I had the good fortune of meeting Bonnie Erickson at BAM’s film festival celebration of the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. Sitting a few seats down from Ms. Erickson with a pen and clipboard in hand, I remember her asking me good-naturedly “Are you taking notes on our behavior?” “No, just taking notes for a blog post,” I explained. We each talked a bit about our relationship to the Muppets and Sesame Street, and Bonnie revealed that she had created some of the original Muppets and had also worked for Children’s Television Workshop.
Back at home, I learned more about Bonnie through a Muppet Wiki entry and and a Smithonian Magazine interview with her. Accompanying the interview was a photograph of Bonnie in 1975 taken with with Statler. (You might remember him as the Muppet who is the older gentleman heckler from The Muppet Show.) In the photo, Bonnie’s eyes have a certain spark and life-force that made me think “This is a woman who knows something important about being alive. I want to know more about her story.”
Within the first five minutes of meeting Bonnie again, this time in her home/workspace, she confirms what I thought might be true about her. I quickly discover that she and her husband, Wayde, have led a life rich in travel and in friendships made along the way. Right away, I feel part of their adventures. They ask me if I would pose for a picture in their kitchen, explaining that Wayde has photographed every person who has visited them in the last thirteen years. The total number of photos so far? An astounding 1,600. But I don’t feel like just a number, I feel like part of their story.
After picture-taking is done, Bonnie and Wayde continue to welcome me warmly, showing me the custom-made round, tree-house like home office that Wade works out of. Bonnie walks me over to a spectacular chess set with pieces that are constructed from black and white photographs Wayde has taken of family, friends and colleagues. They offer tea and giant pastel-colored French macaroons. It’s clear from the get go that Bonnie is someone with a big zest for life and makes relationships central to it.
With tea at hand, the stage is set to find out more about this intriguing woman.
How did Bonnie get involved with The Muppet Show?
Bonnie worked with Jim Henson even before there was The Muppet Show. Colleague Bruce Cayard who, at the time, was working for The Electric Company and Sesame Street, gave Bonnie the heads-up that Jim was looking for a costume designer. Bonnie, experienced in costume design and special costume effects, was intrigued by Jim’s work and by the opportunity. With encouragement from Bruce, she called and met with Jim and Jim’s producer Diana Birkenfield.
Bonnie accepted the offer to come on board with Jim to work on The Frog Prince, a one hour version of the classic fairytale narrated by Kermit the Frog. Although experienced in costume design, Bonnie had never made costumes for puppets. The advantage of designing for puppets? “No complaints from the actors!” shares Bonnie with a laugh. The work involved building bodies, making patterns, and learning a lot from colleague and mentor Don Sahlin, someone who had been a puppet-builder for Jim since the 60s.
After work on The Frog Prince had come to an end, Jim asked Bonnie if she would stay on to run the Muppet shop at 227 East 67th Street in Manhattan. For Bonnie, the idea of saying “Yes” to Jim was daunting. She had no formal background in puppetry, and the position required her to coordinate the efforts of a highly-talented group of workers. However, she did accept the job and is glad that she did! “It was a great group of people and we had a great time together,” recalls Bonnie.
What does Bonnie remember about Jim Henson? What are her memories of working for him?
When I ask Bonnie about Jim Henson, she remembers him for these things: his love of film and television; his sharp editing skills; his sense of music and humor; his ability to draw people into his world. He was a man who cared about the details of his work and who did not cut corners. “The richness of details contributed to an overall product which reflected great thought and care,” recalls Bonnie.
Jim, who prized play and collaboration as an important part of the process, created a good environment to be in and made it fun to work with the rest of the team. “It was a calling for the people there,” shares Bonnie, “and we were a group who was invested in our work.”
A big part of the work as part of the Henson team involved finding new materials to create with and discovering new ways of doing things. Bonnie’s discovery while working on a character called The Glutton was that foam could be carved from the outside with a pair of scissors, and then smoothed out on a belt sander. “It was about solving problems in a unique and interesting way,” tells Bonnie.
