I took notes at the Q&A so I could talk about it in detail regardless of whether or not any video of it shows up online. I intend to do that in a separate post, but here I’d like to give just a brief overview and mention the parts that are relevant to the rest of my story.
Before I talk about Steve’s Q&A, I need to back up a bit to talk about one of his visitors from the morning. I mentioned her briefly in one of my other posts. She was the lady who was part of her church’s puppet troupe, and she brought along a Whatnot for him to sign (one of those ones that Disney marketed and sold for a while). She was accompanied by two teenage kids, but of the three of them it was pretty clear that she was the one most excited to meet Steve (not that the teenagers were entirely disinterested). Her Whatnot was one that they allowed new puppeteers in their group to practice on and learn with, so Steve not only signed it across the back of its head, he also wrote a short message of encouragement.
The autographed Whatnot was one of several puppets present at the Q&A. Scrubby was there with Ethan, and the lady and the baby were there with their Wembley, and there was also a guy there with a Kermit. I’m not sure if it was a fan-made Kermit or a toy that he’d bought, but they appear briefly in the following video alongside Steve (and Mitzi):
Also, it wasn’t a puppet per se, but there was someone there with a very detailed plush toy of Rizzo. I meant to ask the guy where he acquired such a thing, but then I didn’t get around to it.
Prior to Steve’s Q&A, they had been using the room for the “Cuddle a Corgi” panel, which I didn’t attend but am pretty sure is exactly what it sounds like. As a result, there were no microphones in the room at the beginning of the panel. Not for the panelists and not for audience questions. Eventually, they did get microphones for the panelists, of which there were two: Steve and the moderator. However, they never did set up a microphone for questions, which meant that we had to just raise our hands and wait to be called on, like in school.
This was bad for me. I was taking notes, and I had expected to be able to keep taking notes while in line for questions, but because of the format, I had trouble finishing my notes in time to raise my hand, so the moderator didn’t notice me in time.
Steve noticed my difficulty and called on me.
HE CALLED ON ME, YOU GUYS! 😱😱😱
Not only that, but he told the whole room about me and my blog, mentioning its name and recommending it to them and saying some more very complimentary things.
When I get nervous or uncomfortable, I tend to get giggly, so I started nervously giggling, and Steve said, “Oh, now she’s embarrassed.”
It wasn’t so much that I was embarrassed. It was more that I was caught off guard. I never would have expected that in a million years. And it definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone because I’ve purposely leveraged the anonymity of the internet to create some space between me and my audience in which it is more comfortable for me to do what I do. Therefore, in that moment I felt a little exposed.
At the same time, I was so flattered and humbled that someone like Steve, whom I have admired for years, apparently thinks so highly of me and my work. As unbelievable as it seems now, I’m 95% sure that he actually used the words “my friend” to describe me. (I’m really hoping some video emerges to confirm this!) Furthermore, everyone who writes a blog is looking to grow an audience, so I was also extremely grateful for the plug.
In my first entry in this “saga,” I referenced a song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that occurred to me upon departing for the convention, particularly the lyric: “I never had a chance to shine…” Now, in my case, “never” is a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve had plenty of chances to shine in my life, but I feel like I haven’t had many lately. Steve gave me a chance to shine at the Q&A, and I am very appreciative of it.
Unfortunately, and at the risk of mixing my musical-based metaphors, I feel like I kiiiiiinda threw away my shot.
At one of Steve’s first convention appearances, during a Q&A that was posted online, he mentioned that, as a fan of the Muppets, he had preconceived notions that, as a performer, he found to be incorrect. I wanted to know what he meant by that, so I asked if he could give any specific examples. And he said that it was nothing very specific but stuff related to puppet manipulation and performance.
It was a perfectly good answer, and maybe it was of special interest to the puppeteers who were there. If I’d known what the answer to the question would be, however, I probably would have asked a different question. But of course, there was no way that I could have known what the answer to my question would have been unless I had asked it. I had assumed that his preconceived notions related to character rather than technical aspects, which means that I had preconceived notions about the preconceived-notions question. IRONY!
