The Final Pieces to the Puzzle: Steve Whitmire’s OCon Q&A

I originally drafted this back in August but held off posting it in hopes that the OCon organizers would post video of the Q&A. They have yet to do so, but I revisited this entry and discovered that it is as complete as it can be under the circumstances, so I’m posting it now. 

When I first met Steve on that Sunday morning in Omaha Council Bluffs, one of the first things we talked about was the Q&A that he was scheduled to do at noon that day. I told him that I intended to take notes at the Q&A so I could write about it on my blog later. I also pointed out that I’d never really done anything like that before, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go.

If I’d been more savvy and better organized, I would have tried to record it rather than taking notes. That way, even if I wasn’t able to post the video online, I would still have it as a reference and memory aid to help me write it.

Nevertheless, my notes of the Q&A probably would have been sufficient if I hadn’t spent the day at Steve’s booth and then devoted most of my mental energy towards remembering everything else that happened there. I should have reviewed my notes a few times in the immediate aftermath to encode those memories properly. Alas, I did not.

All of which is just to say that even with the benefit of notes, my memory of the Q&A is woefully incomplete. There are multiple phrases included in them that I have no idea what they mean. So unfortunately, (and ironically) my account of the Q&A is going to be less detailed than those of the rest of my day. I apologize. I’ll know better next time.

The Mid-America Center where the convention was held is divided into two sections. There’s the arena and the convention center. The autograph tables, vendors’ area, and podcast pavilion were all in the arena section, but the panels were in the convention center area. It was a long walk from Steve’s table in the arena to the conference room in which his Q&A was to take place, but I found the second location without much trouble.

I was one of the first ones to arrive, although the guy with the Rizzo plush toy was there ahead of me. Before too long, the woman and baby from the photo op came down to sit beside me. They recognized me from Steve’s table, and we kind of struck up a conversation. They had their Wembley puppet with them, so I said something to the baby to the effect of, “Hey, you have Wembley! You’re so lucky; you have the best Fraggle!”

(I should point out that, at least in my book, Cantus and Mokey also qualify as “the best Fraggle.” It’s not an exclusive title with me.)

They also had their rubber duckie from Steve’s table with them. I asked if it squeaked when you squeezed it. I was genuinely curious because when I was little, I had a duckie that was actually made of plastic, meaning that it didn’t squeak at all, and actually wasn’t that squeezable. But they squeezed their duckie, and it did squeak. I asked the little girl if she knew the “Rubber Duckie” song. She just looked at me blankly, so I sang a little of it for her. She still didn’t seem very impressed.

By now more people were coming in and sitting down, including the guy with the Kermit puppet. He sat in the row ahead of us. The lady next to me was playing with the Wembley puppet in an attempt to entertain her little girl. The guy with the Kermit puppet noticed, and so Kermit struck up a conversation with Wembley, and I don’t remember specifically what either of them said, but at the time I found it absolutely delightful, and I told Steve about it later when the guy with the Kermit puppet came back to his booth in the afternoon.

But getting back to the Q&A: Someone (it may have been the lady from the church puppet troupe) asked the guy with the Kermit puppet about meeting Steve. He said that on one of the two previous days of the convention, Steve had actually performed his Kermit puppet briefly, which he described as a thrill to watch.

At the time, I assumed that meant that Steve performed the puppet in character as Kermit, but as I think back on it, I realize that the guy with the puppet didn’t actually say that, so I don’t know for a fact that that’s what happened, because I wasn’t there. But oh, I wish I HAD been there that day to see it firsthand! Because if he did perform as Kermit, how wonderful it would have been to have the frog of my heart back, if only for one brief, shining moment! Not only to be able to see him and hear him but to interact with him! Of course, if I HAD been there and met the frog of my heart, I probably would have lost what tenuous grasp on self-control I was able to maintain and burst into tears, so maybe it’s just as well that I wasn’t there.

Now, I suppose there are people out there who may get all huffy reading that last paragraph and say, “Well, it wouldn’t have been the REAL Kermit!” But I know better, and if you’re reading this, I bet you probably know as well as I do that the character comes more from the puppeteer than from the puppet, and in the case of Kermit, it also comes from the lineage tradition of Jim Henson, as Steve has said often, both pre- and post-Schism.

It wasn’t a huge crowd at the Q&A. I would estimate that, altogether, it was about 50 people, give or take. I saw a few people that I recognized from the booth that morning. The lady from the church puppet troupe was there with her Whatnot, Ethan was there with Scrubby, and the excitable fan/science teacher came to sit in the same row as me.

