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That Time I Met The Muppets…

hilary-and-gonzo-2

“Okay, so this is where the magic will happen,” Bill Baretta gestured to the open space lined with dozens of tables. “Jane will be here shortly to set up The Workshop. I’m sure she’ll be happy to have you. We can always use an extra set of hands.” I nodded, still stunned I was talking to the Bill Baretta- lead Muppeteer with the Jim Henson Company.

My dad leaned over and whispered to me as he left to go work on set, “You should hear him do all the character voices. It’s incredible.”

I believed it. I’d never met a Muppeteer before, but there was something about him that was- for lack of a better word- whimsical. Did all Muppeteers possess this magical quality? Or were my powers of analysis dulled by my extreme excitement over being a Muppeteer Assistant for a day?

Yes, you read that right. I would be assisting the Muppets and their wranglers.

300px-billbarretta2011

It’s cool, I’d be jealous of me too.

Remember me saying I led a crazy life back in Vegas? That I’d come from a production family that sometimes gave me the opportunity to do crazy things like train lions and meet celebrities and stuff? Let’s consider this one of those unbelievably AWESOME perks.

Cee Lo Green was in town filming his Christmas special. He also decided to shoot the music video for his new release, “All I Need Is Love” featuring Miss Piggy, Kermit, and the gang. I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to work with The Muppets so I jumped on board.

ceelo-allineedislove

A giant white truck pulled up out front. “That’s them,” my dad said. We walked out to help them unload. The skies cracked with thunder, displaying atypical Vegas weather. Perfect for this unusual day, I thought.

A slender man named Jurgen opened up the back of the truck, revealing stacks of black trunks. Small trunks balanced on large trunks, each numbered and lettered. I stared at them in wonder, imagining the magical cargo they contained.

A tiny woman with long silver hair approached me, introducing herself as Jane. “We need to unload all of these boxes and get them inside The Workshop.” We pulled down boxes of every shape and size and the skies opened up, releasing monsoon-like rains.

Twenty minutes later, each Muppet and their luggage had made it safely indoors, just as the rain had taken on biblical proportions. The Muppet wranglers (in charge of the Muppet’s safety, costuming, and transport) and myself were soaked to the bone, but there was no time to waste. The wranglers made quick work of arranging the boxes in numerical and alphabetical order. I watched their bee-like precision and buzzing, afraid to interrupt their skilled and swift efforts.

Jane pulled out stands for The Muppets to perch on. “We need to find Miss Piggy and all of her clothes first, since we know she’ll be in the first shot.” she said. “Miss Piggy has at least twenty cases of clothing. She has the most accessories by far.”

Jurgen handed me a thick list held together by clamps. “This is our organizational system,” he explained. “You can find each Muppet by their corresponding numbers or by their names. We’re going to go through first and ensure that we have everyone, and then you’re going organize all of Miss Piggy’s boxes together.” I nodded, impressed with their streamlined process. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised… It was Disney after all.

Each of the wranglers put on a tool belt, equipped with lint rollers, safety pins, glue-guns and thread. “Are you good at crafts?” Jane asked me. “If you’re good at crafting you will be good at wrangling.”

Arts and crafts had never been my strong suit. In fact, I kind of hated it (I blame the scrapbooking debacle of 2009 when I hot glued my fingers together). But I was great with organizing. While the wranglers worked to create Christmas wreaths and holiday clothing for the Muppets, I manned The List, carefully removing each Muppet from its safe-keeping when asked, marveling at their delicate and soft shapes.

I would learn that Jane was not only the head wrangler, but also the designer for most of The Muppets. “Everyone thinks we’re just the prep team, but we do it all,” Jane said, curling Miss Piggy’s hair.

Jurgen had arranged The Muppets that were dressed, primped, and ready for Muppeteers on a table. I ran my fingers over their scarves and holiday hats, lost in memories of childhood and warm feelings.

Bill Barretta walked over with a group of happy people, smiling at my goofy grin. “How’s it going, Hilary?”

I looked up and smiled, “You guys have the COOLEST jobs.”

Bill turned to the cheerful group. “Everybody, this is Hilary. She’s our Muppet helper today and here for whatever we need.” Bill turned back to me. “These are our Muppeteers.”

