(Although I’m only finishing and publishing this now, I started drafting it well before the sad tidings of Caroll Spinney’s death. So if it seems inappropriately light-hearted in tone, that’s why.)
George Takei’s Q&A finished at about 1:00, and my brother Michael suggested that we find something to eat (“forage for food” were his exact words). I had been just about to make the same suggestion.
Like the Mid-America Center where OCon had been held, the Minneapolis Convention Center doesn’t allow outside food. Since it was cold and snowy, and since we had parked several blocks away, and since I didn’t have an extra $5 to check my coat again, there was nothing for it but to purchase overpriced lunch items from one of the several concession stands spread throughout the center. In addition to his wrap, Michael purchased a cookie and offered me half, and it reminded me of my favorite Cookie Monster sketch on Sesame Street:
After we finished eating lunch, Michael wanted to look around the vendors’ area, so we did, and I found that the vendors, though equally polite, weren’t as aggressive as they had been at OCon, meaning that we could pause by their tables without having to listen to pitches, which was a relief.
As we were walking around, we ran into three people that Michael knows in short succession. The first was a guy named Bruce (I think) who made a joke about Michael “dragging” me along to GalaxyCon, or words to that effect. I suppose I should have been annoyed by the implication that “gurls” don’t like nerdy stuff, but I just laughed and informed him, truthfully, that coming to GalaxyCon had been my idea in the first place. Michael tried to say that I was in a fandom, but at first he said that I had a fandom, and I wondered if that might actually be true from a certain point of view. I ultimately decided that it would be most accurate to say that I am in a fandom and within that fandom, I have a following. (And thanks for that, by the way!)
After that we returned to the celebrity area and looked around some more. Michael wanted to talk to Nichelle Nichols, but she wasn’t there at that time (he did talk to her later). We debated standing in line to talk to Jonathan Frakes (and for some reason Michael pronounced his last name with two syllables) but decided that neither of us had enough to say to him to make it worth our while. Michael remarked that he had seen and done nearly all that he wished to, and I said that I would like to talk to Steve some more, so we returned to his table.
I told Steve about how we had gone to see George Takei’s Q&A, and Steve said, “Oh yes, he did something with the Muppets years ago,” and I said, “That’s right, he did!” It was an episode of Muppets Tonight, one of the ones that I didn’t get to see originally because it was after the channel skip, and I probably wouldn’t have known about it at all if my friend Joshua Gillespie hadn’t featured it as part of Muppet History.
Michael said something to Steve about how interesting it must have been to have worked with so many big celebrities as a Muppet performer. Steve agreed and said that sometimes they worked with an individual once and then never interacted with them again, but others worked with the Muppets several times and became friends in the process, citing John Denver, Mark Hamill, and Tom Bergeron as examples. Steve said that George Takei’s panel must have been good because he’s an interesting guy. “Yes,” I said, “with so much grace and integrity,” and Steve agreed.
Steve, of course, had a selection of 8×10 photographs of Muppets and related characters (most notable addition since OCon: the Skeksis Scientist) at his table for the purposes of autograph sales. There was less of a selection than there had been at OCon, but the thought occurred to me later that there may have been more initially and they may have run out of some when it was busy on Friday and Saturday. At any rate, he also had a picture on his table for promotional purposes advertising his website and Instagram and promoting Cave-In:
I told him that I thought it was a beautiful picture. He said that Liam Nelson, one of the producers on Cave-In, took the picture for him. “Did you meet Liam?” he asked, and I said no. “I don’t think he was there,” he continued, referring to OCon, and although I didn’t say it out loud, I thought, “That would explain why I didn’t meet him.”
Anyway, Steve said that the picture is symbolically significant because it features the Muppets indistinctly in the background and Weldon prominently in the foreground. In other words, the Muppets aren’t gone, but they’re in the past. That was a little poignant.
Then we talked about Cave-In. He thanked me for calling in the month prior and encouraged me to do so again. I appreciated the encouragement because I felt kind of awkward about taking another turn before everyone else had had a chance. It’s a holdover from kindergarten or something. He asked me if I had watched the standalone Stranger Things parody with content featuring the actors added in at the beginning. I told him that I had, but had to admit to him that I don’t really watch Stranger Things so I probably didn’t get as much out of that parody as I could have, though I thought the Demi-gorgonzola was a really cool puppet.
