better than I do, so with no further ado...

KEVIN:   How did you join the Muppets?

GABRIEL:   First off, I had never picked up a real puppet. When I was about 7 years old, my school had finger puppets, and at home I cut a mouth into a rubber Spalding ball to make it look like it was talking.But that was it. Never did anything with puppets. As a little boy of about 9, I wrote to Jim Henson because I was a fan of his appearances on Ed Sullivan. Jim actually wrote me back a hand-written letter encouraging me to join the Puppeteers of America. At the age of 9, I had no idea how to pursue that.

I’m not great with dates, but I think it was 1979 (when I was 21), when I lived in NYC that I read in the TV Guide that the Muppets had a business called Henson Associates in Manhattan. I looked up their address in the phone book and wrote a letter to Jim Henson saying; "I’d like to join the Muppets." Jim didn’t write back, so I wrote the same letter again to Frank Oz. And about 6 months later to my shock, Frank actually wrote back from England saying he would put my letter in a future audition file. I said to myself, “They’ll never call me. I’ve never even picked up a puppet.” Two years later they wrote me telling me to send them a voice tape. I guess it was 1981. I had nothing better to do that summer so I messed around with a cassette recorder and put 8 or 10 voices to tape.

Next thing I know they called me on the phone and told me to come in we want to meet you. So I went to one of the Henson buildings on 67th street in Manhattan. It was an audition! I almost walked out! I had never been to one of those before. Sitting across from me auditioning for the Muppets for the first time was Marty Robinson. I will always remember the smells of glues and being overwhelmed by the sites of outrageous fabrics and materials and puppet props throughout the building. How cool was that! Anyway, as I was escorted into a room to meet Jane Henson and Richard Hunt, I overheard Richard say to Jane: “This is the guy we’ve been waiting to meet all day.” I’m sure he said that because of the different character voices on the tape I had sent in, not because I had any experience. I had no résumé since I had never done this kind of thing before. I walked in empty handed.

Richard led me over to a table of monster Muppets. He told me to grab anyone. Just by chance the first Muppet I ever put on was an unknown little red monster who eventually years later became Elmo. Richard put me through a quick try out. Everything he had me do with the Muppet seemed quite simple and natural to me.

To make a long story short, they asked me if I wanted to be part of a workshop class they were having. I agreed. We would get training from Kermit Love, Jane Henson, Richard Hunt, and Carroll Spinney. Jim was not originally involved. Every week this huge workshop class would drop people. Maybe the first class had over 200 people I guess, then the following week 80, then 60, then 50 and more and more were dropped every following week. Until the last workshop class had only 12.

Of the final 12, everyone in that group would become reserve Muppeteers. (At least that was the original intention.) Jane Henson told us that they auditioned about 1,000 people and we were the final 12. The final 12 included me and Marty Robinson and Pam Arciero. I’m glad to know that after so many years, I can still call them pals. Jane Henson and Richard Hunt were amazed that I made it through every week of training considering I had never picked up a puppet before. The other finalists had previous experience in puppetry. Not long after that, I was offered a short term job working at 117 east 69th Street, their headquarters. And Marty was offered Snuffy.

I guess in 1983 (?) there was another workshop class of about 100 new people. This time it was led by Jim Henson. Of the final 12 reserve Muppeteers, only Pam and I managed to stay and not get cut. The others did not return or were quickly dropped from this new class being held by Jim. Marty Robinson did not have to participate because he was already hired on Sesame Street.

In this new workshop class the competition was very tough. Jim dropped a lot of hopefuls very quickly. After a few weeks, it got down to about seven of us left. It was nice to have private training with Jim Henson and Frank Oz over at their main building at 117. At this workshop class I first met Noel MacNeal and Camille Bonora. It was all leading to an audition for Sesame Street. I was asked to audition for Osvaldo the Grouch. Pam Arciero and newbie Camille Bonora were auditioning for Grundgetta. Osvaldo the Grouch had existed rarely on Sesame Street puppeteered by Richard Hunt with a voiceover done by someone I believe named Umberto Noritz. Not sure.

