Letter to Bob Iger: August 14, 2017 (with comments)

What follows is a letter I sent via e-mail to Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger regarding Steve Whitmire on August 14, 2017–prior to the Vogel!Kermit Muppet Thought of the Week, prior to any announced recast of Steve’s Muppet characters apart from Kermit, and considerably ahead of the Hollywood Bowl Show. 

At the bottom of the page, I’ve also included some explanatory comments in regards to the letter.

Dear Mr. Iger,

I am writing to express my dismay over puppeteer Steve Whitmire’s dismissal from the Muppets Studio. I have always believed that, if the Muppet property is to continue in perpetuity, it must remain as close to Jim Henson’s original vision as possible. To that end, those who worked directly with Jim Henson must keep working as closely with the Muppets as possible for as long as possible. What Muppets Studio has done in dismissing Mr. Whitmire is to unnecessarily–even cavalierly–sever the “rainbow connection” between Kermit the Frog and his creator, Jim Henson. This could have dire consequences for the future of the Muppets–and their profitability.

By dismissing Mr. Whitmire, The Muppets Studio has squandered an invaluable resource. Mr. Whitmire has a unique perspective on the Muppets; having been a fan of the Muppets as a child and adolescent, then having served an apprenticeship under Jim Henson himself straight out of high school, and then, over time, becoming one of the senior Muppet performers, he has unique insight not only about the needs of the Muppets but the desires of the fans. If Disney wants and intends to give the Muppet fans what we want, then Mr. Whitmire should be the first person whose opinion Disney
should ask.

The Muppets Studio’s official statement regarding Mr. Whitmire’s dismissal is vague to say the least, alleging that Mr. Whitmire engaged in “unacceptable business conduct” but not giving any specifics. With all due respect, I find this to be more than a little ironic; I have been researching the recent history of the Walt Disney Company, from approximately 1984 onwards, and I’m sure it will not come as a surprise to you that much of Disney’s “business conduct” during that time has been questionable at best, and the reputation–the integrity–of the company during that time has taken more than one hit. This is not intended to be a reflection on you, by the way, but more of a criticism of the previous management.

Since the Muppets Studio’s statement is so vague, I have no choice to but to go by Mr. Whitmire’s version of events. He alleges that he was dismissed in part because he was too outspoken in giving criticisms and feedback on the recent failed Muppet series on ABC. Given Mr. Whitmire’s unique perspective on the Muppets, perhaps if his concerns had been acknowledged and implemented, the series would NOT have failed. If indeed these were some of the grounds on which Mr. Whitmire was dismissed, then I can’t help but see it as something akin to killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

Quite apart from being “unacceptable,” I see the way that Mr. Whitmire has conducted himself as being consistent with the values with which Walt Disney started his company. Walt himself once said, “Leadership means that a group, large or small, is willing to entrust authority to a person who has shown judgment, wisdom, personal appeal, and proven competence.” Mr. Whitmire checks all those boxes, particularly–after 38 years with the Muppets and 26 years performing Kermit the Frog–the one about “proven competence.”

Mr. Whitmire has fought for one consistent performer for each Muppet character, with the goal of creating and maintaining a consistent and believable personality for each Muppet. Walt Disney was concerned about the establishment of a consistent personality for his animated characters as well, saying that, “Our most important aim is to develop definite personalities in our cartoon characters” because “until a character becomes a personality, it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the characters, its actions will seem unreal.” Even though the Muppets are not cartoons but three-dimensional characters that exist alongside us, the same principle applies. If multiple puppeteers perform the same Muppet character, the personality will not be consistent, and therefore the audience will not be able to identify with the character because it will not know which version of the character is the “real” version.

Mr. Whitmire has said, with regard to the failed Muppet TV series of 2015-2016: “We were getting a lot of script material and a lot of story ideas that were far enough out of character that it made it difficult for us to portray them well. So I started sending notes, as we’ve always done, and I think they felt that I had been disrespectiful, but I don’t think so. I think what I was was honest.” Walt Disney himself valued that kind of honesty and free exchange of ideas, not only as it relates to the success of a TV show, or even to the success of an entertainment company, but to the success of society as a whole, saying: “Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards–the things we live by and teach our children–are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings” (my emphasis).  Therefore, Mr. Whitmire’s attempts to share his ideas and feelings freely should not be condemned and punished but appreciated for what they are: valuable contributions from an established expert.

It has been announced that the talented Matt Vogel is slated to take over performing Kermit the Frog from this point on. I have no complaint against Mr. Vogel; had it been necessary to recast Kermit, I believe that he would have been an excellent candidate. But that’s exactly the problem; it wasn’t necessary at all. No one is disputing Mr. Vogel’s ability or dedication; however, by every objective measure, Mr. Whitmire is simply more qualified for the job of performing Kermit–not for performing in general, but specifically for performing Kermit–than Mr. Vogel is. Kermit is supposed to be able to talk about working with Jim Henson and reminisce about working on The Muppet Show; we could consider these aspects to be part of the “job description” of Kermit’s performer.  On both counts–and through no fault of his own–Mr. Vogel lacks the experience that Mr. Whitmire has in these areas.

