The Muppet Movie

In 2005 on a Muppet fan forum, Earl wrote about his experiences working on The Muppet Movie


The short version of how I got the gig is that when I read that they were going to shoot the movie in Hollywood, I just contacted Jim. I already had a relationship with him dating back 7 or 8 years at that point. He said they might need some extra puppeteers at some point and he would contact me if they did. They did and he did.

We reported to a sound stage at CBS Radford Studios. This, although you wouldn’t know it from the name, is a major Hollywood Studio, having once been Mack Sennett studios, then Republic Studios. In the 60’s and 70’s, a lot of television shows were shot there, including “My Three Sons”, “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Gilligan’s Island”. In fact, Gilligan’s lagoon used to be on the back lot. MTM later used the lot for all their shows. But I digress…

This was for the big finale, in which almost every Muppet character ever built was to appear. I don’t believe the Saturday Night Live characters were included… and probably not some of the earliest Muppets, particularly the Sam & Friends characters… but everyone else was there.

We rehearsed for awhile by just holding our bare hands up in the air and doing the mouth movements to the song. It was tricky because there are pauses between “Thanks to the lovers… the dreamers… and you” and you just had to feel the pauses. You didn’t want to anticipate the words and open the mouth too soon, just as you didn’t want to be late.

We then went over to the stage we were shooting on. As many of you know, most of the time, the Muppets work standing up with the puppets raised over their heads. This means that the sets are either built up on stilts or the performers have to be standing in a trench. For this shot, they built up the entire stage floor, leaving an oval shaped hole where all the puppeteers stood. The camera was then on a huge crane that had to roll all the way to the back wall and the top corner of the soundstage to fit all the characters in.

The other technical problem was the rainbow. They shot it two ways. First, there was a giant scrim hanging across the stage with a rainbow painted on it. A scrim is a theatrical netting that when you shine light on it from the front, you can see what’s painted on it, but when you shine light behind it, you can see through it. The other way was to remove the scrim and put the rainbow into the film optically in post production. Can you guess which method was used in the final film?



The answer is, the rainbow was put onto the film optically in post production. I think they felt that the scrim muted the colors of the Muppets too much.

Next, it was time to assign puppets to everyone. All the puppeteers were divided by height. Since I’m fairly short, I was sent to stand in the “Emmett Otter” line, because those characters are small and would be in the front of the pit. I waited in the line for a few minutes and then when no one was looking, I sneaked over to the Sesame Street line.

They were giving out the minor characters and Anything Muppets first, so when I got to the front of the line, I boldly asked, “Can I have Ernie?” The person giving out the characters said, “Sure. You might as well take Bert, too.” (Many people had to do two characters because there were so many and so little space). But then he thought better of it and said I should just take Ernie.

Everyone had to be checked out by one of the main guys. They would decide if the character you had was right for you… or they might switch you with someone else. I knew I had to think of something to pass this test. I fumbled around, trying to put him on for the first time. As most of you probably know, some of the puppets have working hands, as opposed to the charcaters that have rods in their arms. Ernie has working hands, while Bert has rods. In the case of the hand puppets, generally the puppeteer works the mouth with his right hand and the character’s left hand with his left hand, then a second puppeteer works the right hand. They coordinate movements by watching their performance in a TV monitor. Since there wasn’t going to be a second puppeteer, they stuffed Ernie’s right arm and pinned it up so it wasn’t hanging loose. I finally got my left hand into Ernie’s hand (it goes in through an extra sleeve attached at the elbow). Then I put my other hand in his mouth. Ernie has a large mouth, so in order to be able to operate it, there are levels of board built up on the inside, leaving specific finger spaces on the top and one on the bottom for your thumb that you can grasp. I mastered it just in time for Jim to check me out. I walked up to him, held out Ernie’s arm toward him, and in Ernie’s voice, I said, “Daddy!!” Jim smiled and said, “Oh, good. You keep him.” I had passed the test and would remain Ernie for the rest of the shoot.

I guess I do a pretty good Ernie, because people who didn’t know better kept asking me if I was the real Ernie. Of course I told them I was… no, I didn’t… I always told them it was Jim. But that was a very flattering comment for them to make.



[NOTE: Before Earl posted this, a participant in the forum uploaded a photo of the puppeteers in a rehearsal hall.]

Well, as I pointed out, until I saw that photo the other day, I completely forgot that they had taken us onto a different stage with the oval painted on the floor and numbers for us to stand on. This was where we rehearsed while they were still lighting the set.

Finally, they were ready for us on the set. We began with the rainbow scrim in place. Now we rehearsed for the camera. Jim had a monitor and anyone who was close to him could see it. Most of us could not.

The first thing they had to take care of was to make sure no puppeteers could be seen. If someone’s head was showing, they were given black hoods to wear. If someone’s clothes were visible, they were given a black neckpiece. Luckily, being short, as I said, I didn’t get stuck wearing a hood.

Then, there were two important commands that Jim gave. They were “Puppets up!” and “Puppets down!” The latter was especially important since most of us couldn’t see the monitor or when the scene was cut. A little funny side story… I got to go to dailies two days later when they screened all the printed takes from the day’s shoot. Every time Jim said puppets down before the camera cut, it looked like a big balloon with the air being let out of it as all the characters sunk into the floor. It was very funny!

I remember Richard Hunt asking for help. He was operating Statler and Janice and he said those were his two most difficult puppets to get on. Of course, once he had one of them on, it was impossible for him to put the other one on. I could see Richard where I was standing, but I wasn’t close enough to help him.