Then he just volunteered information about what he has in the works for future episodes as far as his parodies and inserts go. I alluded to this in a previous post, and you saw one of the inserts he told me about in November’s episode.
Anyway, I think that led into a conversation about other comic con celebrity guests. He asked me if Gates McFadden was supposed to have been at GalaxyCon Minneapolis at one point. I told him that she was on the schedule for GalaxyCon Louisville, and he said, “Okay, that’s what I’m thinking of then,” or words to that effect. He mentioned that she had worked on several Henson productions in the mid-’80s under a different name (Cheryl McFadden). I mentioned her cameo in Muppets Take Manhattan, and he said, “Yeah, I’d forgotten about that until recently.” Another one of her credits was Dreamchild, which also occurred around that same time period (which surprised me; for some reason I thought it had happened later in the decade). Steve asked me if I was familiar with Dreamchild; I told him that I had heard of it but had never seen it. He told me that he thought it was available to watch in its entirety on YouTube. I checked later, and he’s right. He said that he was proud of the work he did on Dreamchild, but that it was difficult because the puppets weren’t very good.
Steve was still having trouble with the cold temperatures and the dryness in the air. That and talking to people nearly non-stop all weekend was taking a toll on his voice. His throat didn’t hurt, but his voice was hoarse and scratchy, or so he told me (I could hear it a little bit). A couple of people, whom I think were associated with GalaxyCon, brought him some cough drops, some of which were of the Ricola variety. He mentioned to me that the herbal ingredients in Ricolas can have a laxative effect on the body if you consume too many of them in short succession. He said that he once found that out the hard way during a Muppet recording session.
Though I don’t remember exactly how, I think that segued into talking about when he used to do toy records for Sesame Street as Ernie. He talked some more about the woman who used to be in charge of that, whom I assume was the same one he mentioned to me at OCon. He said her name too, but I don’t remember what it was. I want to say her first name was Adrienne, but I don’t remember for sure. He did say that she had died of cancer about 10 years ago; I remember that much. “She had an interesting way of helping me with Ernie’s voice,” he said. “She would encourage me to think about the shape and the color of Ernie. She would say, ‘Do it again, but think round and orange.’ And that helped.”
I took the opportunity to point out to Steve and Michael that the date that day, November 10th, was the actual 50th anniversary of Sesame Street. Steve knew that it was around that time but wasn’t sure of the exact date.
(Fair warning: This part of the story gets at least a little self-indulgent.)
At one point, Steve turned to me and said, “So how have you been? What’s going on in your life?” Like a friend would. It was both very flattering and slightly awkward. Despite the occasional odyssey to out-of-state comic cons, I’m really something of a homebody. I don’t know how to make my life sound interesting to other people, so I always kind of panic and freeze up when people ask me that question.
However, it so happened that the previous weekend had been rather eventful because my oldest nephew was in All-State Chorus, and the concert was in Sioux Falls. My parents came to stay with me, and Michael came to town for it, as did my sister’s whole family. “Oh, that’s nice!” said Steve, and mentioned that he was very involved in chorus when he was in school.
“Oh yes,” I said, “and you went back with your characters for that concert that one time, and someone made home movies of it.” He said that the occasion was the retirement of his chorus teacher, who was also the one who’d asked him to make puppets for a theatrical production so he could get the credits he needed to graduate from high school.
Here I have to pause my story for a moment to say a thank-you to Saba Khan, who’s an enthusiastic reader/commenter/supporter. If I recall correctly, she’s the one who found those videos of that concert on YouTube and posted them to Muppet Pundit, which is the only reason that I know about them. So thank you, Saba!
Anyway, back to my story. Steve talked about how he sometimes drives past his old high school and is amazed by how much bigger it is now than it was when he was a student. That reminded me of this summer when I went to my 20-year high school reunion (the weekend after OCon, as a matter of fact) and took a tour of the school. I told him about how the commons area is more or less the same as when I was in school, but they built a whole new entryway in front of it, so walking into the school was like one of those dreams where you go someplace that’s familiar to you, but it’s bigger than it should be.
(Do other people have those dreams, or is it just me?)