I don’t mean to imply that it was uninteresting, but in retrospect, I could have asked a question that would have ended up being more interesting to me, specifically.
Like I said, I don’t want to get into the whole Q&A now. I have my notes so I can at least try to talk about it in more detail later, and I’m hoping that someone posts at least some video from it. One of the other things that are important to talk about now is that Steve mentioned the episode of The Muppet Show that starred Mark Hamill and the stars of Star Wars, and he also talked about the Dark Crystal, mentioning the prequel series in passing, but didn’t mention the connection between the two, nor did anyone ask him about it. That surprised me; I had purposely refrained from asking him about it that morning because I figured that would be the thing that everyone would want to ask him about that day.
(Sidenote: Am I the only one who thinks that Mark Hamill and Steve kind of look alike? It was most noticeable to me in 2015 when Steve’s hair was relatively short and parted down the middle. I really think the two of them could play convincing brothers if Steve were interested in acting without a puppet.)
The other most noteworthy thing that happened during the Q&A is that Steve brought Ethan and Scrubby up on stage for a brief puppet workshop, and Steve asked if he could borrow a puppet from someone in the audience. The guy with the Kermit offered his puppet, but Steve politely declined, saying, “I think I’d better stay away from Kermit.” He ended up borrowing the Whatnot that he had autographed earlier, and the two puppets gave a 5-minute impromptu performance, and I stopped taking notes and just watched, and it was awesome.
This is kind of embarrassing to admit, but it’s only relatively recently that I got a cell phone equipped with a camera (I know, I know; I’m kind of a Luddite), so I keep forgetting that I can take pictures and video on my phone. So it was like halfway through the puppet exercise that it occurred to me to try to take video of it, but by the time I got my phone out, they were more or less done, and then I didn’t manage to actually record anything.
Speaking of pictures, just after the Q&A, James took a picture of the group with Steve. One of the other audience members saw me and said that I should be up front. I demurred. At that point, I actually was a little embarrassed.
After Steve’s shout-out at the Q&A, I wondered again if the other fans would regard me with resentment. In fact, the complete opposite was true. I was surprised to discover that I’d seemed to have gained some slight celebrity status of my own. Being in Steve’s orbit, I was treated as a star in my own right, albeit one of lesser magnitude. It was a rather pleasant but very strange experience. Several people made a point of telling me that they were interested in checking out my blog, which was very gratifying.
At this point, it was approximately 1:00, and I hadn’t eaten anything since 4:30 that morning. I had packed a sandwich so that I wouldn’t have to eat overpriced con food, but I had to leave it in the car because the Mid-America Center doesn’t allow outside food and drink, which I understand, but it was still very inconvenient. There was a retaining wall near the entrance that was shaded by trees, so I sat near the entrance mere yards away from the sign that said “No Outside Food and Drink Beyond This Point” and ate the lunch that I’d brought from home in a mild act of defiance. When I was ready to go back in, I emptied my bag of anything that I didn’t absolutely need so that I could get through the bag check more easily, and it worked.
I spent some more time on the floor looking at the vendors’ booths, starting with the ones that were on the other end of the arena from Steve’s table. At one point, I paused because there were people up ahead taking a picture and I didn’t want to get in the way. I was looking ahead of me, waiting for the way to clear, and not at the table I was standing next to, but nevertheless, the vendors said hi to me and made their pitch, so I felt like I had to be polite and listen even though I really wasn’t that interested in what they had to say. Paradoxically, they were polite but pushy. Therefore, I found that it was best not to pause too long next to any of the booths but to just keep moving.
To screw up my chronology again, when I was looking at the vendor’s booths in the morning, before I met Steve, I saw something funny. There was a booth selling medieval/fantasy-themed merchandise, like dragon-shaped bookends and such. Among the items were what appeared to be little glass bottles, but they had a tag on them labeled “frog’s breath,” which is just such a blatantly obvious scam that I didn’t know whether to laugh or be offended. I had the frivolous thought that Steve could capitalize on that idea and start selling bottles of “Kermit the Frog’s breath.” I didn’t mention it to him at the time, but I made a comment about it to him later via Instagram.
