1 The Muppet Mindset: Interview with Muppeteer Noel MacNeal

Jan 17, 2011

Interview with Muppeteer Noel MacNeal

Today's interview was conducted by the one and only British Correspondent (don't leave just yet--it's actually good). Yes, old TBC contacted me a few weeks ago telling me that he wrangled Muppeteer Noel MacNeal into doing an interview with us. Noel, as you might not know, is the man behind Bear from Bear in the Big Blue House. He also works as a performer on Sesame Street, in various Muppet projects, and does his own independent puppetry work. He has recently written his first book, 10-Minute Puppets which teaches puppetry and puppet making to children or anyone who reads the book.

Noel has some wonderful stories--and somehow The British Correspondent asked questions that could get them out of him! So read on, Muppet fans! You're bound to enjoy it!

Interview with Muppeteer Noel MacNeal

The British Correspondent:   Welcome to the Muppet Mindset... I hope you don’t mind me having a quick sniff of your hair in true Bear tradition...Yes, you smell lovely. Nice and coconuty. Now, can I get you anything? A bagel or a pretzel?

Noel:   Nope I’m good. But maybe a honey lager later on.

TBC:   Okay, before we go on can I just ask, is it Noel MacNeal or Neal MacNoel? I could easily get those two mixed up...

Noel:   It’s Noel MacNeal. I’ve had lots of variations. Once I checked into a hotel and it was spelled “Knowel McNeil.” I just stared at it and the girl behind the desk asked, concerned, “Did I spell it right?” “Yes,” I said, “I’m so surprised someone got it completely right for a change.” And she sighed with relief.

TBC:   Alright Noel, can you tell us a little about who you are? We know you best as Bear, but you were involved in Sesame Street before that. How would you describe your role in the Muppet World?

Noel:   It’s run the gamut. I started out on Sesame in the fall of 1982 as a wrangler (the person needed to prep the puppets for each scene). Then I became a puppeteer for the show and for the first movie, Follow That Bird. I was a performer (Madame Chairbird), Big Bird’s double/stand-in (when he’s chased by a plane), AND a wrangler.

Since then I’ve worked on Sesame the show and its specials, performing and right-handing characters, plus was one of the puppeteers for the Saturday morning series Little Muppet Monsters, Doglion on the special episode of The Cosby Show, and got to be one of the performers for the video pitch (with Jim) that helped sell The Jim Henson Hour, among other things.

TBC:   Have you always been interested in Puppets?

Noel:   Yes. Since I was a kid. I remember Shari Lewis and Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. But then one Sunday night, this half hour show was hosted by two characters named Bert and Ernie and talked about a brand new show starting tomorrow... well you know the rest.

The height of The Muppet Show was during my high school years. So when it was time to choose a career, I thought, “This Jim Henson and those other folks are doing this for a living. Why can’t I?” I did research, found two colleges that offered puppetry programs (Pratt, where I went, and UConn in Storrs, Connecticut) and when I presented them to my mom she just said, “Okay. What do we need to do?” And that’s what she kept saying after I gave her more info. Not once did she say shoot me down or say I needed a back-up plan. She always told me, “Don’t get a job; get a career.” And I did.

TBC:   What was your first “Muppet Memory”

Noel:   Well, that show with Ernie and Bert I mentioned and I remember seeing The Great Santa Claus Switch when it aired. Loved it! (And that’s a special to remake, right?)

TBC:   Bear in the Big Blue House began in 1997. Were you involved in the planning stages of this program or were you cast as Bear after the concept had been developed?

Noel:   I got cast after the concept was set. Originally, the title was going to be “The Big House” and the house itself was going to talk. But I did have input afterwards on some things (for example, I came up with the names “Luna” and “Ray”).

TBC:   What was the casting process like for Bear?

Noel:   Well, I went in that morning auditioning for another character for another show. This huge alien creature for a kid themed game show pilot Muppets was doing. And while inside I just kept thinking, “Why don’t they just cast Marty (Robinson)? This thing is just like Audrey II.” Then later that day, I got a call from Henson asking if I was free to come back and audition for another character. Sure, why not? They faxed me the sides and the sketch of this bear. Okay.

