Obituary: Diana Birkenfield / One of the driving forces behind Muppets, Fraggles
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Diana Birkenfield had no children of her own but, truth be told, she had a hand in raising millions of kids the world over with her TV production work for the Muppets and the Fraggles.
Ms. Birkenfield retired from the entertainment business more than two decades ago and moved from New York City back to her native Pittsburgh, but her pioneering work as a female producer in the early days of radio and TV remains her legacy.
Ms. Birkenfield, of Downtown, died Thursday in UPMC Mercy. She was fiercely private about her age but voter registration records indicate she was 86.
Ms. Birkenfield was so connected with the beloved puppets with whom she worked so closely that in her death notice her family listed "cherished Muppets and Fraggles around the world" as survivors.
"She was present at the creation," said her cousin, Helen-Faye Rosenblum of Shadyside. She knew of their importance in so many ways, including literacy, something that concerned her.
"She really, deeply cared that the emphasis of the Muppets continued to be focused on the education of children. She was very unbiased and unbigoted and appreciated the necessity of inclusiveness racially, ethnically and by gender. She loved the fact the Muppets taught all of those lessons."
Modest and generous by nature, Ms. Birkenfield "paved the way for many women. Many of those she hired went on to stellar careers in TV or movies," Ms. Rosenblum said.
Family friend Susan Englert of Lawrenceville wrote in a note to Ms. Rosenblum that Ms. Birkenfield's "spirit was so beautiful, brilliant, kind, creative, delightful, audacious it seems like we should have marching bands or mariachis or a tap dancing chorus line at the service."
A Squirrel Hill native, Ms. Birkenfield graduated from Allderdice High School and the University of Pittsburgh and landed her first broadcasting job at WHOD Radio in Homestead, the predecessor to WAMO.
And then it was off to New York to seek a career in the fledgling television industry. There she struggled in secretarial and other jobs, slowly working her way up during a time when women were relegated to low-level positions
She worked on shows such as "The Kate Smith Hour," "Candid Camera," and, fortuitously for her career, "The Jimmy Dean Show." There, she met a young man by the name of Jim Henson who for three years in the early 1960s performed on the show as Rowlf the Dog, the first Muppet to reach national stardom.
According to the Jim Henson Co. archives, Mr. Henson "kept his eye out for talented people and seeing Ms. Birkenfield behind the scenes, he recognized her strength in coordinating production. He asked her to spend the summer hiatus of 1964 assisting with his short film, "Time Piece," marking the beginning of a long and productive professional relationship."
Ms. Birkenfield produced many of Mr. Henson's television projects in the late '60s and early '70s including "The Frog Prince" and "The Muppet Musicians of Bremen." After working on other outside projects, Ms. Birkenfield was named vice president of television production for Mr. Henson's company and eventually became the first woman to serve on the Muppets board of directors.
Her "meticulous files from the 1960s that make up much of the archival record for that time, [allowed] us to delve deeply into that seminal period of Jim's development," according to Mr. Henson's archives.
Among her many awards, she won a prime time Emmy, along with Mr. Henson, for "Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting," in 1989. She also was nominated for an Emmy as a producer two other times -- in 1988 for "A Muppet Family Christmas," and in 1987 for "The Christmas Toy." She was part of the team that, in 1987, won a Gold Hugo award at the Chicago International Film Festival for "The Christmas Toy."
She also served as executive producer or producer for "The Muppets at Walt Disney World" (1990), the late Mr. Henson's last TV show; "Down at Fraggle Rock ... Behind the Scenes" (1987); "The Tale of the Bunny Picnic" (1986); "The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years" (1986); and "The Muppets Valentine Show" (1974).
She was the executive in charge of production for 91 episodes of "Fraggle Rock" between 1983 and 1987.
She retired from the industry and returned to Pittsburgh to care for her mother and to enjoy Pittsburgh's cultural offerings, Ms. Rosenblum said.
In addition to Ms. Rosenblum -- and the Muppets and Fraggles -- Ms. Birkenfield is survived by her sister, Natalie Weisman of Jenkintown, Montgomery County.
Services will be held at the Ralph Schugar Chapel, 5509 Centre Ave., Shadyside, at 3 p.m. Sunday. Visitation will be one hour prior to services. Interment will be private.
Donations in Ms. Birkenfield's memory may be made to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, 1 N. Linden St., Duquesne, PA 15110.
First Published November 24, 2012 12:00 am