Everyone shook my hand, waved, and smiled. “We don’t often get helpers, so we’re so excited to have you!” Alice, the pretty blonde with the perfect smile said. I smiled and looked shyly back at them. They were all too cool. I was not deserving of being in their presence. I mean, they were all just so- nice. And animated. I didn’t know such cartoony people really existed.

Each Muppeteer helped themselves to their assigned Muppets and headed on set to shoot the first scene. I watched them go, whispering to no-one in particular, “They ARE magical!”

Jurgen headed on set and gestured for me to follow. “Bring those rolling seats with you,” he said, pointing to the padded rolling chairs below one of the tables. I grabbed them and headed on set.

I guess at some point Cee Lo must have arrived, because there he stood in the middle of the Muppets. He was shorter than I’d thought, but a really nice guy.

I handed the rolling seats to Bill and he handed them off to Muppeteers. Each one sat at varying heights (some on apple boxes), checking to ensure their bodies were out of frame on the monitors. They then did mic checks with the director.

hilary-and-ceelo

The director called for quiet on set, and we did our first take. The moment was a blur, as I was mesmerized by the Muppeteers and their skill. Their moves and level changes were choreographed like dancers. They kept their arms raised high, watching their movements in a mirrored image on the monitors. What a unique and special skill set to be able to do that, I thought.

The entire song was five minutes long. After doing a few takes the director called to go again. Bill shook his head. “No, my people need a break.”

The director didn’t like this. “But we just want one more take,” he pleaded.

Bill was firm, gesturing the Muppeteers to hand off their Muppets. “Nope, they need a break.”

I gave Bill a mental ‘Atta boy, only imagining what holding a ten pound puppet above your head for that long would make me feel like.

One of the long-time original Muppeteers, Dave Goetta (Muppeteer of Gonzo), came over to talk to me. “That looks like a great arm workout,” I remarked.

Dave’s eyes twinkled. “Sure is. I remember when I used to get my suits tailored back in the eighties. My tailor hated me because my right arm was always so much larger than my left. But that’s just part of the job!”

I hesitated, desperately wanting to ask my next question. “Dave, could I get a photo with you and Gonzo?” I had asked Jane earlier if it was okay. She told me I had to ask the individual Muppeteers. They were the only ones that could ‘okay’ photos.

“Well, I can’t be in the shot,” Dave explained, “But sure!”

I lit up with excitement. My hair was wet and I was still soggy from the rain that morning but I didn’t care. “Thank you so much, Dave! I’ll be sure to send you copies.”

He chuckled. “You know, I’ve had people tell me that for years, but no-one’s ever followed through?”

I looked at him gravely. “Scout’s honor I will get them to you.” (As a sidenote: Dave has been e-mailed the photos. So HA.).

Bill called the Muppeteers back over to reset for the next take. I thanked Dave again and watched them get repositioned.

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Jurgen called me over. “Can you hold Fozzie Bear? They don’t want him for this take.” He handed me the plush Muppet and scurried off to assist Jane.

I don’t remember anything about the take. I can’t tell you if they nailed it or if it sucked. All if remember was holding Fozzie, petting him like a puppy, the other Muppets singing along the soundtrack to this perfect moment.

George, the set photographer, walked over and whispered in my ear. “Is this your first time holding a Muppet?”

I looked up and laughed. “Is it that obvious?”

He winked and nodded, walking away. I noticed other crew members giving me funny glances. I didn’t care how ridiculous my face looked. I was indescribably happy and no-one could take that away from me.

The director wrapped the shot and called to set up for the next take. I carried Fozzie back out to The Muppet Workshop, trying VERY hard not to skip.

Jane was busy working on Cee Lo Muppet, crafting his mustache to an exact likeness of Cee Lo’s. “Wow,” I whispered, watching her work. “So much detail!”

 

Courtesy of Disney

Courtesy of Disney

The Muppeteers walked back to The Workshop, dropping off their respective Muppets and massaging their arms. They twittered about, laughing with each other like old friends do. I drank in their energy, placing each Muppet carefully back in its respective home.

One of the Muppeteers, Peter, walked over after handing back his Muppet, his curls as bouncy as his mood. “So Hilary, what do you do when you’re not assisting Muppeteers?”

“I’m a travel blogger,” I said tentatively. “I travel and write about my adventures.” I thought about blogging in comparison to bringing characters to life, determining it sat much lower on the cool scale. “But it’s definitely not as awesome as this!” I blurted out, still amazed with how they could bring their characters to life- it was almost as if their Muppets were extensions of them. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Peter’s eyes got wide. “Are you kidding? That sounds awesome!”