In her time working for Jim, Bonnie designed and built an impressive roster of Muppets, including Miss Piggy, Statler, Waldorf, the Newsman, Zoot, and the caricatures of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson for the Country Trio.
What made Bonnie decide to create her own business?
From working with the Muppets team for many years, Bonnie eventually moved on to team up with husband-to-be Wayde Harrison to found the design and marketing company Harrison/Erickson, Inc. In addition to creating characters for television and theater, Bonnie and Wade also run Acme Mascots, Inc., a division of their company which involves the development of mascot programs for major league sports teams.
In 1977, Wayde and Bonnie set up shop on 5th Avenue and 17th Street in Manhattan, putting together patterns for toys and samples, and also creating full-body costumes and puppets for commercials. Jim Henson became a client when he hired Bonnie for a number of projects including Fraggle Rock and a 13-year run as Creative Director of the Product Division of Children's Television Workshop.
One day, they received a call from The Philadelphia Phillies Major League Baseball team, who were looking for a mascot who could bring families back to the ball park. Wayde and Bonnie created the legendary Phillie Phanatic, a team mascot who came with a storied background and took on a life of his own. The Phanatic has his own store and makes public appearances 365 days a year!
Since that legendary project, Wayde and Bonnie have created 16 other mascots with entertaining identities.
How are the roots of her work as an adult reflected in Bonnie’s early life?
As a child growing up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Bonnie loved to draw. She took classes in piano, dance, and art, and her parents were supportive of all of these endeavors.
Bonnie’s dream from the get-go was to venture out to New York. During her college years, she left Minnesota for upstate New York to be a counselor at a drama camp. After holding that post, Bonnie did not want to leave New York. She proceeded to enroll in the Art Students League.
“Growing up, I always wanted to go to New York. It was the symbol of sophistication and artistic appreciation and it is still that to me. I will never outgrow my enthusiasm for the city. This metropolis offers so many opportunities to communicate with so many kinds of people. There is so much inspiration. I feel lucky. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because I still can’t believe I am here. I wish that excitement for everyone.”
What are Bonnie’s hopes and dreams for 2010 and beyond?
At the top of Bonnie’s list of priorities? In her own words, “Finding time to give back.” One of her main conduits for doing so is through the Jim Henson Legacy. For Bonnie, her work with The Legacy is about “making a connection to the new generations, communicating what Jim did, how he did it, the community he built, and the satisfaction that the work gave people.” Bonnie’s goal is to communicate the importance of following one’s muse, doing work that is fulfilling, and sharing excitement with other people.
Bonnie’s related hope is that art and music be restored to public school programs. Her vision is that more adults get out there and share their skills with young people. She recalls a time that she helped students at a Brooklyn public school put together a puppet show, noting that the process helped them work together toward a goal and develop lots of different skills along the way.
Some Closing Notes
I left the interview with Bonnie on a total high. I think I was skipping down the street back toward the subway! Something so inspiring about meeting a woman who has remained steadfastly dedicated to her craft, and yet who has tailored and tweaked her path to stay current with the times. Judging from the global network of friends and colleagues which Bonnie and her partner Wayde Harrison have cultivated over the years, I can see that Bonnie is a rolling stone that gathers no moss!
One other thing struck me from my time with Bonnie. Jim Henson was a man with a vision who led the way with the Muppets and technological breakthroughs in television and film. It was people like Bonnie Erickson who held down the fort at 227 East 67th Street and made those breakthroughs possible. Bonnie, although extremely humble and modest, was a key person who made sure that things kept moving along in both an organized and also pioneering fashion. The legend of Jim would simply not exist without individuals like Bonnie whose hard work was the backbone of Mr. Henson’s projects. It took a village to raise the Muppets, and Bonnie was a key member of that village.