So, I look it over in the cab and think what voices to do. When I get there, immediately I’m told “Do your own voice.” What!?! We’re the Muppets, we don’t do that. But Bear was designed as the anti-Barney; a character and show kids and adults could watch together so, it was important to have a gentle voice everyone could relate to. They had the prototype foam head attached to the upper half under structure, like a hoop skirt, and I got in cause he was designed to be a walk around. “Oh God, I love this,” I remember feeling while inside. This would be great to do. Then, it dawned on me; this is a courtesy audition, I’m the last one, they must have picked who they wanted (and they had) and are just making sure it’s the right decision. So I decided “Fine. Hey I’m just going to have fun while I can.” And when the script called for Bear to show the viewer the glass of water, I shoved it as close to camera as I could, with Bear peeking through from behind. I ran around, I jumped, I just had as much fun as possible. And then I left.

That was a Friday. The following Monday, around 5:30PM, I got the call from Muppets saying they wanted me to be Bear. (Over that weekend between the audition and the phone call I met this girl who I started dating later that week and eventually fell in love with and married. The most life changing 72 hours ever.)

TBC:   What was Bear’s relationship with the other denizens of the Big Blue House? I remember them all living in this big brightly coloured house, but was there ever a logical reason for them all being there?

Noel:   Bear represented the child’s view of an adult; this big lumbering creature that was always doing something. And the characters were the kids at home of various ages who were discovering the world first through their own home and then, for the fourth season, the outside world. That was a great season because the other characters got to be (spiritually four years) older like the original viewers who watched. So they did more things especially in the outside world.

But we always had our own back stories. I felt that Ojo lived down the street and her single mom, an attorney, was very busy, so Ojo always came to hang out at the house. And Tutter was the only one who lived with Bear until season four when Ojo got her own room. But Bear was always their buddy, that perfect adult who never ever gets impatient and always makes time for them. The writing structure was even nicknamed “bearus interuptus” cause Bear always had a plan for the day and he always got delayed in doing it.

TBC:   I’m also interested in Bear’s connection with Luna. How does one get in contact with a major heavenly body?

Noel:   The back story I came to develop was that when Bear was a cub he once went outside after a very busy day and started talking to himself until he realized someone was answering him. Then he looked up and saw this beautiful warm face smiling at him. And he and Luna were friends ever since. In terms of the story structure, Luna always gives him the big picture of the day’s events (and who better to get that from than the moon).

Lynn Thigpen was my first and only choice for Luna and I recommended her for it. I’m so glad she said yes. And when we did our record sessions, we always had a nice chat, too.

TBC:   Do you have any particular stories or memories that you’d like to share from Bear in the Big House?

Noel:   We had some great outtakes/bloopers (which I still have) of blowing our lines or dropping props. The first time I did a scene in the living room, it was great until Bear bumped into a table and the books fell. So, every first day of each season, Bear would go into the living room and start shaking tables and touching things to see what was (and did not) get glued down.

But the best memories are when Bear and I did appearances in the real world, especially at children’s hospitals. Because, it wasn’t another doctor or nurse coming into the room, it was Bear. And the kid could stop being a patient for those few minutes and be a kid. And the parents could enjoy seeing their child be a kid again, too.

The most memorable hospital visit was the one in Mexico City. It was the public hospital, and the one where you either got better or not. I was told it was the last stop for most of the patients. Bear did a show in the auditorium for kids able to come (and I lip-synced to the Spanish track).  To the song, “Wonderful You,” Bear went up and down the aisle and singing right to kids. The last one was this boy in the front row, in a wheelchair. Half his body was paralyzed from head to toe and he leaned slightly to one side. But when Bear knelt down and sang to him and touched his hand, one corner of the boy’s mouth went up; the half of him that could still move, was smiling. And I see this and I’m smiling, gritting my teeth to keep my (and Bear’s) mood “up” while hearing other people from our group sniffling. After the show, after I undressed, I went to a room next door, closed the door, put my head in my hands, and just cried.

TBC:   We can look forward to hearing Peter Linz as new Muppet ,Walter in the 2011’s The Muppets. Do you have any favourite memories of working with these puppeteer co-workers such as Peter, Tyler Bunch, and Vicki Eibner?

Noel:   I am so proud of Peter getting this. Yea! He's the guy who deserves and has earned this! Yes! But it’s easy to “play” him. Heh heh heh.

When we did Bear, we got our own dressing rooms with bathrooms. And Peter rearranged the furniture in his room but the weekend cleaning staff always put it back by Monday morning. And he was so complainy about it. So me and Jim Kroupa snuck into his room, put all the furniture (the sofa, chairs, the desk) into his bathroom and closed the door. When Peter came in that Monday he was beside himself; could not believe the cleaning crew would do this to clean the room and not put it all back. (Wow.) He ran to the producers to complain, whom we alerted so they knew not to take it seriously. And I never told him. So if he reads this... Gothca!

