Sunday, April 06, 2008


How I Got to Frank

I’m about to finish conducting my interview with Kevin Clash, longtime Muppeteer of Elmo and a Co-Producer of Sesame Street. “You know who you should interview next?” Kevin says. “Franky. Frank Biondo. He’s the cameraman on Sesame Street and even though he’s behind the scenes, he shapes the mood and the feeling on the set.”

So I call Frank and he tells me he’s filming a show, not Sesame Street, but a special offshoot, When Parents Are Deployed. He’s going to be at the Unitel Building on West 57th Street. Could I come up there while he’s filming to watch and to talk? “Sure thing,” I say. How could I pass up a chance to see Frank and Muppeteers in action? I’ve only dreamed of this moment since I was six years old.

I get to the Unitel Building and wind my way back to where they’re filming. Kevin Clash is there, directing and also playing Elmo, and Fran Brill is playing Elmo’s mom. Costume folks are stitching up Muppets and their outfits, and other folks are painting and repairing sets. Frank’s filming and within minutes of our first interaction, I can see why he is known as The Mayor. He greets me warmly, and, in between takes, he comes to the back of the stage where I am standing to chat with me about his work and personal history. He is warm, funny, engaging, talkative, totally unpretentious. He starts in right away with the beginning…..

How Frank Got to Sesame Street
Once upon a time, cameraman Frank Biondo was used to filming big names in show business – Barbara Streisand and Merv Griffin, to name a few. Imagine his shock when he found himself filming, in his own words, “A freakin’ eight-foot bird” and “an orange Muppet in a garbage can.” It was the late 60s and Frank had been brought on set to film the pilot of a new television show after the original filming company had gone on strike.

The show was Sesame Street, and no one knew just how big the show was going to be, including Frank. According to Mr. Biando, the early incarnations of Sesame Street characters were not so great-looking. “Big bird looked a lot different then. His head was whacked out.” Frank was filming these funky-looking characters, wondering “Who in the world is going to watch this stuff?” Thirty-nine years later, working for a show that is televised in 120- plus countries, he has his answer.

How Frank Got Elected to MayorFrank has met a lot of creative people in the course of his 39 years of work on the most famous street in the world. He’s interacted and cooperated with thousands of production people, directors, actors, and Muppeteers. But to Frank, those thousands are not just a sea of nameless faces; they are faces with stories and Frank loves to tell their stories. And that’s why Frank is Mayor of Sesame Street: because he uses story-telling to keep the history of the show alive, to weave the moments and the people from past and present together.

Frank is Mayor, too, because he is the one that comes up with the “crazy ideas” that keep people on the set connected to one another. One time, he got cast and crew to bring in baby pictures and guess who was who. He has organized wrap parties where the cast members got to show off their various
talents. He created Frankly, Frankly Have I Got a Deal for You – a newsletter for people who work
on the show. Frankly was a home-grown publication that included recipes, classified ads, jokes of the week, and letters from the show’s Executive Director. Frank also helped start a nonprofit organization called Make a Kid Smile. With Elmo dolls in tow, he and his family members visit and brighten the days of children hospitalized with serious illnesses.

Where Did Frank Come From?

Having spent his youth surrounded by lots of relatives, it’s not surprising that Frank knows how to create a sense of family among a sizable group of people. He was the eldest of 16 grandchildren and named after a grandfather who came to the U.S. from Sicily. Frank remembers that his grandpa -- a father of nine -- smoked cigars, used a spittoon, made his own wine, and always paid home visits to grandchildren when they were sick. Frank’s grandmother made Sicilian pizza every Sunday night for the entire family.

Frank remembers another part of growing up: dancing. He’d go to church dances, where he did the Cha Cha, the Mambo, and the Lindy. After joining the US Navy at 17, he taught dance classes in the USO in exchange for meals. In his present day life, Frank liked to dance out in Long Island. He describes himself as “a 50s dancer who dances to live band music.” If there’s a dance he doesn’t know, Frank makes a point of learning it. Not long ago, he went and took lessons to learn how to do the Hustle.

It’s A Wrap
After the shoot is done, Frank invites me to have lunch with him and the crew. He and some of his co-workers start telling funny stories about their years together on set and teasing each other good-naturedly about challenging times they’ve gone through. Chuck, one of Frank’s longest-time buddies there, remembers when the two of them set off together to film the Daytona 500, each being assigned to catch the race from a different angle.

After they've reminisced for a while, I say to Chuck and Frank: “You two have seen a lot.” Frank’s reply? “If we died now, we wouldn’t have missed much.” It’s so clear that Frank’s a man who feels full, full and grateful for all the people and stories and Muppets and children and actors whose lives he has been part of over the last four decades. And I realize that Sesame Street would be a very different place without him.
Post a Comment