“I had a professor one time […] and he said, ‘You know, Fred, there’s one thing that evil cannot stand, and that is forgiveness.'”
—Fred Rogers (my emphasis)
Dear John Tartaglia,
I first want to congratulate you on the recent Fraggle Rock short-form series that you and your colleagues created in response to the pandemic. Fraggle Rock is exactly the right content for this peculiar moment in history, and I appreciate you bringing it back into the public consciousness. Because re-imaginings of existing properties tend toward self-parody, I initially had some misgivings about it, but the new Fraggle content mostly seems organic and consistent with what came before.
Nevertheless, there is one aspect of the whole endeavor that rings false for me. I have heard you invoke the Trash Heap from the last episode of Fraggle Rock when she tells the Fraggles, “You cannot leave the magic.” Even if that is true, it appears that someone can be barred from the magic pre-emptively. I refer, of course, to Steve Whitmire.
I do not mean to cast aspersions on the voice work of Frankie Cordero, whose work as Rudy on Sesame Street I admire very much. Nor do I mean to diminish your puppeteering of Wembley, which is very skillful. I can tell that you’ve studied Steve’s performance very carefully to be able to mimic his style so closely. While these work-arounds produced a serviceable short-term solution, not involving Steve in either the short-form series or future planned projects threatens to undermine the entire Fraggle Rock ethos.
Because you are a puppeteer, I know that you are aware of how much of the character’s heart and soul comes from the performer and how important it is for that to stay consistent to the extent possible. Although Steve is currently busy with independent projects, I know for a fact that he was (and is) willing to perform as Wembley if asked.
Despite a theater minor in college, I am not involved in show business myself. I live in South Dakota, pretty far removed from all that. I know that the Hensons have some sort of grievance against Steve, and I am aware of what they have said publicly about it. I’m familiar with Steve’s side of the story because I’ve had the opportunity to meet him a couple of times at comic conventions here in the Midwest and discuss the matter with him firsthand. Nevertheless, I readily admit that I do not know the whole story, nor am I sure that anybody really does.
What I do know is that Fraggle Rock was created for the express purpose of teaching viewers, especially kids, how to resolve conflicts in a constructive way. Therefore, excluding an able puppeteer from performing a character that he created on the basis of an unresolved disagreement is a hypocrisy that undermines the Fraggles’ integrity, as well as that of the company.
I don’t know who at the Henson Company ultimately made the call not to include Steve in the new Fraggle content. I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt that whoever did so acted with the honest belief that the decision was justified. I am not suggesting that Steve should not be accountable for whatever he is supposed to have said and done. On the contrary, I believe that everyone involved in this sad little drama should be held to account for their words and actions.
What I am suggesting is that the Henson Company should approach this dispute as the Fraggles would, by listening to the other side and trying to see matters from Steve’s point of view. In a real-world setting (or Outer Space setting, if you prefer), I imagine that would involve mediation or some other form of alternative dispute resolution between Steve and representatives of the Henson Company, whether that be the Hensons themselves or not.
As Doc says in “The Invasion of the Toe Ticklers”:
“In the best of all possible worlds, people solve problems through working out compromises.”
At the very least, I would appreciate a good-faith attempt on the part of the Henson Company to work with Steve to find such a compromise. Otherwise, it sends the message that the lessons the Fraggles try to teach about conflict resolution don’t have any applicability to real-life disputes. It suggests that the Fraggles’ philosophy is just a clever marketing scheme without any real depth or purpose, and that the peaceful world that Jim Henson envisioned when he created Fraggle Rock is an unattainable ideal at best and a fraudulent scam at worst.
I have heard you talk at length in interviews about what Fraggle Rock means to you. I can tell that you truly believe in what Jim Henson was trying to accomplish with it, and I trust that you are sincere about wanting to impart his philosophy to a new generation.
I read recently that the previously announced reboot series is in pre-production and scheduled to start shooting in January. This should provide ample time to initiate a process of dispute resolution between the Henson Company and Steve with the goal of working out a compromise acceptable to all. My understanding of mediation is that the process generally does not take very long, and I feel confident that Steve would be more than willing to meet you halfway, which I imagine would help to expedite the process.
If the Fraggles are going to maintain their integrity, the people behind the scenes need to apply the lessons that they teach. Fraggle Rock is too important for its message to be watered down to satisfy a corporate mentality. While I assume that you will still be puppeteering, I don’t know what your role in the new series is supposed to be, i.e., whether you will still serve as a producer, because your name wasn’t specifically mentioned as such in the most recent news story I read about it. Therefore, I hope you will forgive me if this letter is misdirected. To my knowledge, you are the only person in a position of authority over the Fraggles with social media accounts that you operate yourself. I hope that, if necessary, you will direct this letter to the people who need to see it.
I view the Fraggles as innocents living in their own subterranean Eden. If not resolved, this issue could bring about their fall from grace. I hope that you will do whatever is in your power to prevent that from happening.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
P.S: Although I have discussed the issue with Steve a little bit to confirm some of the facts, the opinions expressed here are solely mine.