Tyler can do any accent. ANY accent at the drop of a hat. He is theatrically trained, a wonderful actor with range. The fact that Treelo’s voice could come out of him still amazes me. I loved Treelo. And I loved Doc Hogg; I loved his voice. And Tyler knew how to make Doc such a memorable character. Between the voice and knowing just when to pop open his eyes, Doc became a staple of the show.

Vicki is one of the funniest people I have ever worked with. And she always knew how to let Ojo relate to children. In fact, for all the “What Do You Think?” segments of the show, Vicki had the kids talk to Ojo who asked them the questions off-camera.

TBC:   You also worked on Breakfast with Bear, what can you tell us about that?

Noel:   Disney Channel/Playhouse Disney came up with it. They loved Bear (and still do) and always said that if they ever owned him they would use him more. So the head of Playhouse for the Channel called and said that before she pitched this idea at the meeting, would it work: having Bear go to kids’ actual homes across the country and help them and the viewers start their day. I said, “Heck yeah.” It would have to have a structure but the rest would be ad-libbing with the kids.

Forms/surveys were sent out online to parents asking them to describe their child’s morning routines. The best ones were chosen to come and audition. We auditioned kids in NYC and in LA. We had to make sure the kids would be comfortable being with Bear who they usually saw as 13” image on their TVs. So the parents waited outside when the kids would come into the room and Bear would be there waiting for them. The producers were on one side with a camera videotaping and making notes, while Bear talked with the kids, asked them questions and invited them to dance with him. The ones who responded best, got in.

TBC:   When you were on Breakfast with Bear, you got to visit some pretty unique children and breakfasts. Did you find any particularly interesting?

Noel:   All the kids were great but some still stand out. There’s the one who lived on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan who played superhero with Bear before school. He just came up with this scenario on the spot and it was all one take. Done! It was fantastic! There was the kid who lived with his family in the Big Apple Circus and the girl whose kitchen was so small (How small was it?) that they had to put the camera outside and shoot through the window.

But the most memorable was the kid who lived with his mom at Fort Irwin, the largest training facility in the US (about the size of Rhode Island) in the middle of the Mojave Desert. His dad was serving in Iraq while we were there. In fact, in the middle of shooting the breakfast scene with the boy, the phone rang. The mom hurriedly told the person on the other end, “I can’t talk now. Bear’s here.” Then Bear asked who was it and she said it was her husband... calling from Iraq. “Call him BACK!! We’ll wait!” Bear yelled. And we did while she did.

TBC:   And what do you usually eat for breakfast yourself?

Noel:   Very light. Coffee a must. And either a small bowl of cereal or toast (with honey on it).

TBC:   And before we leave the subject of Bear, can you tell us anything about any plans for the character now? Does Disney have any future plans in motion?

Noel:   At the moment, no. Disney did try, for quite some time but, it’s a complicated situation that has resulted in, at least for now, Bear and the franchise being a fond memory and nice legacy to look back on.

TBC:   Before Bear, though, you were a puppeteer on Sesame Street and in Follow That Bird. What sort of characters would we have recognised you as from those days?

Noel:   Well, in Follow that Bird, I’m the Chairbird in the very beginning. And I’m playing myself in the end scene when Big Bird comes home. That day, they didn’t hire enough extras for the scene showing so many people on Sesame Street. So everyone, the crew, office staff, everyone was called to just stand while the camera panned 360 around the Street. So I’m there (young skinny Noel), my mother who came up to visit is there (near Gladys), even Debbie Spinney, Carroll’s wife is there, too. It’s a nice inside joke now seeing everyone who worked ON the movie IN the movie.

I’ve also been several snuffleupa-relatives through the years: Snuffy’s mom, his dad, his grandmother, his uncle, even his personal trainer (Arnold Snuffleupanager).

TBC:   You’ve had a chance to work with some of the Muppeteer greats, then.  Can I take the lazy (British?) option and say a few names and if you have any interesting memories you can share them?

Noel:   Fire away.

TBC:   Jerry Nelson.

Noel:   Brilliant. Jerry is the best when it comes to character voices. Not just doing a voice but the spirit behind it is always there. And I love, love, LOVE, The Count. When we invited he and Jan to our wedding, my wife squealed, “The Count’s coming to my wedding!”

