Meeting Steve Whitmire, Part 2: “Nice” Is Not the Word I’m Looking For

This is Part 2 of a series of at least three. Click here for Part 1.

Steve’s booth was next to Gigi Edgley’s, who was also making an appearance at OCon. I had seen that that was the plan and wondered if that was going to be awkward, given her close association with Brian Henson. But I didn’t want to ask Steve if it was awkward, because I thought that that somehow might make it more awkward. However, Steve brought up the subject of her appearance, asking me if I was familiar with her work. I told him that I’d never seen Farscape but that I had watched Creature Shop Challenge. He said that he hadn’t met her before this convention and wasn’t familiar with her work, but that he’d gotten acquainted with her over the course of the convention.

Clearly there’s no bad blood there.

Also present at Steve’s table were members of his management team (if that’s the right word). I believe their names are Mitzi and James, but please forgive me if I am mistaken. They were also both incredibly nice to me. I thought they might be annoyed by all the attention Steve was giving me, not to mention the freebies (more on that shortly), but they weren’t. I imagine they were probably happy about the free publicity they could get from my blog, and you know what? I think that’s fair enough.

It’s always been perfectly natural and easy for me to send Steve online messages, first through his blog and later via Instagram. Talking to him in person was quite another matter. Making conversation is not a skill that I excel at to begin with, and being overwhelmed with emotion didn’t make it any easier. Not bursting into happy tears was a constant struggle. I had trouble remembering what I’d planned to say, and even when I remembered, it was difficult to know how to broach the topic.

Further complicating matters was the fact that by this time, more fans were coming to visit Steve’s booth. They would ask him questions or make comments that reminded me of things that I wanted to say, but I didn’t want to jump into the conversation because I didn’t want to detract from anyone else’s moment. In his kindness and generosity, Steve had granted me an unbelievable privilege by allowing me hang out at his booth. I couldn’t abuse that by trying to monopolize his attention.

I had been advised beforehand to wear comfortable shoes, so I did. However, I wore thin socks because they were green, like my shirt. The floor of the arena was concrete, and prolonged standing was starting to take its toll. So that’s my other piece of advice to comic con neophytes: Wear thick socks in addition to comfortable shoes.

Whether Steve noticed my discomfort or just thought I looked awkward standing there, I don’t know, but he said, “I wish we had a chair for you.” At that point, James decided to go get coffee and said I could use his chair while he was gone. So I got to sit at Steve’s table, alongside him, like I belonged there. WHAT?!? 😱

I kind of wondered what the other fans would think about me getting all this preferential treatment, but at that point, they may have thought I was there in an official capacity and not realized that I was one of them.

One of the other media guests, Sam Jones, walked by and said hi to Steve. After he left, Steve asked me, “Do you know the Flash Gordon movie from 1980?” I said I’d heard of it but had never seen it. “Well,” he continued, “he was in that movie and played Flash Gordon.” Then he talked about some of his other credits and brought the conversation back around to Flash Gordon. “The Queen song is from that movie,” he said. “Oh yes,” I replied. “I know the song.” I didn’t say so at the time, but I start singing that song every time someone says the word “flash” or something that rhymes with it.

It was probably around that time that James came back with coffee for himself and Steve, and Steve turned to me and said, “Oh, I didn’t ask you if you wanted anything.” Well, I didn’t want any coffee because I never drink it, but I was touched by his consideration and once again almost started crying. However, if it had been afternoon, when I was feeling more comfortable talking to Steve, and when it was hotter in the arena, I would have asked if I could have one of the three unopened water bottles that were on the table, but at that point in the morning, I was still too freaked out.

Steve told me about this Statler and Waldorf recreation that someone had brought onto the floor earlier in the convention. I don’t know how to describe it, but here’s a picture:

I said that I had seen it on Twitter. He said that he felt sorry for the person inside it on account of it being hot. I mentioned that I have a pointy collar to go with my Kermit eyes, but I didn’t wear it because it’s made out of felt and I knew it would be too hot. He agreed.

The possibility of dehydration and overheating, particularly for cosplayers, was a legitimate concern. The weather was horrendously hot and humid that day, with an extensive heat warning/advisory spanning at least five states. The arena was air conditioned, but I found it to be less effective as the day wore on. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people in elaborate costumes. 

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post the elementary-aged puppeteer named Ethan. He showed up to the booth with a puppet that I thought at first was supposed to be Roosevelt Franklin from Sesame Street, but when I looked at it again, I saw that it wasn’t. In fact, the puppet’s name is Scrubby, and I ran across a very relatable YouTube video of him flipping out over meeting Steve:

(Scrubby describes being in shock over the encounter, but I found Ethan himself to be quite poised during the discussion that I observed, and much more articulate than I was that morning.)