Steve was supposed to be back at his table at 2:00, but was delayed by a podcast interview. I met up with him again at his table, and he gave me a little wave and a big smile upon my approach.
I’m not entirely sure why, but by the afternoon I felt much more comfortable making conversation. “Well, that was a fun Q&A!” I said. Steve said he thought it was one of the best that he had participated in yet. I don’t entirely agree; Steve had been great, of course, but a lot of the questions were ones I’d heard before. However, the impromptu puppet workshop had been a highlight, and I said so, telling him that that alone was worth the price of admission. He seemed gratified by that.
I brought up the topic of Mark Hamill and mentioned that he has been cast in the Dark Crystal prequel series. Steve finished my thought for me, saying, “And I think he’s playing the character that I played!” Then he laughed and said with mock indignation, “I saw that, and I said, ‘I could have done that!'” but he was laughing all the while and didn’t seem genuinely upset at all. He said that Mark is very good and will probably have fun with the role, and that seeing (or rather, hearing) what he does with it is a reason in itself to watch the series. I remarked that it might possibly even be a reason for me to subscribe to Netflix.
I don’t remember if he mentioned it at this point in the conversation or earlier during the Q&A, but he said that it’s relatively recently that the Skeksis have been given names. In the original Dark Crystal script, they were apparently identified only by their titles, e.g., Scientist, Chamberlain, and so on. I came relatively late to the Dark Crystal so I didn’t realize that, but when I thought about it, I realized that they never use any of the Skeksis’ names in the movie, so it makes sense.
It may be that part of the reason I felt more comfortable conversing in the afternoon is that fewer people were coming up to the booth. I still didn’t want to steal anyone’s thunder, but I did make the occasional brief interjection. For example, Steve was telling someone about taking up the mantle of performing Kermit and pointed out, “No one knew that Jim was going to die,” and I added, “Including him,” and Steve briefly acknowledged that that was true.
There were many pictures of Muppet characters on the table, so that people who wanted autographs could pick the one they liked. One of the pictures was a promotional image from Muppet Treasure Island. Someone made a comment about it; I don’t remember what they said. The person was rather intent on looking at the pictures and not engaged in conversation with Steve, so I took a moment to comment, “I love that movie.” Steve glanced at me, smiled, and said, “I do too.”
Someone else was looking at his picture in the Omaha World-Herald and said, “What is this from?” Steve said that it was the local newspaper, but I’m pretty sure she had been referring specifically to the picture, so I told her that it was from the San Diego Comic Con in 2015.
I think she may have been the one who had ordered a Kermit plush doll for the purpose of having Steve sign it at OCon, but it hadn’t arrived yet. I think it was James who gave her a mailing address and said that if it hadn’t come in by the end of the day, she could send it in to be signed. As I understood it, that was not something they would normally do, but made an exception due to the special circumstances.
A popular merchandising technique that I had seen on the floor had been the grab bag/blind box in which you know the franchise that the merchandise within pertains to, but you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get until you open up the package. Someone came up to Steve’s booth having recently purchased one, and he asked her (I think? I apologize if I’m mistaken) what it was, but since it hadn’t been opened yet, the fan could not tell him exactly.
At the same time, there was a guy in line with a little girl (probably about two) who had another blind box that appeared to be from the same vendor. He held it up so I could see that it said “Sesame Street.” When it was their turn at the table, he showed it to Steve and said he had saved it to open at his table, and I think its fair to say that we were all excited to see what was inside.
There were two small toys inside that looked like they had been part of the same set (if I had the time to slog through all the Sesame Street toy pages on Muppet Wiki, I could probably tell you the exact set that it came from). One was Elmo, and the other one was Ernie. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was delighted that they brought the box over to open at Steve’s table and it happened to have one of his characters inside. There was also a wristwatch with Zoe on it. The little girl was already wearing a Star Wars watch, and Steve told her, “Now you have Zoe and Darth Vader!” and although I didn’t say so at the time, I think there’s probably fodder for an epic crossover/parody in there somewhere.