Before Steve arrived, the moderator got up on the stage and asked us to guess what was missing from the room. I don’t remember if anyone actually guessed or if he just told us, but the answer was microphones. The group that had been using the room just prior had been the Omaha Corgi Crew, and they hadn’t needed microphones so none had been set up. At that point, the moderator didn’t know whether we would get any microphones, so as I recall, he encouraged us to gather close to the front so that we could hear and be heard, and told us that we would have to raise our hands for the audience question section.

Steve entered by a different door than I expected, and I didn’t actually see him come in because I was facing the wrong direction. But his appearance sparked a round of applause, which he graciously acknowledged. He apologized for being slightly tardy, explaining that he had been eating onion rings for lunch. Why that particular detail sticks in my memory, I don’t know, except that he mentioned it one more time during the Q&A.

So he and the moderator sat down at the table on the stage and attempted to speak loudly because there were no microphones. The moderator’s first question was about how Steve got involved with the Muppets, and Steve told the now-familiar story about watching the Muppets on TV as a kid (e.g., Ed Sullivan, Jimmy Dean, etc.) and becoming obsessed with Sesame Street and writing a letter to Jim Henson, etc.

The moderator’s second question was about the challenge of picking up and continuing someone else’s character. Steve took this opportunity to explain again how puppetry is different from animation in that (most of the time) the puppeteer physically performs the character while providing the voice. He talked about how important it was to have known the originators of the characters he had taken on and that the voice is secondary to the overall character. He also observed that a particular challenge in performing Beaker was the fact that Richard Hunt would make those sounds while inhaling rather than exhaling, and he had to imitate that.

All the while that Steve was answering these initial questions, there had been some technicians working to set up microphones for him and the moderator. This was the point at which they finished. Up to that point, I hadn’t had any difficulty hearing them, but now it was easier. I’m not sure now if it stemmed from a question or whether the microphone set-up just made him think of it, but Steve talked about the headsets that they wore when performing and that it was important to have a microphone that moved with them when they moved their heads. He compared it with the microphones they use now in musical theater that are situated at the middle of a person’s forehead.

The moderator’s third question was about physical challenges involved in puppeteering. In response, Steve offered the following bits of advice:

  • Ignore the pain
  • Find the most comfortable position
  • Stand at a 90-degree angle to the camera and “get small”

He also said that it was funny that the Muppets would be working in these large studios but the performers would all be smushed together on the floor in a little group within this large performance space so that the characters would look right. He said that, as a Muppet performer, it was necessary to get to know one’s coworkers. He also said that he is terrible at memorizing lines, but I don’t remember how that related to the rest of it.

Then the moderator asked him something about appearing as himself, i.e., performing without a puppet. He said that it wasn’t an interest of his. He mentioned that Marty Robinson (Sesame Street‘s Telly, Snuffy, etc.) refers to human actors as “meat actors,” but I don’t remember why that was significant.

I give the moderator credit for this next question because it was one that I don’t remember ever coming up in a Q&A before. He talked about how award organizations are reluctant to nominate puppeteers for acting awards. I don’t remember now if it was the moderator who brought up Frank Oz as Yoda in his question or Steve who brought it up in his answer, but the moderator said something to the effect that, from the point of view of the nominating committee, the question becomes, “is he really acting?” if Frank Oz or whomever it might be is performing a puppet, and he asked about Steve’s thoughts about it. Steve said that Yoda and characters like him require more than the Muppets, because the Muppets are more abstract and characters like Yoda need to be more believable and convincing. At the same time, Steve tried to incorporate more of the style required to perform characters like Yoda, the Skeksis, etc. back into the Muppets, to make them more concrete and convincing. He talked about the Muppets being “citizens of the world,” which I believe refers to the fact that they are tangible and (ideally) have consistent individual personalities. There is one more line in my notes as it relates to this question: “Frank can use the Force.” That must relate to something that Steve said, but unfortunately, I no longer remember how.

At this point, the moderator opened up the floor to audience questions, and because we didn’t get a microphone, we just had to raise our hands. The first audience question was about working with Jim Henson. I want to be sure to mention that it was in the course of answering this question that Steve mentioned that puppeteers usually regard puppets as tools and so don’t get into conversations with them. That becomes important later in the story. But as it relates to working with Jim, he said that the personality of the performer comes through in the character and that Kermit represents Jim’s idealism. As it relates to working with Jim, he talked about Jim’s willingness to accommodate everyone’s ideas. If I’m interpreting my notes correctly, he talked about how Jim built awareness of his characters from the guest spots he did on the various talk shows and variety shows of the day. He also told a story, and I regret that I don’t remember the first part of it because I just wrote down the relevant bit at the end: Steve or someone was feeling frustrated, and to put things in perspective, Jim said that only about 60% of what was in his head actually makes it to the screen. (Please forgive me, Steve, if I’m misremembering it).