 I loved the episode of Fraggle when Marjorie gets moved and she loses her “voice” and has this whole song with, I lose count how many voices Jerry goes through but they are all distinct. Jerry has the story behind it; basically, a fan letter came saying that Marjorie sounded like a kid’s grandmother. So to make sure an ethnic group wasn’t being singled out, the song let Marjorie do EVERY ethnic group.

TBC:   Jim Henson.

Noel:   It always warmed  me that Jim remembered my name. I didn’t see the man all the time but when I did, he always knew who I was. (It’s the little things, people.)

I still remember right handing Ernie with Jim. And in the middle of rehearsal, the lighting crew needed to make a quick adjustment, so, rather than take Ernie off, we just sat down on two wooden boxes near the set. And I remember thinking, “I’m sitting next to Jim Henson. Jim Henson! This man is the Walt Disney of puppetry, even better than Disney. He’s Kermit the Frog. He’s Ernie. I’m attached to Ernie! I should say something. Say Something! You’ve got a chance most puppeteers would give their right arm for — and how stupid would that be — couldn’t “right hand” without your right arm. Jeez, Noel! Focus! Focus! Think of something to say!” And I asked,” How are the kids?” And Jim started telling me about what they were all doing and with such paternal pride in his voice.

Jim was the boss you always wanted to please. Everyone in the workshop loved it when he came by and visited. He was quiet but had tremendous presence. But always in a welcoming way. And he was very funny especially with Frank.

TBC:   Richard Hunt.

Noel:   “If I didn’t like you, I’d be nice to you.” That’s what Richard said to me after being so sarcastic for so long with me (while I was a wrangler). “Then you must friggin’ love me,” I responded and he laughed so loud. I loved Richard. He was sarcastic and giving all at the same time. And I’ll never forget the day he changed so many lives.

Richard did Elmo. After Brian Muehl, Elmo’s original performer left, Richard inherited Elmo. While Brain had a whispery Elmo, Richard’s was loud, very, very, loud. (You can see and hear his Elmo at the end of Follow That Bird.) And it wasn’t working and he knew it. So after doing a short bit with Elmo, he comes to the Muppet Green Room (where the performers hang out between scenes) stood in the doorway, holding up Elmo by the neck and said, “Who wants this?” Kevin Clash happened to be there and slowly raised his hand. “Let’s hear a voice,” Richard said and Kevin did “that voice.” “Fine,” and Richard tossed Elmo across the room to him, Kevin caught it and Richard left. And the rest, as they say, is history.

TBC:   Frank Oz.

Noel:   Same feeling of “ahhhh” when he would remember my name. I’ve learned so much about manipulation, pacing, timing, and owning a scene because of Frank. And when he and Jim were together, it was magic.

My wife told me that when she was in college, she took classes at MIT and she and a friend passed the theatre one day. That summer the Puppets of America were having their convention there and in the packed theatre on stage were Jim and Frank talking about puppetry. Then they each reached into a bag next to them and Jim pulled out Kermit and Frank pulled out Cookie. And Cookie began to berate Kermit on how he was a big time star and “no time to come and sing alphabet anymore” on Sesame, and on and on, and everyone is dying with laughter.

TBC:   Fran Brill.

Noel:   I love Fran so much. She is one the classiest lady I know as well as genuinely talented. No ego, no baggage. And she is so funny with Prairie Dawn in between takes.

Years ago, she was in a play and she was wonderful in it. An hour and a half long, no intermission. The next day on set, she tapes up her lines for the scene (as all the performers do) and half way through ZoĆ« has to recite the alphabet.. which she flubs! “Fran.” I said, “You can perform an entire play for 90 minutes but you can’t say the alphabet!?” We both laughed.

TBC:   But you’re not just a performer there now. You’ve been involved in setting up several overseas Sesame productions. What can you tell us about that?

Noel:   In recent years I had the opportunities to go abroad and audition and train puppeteers, conduct writers workshops, consult with directors and even train a few wranglers for the Sesames in Japan, Mexico, Palestine, Jordan, South Africa, India, Nigeria, and just this past fall, Pakistan. These trips have been amazing. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Travel is the cure for prejudice.”

TBC:   People have always asked how to get there, but what does it take to make a Sesame Street? I read that one country wasn’t sure that they needed puppets. Do you think that puppets are a vital part of Sesame Street?

Noel:   The original pilot for Sesame didn’t have puppets. So, yes, puppets are key for a Sesame Street. They aren’t the whole, just part of it, but a key part of it. Often, it’s easier for a puppet to say or do something than a human.