I just looked at him and laughed. He clearly didn’t get how cool I thought he and all the Muppeteers were. But then again, I guess after you did something for so long, it just seems like an everyday thing… Much like blogging life was for me.

I watched the Muppeteers walk out to their trailer to hang out before their next take. All of them waved goodbye and gave me big smiles and thanks.

I stood stunned, watching them go. I mean, I had expected to feel warm and fuzzy from working with The Muppets. But to receive so much of a contact-high from meeting such beautiful souls? That I hadn’t expected.

Would they ever know how thankful I was to have met them? To have had this backstage opportunity and learn about their world? I smiled, realizing they probably wouldn’t. But who knows? Maybe one day I’d blog about my Christmas music video adventure and they’d see it. And they’d know that even though they went to Vegas with the intention of making magic with Cee Lo, they also managed to leave a lasting impression with another whimsical soul. And for that I would forever be grateful.

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Here’s hoping I’ve passed some of their whimsy and Christmas cheer on to you! Happy Holidays, everyone. Wishing you and your families nothing but bright blessings and a little bit of magic this holiday season.

And remember above all else, all we need is love. =)

40 Comments

  • Reply

    IWritetheBlogs

    December 24, 2012

    Holy cow. That is *awesome*. Lucky you — I went to “Stuffed and Unstrung” this year and *just* ordered the John Denver Christmas Special tonight before finding this post. It’s been a “Muppet” kind of evening. : )

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 25, 2012

      Whoohoo! Sounds like you’ve had an eventful evening! Thanks so much for stopping by to read about my adventure! Aren’t Muppet evenings the best kind?

      Happy holidays and happy Christmas special-ing when it arrives! =)

  • Reply

    jasongrote

    December 25, 2012

    How awesome Hilary! :D

  • Reply

    Britt Skrabanek

    December 25, 2012

    Dude…I am beyond jealous! Miss Piggy was always my favorite – she was stylish and feisty. A lot of people seemed annoyed by her, but she was just a gal that knew what she wanted.

    Loved reading this stupendous story in my jammies today. Merry Christmas to you, Hilary!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 25, 2012

      I love that you love it! Yes, she does know what she wants. Deep down, she’s just as much of a ham as the rest of us. =)

      And I’m so glad it brought you some Christmas cheer! Merry Christmas, Britt! Lots of love to you and yours!

  • Reply

    Kaleena's Kaleidoscope

    December 25, 2012

    That sounds like such a cool experience! I grew up on the Muppet movies, so I can totally relate to your awe and wonder. ;) I love the way you turn your cool experiences into intriguing stories… not just “Oh, I went here and did this and it was fun.” Your style has actually been the inspiration for how I’ve started constructing a lot of my own blog posts. Sometimes travel bloggers have a tendency to just talk about what they did and saw but not the emotions behind it or the little details that went into creating the whole experience. I always enjoy reading your posts because they completely transport me into your world; I think it’s important to keep this type of story telling alive. So cheers–and merry Christmas! :)

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 27, 2012

      Kaleena, thank you so much for sending me this comment! Your timing could not have been more perfect. As I look to move forward with my blog and grow, I find myself questioning whether or not I should start writing like other travel bloggers. “But other people seem to like their style, plus it’s A LOT easier than what I do, so maybe I should try it?” I say to myself.

      So really, thank you for taking the time to write this. I needed the affirmation that what I’m doing is appreciate by my readers. I’m so thankful that you enjoy it! And I am SO flattered that you’re incorporating some of it into your writing style! Let me know if you have any questions or whatever. I’d love to help you however I can. =)

      Happy New Year! Thanks for sharing in my adventure.

      • Reply

        kaleenaskaleidoscope

        December 27, 2012

        I absolutely relate to this dilemma. I’m much newer on the blogging front, but I would eventually like to make my blog grow and be a springboard for some sort of travel writing career; when I look at the some of the most successful travel blogs, though, I think, “Really?! Is that the kind of dry stuff I have to write?”

        Sure, if you want to appeal to the masses, then you should write all kinds of how-to’s and 7 Best Tips kind of articles. But Chris Guillebeau makes a great point in one of his books that you shouldn’t try to appeal to everyone. You should actually try to weed out the readers that you don’t want, and appeal only to the kind of people that you want reading your stuff. You may not reach millions that way, but you will establish a more loyal following who truly appreciate your content and they will, in turn, promote it and help you grow.

