The wheels of progress, they say, turn slowly – and wheels in the entertainment world turn even slower. “Six or eight months after I sent the tape out and I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s it. Nothing’s going to happen’. I was working at a restaurant, trying to figure out what I’m going to do, and out of the blue, I got this call from someone at Henson’s saying ‘Can you fly out to New York tomorrow to audition for Jim?’ So I was running through the house just screaming and screaming and screaming – everyone thought I’d chopped my arm off or something.”

The late Jim Henson was, of course, the founder and creator of The Muppets. He was a soft-spoken, endlessly creative man who had a knack for surrounding himself with amazing talent. He was also very hands-on with his own company, thanks to his work-o-holic nature. While being auditioned by the president of a company might seem unusual, this is actually quite typical of the way things were run at Muppet Central. (According to Steve Whitmire – current performer of the immortal Kermit the Frog – Henson was sweeping out the office steps when Steve arrived for his audition!)

“So I went to New York and saw their big beautiful office on 69th Street. Back then, I think they’ve kind of cleared things out, but back then they had this beautiful hanging mobile hanging in that big central area, of like a balloon – I think there were some other things that used to be there that they took away. Even more of that stuff all around. It was just playland. Wonderful. Jim came and met me – there was no one else there, it was in the evening. So the first thing he did was welcome me, gave me a big hug, and I was just ‘bbbbtththbb’, melting. I couldn’t believe it. We went to a little practice room on the ground floor that had mirrors on all the walls. We chatted for a bit, and then I took out my rip-off Grover puppet and performed a little bit with that. He just wanted to see what I can do. At the end he said, ‘Great, I’d love you to play Deena on “Sesame Street”’. I found out later that might have been the first time they hired a new puppeteer and put them right into a principal character. Which was absolutely terrifying. But that was how much confidence Jim had in me. Every once in a while, he liked to throw someone into the deep end and see how they do. He was great at that. He was great at getting good teams of people together. He was good at seeing the potential in people that they couldn’t quite see in themselves. Which was wonderful. He knew you could do the challenge, and the only way to convince you was to throw it at you. And then you’d say, ‘Jim was right all along!’”

Dreams can become tricky things when they come true. Being a Muppet performer is a difficult gig even for seasoned puppeteers. Even today, the troupe is a tightly-knit unit that knows each others’ rhythms, jockeying for position in the cramped area beneath the stage, making the puppets come alive. To add to the difficulty, Muppeteers watch their performances on floor-monitors, their actions reversed. It’s easy to get lost in just the mechanics of performing, to say nothing of the stress of bringing a brand new character to life.

“It was very overwhelming going right into a principal character,” Prell says. “It’s hard enough as an experienced puppeteer with a new character, trying to figure out who they are, getting to the heart of a performance and make it work, and with me learning how to just be a puppeteer on top of that, it was pretty mind-blowing. Deena was the kind of character where it probably would have helped to have a more experienced puppeteer (work her) to bring more depth to the character.”

Deena Monster didn’t work out as a character and was retired from the show rather quickly, which Prell found to be very disappointing. But rather than the puppeteer retired as well, Prell found herself in England serving an apprenticeship on “The “Muppet Show”, joining such performers as Henson, Frank Oz (“Miss Piggy”), Dave Goelz (“The Great Gonzo”), Jerry Nelson (“Floyd”) and Steve Whitmire (“Rizzo the Rat”).

“The nice thing about ‘Muppet Show’ was that I got to go and mainly relax and have fun and be a background puppeteer. There wasn’t as much resting on my shoulders. I got to just watch the pros work very hard, and meanwhile play around backstage, or upstage, or do right-hands with the various puppeteers, and things like that. So I was able to just relax and learn some different things on ‘Muppet Show’ that I wasn’t quite able to do on ‘Sesame Street’, because I was so busy trying to get my head around the main character.”

Prell seemed to fall immediately into the groove of background performer on “The “Muppet Show”, finding the troupe quite welcoming. Plus, she was acting and puppeteering right alongside her heroes. “The very first show I worked on was Glenda Jackson (in which the award-winning actress takes over the Muppet Theater, transforms it into a pirate ship and sails it off to sea, surrounded by rats and chickens). That was such fun, because it was so goofy. Just anything goes, and being silly and surreal. My first day they had the pirates attacking the ship, and Gonzo’s chickens, cannonballs, it was wonderful! And one of the first things I did, I was performing some chickens right next to Frank Oz, and I was stunned with excitement. To be next to Frank Oz doing chickens! Jim and Frank were very competitive performers, too. They would get going, they would be teasing each other and leading each other on. Frank, especially, was very competitive with his performing, and could be quite intimidating. In fact, Frank said that he considered performing to be like fencing, where you try to fight and push and gain the advantage. That very much came through with his performing, and if you weren’t that kind of performer it could be tough to work against that. But that’s how he accomplished the wonderful things that he did. And Jim loved it. He loved doing the fencing with Frank, going back and forth, who was upstaging the best, who was the funniest? He’d be able to just go right along and match Frank point for point for all their upstaging and ad libbing. And trying to crack each other up. It was great watching them at their height doing that. (Muppet Performer) Richard Hunt (“Scooter”) was great. He had the tough-love approach to helping puppeteers. You’d be doing something and he’d yell, ‘What the hell are you doing? Do it properly!’ In a wonderful way, he wanted people to do good work and just go for it. He didn’t like people to (whine) ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can-’ — ‘Ah, shut up and go for it!’ That was certainly the way that he approached his performing, and everyone loved that quality about him. That’s why so many of his characters were fun, he’d just grab them and run. He liked to shake people up so that they weren’t doing just what felt safe and comfortable, but to go out there and do stuff that was really reaching, and really, really bizarre and funny.”


All photos courtesy of Karen Prell. Do not reproduce.

Posted on March 10, 2004 in Features by


If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
Popular Stories from Around the Web

Tell us what you're thinking...

Comments are governed by the Terms of Use of this Site. Click on the "Report Comment" link if you feel a comment is in violation of the Terms of Use, and the comment will be reviewed appropriately.