KEVIN:   How did you first meet Jim Henson?

Gabriel with Jim Henson
GABRIEL:   I was a new employee of the company working at 117. I was told my job title was "jack-of-all-trades." Not puppeteer. I was washing down the Muppet mobile (an unmarked Dodge Van) on the street and Jim and Jane were strolling up the sidewalk. Jane came over with Jim, and Jane introduced me to Jim as their newest employee. We shook hands and Jim smiled and said “Welcome aboard!” We spoke for less than a minute and I was happy as a clam. I heard the Kermit tone in his natural voice and while washing the van afterwards I kept thinking, “That hand I shook was Kermit!”

KEVIN:   How did you first meet Frank Oz?

Frank on the set of The Muppets Take Manhattan
GABRIEL:   It was my first Muppet payday on the set of The Muppets Take Manhattan. During a break, I went into the men’s room and there was Frank Oz taking a leak. My excitement got the better of me and I just went up to him and introduced myself and struck up a conversation with him while he was urinating. I think I scared him silly. He probably doesn’t remember that, I hope. Mental Note: Never strike up a conversation with a celebrity while they are urinating.

KEVIN:   How did you first meet Kevin Clash?

Working with Elmo and Rosita
GABRIEL:   I’m pretty sure it was around 1983 or 1984 on the set of Sesame Street. I never gave it much thought of how he joined the Muppets until I read his book. He joined the company in a different way than I did, not through workshop classes/auditions like others. I don’t recall our first moment of meeting though. I do recall a conversation we were having about him preparing to ask a girl to marry him who did become his wife. That might have been one of our first conversations.

KEVIN:   Let me throw a few names at you; Jim Henson.

GABRIEL:   A respectful gentlemen with a vision.

KEVIN:   Frank Oz.

GABRIEL:   Hmm, his way or no way. But who can argue with such talent?

KEVIN:   Eric Jacobson.

GABRIEL:   I've met Eric and told him what a wonderful job he has done. I scrutinize (as a fan) every Muppet recasting that has been done and Eric gets a thumbs up.

KEVIN:   Steve Whitmire.

GABRIEL:   A great talent that has never been used to his full potential.

KEVIN:   Huh? ...Care to elaborate?

GABRIEL:   My opinion is that once he was offered Kermit, his career was painted into a corner. (My opinion.) Over the years I have wanted to see the man produce more original characters and it hasn't happened because he is tied to Kermit. Whitmire should have the freedom to develop say three or four characters, marketable characters, that will put his talent over the top in ways Muppet fans would be excited about. He should be allowed to grow.

A perfect example of this is Bill Barretta, he has been given the freedom to create original characters that are awesome. His talents have made Barretta a much loved Muppet icon. Barretta did it right and this is the kind of future career growth I would like to see for Steve.

{Laughing} If I was in charge I would really exploit character development and growth for all the Muppeteers. I was the Talent Coordinator on the kid show "Pappyland" and I loved teaching and expanding the levels of puppetry performance on our show.

KEVIN:   Kevin Clash.

GABRIEL:   Kevin is another guy with great talent that I believe has other great characters in him waiting to come out. I don't think Elmo is his zenith. Just you wait and see.

KEVIN:   Jane Henson.

GABRIEL:   A great lady who has given so much to the art of puppetry by sharing talent and her kind heart with others, amazing.

You know there are many other great Muppeteers (besides me, ha, ha, ha) that just boggle the mind with talent. Joey Mazzarino, Matt Vogel, John Kennedy and other puppeteers are perfect examples. There just isn't a venue to showcase the specific talent of these individuals. There are also others waiting in the wings that will someday be the future of the company. It all comes down to finding the right situation to bring us all together as one body of talent, one expanded family. And that is what management should strive for. Mainly at Disney.

