Interview with Muppet Performer 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?
Interview with Pam Arciero
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.

RYAN:   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.

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.

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,

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