Another highlight of the tour of my high school, as I told Steve, was getting to see the Fine Arts Hall of Fame. My younger brother is a professional singer and he was inducted in 2011 or so, but I hadn’t been back to see his picture and plaque yet, so that was special for me. Steve seemed to think it was cool, and he asked, referring to my family, “So are you all singers?” and I said yes. I told him about my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary two years ago, how my mom had asked us to sing and how I somehow got to pick the music, and one of the songs I picked was “Rainbow Connection,” and he kind of smiled and said, “Of course!” Which was sort of funny to me because at the time my mom told me that she was surprised, albeit pleasantly so, that I had picked that song.
(This is the end of the particularly self-indulgent part.)
I’ve sometimes thought about the story Steve tells about the letter he wrote to Jim Henson when he was a kid. I was curious if he’d ever told Jim about that after he started working for him, so I asked, and he said yes. I think he said that he even showed Jim the letter that he’d received. He also said that the letter he wrote Jim may well be in the Henson archives somewhere, but no one has ever found it.
I was leading up to something when I asked Steve that question, but I got interrupted by someone coming up to the booth. You see, I remembered a while ago that Steve’s Muppet Pundit blog was actually not the first time I’d made an attempt at communication with him.
When I got the chance I asked him, “Do you remember in 2013 when you guys were in England filming Muppets Most Wanted when a fan visited the set and brought you gifts of postcards?” (At the time I didn’t remember her name, but I’ve since found out it is Arianne Gallagher.) “Yes!” he said, after thinking about it for a moment. “Well,” I said, “I was one of the ones who sent you a postcard.”
“You did?” he said. “Did you ever get anything back from it?” I told him no. “Oh, I’m sorry about that,” he said. “It’s okay, Steve,” I said. “I think you’ve more than made up for it by this time!” I also told him that I probably signed it with my actual last name, which I don’t use online, so he probably wouldn’t have recognized it.
I told him about how I had had a hard time finding a postcard to buy because there are only a few places in Sioux Falls that sell them and at that time I didn’t know where to go (as opposed to where I grew up in the Black Hills, where you can hardly walk into any store without seeing postcards for sale). I ended up getting this sort of retro design:
As you can see, the block letters spelling out “Dakota” all contain drawings of South Dakota-related things, except for Devils Tower, which is technically in Wyoming. I told Steve that, before I sent it, I made a note in the margin pointing that out.
(Inaccuracies about South Dakota are one of my biggest pet peeves, which is why I don’t appreciate our governor leading people to believe that we’re all on meth. But I digress.)
Anyway, if anybody else participated in the “Postcard Project” back in the day, you should know that Steve told me that he and the other Muppet performers really appreciated them. “It was nice getting something from home while we were over there working,” he said.
I was grateful to have had more uninterrupted conversation with Steve in the afternoon because there were fewer people coming up to the booth. But when people did come up to the booth, it was fun to observe their interactions with him. They were understandably excited, and I was excited for them because I remembered what it had been like to be in their shoes, and it was also kind of fun to see approximately what I must have looked like at OCon.
There was a young man who had come to Steve’s booth in the morning. I’m not sure I should say his name, but he was also one of the questioners in the Q&A. Steve had talked to him for a long time that morning, complimenting him on his encyclopedic Muppet knowledge. Steve told me more about him in the afternoon, specifically that he has autism and attended the convention all three days, and also, I think, that his mother was involved in GalaxyCon one way or another, but I might be thinking of something else. Anyway, at about this point in the afternoon, the young man came back. I think he was getting ready to leave and wanted to say good-bye. He said something to Steve about Rizzo; I don’t remember what it was exactly, but it was something like, “Give Rizzo a message” or “Tell Rizzo something from me”…something to that effect. Steve’s reaction was truly wonderful. He put a hand on the young man’s shoulder, turned toward the back of the booth so he was facing away from the walkways, leaned in and said something to him in Rizzo’s voice.
I could hear that he was using Rizzo’s voice, but I couldn’t understand what he said. And I’m totally fine with that. I wouldn’t have intruded on that moment for anything. If I’d ever had any doubts that Steve is a wonderful person (which I never did), they would have been completely dispelled by that. To paraphrase J.K. Rowling via Sirius Black, if you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats the people who are frequently on the margins.
At about this point, Michael said he was going to go sit down for a while. I felt sort of guilty because I wasn’t sure if he was getting his money’s worth out of the convention since I took up so much time talking to Steve. I asked him later, though, if he had had fun, and he said that he had.