My notes about the next audience question says “Dark Crystal characters/favorite puppet,” which I assume was a combined question. Here is where he mentioned that the names of the Skeksis have been added more recently, so when he was playing the character that we have come to know as skekTek, he was only known as the Scientist. He talked about how his Skeksis voice is similar to the one that he used for Marlon on Fraggle Rock, and how it was sort of modeled after Peter Lorre. He did a little of that voice, and I looked up to watch it because I think it’s funny to watch that voice coming out of his mouth. He also talked about how painful it was to perform the Skeksis puppets.

At this point, the moderator addressed the guy with the Rizzo plush and asked him if he had a question about Rizzo, and funnily enough, he did! He asked about Steve’s favorite Rizzo moments, but there’s also a note that says “operation,” which I think means that he also asked about how Rizzo works, but I don’t think Steve really addressed that in his answer. He described the rat puppets left over from the “Muppet Musicians of Bremen” as “bad” puppets, and then he immediately added, “No offense to Don Sahlin, who probably built them,” and said that sometimes bad puppets are funny. So he told the story about how he surprised Jim with one of those rat puppets in the background. When he recounted how Jim said, “I’m going to make that rat a star,” the audience responded with applause.

The next audience question was about the hardest voice that Steve ever had to do. He said that Kermit was hard at first but got more comfortable over time, and he also mentioned Jake the Polar Bear from The Animal Show.

Another audience member asked him about his favorite character(s) to work with. Steve talked about how the Muppet performers tended to work in duos, i.e. Jim and Frank would often pair off because their characters would play well off one another, and a similar relationship existed between Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt. And by the time Steve joined the Muppet Show, Dave Goelz was kind of the odd man out. So he ended up playing off Dave Goelz a lot of the time, and they worked well together and sort of became the third Muppet duo. So he talked about how much he liked working with Dave Goelz, but didn’t mention a specific character.

Here my notes get confused, because the moderator asked a question, but I didn’t write it down because he was talking too fast, and after that was the moment that Steve called on me. And then there are notes about what Steve said, but I don’t remember now if they were in response to the moderator’s question or to mine. But what is most important to mention at this point is that Steve told the story about “auditioning” with Jim in New York, in which he and Jim each put on a puppet (Farley and Fat Blue/Mr. Johnson, respectively) in front of the mirror and had a conversation. If you’re not familiar with the story, refer to this interview; it’s conveniently located on the first page. He said that he thought Jim’s comment about “talking to the master” was “half-joking.”

He also talked about how Jim’s performance style evolved over time from the big and broad style of early Sesame Street into something more subtle. He mentioned how, when he (Steve) was performing Kermit, he would sometimes feel a disconnect as though Kermit were an entirely different entity.

My note about the next audience question just says “Puppet school.” If I were guessing (and I am), I would guess that someone asked him how you learn to become a puppeteer. If I’m interpreting my notes correctly, he said he learned by doing it and performing at every available opportunity. He talked about how Jane Henson had had patterns for building Muppet characters published in Woman’s Day magazine, and those were helpful to him in learning to build puppets once he was able to get ahold of a copy of the magazine. He said that when he was doing the “Kid’s Show with Otis” in Atlanta as a teenager, he would get 2,000 calls an hour. I also have a note here about Jim not being precious with the Muppet characters, but I’m not sure how that relates to the rest of it.

The next audience question was about the differences between the various productions, and he said that Sesame Street was different because of its setting on a “real” street. He talked about how before The Muppet Show, Jim was about to explode with creativity, and The Muppet Show was the “big bang” that propelled him and his characters out into the wider universe.

An audience member asked him about his favorite Muppet Show guests, and he mentioned Mark Hamill and the stars of Star Wars. He said that he got along well with Mark Hamill in particular because they were close to the same age and had each gotten married at around the same time, so they had those things in common. He mentioned John Denver as another favorite. He also described a Muppet Show autograph book of his in which he collected autographs from the various guest stars.

He was asked by an audience member about the challenge of performing unscripted bits with kids on Sesame Street, and he said that the hardest part was when certain kids were too shy to talk to the puppets, and he and the other puppeteers had to kind of draw them out.

I believe this question came from the lady from the church puppet troupe. She had seen pictures or otherwise heard about the Muppet performers using harnesses to hold their hands up. He said that those were used specifically for the Outside Lands concert in which the performers were doing a 20-minute set in which the Electric Mayhem had to remain on stage for the whole time. The idea was that the harnesses would help them hold up their arms. Steve said they were limiting while performing but sort of helpful during the brief periods in which the audience’s attention was directed elsewhere and they could take sort of a mini-rest.

