“And now, I’d like to introduce a special guest,” announced Fran Brill to the group gathered around the conference table. She seemed to be concluding a presentation about her career in television so I was surprised that someone else would be appearing on the agenda. I waited, expecting Fran to beckon one of us at the table to come forward. Instead, she reached downward, below the table. When her arm came up, she was joined by long-time Sesame Street muppet Prairie Dawn. Using a high-pitched voice, Fran infused the Sesame character with life. Prairie Dawn fielded questions from the audience. “Who is your favorite friend on Sesame Street?” I asked Prairie. “Oh,” she said, “I like Grover and Cookie Monster but I don’t have favorites. I like everybody!”
Fran Brill, the first female muppeteer hired by Jim Henson, has been on the set of Sesame Street nearly all of its 38 years. Here’s the big surprise: Fran didn’t play with puppets as a child. Her primary passion and training was in theatre, starting from when she stole the show in a play that her Brownie troupe performed. In her teens, Fran performed in summer stock and also interned at the Bucks County Playhouse. As a young adult, she chose to attend Boston University College of Fine Arts for its strong theatre department. There, Fran received classical theatre training and also participated in regional theatre.
Fran’s first big acting job was in a theater in Atlanta, where she performed in an original show called Red, White and Maddox. Red was a musical satire of a Georgia governor who wouldn’t serve people of color in his famous restaurant, the Pickrick Cafeteria. In 1969, the show moved to Broadway. Like all Broadway shows, it came to an end and Fran found herself looking for work in The Big Apple. By day, she’d make rounds to the agents with eight- by -ten photos in hand. In the late afternoon, she’d arrive home exhausted and in need of cheering up. Watching Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood seemed to do the trick.
“Watching those shows, I’d think ‘I could do those voices,’” shared Fran. She had already done radio commercials and voiceover work. In 1970, one of Fran’s agents pointed to an ad in Backstage, which announced Jim Henson’s search for muppeteers for a Christmas television special. Fran called Jim. “I can do the voices,” she said. Jim let her know he didn’t work that way: muppeteers did the voices for their own characters. Interested in her theatre background, Jim invited Fran to come for a workshop in the East Village. Under the tutelage of Jim, Jerry Nelson, and Frank Oz, Fran underwent intense training in the skills of muppeteering. In the end, she made the cut, and was asked to muppeteer in the Christmas special.
From the Christmas special, Fran and Richard Hunt were asked to be in the core group of muppeteers. Fran agreed, with the condition that she could continue to act in plays, musicals, and commercials. Jim agreed, and Fran was on her way to Sesame Street.
Fran remembers well the sparks that ignited Sesame Street. The initial collaborators included “The Four Js”: television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, writer Jon Stone, composer Joe Raposo, and, of course, Jim Henson. With the Head Start Initiative newly underway, the ground was ripe for a show that would educate children about numbers, letters, and other early childhood concepts. The show utilized the format of both magazines and commercials by featuring a combination of live action footage, animation, and muppet inserts. Fran describes the formative years of Sesame as “a rarefied experience in a rarefied atmosphere” and “the perfect storm.” “They invented the wheel as they went along,” she shared. “Nobody thought that the show would be a juggernaut.”
In terms of her own role on the show, Fran started out as Ernie’s right hand – literally. A muppet generally needs two people, one person to operate the head, left hand, and voice and another person to operate the right hand. Eventually, Fran helped create and inhabit a new character - Prairie Dawn. Twenty years down the road, when the show’s producers wanted a female equivalent of Elmo, theyworked with Fran to fashion the character of Zoe. The characters, Fran says, represent different facets of her personality. Her job, as the muppeteer, is to channel "the spirit and personality that lives inside of the puppet."
True to the spirit of Sesame Street, Fran views her role as muppeteer as an ongoing process of growth and education. “I’m constantly learning, trying to be better, trying to please myself.” Fran shares that she strives to be as truthful as possible in her roles – not an easy task since she’s got just her hand and her voice to make the essence of a character shine through. Fran also reflects on the larger experience of being part of Sesame Street. “We’re inheritors, or seeds of Jim Henson,” she relays. She explains how the warmth, compassion, and empathy of the crew, cast, and content of Sesame are reflective of Jim. He was, Fran relays, a man who never raised his voice, never lost his temper, just worked off of praise and respect. “He brought out the best in you as a human and as a performer.” The gentleness, humanity, cross-generational appeal, humor, love, and global concern in Sesame Street was, according to Fran, “Jim Henson’s way of changing the world.”
While Jim firmly remains a legend in the mind of Fran and countless others, Fran herself has clearly won the esteem, love and respect of her audiences. On Fran’s birthday, folks logged onto Muppet Central Forum to share these sentiments with her:
“Happy Birthday Fran Brill, and thanks for all the wonderful characters you’ve given us over the years!”
“Eeeeeeey!! Franny!! You go, girl!”
“As well as continued success with the muppets, I hope to see you performing in tv and movies. You’ve contributed a lot to the entertainment world.”
“Yay! Happy Birthday, Fran!” Hope you’re as blessed as you’ve made us all feel over the years! Thanks.”
“Frog bless you for all the fun and magic you’ve brought into our lives.”
Meeting Fran in person, watching her interact with her fans, and seeing her in action as a muppeteer, I got a clear picture of why she has won the affection of so many people. She is incredibly hard-working, loyal, funny, intelligent, cultured, and down-to-earth. Her lack of pretense is notable: she exhibits a complete willingness to share the events of her professional history without sparing any of the less-than-glamorous details. She does not see herself as separate from or better than her audience. In the end, it comes as no surprise that Prairie Dawn (a/k/a Fran) likes and gets along with all her friends on Sesame Street. She’s a living legend, and a lovable one at that.