I feel sort of awkward about telling this story, but it relates to last month’s Cave-In episode, and anyway, Steve didn’t expressly ask me not to talk about it, so I guess it’s okay.
As I mentioned earlier, there were concession stands spaced strategically throughout the convention center, and they were sending various aromas wafting into the air. Steve was trying to identify a food odor that he was perceiving, but he asked about it in an unintentionally funny way. He turned to Dalton and asked, “Do I smell, like, a hot dog?” But Dalton interpreted it as “Do I smell like a hot dog?” as though he was asking about his own scent. It was hilarious, and we all started laughing uncontrollably over it.
I got the idea later that I should ask Weldon if he smells like a hot dog, so I did, and he answered it. But I decided at the time that no matter what he actually said, that’s my personal head-canon from now on: Weldon smells like a hot dog. In any case, I hope Steve got a reminiscent chuckle out of it when he read it on Discord.
Once Steve recovered from his paroxysm of laughter, he decided to go to the restroom and find something to eat, but he said he’d be right back. So I waited, but he was gone longer than I expected, and I wasn’t sure what I should do. I kind of wanted to go find Michael, but I didn’t want Steve to come back and find me gone again, and also I wasn’t sure where Michael went, so I thought it might be better for me to stay where I knew he could find me. I stayed and chatted with Dalton a little bit. When Steve came back, he told me that Brian O’Halloran had stopped him on the way back and said, “You’d better get back to your table because there’s a lady in a Star Trek costume who’s been waiting there a long time!” and Steve told me that he answered, “Oh yeah, I know that lady!”
I had three reactions to that, as follows:
- I have to admit that I’m not really familiar with Brian O’Halloran’s work, but I thought it was very kind of him to be concerned.
- I was pleased to find out that my costume came across as a Star Trek costume, even from a distance.
- I really like it when Steve calls me “lady.”
It wasn’t long after that when Michael came back to the booth. I asked him if he was ready to go, and he said yes, so I told Steve that we were leaving. Steve picked up the promotional picture that I had admired earlier and said, “I’ve got more of these, why don’t you keep this?” and he gave it to me. He told me he was grateful for everything I’ve done to promote Cave-In, which made me feel…not guilty, exactly, but very humbled because I feel as though I could have done more. We said good-bye and hugged again, and Steve shook Michael’s hand and told him it had been nice meeting him, and we left.
At one point during our conversation in the afternoon, Steve looked me in the face and said, “It’s nice to talk to you again. It’s always so nice.” Of course, I was pleased by that, and flattered and humbled. But it didn’t really hit me what that meant until much later. It wasn’t just Steve saying that; it was also Kermit and Wembley and all the rest of them. And when I made that realization, long after the fact, I became retroactively starstruck, to the point that it made me cry a little bit.
I hadn’t really felt like crying the whole time I was talking to Steve that day. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. I’m glad that I could calm down and converse with him like a mature adult without getting all sloppy and sentimental. But when I watched people who were meeting him for the first time approach him all breathless and trembling, I couldn’t help but feel that I had lost something. I didn’t check my hands to see if they were shaking, but I don’t think they were, and I sort of missed that feeling.
I guess what really concerns me is this: am I getting to the point where I take Steve for granted? I hope not. I never want to get to that point.
After OCon, I was prepared for the fact that I might never see Steve in person again. I never anticipated that I would have another opportunity within a matter of months. I don’t know when or if I will ever see Steve again. But if I do, I hope I’ll always remain just a little bit starstruck.
At this point, I feel I would be remiss not to say a few words about Caroll Spinney. He was originally scheduled to be at GalaxyCon as well. As excited as I was about seeing Steve again, I was at least as excited about meeting Mr. Spinney. And it seemed portentous that it was on the actual 50th anniversary of Sesame Street.
I was, of course, disappointed that it ultimately didn’t happen. At the same time, I completely understood that the traveling must have been difficult. When I was a teenager, my grandmother had mobility issues from diabetic neuropathy. Traveling by car was an ordeal for her and us, so I can only imagine what air travel must have been like for the Spinneys.
Ultimately, though, the near-miss underscores for me how lucky I have been to have almost met the Spinneys and to have met Steve not once but twice. As a South Dakotan, that’s far more than I would have ever allowed myself to even dream of, and my sorrowing heart is full of gratitude.