Monday, April 02, 2012


Me, Elmo, and Devora Reiss Hanging Out at a Sesame Photo Shoot

My journey down Sesame Street began with a wish to meet and interview Kevin Clash, the Muppeteer of the show's wildly-popular Elmo and the co-author of Being Elmo: My Life as a Furry Red Monster. The wish became reality and I found myself sitting across from Kevin at Sesame Workshop, listening to him talk about his amazing life story.  At Kevin's suggestion, I went on to interview longtime Sesame cameraman Frank Biondo. Having worked on set since the show's inception, Frank had endless and wonderful stories to tell.

From Mr. Biondo, also called The Mayor of Sesame Street, I moved on to interview a bunch of other folks who have been integral to the success of Sesame - Carroll SpinneyFran Brill, Bonnie Erickson, Martin Robinson, and Annie Evans.  Through various visits to the set of the show out in Astoria, I developed an immense appreciation for the amount of physical labor, teamwork, and attention to detail that goes into each of the episodes we see on television.  Quite astounding is how the Muppeteers perform in awkward and often tedious positions, pretzeling their bodies into impossible shapes and configurations. They do so with grace, humor, respect for one another, and complete adherence to the highest professional and production standards imaginable.  

Recently, in yet another chapter of my Sesame adventures, I developed a new level of admiration for the people who work behind the scenes to create this global juggernaut. (Sesame is broadcast in more than 140 different countries.)  When last on the set (in Mr. Hooper's store!) I had the pleasure of meeting Louis Henry Mitchell, Associate Design Director of Special Projects.  When Louis invited me to visit an all-day Sesame Street photo shoot, I was thrilled, and viewed it as an opportunity to see another wing of the work that makes Sesame Street all that it is.

When I arrived at the studio, a friendly Australian shepherd named Betsy greeted me at the door.  I followed her back two rooms and found a group of people, including Louis, who were setting up and taking still shots of various Sesame Muppets sans their Muppeteers.  I immediately saw a familiar face - Lara MacLean - who had demonstrated puppetry for television at the recent Jim Henson exhibit at MOMI.  We exchanged hellos and she briefed me a bit on her history with the show.
Lara and Louis were part of the team that worked together to create flawless photos of the characters that are watched daily on television.  Similar to the filming of Sesame Street episodes, it took a village to create the final product.  There were folks who expertly set up the shot, literally splitting, brushing, combing, and arranging hair and fur to make the Muppets look their absolute best.  Another set of people sat behind computer screens, looking at the shots and making suggestions on how to improve them. They would request that a Muppet's head be moved forward or back, or a gaze raised or lowered.  There was a lot of conversing, a lot of give and take.  Lots of minds and hands and eyes working in conjunction.  The results were always gorgeous.

An hour into the shoot, another guest walked in and the day got even brighter. Devora Reiss, a student at F.I.T., showed me photos of a whole line of puppets, mostly marionettes, which she had designed and built.  Devora and I had a great conversation about religion, family, puppetry, and the importance of surrounding yourself with people who back you in going after your dreams.

During the lunch break and some relaxed late-afternoon moments, I got to chat with individual members of the crew and find out about their lives and their connection to this work. (Ask someone on a set "How did you find your way to Sesame Street?" and you will inevitably get a memorable answer.)  Folks who are part of this show come from different walks of life, but they are all firmly invested in Sesame's mission. 

At one point, one of the crew came over and gave me a Rowlf the Dog keychain, a great memento. It was a small gesture, but it meant a lot.  Every time I look at it, I will think of how much fun I had that day, and how I walked away with an even deeper understanding and appreciation of the hard work, teamwork, creativity, and attention to detail it takes to keep the magic of this show alive.

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