“The Muppet Show” was considered a televised treasure in Great Britain, and slowly, the phenomena (doo-doo-de-doo-doo) grew in North America. Suddenly, the Muppets were everywhere.
“And then funny things happened. Our characters were celebrities, but we were unknown. That same year, 1977, was the Silver Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth. So London was packed, and the prices of flats had doubled. It was hard to find a place to live. For some of us – I know Jim and I – it was a third of the way through the season before we found apartments. We were just jumping around from hotel to motel. At one point, I’m living in this dingy room at the Beehive Motel. I’d turn on the radio and I’d hear a station I.D. that I had recorded – Dr. Bunsen Honeydew saying ‘Capital Radio: Technically perfect!’ And I’d think, ‘why is it I’m a big star in England and I’m living in the Beehive?’ (laughs) It was a weird year. Finally we got settled, I found a place to live, Jim found a place, and everything was okay. But you go through funny transitions in life.
“It was an interesting period. When I was in high school, I remember going to see ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, with the Beatles, and coming out wishing that I could be a part of a phenomenon like that, and how much fun that would be. Then to find myself ten years later in the midst of a similar world-wide phenomena – not to that scale, obviously – was very thrilling. We were this zany troupe, we had this chemistry between us, and we worked together enough that we could really play off of each other. We were anarchic. I think that was a central part of what we did. We broke the rules and did something that was unexpected. It was consistent with being that age, where you really would want to be acting out. And we had the opportunity to do it for a living, which was a great joy.”
Following the death of creator Jim Henson, the Muppets as a unit experienced ebbs and flows of popularity. For a while, the corporation stood at a precipice, waiting to be sold by the struggling German company EM.TV & Merchandising AG, who acquired the company in 1999. In late 2002, the company was purchased by the Henson children, which gave the characters a new push. Rumors flew of an all new television show—the first since the ABC network mishandled “Muppets Tonight” in the early ‘90s. What ultimately resulted, however, was a single, albeit first-ever, TV movie: “A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie”. In February, the Muppets were sold, whole cloth, to Disney, in a deal the excluded only the Creature Shop and the rights to “Fraggle Rock”. Since the acquisition, it seems that one rumored project will come to fruition: a Muppet version of “The Wizard of Oz” is currently being produced for television.
“It is a very strange time,” Goelz admits. “Since 1990, we have received a series of severe blows. Losing Jim, losing (Principal Muppets Performer) Richard Hunt in 1991, terribly sad things. The whole phenomena had worked because it was the function of the chemistry of just a few people. We just had a few performers, a few writers, a few people working in the Workshop, and our producers – Jim always had wonderful people producing. As a result of the chemistry between those people, we got what we got. And it also happened to be in synch with the audience at the time. We were just doing things to please ourselves, and the audience seemed to like it. Over the years, our popularity has gone up and down, like all entertainers. Sometimes we’ve done really great work and it hasn’t been in synch with the public; sometimes we’re not doing great work and the public likes it even more. It’s just serendipitous. (The performers) are dedicated to Jim’s desire for the characters to go on. That was something he felt very clear about. He really wanted his life’s work to live on. I think we all kind of feel that way. It would be a nice feeling if, in 50 years, people still knew about our work. But the actual mechanism of accomplishing that is tricky. (Jim’s) spirit is definitely here.”
Goelz continues, “We’re using puppets, and it’s a live-performance medium. It’s not at all like animation. In animation, you can find a voice-person who can do a credible version of a character, and then you can find animators who can study the old animation that was done, and get pretty close to it and you can perpetuate a character that way. In our case, we have to choose a new performer from a very tiny pool of puppeteers. It’s not as though we have all the voice people in the world to choose from and all the puppeteers to choose from. If a character is really going to function, we need it to be able to function live. So we choose from this very tiny pool of really, really good puppeteers, and try to find one who can do the voice and do the character. We have been so fortunate that Steve worked alongside Jim for a long time. He soaked Jim up and he’s able to do an amazing Kermit. Of course it’s going to be different, but it has to be different because it has to come from Steve. Characters, when they are passed along to other performers, have to shift. Otherwise they won’t be authentic. Steve really understands Kermit. If it weren’t for Steve, I don’t know how we’d have a Kermit.”
Which brings the disquieting question, would Goelz want Gonzo to continue after he himself is unable to perform him, for whatever reason? “I struggle with this all the time. I’m having some shoulder trouble now, as a result of having done this all these years. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to continue. For the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking about it, and feeling a lot of sadness – real grief – about possibly not being able to continue. I’ve dwelt on this question a lot: ‘would I want Gonzo to continue, or would I just want him to stop?’ And I don’t even know if I know the answer to that. First of all, he doesn’t belong to me, he belongs to The Jim Henson Company, so it’s really not my decision whether he continues. I think probably I’d like him to go on, but that means letting go, and accepting the inevitable, that he will shift and change to suit who ever does him in the future. He’ll have to, otherwise he’ll be a counterfeit.”
What has happened, following Jim Henson’s death and Frank Oz’s pursuit of a directing career, is that Gonzo has been pushed to the forefront. Where he once took a more-or-less back seat to Kermit and Fozzie, Gonzo is often at the center of things, usually teamed up with the voracious Bronx-accented Rizzo the Rat (also performed by Steve Whitmire). The pair has become a new Muppet comedy duo, and Gonzo is better known by the fans than ever. And that is something that Goelz is really enjoying.
“It’s really fun. I guess the thing I enjoy about it the most is hearing people’s reactions when they find out that I do Gonzo. That is really nice.”
More Muppet flashbacks in Mike Watt’s interview with Jerry Nelson.
Mike Watt attempts to explore all the things that make Geek culture great, as well as pointing out all the things that make Geeks genetically superior to all other humans. During the course of this exploration, he may undoubtedly have to reveal horrid truths about Hollywood and Mainstream Cinema, as they compare to the riches of independent filmmaking. Ultimately, he hopes to bring higher awareness of and respect to Geek Culture, as well as secure a hefty book deal and the accolades of his (richer) peers. Feel free to lavish him with affection (or bitch at him) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted on March 31, 2004 in Features by Mike Watt
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH: DAVE GOELZ UNDER THE STAGE
- THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH: DAVE GOELZ UNDER THE STAGE
- THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH: A BIG HAND FOR THE SUPPORTING MAN – JERRY NELSON
- THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH: IT’S TIME TO PLAY THE MUSIC – AN INTERVIEW WITH KAREN PRELL
- THE MUPPET SHOW: SEASON ONE (DVD)
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