My handle on most of the Internet is “muppetaphrodite”. It’s true that I have a deep appreciation for the Muppets that runs to my infancy – an apparent near-immediate obsession with Sesame Street that I think played a large role in my reading at 18 months. That obsession was only fueled by my immediate proximity to the only Sesame Street theme park in the world, just minutes from my house (Sesame Place). My bus drove past a 3-story high Rubber Duckie every day on the way to high school. I’m sure many people who have not talked with me personally assume that’s as deep as the rabbit hole goes.
But there’s far more under the surface. Rewind to January 1997. Two weeks ago, I turned 16. My mother points out an advertisement in the local paper – Sesame Place is about to audition performers for their next summer season. Because it’s a seasonal park, they employ a large number of local high school students without interfering with their studies too much.
I didn’t know anything about what I was auditioning FOR, to be perfectly honest. The ad said something about “Character Hosts”. All I knew was a) it was a paid PERFORMING job and b) Muppets were involved. That’s how I found myself auditioning, in the empty second floor of the main eatery at the park, in the dead of winter.
About a week later, after a phone call and an in-person interview, I was offered a position. I can’t really put into words how excited I was to see “Sesame Place” show up on the Caller ID when they made the offer call. My very first job (and since I was the youngest in my class, I felt desperately behind on the work situation), and it was a PERFORMING job. With Muppets. I was on Cloud 9.
Fast forward now, to March of that year. Orientation. I’m super excited to find out what, exactly, it is that I’ve signed up for. I met the other hosts and we were taken to each of the theatres at the park. Our domain was the theatres. We’d help run them – from cleanup and stroller duty to, for some, preshows. They also told us about the brand new parade we’d be dancing in that year – the Rock Around the Block parade. (I was one of the very first to perform that parade in 1997 – and it lasted until 2010, which is rather mindboggling.)
I also knew in advance that a large part of our job would be to take the characters out on their walks, to be their eyes and voice when interacting with guests. But there were two classes of entertainers – the hosts, and the dancers – and I assumed that since the dancers did the characters onstage, they’d be in costume for walks, too.
That is, until they walked us into the “Muppet Hut”. I saw two Ernie heads arranged next to a cubby with two Ernie bodies – and so on, throughout the entire building. I saw Big Bird (no legs). And then, they sat us down and taught us to get into costume.
Wait, not just how to put the costume on someone else? Why are they teaching us checkin and warmup procedures for characters?
OH. The lightning bolt of realization hit me. (It was a bit of a slow brain day for me, apparently.) I wasn’t just going to walk with the Muppets. I was going to BE a Muppet.
This was not in the plan. Mascot work was never in my little mental pictures. Hot, sweaty, and… well, strange. Unknown. Terrifying? But I’m not a quitter, and even though I was nervous, I was also delighted. I wanted to see what it was like from that other side.
Now, most people were limited in who they could play due to height restrictions. The costumes are all built to emulate the relative proportions from character to character (Berts are far taller than Ernies, for example.) This is standard for mascot/full body costume work; Disney has height classes too.
But for whatever strange reason, my managers didn’t seem to think the height restrictions applied to me. I’m 5’6”, so Grover was my “primary” character; I was the perfect height for him. But over time – and I don’t remember how this came to be – I would get scheduled for nearly any character that had an opening. I played a dozen Muppets during my three seasons at the park: Grover (super too), Elmo, Zoe, Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie, Rosita, The Count, Oscar, Telly, Honker, and Jackman Wolf (a custom character for our parade). Some less frequent than others – Grover, Ernie, Elmo, Cookie and Rosita were my Top 5.
On one hand, I was DELIGHTED and flattered that they thought I was so good in character that they put me in so frequently. (It also meant less dealing with the less-fun jobs like stroller parking.) On the other hand… there are problems with playing a character not your size. As Bert (5’9”), my pants would drag. As Elmo (5’2”), even my sports bras could not keep the curves entirely hidden, and extremely sudden movements in Zoe (5’1”) would cause my hands to come unfastened. This made me self-conscious at times. I approached them once, asking if they thought anything weird about me playing Ernie (5’4”) and Bert (5’9”) in the same week. But once they established they didn’t care, I didn’t either. I happily hugged children and danced in parades, getting paid, sometimes bordering on deliriously happy.
My stories from those years are seemingly endless. Your heart would break at the innocence and love you witness from these kids making a pilgrimage to the park. Mine did. Our moments with Make-A-Wish Foundation children are another matter entirely – I hadn’t really known perspective until seeing some of those interactions.
Many stick with me – like the wishing child who clutched an Elmo doll desperately until finding out that the characters were on their way. As soon as he heard that, he hid the doll. We asked him, “Don’t you want Elmo to see your doll?” And the sick child responded, “Oh, but I don’t want the other characters to feel bad.” I also have a much longer Elmo Make-A-Wish story that takes a turn for the bizarre after 45 intense minutes of 1:1 connection with a nonverbal wishing child.
And for each of the heartwarming stories I have a costume malfunction story (“Where did Telly’s eye go?!?”), a shocking parent story (wounded Cookie Monster), or a parade emergency story. Or a costuming story from my time moonlighting there as a costuming assistant, alone with the security guards after hours, shampooing Cookie’s head underwater. Signing autographs with three or four fingers, sometimes fingers filled with Ping Pong balls. But these are stories for a biography, not a blog.
Or a Tickle Me Elmo horror story. This was in Elmo’s first emergence as the center of the Muppet universe. It was as close as I’d get to being a rock star. Kids literally trying to grab your fur right off your body. Sometimes two hosts were required to manage the massive lines. But oh, the tickling. Elmo brought out the very best and the very worst in our guests.
But being on the other side of those characters changed me. It brought me out of my shell. It showed me the good in children, which gives me hope for the adults that come from them someday. It gave me a physicality in acting that I’ve kept all these years. Most of all, it showed me how powerful these characters are and how important it is that they be used for good and not evil; that the messages they send are the right ones. I tried to keep that in mind later in life when working on projects like Disney Friends. Entertainment is an immensely powerful force. And Sesame Place cemented the hold performing had on my heart.
This year, I’ve had two actual honest-to-God Muppet performer encounters.* The first was at the Seattle premiere of Being Elmo, the Kevin Clash documentary, as part of SIFF. I found out last minute that Kevin himself would be there, and though I was running late to an IGNITE event I managed ever so briefly to shake his hand and get a picture. I’ve never been so nervous meeting anyone 1:1. Not even Leonard Nimoy. I brought my shaking hand to Kevin’s and thanked him for creating such a character and sharing him with the world, and told him what an honor it was to play Elmo myself, in that strange way.
In addition to those encounters, this year marks a milestone in as much as I will be returning to the park for the first time in 12 years. They’re opening for the holidays, and my boyfriend and I will be visiting. I don’t know how I’ll handle the wave of nostalgia. I imagine tears will be involved. And I’ll finally get a picture WITH the characters instead of AS the characters. 😉
I found out last year that both Brian Henson and Bill Baretta (Pepe the Prawn among others) are Sesame Place alumni, so I’m happy to be in such company. Ironically, I don’t think either of them was in the Entertainment department. But it was a magical place for me, and maybe it was for them too. My time as a Muppet will forever be embedded deep within my soul; the phantom memory of little hands hugging my furry legs not too far from the surface.
(*The other Muppet performer encounter was just a few weeks ago, was much more personal, and nearly made my head explode I was so excited and blindsided. There are two types of ‘idol’ meetings – those that only you will remember, and those that both parties remember. This was the latter. In the interest on maintaining a tiny shred of my cool, I won’t retell the story here.)