“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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. =)