Basically, Sesame works with the country in question to develop their own Sesame. Their format, set, characters (sometimes original and sometimes “cousin” versions of ours) and especially the curriculum are discussed and agreed upon to tailor it for that regions children and their needs. Jordan’s emphasis on traffic safety differs from Palestine’s need for self-awareness which differs from India’s need to teach health and the importance of clean water, and so on. Nigeria’s Sesame Square is set in an area that kids would recognize as being from Nigeria and use footage from our library  dubbed into their accents. But India’s Galli Galli Sim Sim is the only Sesame with 100% original content. And Ireland’s Sesame isn’t even on a street; it’s in a tree!

TBC:   Why do you think it is important that Sesame Street be available in other countries?

Noel:   Sesame was founded on the principle that all kids deserve and have the right to knowledge as early as possible. Ours was to get them ready for school by teaching the basics in letters and number, as well as social skills. This is true for all children, anywhere in the world. Sesame’s blueprint for teaching is new to very many countries. We teach through humor and songs a concept that we take for granted. But when you go to other countries, not everyone grew up with a Sesame so you need to educate the production team on how to approach and embrace this idea before a puppet even gets put on.

TBC:   You were involved in setting up the Nigeraian Sesame Street. Do you have any memories from there that you would like to share?

Noel:   I blogged about it on my site because I wanted people to know that I was NOT in the Nigeria we see on CNN. (Same is true for the countries of Palestine and Pakistan.) The production team were so excited and proud of this chance for their own Sesame. And I got four of the best puppeteers I’ve ever gotten to train and who embraced the fun while stepping up to the physical and mental challenges that comes from performing in on the floor with a puppet over your head, which you’ve tucked out of the way.

TBC:   Also, I’ve always loved the Irish co-production that could be seen in the UK on the BBC with Potto and Hilda and the Sesame Tree. Were you involved with this at all?

Noel:   No that was Marty’s doing. He picked a great group. In fact, last year the producer for Sesame said they were about to go back into production. “So they need retraining, right?” I asked. Nope they are that good. “Not the answer I want to hear,” I said.

TBC:   Finally, you’ve also been involved with the Muppets as well. What involvement did you have with  ?

Noel:   I go to be Sweetums. That was a dream come true. He’s a walk around puppet which I always lean towards, and it was Richard’s character so there was that humor. And I go to do the voice for the post office song!

And by the way, it’s the original head Richard used on The Muppet Show!

TBC:   You’ve also recently written a book of puppetry for children, 10-Minute Puppets. Can you tell us about the book and your inspiration for it?

Noel:   My wife inspired it. She said, “You know two things really well; how to be a puppeteer and how to be a dad.” So it’s the result of combing both skills. “But don’t make it ‘crafty’,” she added, “make it for people like me.” So the book is very hands on and easy to use, even with templates in the back to cut out and use.

I was wanted to try and re-inspire the art of puppetry to everyone. That’s why there’s all those anecdotes and advice about character and performance and storytelling from Jerry and Frank and Fran and John Tartaglia, to name a few.

TBC:   Why do you think children like puppets so much?

Noel:   I’m referring to puppets as “the original 3D animation.” And it’s true. Puppets are real; you can touch them and talk to them and they can touch and talk back to you. Plus, with the book, giving kids the knowledge to make their own puppets is very empowering to them. I wanted to give them (and their adults) the pride of “Look what I can do with what I just made!”

TBC:   And where can we get a copy of the book for ourselves?

Noel:   At your local book store (support independents in your area) and Amazon.com.

TBC:   What are your plans for the future?

Noel:   Well I got that load of laundry in the drier to fold. After that, I’m still a puppeteer (and a writer and director). So I’m going to be auditioning and training puppeteers for a project collaboration between the Henson Company and the Philadelphia Zoo. I’ve got more book tour appearances across the US (and if anyone has any bookstore suggestions let me know). And I might be starring or assisting in two different productions this year. Maybe both. (I’ve auditioned for a couple of things so if they come through I’ll let you know. Or with your resources, you might let ME know first.) And any other opportunities that come up. (Maybe teaching?)

TBC:   Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us! Do you have anything that you want to ask us or the Muppet community at all?

Noel:   It’s so comforting to know that there are still so many people out there who love puppets and appreciate the magic it brings.
Thank you all.

TBC:   It has been great chatting to you, and I wish you all the best with everything you are involved in! Thanks again.

Noel: Thank you for listening to me. (Now, where’s that honey lager?)

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

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