Interview with Muppeteer Gabriel Velez, Part 2

Interview with Muppeteer Gabriel Velez, Part 2
Conducted by Kevin Williams

KEVIN:   A is for Asthma was your first starring video, wasn’t it? How did that come about?

GABRIEL:   I was busy doing another show, so I don’t exactly recall how I got the news. But yes, so far that has been my only home video starring role. I know Jane, Cheryl and Heather Henson were holding another Muppet training workshop class of about 20 people and I had been invited, from there somehow I was offered a role on A is for Asthma. I played Dani, a Muppet with Asthma.

The spelling of the name Dani is such because Dani was originally suppose to be a girl character. Kevin Clash overruled the producers and wanted the character to be a little boy instead. This was lucky for me because they originally wanted me to perform a Spanish girl’s voice, which I don’t think I could have done. Much to my surprise no one told me I would be the star of it until just before I got the script. It was a great video and it was fun working with Kevin Clash and Carmen Osbahr and Emilio Delgado (Luis). When you’ve got Kevin Clash next to you on the floor doing Elmo, most people don’t realize his high pitch voice is also loud. I bet you can hear him from a block away.

This was Sesame Street’s first ever live on the set bilingual video. A is for Asthma is about 15 minutes in English and then we reshot each scene again doing it in Spanish. When I was offered the part, no one asked me if I knew Spanish. They just assumed I knew Spanish because of my heritage. I could speak some Spanish because I have heard it all my life but I had never read Spanish. When I got the Spanish script I had to sound out each word and realized that I had heard that word before and memorized the text. I had a Spanish/English dictionary to help me too. Good thing Sesame had a Spanish linguist on the set to help me pronounce the words properly. My folks helped me with pronunciations too. It’s like the Italian word “Arrivederci.” You’ve heard it all your life, but the first time you see it on paper you realize what it’s spelled like.

I have to point out an amazing performance by Kevin Clash in the Spanish version of the video. A Spanish fellow named Moises Belizario was hired to be the Spanish voice of Elmo. Moises recorded the Spanish script onto a cassette and it was given to Clash to learn. Clash was out in China and learned the cadence (not the words) of the Spanish dialog on his flight back to the USA. Mind you Clash did not know what was being said in the Spanish dialog. He just learned the cadence of Moises’ Spanish Elmo dialog. Then, when we went into production, on the set Moises sat right under the video camera and mouthed the entire Spanish dialog live and Clash didn’t miss a beat lip-synching Elmo live on-camera. He mouthed Elmo perfectly considering he didn’t know the language. Awesome performance.

A is for Asthma was a free video and 50,000 copies were distributed around the country. Then Carmen Osbahr, Emilio Delgado and I went around the country to promote the video monthly for almost a year. We did a live, 12-minute Muppet sketch to entertain and promote the video for kids, doctors, and politicians in our travels. We were usually joined in our travels sometimes by Pam Arciero, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Lisa Buckley, and Fran Brill.


KEVIN:   How much did you know about asthma going into the show as compared to afterwards?

GABRIEL:   I didn’t know anything about Asthma until then. When we did one of our Asthma tours around the country and I was waiting to go on and perform I heard a doctor giving an introductory speech about asthma saying that for many sufferers it’s like breathing in through a straw. And another doctor mentioned that they had held babies in third world counties who died in their arms from asthma and there was no medicine to help them. Very emotional stuff to hear.

KEVIN:   You got to travel around during this show, are there any fun or funny stories you can share?

GABRIEL:   In Arizona there was a lady who brought her Beanie Babies and placed them on our Muppet wall and wanted to have her Beanie Babies have a conversation with my Muppet Dani and Fran Brill’s Zoe. And in Bethesda, Maryland the senior citizen sister of a former vice-president came up to our Muppet wall and wanted to have a personal conversation not with a puppeteer, but with a Muppet.

KEVIN:   You had a part in The Muppets Take Manhattan–tell us a little about this.

GABRIEL:   In MTM, when Kermit and Piggy are married and all the Muppets go wild in their church pews, I’m also going wild with my old lady Muppet celebrating. Then while performing below the church pews something hit me in the face. What hit me in my face fell into the cradle of my arms, it was Lew Zeland’s boomerang fish!!! I was honored! Lew had flung a fish during the celebration and I caught one in the kisser! It was a very proud moment for me and while I continued to celebrate with all the other Muppets at the marriage, I was also laughing my butt off getting struck by Lew’s fish.

KEVIN:   I see on your website, ( that you performed a huge Junior Gorg for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. How did you land that?