Mr. Iger, I believe that you are an honorable man, that you have worked hard since ascending to the chairmanship of the Walt Disney Company to rehabilitate its reputation, and that you have had some striking success. We Muppet fans were initially informed by the Muppets Studio that Matt Vogel’s performance as Kermit the Frog would be introduced to the world in July via a Muppet Thought of the Week video on YouTube. This has yet to occur, which is good news for you and for the Muppets Studio because it means that there is still time to right the wrong that has been done to Mr. Whitmire, to Kermit the Frog, and to the Muppets themselves by re-opening negotiations with Mr. Whitmire with a goal towards reinstatement. Of course, there is the old show-biz adage that “the show must go on,” and I know that the Muppets have at least one appearance scheduled in the near future. If Mr. Vogel needs to perform Kermit while the negotiations are underway, I don’t have a problem with that, so long as it is made clear that Mr. Vogel is to be considered something of a “foster parent” to Kermit while the negotiations are ongoing, and that it is understood that he will relinquish Kermit to Mr. Whitmire in the event of the latter’s reinstatement.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Jim Henson’s work with the Muppets, it’s that human beings have the capability to compromise and work out their differences. Therefore, I am confident that negotiations can be reopened with Mr. Whitmire and a new arrangement can be reached that will be mutually beneficial to everyone: not only Mr. Whitmire and Disney, but beneficial to the Muppets themselves, and to us fans as well. However, if reinstatement is simply not an option, there are other concessions that Mr. Whitmire is owed at baseline for his decades of service to the Muppets. At the very least–at the VERY least–he should be given the opportunity to train Mr. Vogel in performing Kermit and should also be allowed to help choose his successors for his other characters.

The Muppets are, and always have been, very dear to me and my family. They are a force for good in this world, and I think we can all agree that this world needs as many forces for good as it can get–particularly now. Thank you for the opportunity to share my concerns with you. I know that your time is very valuable, and I truly appreciate your kind attention.

This was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to write.  It was very difficult to figure out a way to address myself to Iger in a way that I thought would be rhetorically effective while still being honest and true to myself.  As a poor and humble scholar from South Dakota, it was difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of the head of a multimillion-dollar entertainment corporation.  In the interest of rhetoric, I occasionally threw in jargon from the world of economics and business.  I don’t know how effective it was, but it felt weird and uncomfortable, like trying to have a conversation in a foreign language using phrases that I learned phoenetically without actually knowing what they mean.

As a result, I admittedly laid it on a little thick at times, especially with regard to Iger being an “honorable man”–although, comparatively speaking, I do believe that he is among the more honorable people ever to hold an executive post at Disney–not that that’s necessarily saying much.  So much of it is a matter of semantics; I do believe that Iger has worked hard to rehabilitate Disney’s reputation, with some marked success.  However, I think that his efforts have gone more to improve Disney’s public image than they have to rehabilitate the underlying corruption at the core of Disney’s business practices.  

My point is that if it seemed I was laying it on thick here, you should have seen my first draft, which was far worse: sycophantic, platitudinous, and phony.  It didn’t sound like me at all.  In this one, at least I managed to maintain my own writing voice and largely stay true to my own beliefs while still trying to meet Iger on his level.

I do believe that Steve has a unique perspective with regards to the Muppets.  His path has been similar to Dave Goelz’s path, both having been Muppet fans before working with Jim, but the difference to me is that Steve was a Muppet fan as a quite young child.  He grew up with the Muppets on TV, and that makes his experience distinct from Dave’s and unique among the Muppet performers.  

Nevertheless, some in the mainstream Muppet fan community may question how insightful Steve is with regard to the desires of fans, but I stand by my assertion; as we have seen, this week especially, the mainstream Muppet fans are not the only ones whose opinions count.

Steve, if you’re reading this, I wanted to say something about the concessions that I said you were owed toward the end of the letter.  You said once, “while it could be viewed as a purely self-centered perspective, I think my choosing my replacements is in the best interest of the Muppets, themselves, especially for those characters I originated” (which, by the way, seems entirely reasonable to me and not self-centered at all).  However, as I interpreted that, it seemed to me that you would prefer to choose your replacements on your own terms rather than according to terms dictated by Disney, and that doing so on Disney’s terms might be more galling than simply being dismissed.  Nevertheless, I included it anyway because I thought that, at the very least, they ought to extend you the courtesy of giving you the opportunity to make your own decision about whether to accept or decline.  If you found that to be in any way offensive or disrespectful, I sincerely apologize.  I hope that the rest of the letter makes it abundantly clear–to you, to Iger, and to anyone else who may read this letter–that your reinstatement as a Muppet performer is both my primary objective and fondest wish.

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