They got a picture with Steve and their Sesame merchandise, and it was adorable. I don’t remember exactly what prompted it, but as they left, I said that with two watches, you could set each wrist to a different time zone, and Steve thought that was funny. It was gratifying to make him laugh; since he’s done the same for me for so many years, it was only fitting that I return the favor.
(Sidenote: I did intend the two-time-zones comment to be a joke, but I also mentioned that, because South Dakota is split between two different time zones, there are parts of the state where it would make sense to wear two watches.)
By this time, James had disappeared somewhere; I don’t know where he went, but it meant that his chair was empty again. At this point in the afternoon, it was getting hotter in the arena despite the air conditioning. I don’t want to overstate the matter; I was never in immediate danger of passing out, but I was starting to feel kind of woozy from the heat, so I grabbed James’ chair again without even asking permission. That may have seemed uppity when there were still two folding chairs available in the back, but nobody seemed to mind.
The guy with the Kermit puppet came back to the table. He was on his way out and just wanted to say good-bye to Steve and thank him again (I believe he had been there all three days). Steve apologized for rejecting his offer of the Kermit puppet to use during the Q&A. The guy said that as soon as he made the offer, he realized that it could be problematic.
I probably don’t remember everyone who came up to the booth for autographs, but at one point after Steve gave someone an autograph he turned to me and said, “So which picture would you like? Because I’m sure you want an autograph, right?” If it had been anyone else in the world, I might have been annoyed at his presumption, but the fact of the matter is that I had been looking covetously at the pictures all day, and I knew exactly which one I wanted. Without hesitation, I grabbed the promotional picture of Steve and Wembley from the Fraggle Rock days.
“Oh, you want one of me!” Steve said, and although I didn’t express it in exactly these words, my sentiment was, “Yeah, silly! Who did I come here to see?” But I’d known that that was the one I wanted the second that I saw it when I’d first approached the booth in the morning.
James must have been back by this time, because I think he was the one who showed me that there was another pile of pictures underneath the ones of Steve and Wembley that showed Steve performing Kermit:
It was a temptation, but I stuck with my first instinct. “No,” I said, “I want Wembley.”
In retrospect, I have to admit to a mild pang of regret that I didn’t go with the picture of Steve and Kermit, only because Kermit is a more recognizable character even to people who aren’t big Muppet fans, so it would have been more impressive to my friends and family. Ultimately, however, I figure it was more important to pick what I wanted rather than try to impress others. I wanted Wembley because, at least in my own mind, he’s the character that’s most closely connected to Steve. As much as I also love Kermit and Ernie, I have prior associations with them in my mind.
So anyway, here’s a scan of my autographed picture:
I didn’t know that he was going to sign it as Wembley as well as himself, but I’m glad he did because it made me think of a question I wanted to ask.
I had seen a Wembley autograph once in the past:
So I said to Steve, “I have a theory, but I want to ask you first: Why is one of the E’s backwards in Wembley’s signature?” and he said, “Because he can’t decide which direction they should go.”
I KNEW IT!
I wanted to ask him about Ernie, and I tried to ask him about Ernie, but I kind of blew it. Specifically, I wanted to ask him about Ernie’s laugh, whether that was something that he had to learn to do or if that was a skill he already possessed when he started performing Ernie. But I accidentally said “voice” initially instead of “laugh,” and I’m not sure it came across what I was really asking. Nevertheless, he told me that doing voice records for Sesame toys before playing the character itself was really helpful to him. He told me about the woman who was in charge of that at Sesame Workshop, that she was really sweet but she was also a real stickler for accuracy. I said that I thought Ernie’s laugh is harder than it seems like it should be. And then, I don’t know if he did it in response to what I said or as a reflexive reaction or what, but he actually did the laugh. And that was great to hear, but it was even better to see because it put a big smile on his face from necessity.