        I think people like you and I, if I may be so bold, are natural born story tellers, and it’s a gift not a lot of people have. Resist the urge to sell out and be like other travel bloggers, and play to your strengths and what you really believe in; I think, in the long run, it will pay off. :)

        Anyway, sorry for the long winded & unsolicited advice… maybe I’m just saying this to remind myself, really. But I hope it helps, and I look forward to continuing to read stories of your journey. :) Cheers!

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          December 27, 2012

          Thank you so much for sharing Chris’s words. They rang deeply and closely with me. And I think you’re right… While we could blog in that manner, the goal is to stand apart, not to be one of the many. And I’d much rather be remembered and loved by my loyal readers than be read once by the masses. =)

          Thank for the reminder. And it’s not bold of you, it’s true. =) So happy to be a part of your journey as well!

          Here’s to being ‘us’ in 2013. =) Happy New Year!

  • Reply

    Say Gudday

    December 26, 2012

    To quote John Paull II the Pope, Shut your filthy mouth! (I think he said it to his maid).You got to hang out with the muppets? Way cool! Where was animal???

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 27, 2012

      Haha! That’s awesome. Animal was there. I sadly did not get any photos with him, but I DID get to help dress him. He’s super soft… in case you were wondering. =) Is he your favorite Muppet?

      • Reply

        Say Gudday

        December 28, 2012

        Yeah him and Dr Teeth. Soooo envious!

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          December 28, 2012

          Dr. Teeth! He’s HUGE, by the way.

          And you never know! Maybe one day you’ll get the chance to meet them yourself! =)

  • Reply

    epilepsymeandneurology

    December 26, 2012

    sooooo Cool! the muppets rock!! happy christmas! awsome!:)

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 27, 2012

      The Muppets DO rock! Happy Christmas and New Year to you as well!

      Thanks so much for commenting! I’m so happy to hear you guys enjoyed the post. =)

  • Reply

    Browsing the Atlas

    December 26, 2012

    This is so freaking awesome! What an incredible experience. I think I appreciated it all the more because I just finished reading “The Wisdom of Big Bord” about the life of Carroll Spinney — the man who make the feathers come alive.
    Plus, you got to meet CeeLo Green?! I am so jealous.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 27, 2012

      That’s so crazy! How was that book? I can’t wait to hear all about that!

      CeeLo was great. You wouldn’t have thought he was a celebrity from the way he acted. He was just a regular guy, super sweet, and hard working. I’d love to work with him again… and maybe this time get a photo where we’re both not soaked to the bone, haha!

      So glad you enjoyed the post! Happy new year to you!

  • Reply

    Christina

    December 26, 2012

    I love this, so awesome!!! Talk about a once in a lifetime experience!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 27, 2012

      Thanks, Christina! It was a crazy shoot, but definitely worth all the hard work to have the opportunities I did! I’m glad you enjoyed reading about it! =)

      Happy new year!

  • Reply

    gene3067

    December 29, 2012

    You left out the biggest question of all. Did Miss Piggy teach you any karate lessons? Hiiii-Ya!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 29, 2012

      Haha! No, she was in a good mood while we were chatting. She was discussing diamonds with Cee Lo and giving kisses. I’ll have to tweet her and ask her for one. =)

  • Reply

    Ed

    December 29, 2012

    Reading your posts always brings a smile to my face. I love hearing these kinds of once-in-a-lifetime type stories, and we’re privileged to have you bring us behind the scenes to them!

    I was just catching up on some posts I never wrote before I came back to the U.S., and I was thinking, “I wonder what Hilary’s up to? I haven’t heard from her in a while!” and then you went and liked my post! You’ve been a major inspiration to me when I write my travel posts, as I used to approach them with that blasé “ok, this is what I did on my trip” attitude, but now, I ask myself, “Self, how would Hilary write this experience?” Usually, that does the trick!

    Thank you for taking us along to meet the Muppets! I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings for you!

    Happy New Year, and as they say in France, Meilleurs Voeux!
    Ed

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 30, 2012

      Aww, Ed I LOVE reading your comments! They always put me in the best mood! Totally featuring this one on my Facebook page next week!