Ethan and Scrubby had already been to the convention the day before I was there, according to the YouTube timestamp, but came back  with questions for Steve about puppets and performing. A specific example was about performing Kermit on Late Night with Stephen Colbert in that “Big Questions” sketch where Kermit was supposed to be lying down next to Stephen. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the answer in any great detail, but it involved Steve lying on an inclined piece of plywood underneath the stage, if I recall correctly.

Ethan also asked about how often Muppets have to be rebuilt. Steve said that it depends on the puppet. Kermits don’t wear out as often because the fleece is pretty sturdy. Miss Piggy wears out more quickly because the stress on the foam latex causes the corners of the mouth to tear, sometimes after as little as a day, if I understood correctly.

In his innocence and youthful candor, Ethan openly expressed a wish that Steve was still playing Kermit, criticizing Matt in the process. I imagine that this was uncomfortable for Steve, who was probably grateful for the support but hesitant to say anything against Matt. As for me, I don’t think that Ethan said anything about Matt that wasn’t fair, and I agreed with all of it. However, I was tempted to interject at that point and tell Ethan that he ought to give Matt more time because even Steve didn’t get really good at playing Kermit until Muppet Treasure Island, six years after the fact. But I didn’t say that because I didn’t know how to express it without sounding like I was chastising him, Well do I remember how much I hated being chastised by strange adults when I was a kid.

I think it was Ethan who brought up the subject of Lips, (specifically, the time when his trumpet went through the side of his face, necessitating a rebuild), which reminded me of something that I wanted to ask. When I got the chance after Ethan left, I asked Steve how Lips’ fingers move. His answer was kind of technical, but Lips’ fingers are connected to the valves of his trumpet, which connect by wires to a control out of frame, which is more or less what I would have guessed. He also said that performing Lips was hard because the mouthpiece of a trumpet isn’t supposed to go inside the player’s mouth. He contrasted this with Zoot and his saxophone and said that it was hard to make Lips look good when performing.

At this point in the day, I was still struggling to make conversation, but I found it a little bit easier to preface each interjection with, “Can I ask you this?” or “Can I tell you that?” I didn’t really mean for it to sound like I was asking permission; what I meant was, “Is this a good moment to ask a question, or should I wait?” Regardless, at one point Steve responded by saying, “You can ask me anything you want.” 💞

I may be muddying up the timeline significantly, but at one point I asked him about Sprocket on Fraggle Rock, because I wanted to know about the genesis of the running gag in which he reacts negatively to any mention of the name Ned Schimmelfinny. Steve gave a couple of interpretations rather than a definitive answer: he said that it might have been a reaction to Fluffinella the cat (sort of guilt by association, I guess). Or, since Doc and Ned are often at odds with one another despite being friends, Sprocket reacts that way out of loyalty to Doc.

A woman dressed as a Jedi came to the booth, and she and Steve had a discussion about future conventions they planned to attend. That led to a discussion of other guests who were going to be there, and that led to a discussion of actors who got their start on soap operas and didn’t like to talk about it, and that led to Steve, Mitzi, and I getting into a discussion on Days of Our Lives, which is long enough and off-topic enough to warrant its own post at a later date.

Steve was scheduled to do photo ops at 11:20 a.m. People had prepaid to get a professional picture taken with him, and when they started showing up with voucher in hand, he said to me, “Do you want to come to the photo op?” I said sure, and he asked, “Do you want to get a picture?” And I was just about to say that I couldn’t afford to pay for it when he said, “You won’t have to pay for it or anything.” Whaaa? 😱

The first photo op was a woman with a little baby girl. Steve asked her how old the little girl was, and I didn’t hear all of what she said, but she definitely expressed her age in months, and the baby definitely seemed to be preverbal. The two of them also had a toy Wembley puppet with them. The woman said that Fraggle Rock was the little girl’s favorite show, and Steve was impressed, both because of the young age of the baby and the age of the series. He observed that Fraggle Rock has held up well. I agreed, but pointed out that the Doc and Sprocket segments are a little dated, especially the one where Doc gets a computer.

Then it was my turn for a photo op. Historically, I have trouble smiling naturally for photographs. I didn’t anticipate that this would be a problem in this case, because I was so happy. However, I was still struggling to suppress my tears of joy, and that affected my expression. As a result, I’m not happy with the way I look in the picture, so I’m not going to publish it. Steve looks great in it, but I look awful. Nevertheless, I really appreciate Steve offering the photo op. I was so overwhelmed at the time that I almost forgot to thank him for it.