Someone asked in this thread who the main Muppeteers were operating and truthfully, I don’t know. Except for Richard, I couldn’t really see the others. But judging from that picture that was just up, I can make an educated guess. It looks like Jim is doing Kermit and Rowlf. Frank is doing Piggy and Fozzie. Jerry is out of the picture, so I just don’t know, but I bet he’s doing at least Floyd. I’m sure Dave is doing Gonzo and probably Beauregard. I recently got to talk to Steve Whitmire backstage at The Tonight Show and we talked about The Muppet Movie. He said he was pretty new and really green during the filming of that movie and was barely able to keep up. That’s a long way to say I have no idea who he’s working.

Then we began shooting. Take after take… after take… after take. Jim and Frank would watch playback of each take and give us notes.

I decided (on my own, I might add) that since I could operate Ernie’s left hand and Bert was on his left, I had Ernie put his arm around Bert when he wasn’t gesturing to the song. Of course, it’s so tiny, even on the big movie screen, that you can’t see any of that anyway.

Finally, we got a few takes that Jim and Frank liked and we broke for lunch while the crew took down the scrim. We went back to the original stage and turned in our puppets and ate lunch in the studio commisary. Since I didn’t really know anyone, I ate kind of fast and went back to the stage to wait for the others. All the puppets were there. They had built racks of dowels to stand them up on. This was my opportunity. I could have put on any character I wanted and not even gotten in trouble. But then I decided I wanted to be a professional and not look like a fanboy. So, I looked at a lot of them up close and touched a few, but didn’t put any others on. Besides, it doesn’t get much better than Ernie.

I did, however, ask the person working Cookie Monster, during a break in filming while they were reviewing the tape, if I could put him on. Unfortunately, it was very hot on the stage and we were crammed together, so the inside of Cookie Monster (who after all, is one of the heavier puppets being made out of fake fur) was soaking wet with perspiration. But the cool thing I learned is that because Cookie has such a big mouth and no foam inside, there is a glove sewn to the inside of his mouth that you put on to operate him. Clever, huh?



When we came back to the stage, the rainbow scrim was down. Which basically means, we were back to square one, starting all over again. Take after take after… well, you get the idea! Not only did the puppeteers have to turn in an acceptable performance, but there was an elaborate camera move on a crane that had to be right.

Now fatigue began setting in… for others. There were so many people complaining around me about their arms being tired and aching. In fact, I think the girl doing Oscar didn’t even have him up in the take that was used. I’ve never been able to find him in the movie and he was right behind me. (You can just barely see him in that picture that was posted recently from the Art of the Muppets book.) I, however, came prepared. I knew it would be a grueling day and I rehearsed ahead of time. For days, I held a puppet over my head to build up my arms and stamina. You might have noticed the character next to my name. That’s my own puppet, Davey Simpson (Yes, he had that name at least ten years before the yellow cartoon family), and he’s as close to a Muppet as you can get without being sued for copyright infringement. My friend and I built him after watching a show on NET (That was National Educational Television, which was the predecessor to PBS) called “The Muppets on Puppets” in which Jim, Frank Oz and Don Sahlin showed exactly how their puppets were built. We performed Davey on television in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Anyway, because of my preparation, my arms weren’t tired at all.

At some point, the Viewmaster photographer came in and we had to pose for him. Or rather, the puppets had to pose for him. I can’t recall if there were any pictures taken of the group of puppeteers other than the one where you can see some people walking onto the numbered stage. If there were pictures of us, I’d love to see one.

When Jim and Frank were happy, we were wrapped. We all had to go back to the first stage and turn in our puppets. Richard Hunt was one of the people helping to collect puppets, so I took the opportunity to talk to him for a few minutes. I told him how I used to visit Sesame Street and he apologized for not remembering me. I told him I didn’t expect him to as I kept a pretty low profile when I was there. But I asked him how he came to be one of the core group of main Mupeteers. When I first went to Sesame Street, he was Ernie’s right arm and the back half of the Snuffleupagus! He said he realized at one point that if he was ever going to get anywhere, he’d have to get more aggressive… and that’s what he did.

And that was it. It took an entire day to film that one short scene. But one person I did become more friendly with was John Lovelady. He remembered me from Sesame Street. John was the keeper of the puppets on the set. He would fix any ripped seams or noses that fell off, make costume changes and make sure the proper characters were camera ready. He performed the same duties on The Muppet Movie. It was shortly after the Muppet Movie wrapped that John left the Muppets and stayed out here in Hollywood. I stayed in touch with him for awhile and we even talked about doing a project together, but it never happened. Then I lost touch with him. If anyone knows where he is today, I’d love to know.

Through John, I went back and watched them film again. That was how I got to go to dailies. I just asked Jim at the end of the day if I could tag along and he said sure. We watched the scene of Kermit from the beginning of “The Magic Store” song. When he sang the line “… making faces at friends”, there are two beats of music after that and Kermit made two faces in time to the music. There was a big laugh from the audience. At the end of dailies, Jim apologized to Frank, saying the he (Frank) was right. I guess it was Frank’s idea to have Kermit make the faces, but Jim didn’t think it worked. They ended up using a take without him making the faces, even though Jim conceded that the take with the faces worked better. It was probably because at that point, they didn’t have a take with funny faces that was useable and they didn’t think it was worth it to go back and reshoot it.

That’s pretty much my story. I only saw Jim Henson one more time after that. Some years later, he spoke at the Motion Picture Academy in Beverly Hills (They’re the people that give out the Oscars). I went to see him and got to speak to him for a few moments afterward.