Getting a hand on how Muppets perform

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Behind every great Muppet is a team of Muppeteers.

Veteran "Sesame Street" director and puppeteer Jim Martin hails from Mount Oliver, where he was born and raised. These days, he divides his time between his home on the North Side and New York, when "Sesame" and other projects are in production.

He became fascinated by puppets at an early age. "I have a theory that everyone around second grade makes a puppet. At that point, you either get bit or you don't."

While attending Point Park College (now Point Park University), he worked on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." He went on to work in the 1970s as a puppeteer for Citiparks before leaving for New York for a job with the children's show "The Great Space Coaster."

Martin joined "Sesame Street" in the early '80s and has been with the series ever since. Many of his most memorable moments revolve around the reactions of actors and celebrities who were guests on the series.

When the late Johnny Cash appeared on the show, Martin had the idea of having everyone in the cast and crew dress in black in honor of The Man in Black's signature garb.

After the segment was shot, Martin recalls, "Everybody was hugging him and thanking him for coming. But he never acknowledged the fact that we were in black. So people are looking at me like, 'Yeah, Jim, really nice. He's probably angry about this or something.'

"So I said to him, 'Mr. Cash, we kind of dressed all in black today in your honor. We hope we didn't offend you in any way.' He looked at me and he said, 'Well, son, no one's ever done that for me before. Thank you.' "

When actress Jodie Foster was on show, "The puppeteers kept putting on sheep puppets and going up to her and going, 'Shh. Shh.' " in tribute to "Silence of the Lambs." "She loved it," he recalls.

For Martin, one of the landmark events on the series was the death of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, and the way the show dealt with it. "It's one thing in a sitcom or drama where an actor passes away, and they make that part of the plot line. But for a children's show, that was amazing that those people had the courage to try that and do it."

Other tough topics, such as divorce among parents, were also attempted. But testing showed that talking about divorce didn't work well with children, and the segment was scrapped.

The puppet's personalities evolved with the show, Martin says. Big Bird was designed to be "silly, gangly awkward gawky, not so bright."

But the character evolved into a kind of "uber child," he says. "He should be the child everybody identifies with. Big Bird is the character that learns and grows on the show. He's inquisitive. He's not stupid. He's just young and naive. That became the discussion -- how to make Big Bird not just the silly Muppet that would run around and be fun, but how his comedy would play with his learning and his growth."

In terms of the art of television puppetry, the show itself was a landmark, he says, because of the late Jim Henson's pioneering use of TV monitors during shooting. "That was one of the amazing things that Jim brought to television puppetry -- to give the puppeteers monitors so that they could see where they were and what they were looking at. It's an amazing control as a performer that you have. Actors and singers can't do it.

"The Muppets really brought a fine definition of lip sync and eye focus to television puppeteers. That's what's going to make it believable."

Ultimately, Martin says, four decades of "Sesame Street" have taken the beloved series from an iconic New York street to children around the world, although in many different forms. In Mexico, for example, it's "Plaza Sesamo," and the action unfolds in a plaza. In Indonesia, it's a jungle village. And in Bangladesh, where TVs are scarce, a roving vehicle equipped with a generator takes the show to children who gather to watch it.

" 'Sesame Street' is being taught globally through many different cultures and languages and it's just amazing," Martin says. "It's sort of like 'Sesame Street' is the parent, and now not only does it have children, it has grandchildren shows all around the world. Hopefully children will learn and grow and understand that even though we look different, we're all the same. We're all children."

Adrian McCoy can be reached at 412-263-1865 or . First Published November 9, 2009 5:00 AM


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