      I am so thrilled that you just thought of me out of the blue! And I’m even MORE thrilled that there’s now a what would Hilary do kind of mindset! I love that I was able to encourage you to try a different kind of writing style! Yay teamwork!

      And thank YOU for being so willing to follow me in my journey. I would not be able to move forward in blogging as I have without my dedicated and loyal readers! (I feel good things coming in 2013 :)

      Lots of love! Happy new year!

      • Reply

        Ed

        December 30, 2012

        Aw, this is what blogging is about: personal connections. I’m thrilled to be counted among your loyal followers, and you can be assured that I feel likewise about you.

        Where will your next trip take you? You know, March is really the nicest time to visit Austin, what with the wildflowers, beautiful weather, and SXSW going on… ;)

        Happy New Year to you, too! 2013 is going to be the best blogging year yet!

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          December 30, 2012

          Not sure yet… I’ve got a lot of things to get in order in January. I hope to have an answer for you soon though! And thanks for the heads up. I will be sure to keep that in mind. Never been to Austin… would definitely be a fun adventure!

  • Reply

    travellingmo

    January 1, 2013

    Soooooo coool!!! I wanna meet the Muppets! What an excellent adventure. And Hillary, what you do IS awesome. I wish I could travel as much as you do and express myself as eloquently. :)

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      January 1, 2013

      It was an excellent adventure! I never thought I would have the chance to meet Miss Piggy, but it was every bit as glorious as I could have imagined it. Meeting all the Muppeteers was just as delightful.

      And thank you so much. I know you can’t tell but I’m blushing right now. It’s so funny how it’s all relative, you know? I mean, before I started getting feedback from other bloggers, I was pretty sure I was a poor writer. It’s so cool to hear that others enjoy sharing in what I have to offer. And I know there are people in your life who wish they could have the adventurous, intelligent, and courageous spirit that you have!

  • Reply

    Erica

    January 3, 2013

    I didn’t know that it rained in Vegas.

    So awesome you got to work with the muppets! I remember reading a book about Jim Henson … a while ago when I was commuting by bus (ok so that was over 3 years ago). AND now I know your secret to all these randomly amazing jobs. Though I have a feeling that you’d be doing randomly amazing things, regardless.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      January 4, 2013

      It doesn’t. We only get rain (more of a spittle) four or five days a year. Dense, heavy, monsoon rains like the ones we experienced were SUPER atypical. Our city isn’t set up for rain. We’re basically one giant storm drain, so every time it rains over an inch, the entire city floods. Cars get washed away, houses get flooded, it’s a mess. It only happens once a year, but you’d think we’d have figured out a better system by NOW.

      And yes, it was really awesome! How did you like that book? I know, my life is less exciting when the secrets are revealed, but I think you’re right. Adventure seems to come to me. And I accept it gladly! I used to be against it (like, who wants to spend 14 hours catering to Ashlee Simpson’s needs?) but now I’m learning to appreciate the uniqueness of the family business. =)

  • Reply

    ernestwhile

    January 9, 2013

    I know all of these feelings… about twice a year I work on Sesame Street. It’s so super cool.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      January 9, 2013

      Do you really? That’s so awesome! What do you do with them? How did you feel about the Elmo puppeteer scandal? Are they in need of any seasame street puppet wranglers? ;)

      • Reply

        ernestwhile

        January 10, 2013

        I’m an occasional crewmember; the puppet peeps have their own kind of world that I’m not around enough to get close to. Kevin is a phenomenal person though, and it’s a shame some little tweaker decided to go after him. No one is really innocent here, but Kevin’s certainly brought more good to the world than the other person involved.

        On a lighter note, yeah, isn’t the watching of the video monitors freaky? Remember, it’s not like looking in the mirror… everything is backwards (even though it’s actually forwards, err.)

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          January 11, 2013

          How fun! I’m sure he is. I imagine it must be hard to live your own life while associated with such a big company, especially one that’s so geared toward children.

          And yes! It monitors are freaky. I don’t know how they do it without getting confused. But I guess it’s just years of practice. =)

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About Me

About Me

Hey fellow adventurers, my name is Hilary! After being rejected from grad school, I took off on a solo journey around the world. Now I constantly challenge myself to take on new experiences. This blog documents my journeys from Europe to Fiji, swimming with sharks and living with tribes, to becoming an accidental beauty queen and working for one of the top national media outlets. If you like what you're reading, please subscribe! Here's to the next great adventure!

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