GABRIEL:   I called the Henson Company and asked them if I could be in the parade. I thought I was going to be one of the Henson employees that occasionally volunteer to hold the Kermit the Frog Balloon. Next thing I know they called me into their studios and they show me a huge 23 foot tall Junior Gorg that I was going to perform inside of. Just like that! I didn’t even audition for it. I was surprised!!

KEVIN:   What was this experience like (besides cold)?

GABRIEL:   It was a lot of fun and freezing! Supposedly 1 million people lined the parade route. I would sit inside Junior’s stomach and operate the head, eyes and mouth. A Henson building employee volunteered to help me that day inside Junior. I would hear the crowd in the street chant to Junior: “Turn this way! Turn this way!” And when I would turn Junior in that direction and the crowd would roar. Same chant would go up on both sides of the street. Pretty odd feeling to hear one million people cheering in a parade route and then go back home where it was quiet.

KEVIN:   If you were a Fraggle, which one would you be and why?

GABRIEL:   I guess that would be Wembley. Steve did such an amazing job with that character.

KEVIN:   You’ve also appeared in various soap operas. What got you the roles in these soap operas?

GABRIEL:   Just sent résumé’s. I figured I’m in the acting unions and I might as well give it a try. But I really started feeling sorry for those soap opera actors. No real glamour to their life, at least not at work. They are there from 6 AM to 9 PM and do about 100 pages daily of dialog. I didn’t see any fun these people where having.

When an occasion appeared that they needed a puppet for a background scene, I brought my puppet on the set of One life to Live. The cast reaction was as if I had brought a puppy on the set! They all wanted to try it and passed it around. As a matter of fact, the background scene I was in with my puppet, while taping the actual show the Stage Manager was frantically waving at me to get out of the scene with my puppet.
I thought I had done something wrong. Afterwards the Stage Manager told me I was fine, but that the Director realized that my puppet in the background was calling more attention to the scene than the main actress in the shot! So they got me out of there.

KEVIN:   What got you interested in puppetry?

GABRIEL:   Perhaps as a little boy watching the Muppets on Ed Sullivan. That was hypnotic and amazing to me.

KEVIN:   Who is your inspiration?

GABRIEL:   That could only be Jesus, no one else can compare.

KEVIN:   Having worked at The Jim Henson Company, can you describe the first day you went to the company looking for employment, the hiring process, and the feeling of being told you were working there?

GABRIEL:   Hmm, working at the main office or on the set? The Puppetry hiring process I described in part one concerning all the workshop classes. Working at the main office, Jane Henson helped me to get employed there. I was stuck in a dead end job when I got the news that my Muppet job application had been accepted and I would work in their main building. That was cool. My first day on the job, I was driving the Muppet van and I hit an unmarked detective car. Long story. No one hurt, just a fender bender. I didn’t brake fast enough.

KEVIN:   What were some of your duties there, and expand on your favorite one?

GABRIEL:   As far as corporate, I was told my actual job title was listed as “jack-of-all-trades.” I would establish company accounts for the Henson’s, I would transport Muppets to photo studios, and, if needed, I would pick up Jim Henson at the airport, but that never came to pass. But as time went on, I ended up being just a driver, so I left. Driving in Manhattan is insane.

One time I had an assignment to go to the airport, to customs, to pick up all the Fraggle Rock characters coming in from Canada. A customs agent wanted me to explain to him what a “Bull Doozer” was before he would release the Fraggle Rock characters to me. It was a cool feeling knowing I had every single character, even the Gorgs, well packed in the back of my Muppet van. The Henson Company listed on the Customs manifest that every packaged Fraggle Rock character had a value of either $90 or $100.Even the Gorg’s value was a mere $100. I was told that these prices had to set so low for insurance purposes.

Another time I had to drive to a studio Carroll Spinney had and bring him Oscar the Grouch and Spinney’s personal umbrella. Oscar was just in a crappy shopping bag. Imagine that! A legendary character tossed into an old shopping bag. Driving to Spinney’s studio I had the bag at my feet and Oscar was staring at me as I drove. I gave someone at the studio Oscar, but in my excitement I forgot to leave Spinney his umbrella.
I owe the man an umbrella!

I also dropped a rented $25,000 video camera down a flight of stairs in it’s protective casing. It still worked afterwards. Jim was going to use it. There was some odd moments to, when I had to walk Muppet body parts (arms, legs, torsos) from the Henson’s main building on 69th Street to another building of theirs on 67th Street. You would get some odd looks from folks on the street.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

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