The woman and the baby, along with their Wembley puppet, then went back to the booth for an autograph. There were a couple of rubber duckies sitting on the table in an attempt to catch people’s eye as they walked by, and either Mitzi or James gave one of them away to the baby girl. I saw the woman, the baby, and the Wembley puppet again at the Q&A about half an hour later.

(Sidenote RE: rubber duckies: James told me that people sometimes asked why they had rubber duckies there, either not knowing that Steve played Ernie or just not making the connection.)

Around this time, James needed his chair back, but in the interim they had sourced a couple of folding chairs, so I still had a place to sit. For which I was grateful, because my feet still hurt, but it wasn’t ideal because I was sitting behind Steve and had trouble hearing what he was saying to people. There was a big line at the booth by this time. This was the point in the day where the woman who works as a science teacher came up to get a picture of Beaker and Bunsen for her classroom (despite the fact that the kids today don’t necessarily know who they are). My impression at the time was that she was the only one there more excited to meet Steve than I was, although I no longer remember specifically why I thought so.

At several points during the day, visitors to the booth brought up the topic of Steve’s hair. They had copies of the Omaha World-Herald containing that interview at the booth, with the file photo from SDCC in 2015, and people commented on the difference, and Steve had funny responses which I unfortunately do not remember. There were a couple of guys (probably in their teens or early 20s) who came to the booth for autographs and pictures. One of them was wearing an amazing onesie (for lack of a better term) emblazoned all over with faces of Bernie Sanders. He (the guy in the onesie, not Bernie Sanders) had long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, but he let it down for his picture with Steve. “Now we match,” Steve remarked.

Since Steve’s hair is a subject of minor fascination, I offer the following observation: In photos and video, sometimes his hair appears brown and sometimes it looks blond. In person, I found it to have a faint reddish tint. If pressed, I would describe it as a strawberry blond.

Anyway, I got tired of sitting in the back and not being able to hear anything, so I got up and stood by the table again and heard a few more stories.

People asked Steve more than once about the Muppets riding bicycles. He said that on The Muppet Movie, he was part of the team piloting Kermit and his bicycle from above via cables, and that they had to be careful to make sure that the bicycle stayed in contact with the road and didn’t lift off the ground. Which had never occurred to me before, but now that I think about it, I can totally see how that could be a problem.

Someone else asked Steve if he got to keep any of the Muppets he performed. He said that he got to keep part of the original Rizzo. At some point (after The Muppet Show, I believe, although I could be wrong) they built a new Rizzo puppet but wanted to salvage the mechanisms inside, so they removed the outer layer of fur and filed it away somewhere. Upon finding it again, however many years later, they gave it to Steve, who now has the flayed skin of Rizzo somewhere among his possessions. This is both funny and a little creepy.

Steve’s Q&A was scheduled for noon, and he wanted to eat some lunch first, so he left early. I was going to look around the arena floor some more, but I realized that it was only about 15 minutes until the Q&A was supposed to start, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to get there, so I started to head over. On the way there, I had a somewhat disturbing encounter with a couple of cosplayers. It is too off-topic to relate here, but I shall do so in another entry when I have time. It would have been considerably more upsetting to me if I had not been feeling so euphoric over meeting Steve. At the time, I regarded it as a mild annoyance. However, I realized much later that it represented a violation of the rules and I should have taken a moment to report it to OCon staff. Unfortunately, that idea didn’t occur to me until after I had left the convention and was on the way home. 

Stay tuned for Part 3 of my OCon saga. I anticipate that it will be the last, but I won’t know until I actually start writing it. 

4 thoughts on “Meeting Steve Whitmire, Part 2: “Nice” Is Not the Word I’m Looking For

  1. Greetings Mary. I’ve looked forward to this. Thanks for taking the time to help me see the convention and being in Steve’s world through your eyes, as if in being there myself. An enjoyable read, and I especially like when you bring in the interactions between the fans and his patience in answering the questions of future puppeteers, as well as with the young ones who have yet to even know what a puppet is. Wonderful. Can’t wait to read part 3.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Anne. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. It’s a high bar, but I observed Steve to be at his most enthusiastic all day when interacting with Ethan and the other puppeteers who were there.

      In fact, I just this morning recalled Steve saying to Ethan that he liked meeting him because so many of the people he meets are fans of the Muppets but not puppeteers. I was sitting at the table, and I sort of raised my hand, and Steve noticed and smiled.

      Like

  2. WOW-nderful! 100% agree with Anne — Thank You for making this so honestly vivid, all of it 🙂 I just keep finding myself reading it with a big grin on my face, as it totally feels like I’ve just spent the day at the convention myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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