I believe the established Disney Muppet stars should hold their own workshop to train and reevaluate the great pool of talented puppeteers that Disney auditioned three years ago. Let the Muppeteers themselves evaluate the talent pool. Not like Disney did when the workshop class was headed by a non-Muppeteer. Having a successful understudy/training program is essential to the growth of ANY company. As long as employment is GUARANTEED to the star performers. A perfect example is Matt Vogel understudying to Carroll Spinney's Big Bird. There is no animosity between the two. One helped train the other with mutual respect. So should it be at a future Disney Muppet workshop.

I believe in a performance team that shares on-camera talent equally. That allows for a company to have even growth and to further evaluate the talent they have. I don't believe any one performer should hog the spotlight.

KEVIN:   You were one of the finalists at that Disney Muppet casting call a few years ago, how was that?

GABRIEL:   Great! Just about everyone selected was already involved with the Muppets in some way.
Martin Baker and Debbie McClellan assured us that no Muppeteer was going to lose their job over this. All of us that were selected had a great concern about that.We wanted to see what door would open for us, without affecting the employment of the established stars. And management was true to their word.

I was so happy to have Jane Henson and Heather Henson involved with us down at Disney World too. Jane and Heather held meetings and video briefings for us on the history of the Muppets.

KEVIN:   Who auditioned for what roles?

GABRIEL:   Some of us could do more than one voice. Others could only do one. If I recall correctly; Artie Esposito, myself, John Kennedy, and Drew Massey auditioned to understudy for Kermit. Auditioning for Fozzie Bear was me, Victor Yerrid, and David Stephens. Miss Piggy was Michael Lisa and Tony Whitten. And only Brett O’Quinn auditioned for Gonzo. Totally amazing as Gonzo and perfect as Bunsen Honeydew as well! Nice bunch of guys all around! The Disney staff was really sweet with us all week too.

Somehow I think the whole Disney Muppet understudy scenario was already a dead issue by the time we got down there since Chris Curtin had departed from running the Muppets. I think the money was already allocated for the project and executives just went through the motions to finish what was started. Just my guess, I have no proof of that.

Two years ago, Sesame had a similar casting situation. Kevin Clash and Marty Robinson had a Monday-Thursday Sesame Street workshop class for at least 40 people that Jane Henson, Heather Henson, and Carol Lynn Parente would attend. At the end of the week, Friday was a special day, only a select few, about five people (some of the same guys that were with me at Disney World, except Yerrid and Massey) were with me auditioning to be the understudy for Bert and Ernie. This audition included Mark Gale and Andy Hayward.

Looking at the monitor and seeing Bert and Ernie move on the screen and knowing that it’s YOU operating one of them boggles the mind! That was amazing. After a rehearsal scene, Jane Henson politely pointed out to Kevin Clash that she thought I wasn’t being “dull enough” as Bert. I told them my adrenaline is pumping performing Bert, but I would work on being “dull.” That is pretty hilarious when you think about it, accused of not being dull enough!

I felt great knowing I performed "Doin the Pigeon" for Jane Henson and Kevin Clash while performing Bert. That’s a nice memory. They have it someplace on video. I was also sent scripts and sheet music to audition to be the understudy to Grover. I practiced hard for that. But when I met with Clash he said he had already selected someone I have never heard of to understudy Grover. Hey, no fair! I didn’t get my chance! My Grover rocks!

In a nutshell, no actual understudy Muppeteer job offers came anybody's way.

KEVIN:   How do Muppeteers like Eric Jacobson or Steve Whitmire feel about understudy performers?

GABRIEL:   No idea. All the core Muppeteers are secure in their jobs. I met Eric during Elmo's Christmas Countdown and we spoke for a while and I enjoyed my time with him. Nice fellow.

That's all for part one of our interview with Gabriel Velez. We'll be back with much, much more from Gabriel! Special thanks to our good friend Kevin Williams and our new friend Gabriel Velez!

Gabriel with Fozzie on the set of The Muppets Take Manhattan

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier


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