Jason Mondine – My earliest childhood memory isn’t of my mother’s cooking or my dad tossing me into the air. It’s Muppets. On my third birthday, I unwrapped my presents to find toy puppet versions of Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Ernie and Bert. I was ecstatic. Here were the very same fantastic characters I was viewing every day on PBS, in my hands! Somehow, even at this early age, I understood that they were not real. I never had to go through that heartbreaking, Santa Claus/Pro-Wrestling moment. I knew they were puppets. I loved that they were puppets. And now, they were my puppets!
Soon after, though, I started noticing differences between the diminutive toys in my hands and the adult sized creations on Sesame Street. First off, TV Ernie’s hands and arms moved. My Ernie’s arms were stuffed with foam and just hung at the sides. What kind of cheap knockoff was this! TV Ernie’s fingers were also very nimble. They could pick things up, move them around, grab and remove Bert’s nose. Even on our blurry, unsteady rabbit ear television, I could see that his hands and head were made of some kind of soft fabric. In contrast, my Ernie’s head and hands were hard molded rubber. This not only made the fingers less flexible, but if you twirled the character around fast enough they became lethal weapons. This was the early 70’s, a time when Fisher Price Little People were still made out of splintery wood and just the right size to fit snugly in a human throat.
Undaunted, I decided to make my Ernie work the same as the one on TV. I yanked the foam out of his arms and forced my left arm into his, while working his head with my right hand. The whole insertion-at-the-elbow thing escaped me, so I just shoved my whole arm in at the shoulder (I was much more flexible then).
Then I turned my attention to Bert. His arms were the same as Ernie’s, but skinnier. I could see how the one on TV worked. They had sticks on them. I combed the house for something to use, and found a wire hanger in my mother’s closet. With all the strength my three year old frame could muster, I carefully unwound it from its hanger shape and twisted one end around Bert’s wrist. Another step closer to Muppet perfection!
At this point, my parents began worrying about me. I never understood why they didn’t get me the Big Bird puppet. Now I realize they were afraid I’d try to crawl inside it and get my head stuck. And they were probably right.
Instead, they bought me original hand puppets made of soft materials that were nowhere to be found on any TV show. This must have been challenging, for it was a time of many puppets on television. Every kid’s show from Captain Kangaroo to Soupy Sales had at least one puppet creation in their cast. Still, I always gravitated to the Muppets, and unlike most of my peers, Precocious Little Me was able to articulate why. Sort of.
Technical terms like lip-sync and active listening were not in my vocabulary. But I was able to explain that the Muppets “open their mouths every time they make a sound”, especially “the guy with the weird, low voice”. It took me only another year to learn that his name was Frank Oz.
Now my snobbery took full force. I looked down on puppets from Mister Rogers (their mouths don’t move), Sid and Marty Krofft (they’re ugly and they move like Jello), and practically every other creation I saw. I also drove myself to emulate my Muppet idols. I would practice lip-syncing to my favorite records, strain my vocal cords creating unique voices, and drive my parents crazy by insisting on bringing fake talking animals with me on every outing.
Two years later, I received another birthday present, a custom made, portable wood puppet theater. This was the beginning of the end of my snobbery. My best friend and I set up and performed anywhere we could over the next five years. The reality of live theater before a crowd of random, unruly children made me realize what an achievement just getting through a ten minute show could be, quality be damned.
Then something remarkable happened. After a particularly raucous show on the Santa Monica Pier, one of the grownups on staff paid us. Me and my friend! Our own money! Five…whole…dollars! Each! Being 1978, there was only one thing for a ten year old boy to do. Buy a Star Wars action figure! Which I then used to act out the movie in a considerably more low brow form of puppetry, one shared with every child close to my age at the time.
As an adult puppeteer, I am glad to say that I’m now over my bad childhood self. I recognize that glove puppetry like that on Mister Rogers is a centuries old tradition, allowing a single puppeteer to create an entire stage production within a tiny box. The puppeteers for Sid and Marty Krofft were working hard to tell wild, ambitious story lines on incredibly short production schedules and tiny budgets.
But the Muppets are still my gold standard. As a child, I was oblivious to the fact that I was witness to a revolution. The Muppets on Sesame Street elevated and transformed puppetry as much as Disney did for animation decades before and ILM would for special effects just a few years later. But it wasn’t just the puppetry techniques. The characters were complex and flawed. They had relationships that were sometimes difficult, often leading to conflict. And they had some of the best writers in the industry. Those early Ernie and Bert segments, along with the Kermit and Grovers, were some of the greatest sketch comedy in the history of television. I rank them up there with the best of Sid Caesar, Carol Burnett and Saturday Night Live. It’s a level of excellence that, as a performer, I have and continue to chase throughout my career.
I am grateful to Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl and all the others. Thanks to them, I have a three year old puppet snob looking over my shoulder, judging my work and always pushing me to do better.
Creator, Zoo Pack Puppets; Head Puppeteer, Cando Puppet Company