There was a guy who came up to the booth and told Steve how much he liked Muppet Family Christmas, and asked if the Christmas Turkey puppet had been built especially for the special. Steve said he thought that it had existed beforehand and they had reused it (I’m not sure he’s correct, however). They had a conversation about the program, and Steve talked about how special it had been to perform with Jim as Sprocket during the cameo at the end.
When I got the chance, I told Steve about how Muppet Family Christmas was the first time that I had ever seen Jim Henson on television as himself, i.e., not performing a puppet. Steve told me that the first time he had ever seen Jim Henson as himself on television was on the Ed Sullivan Show after performing a sketch called “The Glutton.” He asked me if I had ever seen it. I said that it sounded familiar, but when he described it, it didn’t ring a bell. I looked it up later, and here it is:
As he described it, Steve remarked in passing that at the time he was mystified how the puppet could blow the foam off the top of the mug. When he described the ending of the sketch, I laughed, and Steve did too. “Classic early Jim humor,” he observed.
What made that conversation special is that it was Steve discussing Jim’s work as a fan himself rather than as a Muppet performer. It was a conversation that could have taken place between any two fans. I felt a palpable sense of camraderie that I am nevertheless having a hard time finding words to describe. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure “camraderie” is even the right word. I’m not sure the right word exists in English, but if I were to borrow the word “simpatico” from Spanish, I think that would get me into the right neighborhood.
At one point, the lady from the church puppet troupe who’d had her Whatnot signed by Steve stopped back. I don’t remember specifically what she wanted; it may have just been to say good-bye to Steve. She saw me there and asked me about my blog, mistakenly thinking it was a podcast at first (several people made this mistake, for some reason). She also asked me if I was a puppeteer, and I said that I’m not, but I have done some puppeteering, and that gave me an excuse to tell Steve about my experience in Little Shop of Horrors. I don’t know how interesting it was to him, but he at least had the decency to feign interest in it. I also told him that it had given me a great deal of empathy for actual puppeteers squeezing into small spaces to perform.
(Sidenote: In retrospect, I realize that a lot of the things I told him about were things that I have also talked about on my blog, so if indeed he does read it, they may have already been familiar to him. But if he noticed, he didn’t let on.)
A few times during the day, people asked him to do the character voices, and he politely refused. But there was a point when one of the organizers of the convention came up to the table to talk to him. I think I missed the beginning of the conversation because I was talking to Mitzi, but when I turned my attention back to Steve, he was doing the voice of Ernie for this organizer lady, and then he did a little Kermit for her too. She started crying. I, inexplicably, did not.
Friends, I have to confess that there was a moment, the merest of moments–maybe 0.68 seconds–-in which I was tempted to pull out my phone and record Steve as he did the voices. But almost as soon as the thought occurred to me, I realized that I could never do such a thing. I know that Steve has good reasons for not doing the voices for people. It would have been a betrayal, one made all the worse after all that he had done for me that day. So I didn’t try to record anything, and now I’m glad, because it would have ruined the moment, and possibly the entire day.
One thing I wanted to be sure to talk to him about before the convention was over was the satellite interview that he had done as Kermit with Tom Bergeron in 2014 with an affiliate in Omaha. I told him that it was one of my favorite live appearances he ever did as Kermit and I was excited to hear Kermit mention a place that’s near to where I live, and I told him that I was impressed that he called the zoo by its official name. “Well, let me tell you why that happened,” he said. “Oh good, because I was just about to ask,” I said (or words to that effect).
He and Tom Bergeron were doing a number of these interviews with different affiliates around the country, and Steve said that he wanted Kermit to be able to say something specifically related to each city where they did an interview, so he did some research. “I couldn’t tell you the name of the zoo in Omaha NOW,” he added, but he didn’t have to, because I already happen to know that it’s called the Henry Doorly Zoo.
