My first day at The Muppets I was guided to a wall covered with filing cabinets. Will Morrison, Henson’s Muppet Shop Director, opened a drawer. There, lying inside, was Rowlf the Dog.
Rowlf the Dog was the Muppet I used to beg my mother to let me stay up late on a week night to watch on the Jimmy Dean Show.
Clearly a puppet to this little boy, Rowlf would make his entrance half-way through Jimmy Dean’s one hour program. Normally past my bedtime, it was my childhood delight to stay up late and watch Jimmy and Rowlf joke with each other. Sometimes that cute little puppet dog would even play the piano. I even recall one of Rowlf’s jokes, about being a dog that jogged with “short pants”.
Here I was, my first day at work, standing inside The Muppets, looking into a filing drawer, only to see Rowlf the Dog lying inside – looking a little bit too still. “Was he dead?” I worried. “No,” I calmed myself. “He’s only sleeping.” Assuring my inner child.
I was shown to my own private desk in my own private office. Suspended directly above me were the two principal ‘Gelflings’ from ‘The Dark Crystal’. “So that’s where these two lead actors hung out after the movie wrapped.” I mused.
They looked so life like it was eery. Almost as if they were watching me…
My first assignment was to improve a scale model that was part of the Art of the Muppets. I added color and detailing and generally made more attractive a 3-dimensional depiction of how Kermit and Miss Piggy rode their bicycles in The Great Muppet Caper.
I was informed that FAO Schwarz, the famous toy store, had just offered The Muppets a large area on their second floor to design and build anything they might wish, to be both a fun exhibit and a point-of-purchase.
Will Morrison explained to me that the Muppets had no one on their staff trained in architectural design. They’d never done anything like this before. Because my immediate previous position was with SOM and my degree was architecture, Will Morrison asked if I would design and oversee the installation of this large exhibit area inside FAO Schwarz.
I visited the most wonderful toy store in the world and measured every inch of space being offered by FAO Schwarz. It seemed a clever idea to make the setting a theater, as if from their popular television show. The exterior of the theater from the Muppet Show had never been depicted before. I decided to be inspired by the Paris Opera House. Why not borrow from the best? Use its’ classical proportions and details, only “Muppetize” them.
‘Doozers’ were converted into elements and cherub angels rendered into the exterior motif. Around the perimeter I designed a marquee. And included a ticket booth, manned, of course, by a Muppet. The humor was to show this Muppet having lost control with tickets flying everywhere.
Another Muppet had his head popping out of the marque while attaching a sign as only a Muppet could fumble. Inside this theater setting I portrayed large 3-dimensional areas of favorite Muppet shows surrounded by cleverly imbedded unique detailing. On the floor outside I added a strip of grey to mimic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I asked Muppet artists to draw Muppet hands and feet as well as their autographs, which surprisingly perplexed these artists. Until they informed me: “Muppets do not have any feet.”
Included was a beautiful glass chandelier, an architectural column, plus other design elements that I found in Lower Manhattan antique & vintage stores. Muppet artists embellished these, under my direction and design, such as carving a “bust” of Miss Piggy which was mounted to the top of the column.
For this project I was provided a desk inside Michael Frith’s office. Michael Frith was the Artistic Director for everything. Sitting side by side with him each day, listening to his stereo play classical music, is where I designed all of the details for this FAO Schwarz exhibit area. Collaborating with one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met anywhere. I couldn’t imagine a better designers paradise. Above his desk was a poster of The Beatles. I inquired about it from a Henson employee. “Don’t you know? When the Muppets were filming in London, George Harrison visited the set with his young son, and asked Michael Frith for his autograph.”
FAO Schwarz’s opening was a big success. At its opening is when I first met Jim Henson. A quiet man that exuded genius. I would continue to observe how he would handle design meetings, make his decisions. And noted that whenever he spoke his right hand would move, as if he were manipulating an invisible Muppet.
Everyone working at Henson Associates, everyone I worked with, was truly an artist. So much detail and design went into every costume and sculpture. Each creation was a real work of art. My respect for and friendship with everyone working for Henson Associates would only grow. I invited co-workers over for dinner. Enjoyed the chocolate chip cookies that were served to us daily at work. Oversaw a private meeting with HBO. Took part in other design discussions, including their new ‘Muppet Babies’. Attended weekly mandatory meetings inside Muppet conference rooms, where it was requested that we sit and watch the latest Muppet Shows while Muppet stuff was freely handed out to each of us. I danced the night away at the famous Masquerade Ball in a loft downtown as Michael Frith & Jim Henson enjoyed the festivities.
When I was younger, living in Sarasota, I would force my movie date to remain in our movie theater seats until the last film credits had rolled. I could sense my date becoming bored. But I always somehow believed that one day I would be working with the people I saw listed on these movie screens. That dream was fulfilled when I became part of the audience attending a private opening of a brand new Muppet movie inside a reserved theater at Lincoln Center. Here I was, at a private showing of a Muppet Movie – what fun – surrounded by all my talented co-workers. Jim Henson made a few remarks from the front of the theater before the film started. The lights dimmed – and I thought back to my days in Sarasota when I imagined myself one day right here.
FAO Schwarz was soon followed by an exhibit to celebrate the opening of a new Muppet movie, ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’. New York’s Central Park’s Dairy Building became the setting for a Muppet exhibit recreating 3-dimensional movie scenes. It was fun to depict the movie in miniaturized form, revealing how movie scenes were filmed and Muppets manipulated.
It was at the opening of this exhibit when I first met Mr & Mrs Frank Oz. Mrs Frank Oz, I learned, had, herself, worked as a professional scale model builder before she was swept off her feet by the personality behind Miss Piggy – Excellent choice, Mr Oz.
The Muppets annual picnic in Central Park was my final day. A volleyball game was initiated. At six feet in height I was taller than most, and was chosen to be on Jim Henson’s team. Jim Henson, of course, was made captain. I was placed close to the net. As the game commenced, Jim Henson grew excited.
My attention was focused on the other team. But I could hear Jim Henson’s voice behind me literally changing into Kermit the Frog the more excited he became.
“Kermit is giving the orders here!” I realized.
As we relaxed and ate our picnic meals I decided to sit near to both Jim Henson and his wife, Jane. Others from the company stared at me, as if I’d crossed ‘some line’. But I found Mr Henson to be quite gracious. Speaking with me, in his very quiet voice, about film studios around the world, some of which I’d personally visited. As well as discussing other children’s motion pictures.
My “boss” ~ with Jim Henson
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