Someone in the audience asked him about the new Muppet Babies series, and he said he felt conflicted about it. He said that while that was still in the works, he told the Disney/Muppets Studio people that maybe they ought to be prioritizing the main Muppet troupe and doing more with them before introducing a new series.

I totally get where he’s coming from on that, and to a certain extent I agree with him, but at the same time, I really, REALLY love the new Muppet Babies series as well. I haven’t seen all of it yet, but the more I see of it, the more I like it. It’s just ironic and sad to me that (at least, in my opinion) the most Muppety material that has come out since Muppets Most Wanted are non-puppet productions like Muppet Babies and the Muppets Meet the Classics book series. But that’s probably a topic for another day.

And now, for the piece de resistance. This was the point where Steve called on Ethan. I don’t remember now if Ethan asked a question or if Steve just called him up on stage right away. Whatever the case, he called Ethan and Scrubby up on stage and started giving him puppetry tips. As he did so, he started talking to Scrubby rather than Ethan, which was funny because he’d just got done saying that, as a puppeteer, he viewed puppets as tools and didn’t get into conversations with them. He called himself on it as well.

Steve wanted to do some performing with Ethan and asked to borrow a puppet from someone. As I have related before, he politely declined the offer of the Kermit puppet. When the guy came up to his table later, Steve apologized for that, saying specifically that he didn’t want to perform even a toy Kermit if it was going to be recorded. Late in the afternoon (well after the Q&A) he took a picture with Gigi Edgley and her family, and she asked him if he would record something for Skye (her baby girl) as Kermit. And Steve specifically said that he didn’t want to record anything as Kermit in case it got posted to the internet and the Disney lawyers saw/heard it and decided to make trouble for him. And for that reason, I was retroactively very, very glad that I hadn’t tried to record him quietly doing character voices for one of the convention organizers in the afternoon.

Anyway, now that I’ve completely screwed up my chronology, back to the Q&A with Ethan. So instead of borrowing the toy Kermit puppet, he borrowed the Whatnot from the church puppet troupe lady. Notably, it was blue and had a round head. So he put the puppet on and proceeded to have a conversation with Scrubby. He used a voice that wasn’t familiar to me.

I unfortunately do not remember a lot of the conversation, but I do remember the Whatnot introducing himself to Scrubby saying, “My name is Blue. It’s not because I’m blue; it’s because I’m sad,” which was kind of heartbreaking but simultaneously hilarious. Steve and the newly dubbed “Blue” sort of ragged on Scrubby and Ethan in a good-natured, humorous way.

Nevertheless, it was surprisingly poignant. Steve had just got done telling the story about being coached and mentored by Jim while Jim was performing a round-headed blue puppet, and now here was Steve performing a round-headed blue puppet while coaching and instructing a new puppeteer. I had a very significant feeling that a torch had been passed and I had just witnessed something coming full circle. 

With that, and all too soon, the moderator informed us that the Q&A was over. James gathered us together for a group picture, which I haven’t seen but hopefully I managed to smile more naturally than I did at my impromptu photo op. The puppeteers who were there gathered all their puppets together for a picture (just the puppets, not the people) and included the Rizzo plush even though it technically wasn’t a puppet. Steve left the way he had come in, and I went out to my car to fetch the lunch I had packed. 

Considering how much I remember about what happened immediately before and immediately after the Q&A, maybe I would have been better off not taking any notes at all. I apologize for the fragmented nature of my remembrances. I apologize for not putting more effort into preserving them. 

I know, however, that the Q&A was recorded. I’m still crossing my fingers that it will show up online and we will all be able to see how it actually happened. For now, however, quite a few pieces of the puzzle are still missing. 

 

8 thoughts on “The Final Pieces to the Puzzle: Steve Whitmire’s OCon Q&A

  1. You may think these awesome notes and thoughts are fragmented, but I read and enjoyed every last word. Perhaps -one day – these will become part of a biography of Steve Whitmire, with his additional input, of course. Either way, your account of time spent becoming a Muppet’s historian,, and further notes on Steve’s journey to success and new adventures with Weldon on CAVE IN,, deserve to be part of a book.

    Like

  2. Found a new Q&A last night (I have to work from home so I have extra time on my hands). Anyway search YouTube for The Muppets Q&A with Steve Whitmire at GalaxyCon Richmond 2020 – if you haven’t seen it already.
    Hope you are doing well!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Sidney! Thanks as always for the tip. I’ve actually seen two version of this Q&A: a bootleg fan-recorded version and the official version released by GalaxyCon. Haven’t posted either yet, in part because I can’t decide which one to include (or both), and also just because I have work stuff to attend to.

      I am doing well, at least as near as I can figure. I work from home as a matter of course, so haven’t had to make much of a lifestyle adjustment. Take care of yourself!

      Like

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