The arena portion of the convention was supposed to close down at 4:00, so things were winding down. At what seemed like nearly the last minute, the girl who had been waiting on delivery of her Kermit plush for an autograph showed up again, plush in hand, just in the nick of time. She also had a fabric marker purchased for the express purpose of having Steve sign her toy. He did so, being very deliberate and conscientious about where specifically on the body to sign, i.e., on the torso rather than the lower abdomen. “I don’t want to sign across Kermit’s groin,” he said, and I giggled immaturely.
So it came time to shut down and go our separate ways, but I still had one piece of unfinished business to attend to. Steve had given me the autographed picture, and no one had mentioned anything about paying for it, but I didn’t just want to assume that I didn’t have to. So I made it clear that I was willing to pay for it if need be, and Steve insisted that I just take it.
At this point, as at several other points in the day, Steve heaped effusive praise upon me, saying how nice it was to meet me, and he enjoyed spending time with me, and he was grateful for the support, and he liked my writing, etc. I literally didn’t know what to say to any of it. I could have said, “Same here” or “ditto,” which would have been accurate but could never have gone far enough. I could have said, “Thank you,” and in fact I did, several times over the course of the day, but it seemed so inadequate.
I think the one thing that Steve said to me all day that was the most gratifying is that he thought the critiques and assessments I make here on my blog are “fair.” That meant the world to me, because that’s something I’ve strived for since the beginning almost two years ago. I don’t pretend not to have my own opinion, but I try not to privilege it either. I try to represent others’ views fairly and back up my own assertions to the extent possible. And I’m certain that I’ve expressed Muppet-related opinions here that he probably doesn’t agree with, so it’s encouraging to know that he respects them anyway.
He gave me another hug, and I told him I knew it was a long shot, but I hoped he could come to a convention in Sioux Falls someday, because if he did, I might be able to bring my niece and nephews to meet him. “It could happen!” he said. “And if it does, you’ll be the first to know.”
I got into my car to return home, still so giddy with disbelief that I missed one of my turns and almost lost my way back to the interstate. At intermittent moments on the way back, the tears that I’d been fighting down all day welled up and threatened to spill over, but I kept fighting them back because it would be dangerous to lose control while I was driving. So I managed not to cry on the way home, but I laughed a lot over my unpredictably good fortune.
It was probably the best day of my life, and better than a dream come true. It reinforced my belief that things tend to happen when they are supposed to. Last year I made overly ambitious plans to meet Steve at Gen Con in Indianapolis that eventually fell through, and that had been a disappointment ever since. Now I’m glad that things worked out the way they did. I’m sure meeting Steve in Indianapolis would have been a lot of fun, but it wouldn’t have been as special as meeting him in Omaha (well, Council Bluffs), almost on my home turf.
Now it just remains for me to say some thank yous:
Thank you to my parents, who in early June sent me a birthday card with a $20 bill inside. I put that $20 toward the purchase of my OCon wristband. The Friday after the convention, I went home for my 20-year class reunion (bit of a week, eh?) and brought my pictures, saying to my parents, “I want to show you the birthday presents you got me.”
Thank you to OCon Expo for putting on a good event.
Thank you to In Person Productions for making the arrangements for Steve to come to OCon, and in particular, thanks to James and Mitzi.
Thank you to all my readers, especially the people who decided to check out my blog because Steve recommended it.
Thank you to the Muppet Pundit commenters. You should know that Steve made it clear to me that he remembers and appreciates your support.
Thanks to Interstate 29 for not being flooded when I needed to get to Omaha.
But most of all…Thank you, Steve, from the bottom of my heart. I understand the demands that are placed on your time at an event like this. I would have been satisfied with a handshake and a 5-minute conversation. I would have been overjoyed with a 10-minute conversation. Your generosity was more than I had any right to expect, and more than I had dared to hope for.
I hope your travels bring you back to my neck of the woods someday, but if this turns out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that’s okay too. I will cherish these memories forever.
So that’s the end of the main part of the saga, but I still have the Q&A to talk about, so watch for that in the near future. Also, keep checking the “Slightly Off-Topic” tab for supplemental materials.