To celebrate the debut of “Muppets Now” premiering on Disney+, I wanted to share a memory of my BEST DAY EVER working for Disney. It was a day when my two loves of film making and The Muppets merged into one.
For a brief time during my 22 year career with the Walt Disney Company, I was a puppeteer at Disneyland. A small group of us puppeteers would be sent out by Disney to perform at local Anaheim area elementary schools for their anti-drug education. I performed as Tiva, the rock diva puppet who battled Rock Cocaine. Yes, it’s true, there was a Rock Cocaine puppet.
I went on to being cast as one of the opening cast members of “Playhouse Disney Live on Stage” at Disney California Adventure Park. My role was to puppeteer Tutter, the mouse from Bear in the Big Blue House, as well as Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Woods sequence. We received amazing direction and training from a Henson Company puppeteer. I enjoyed it so much, that for a very brief moment, I considered going to Puppeteer College, yes, there is such a thing.
I Got Sidetracked.
I did indeed become sidetracked from puppeteering, because both my husband and I were given an amazing opportunity to perform at Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. After many years of working in Japan, we finally bid a fond sayonara and we returned home to the United States and the Disneyland Resort. Except now I was armed with a clear vision that TV and Film making is what I was always meant to do and that became my main career focus.
It was a career that had always been there, a thread that had been interwoven in and out of my life for the longest time, having worked on an eclectic array of production shoots, like ABC TV’s Extreme Makeover, to working on music videos, like Eminem’s “Superman,” with Director Paul Walker, to plethora commercial filmings and special events for the Walt Disney Company. I had already had a long career in film and TV, but I was finally ready to focus on production work and say goodbye to performing.
Now focused and in my dream role as a TV/Film Production Manager, let’s get on to my favorite day, shall we?
I had by this time, worked with Roy Disney Jr., Jon Voight, Carol Burnett, Kurt Russell, Rance Howard, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and several other celebrities on many different projects. I was never star struck on set. “Let’s get this shot and done!” was my mentality. That is until ONE shoot. On ONE Day. This would be the day when my two loves of Muppets and Film Making BECAME ONE!
Finally! The Best Day Ever!
This ONE day happened in 2004 for the filming of the Disney Parks Christmas Special. My inner nerdom came out this day. I couldn’t help it! I tried! I really did. I tried so hard to be professional. I was the Key, put in charge to manage the Camera B Unit, which is a small roving unit. There’s only one camera operator, one grip, one PA, two guest control cast members, production manager (me) and the talent, who would happen to be non other than Dave Goelz, who may be better known to some as Gonzo. The object of our Unit B Crew was to move fast, get in and out, with not a lot of set up to our shots, “run and gun” is what is used to describe this method of shooting.
I MEET DAVE GOELZ AND THE GREAT GONZO!
For the first half of the day, I worked with my all-time favorite Muppeteer, Dave Goelz and his Muppet, Gonzo! When Dave wasn’t shooting he had Gonzo in an unassuming black case. I insisted that I carry the case when traveling from set locations. Dave said that wasn’t necessary, but I assured him, near forcefully, that it was (of course I had to carry the Great Gonzo). I really hope my geekiness didn’t show this day.
We shot on stage in Disneyland near the entrance to Tomorrowland.
We also shot some green screen scenes in a warehouse at Disney California Adventure Park.
In between shots, I asked him silly questions, like if his thumb knuckles cracked a lot. You see, for a puppeteer, it’s very important to keep the puppet’s eyes focused forward. It’s the thumb that is used for most of the mouth’s movements, you don’t want the puppet’s eyes looking up at the ceiling while they’re talking, so the other four fingers are pressed together, with the middle finger’s knuckle elevated slightly, to help bridge the forehead, or nose area, depending on the puppet. In any case, to this day, my thumbs still continue to crack from my brief moment in puppeteering. In case you were wondering, the great Dave Goelz told me that his thumb knuckles did not crack. Aren’t you glad you learned that? After I wrapped Dave, I was on cloud nine.
Could This Day Get Any Better? Yes. Yes It Could!
After Dave and the Great Gonzo were wrapped, I then headed to the next shots of the day, working with Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobsen, the Muppeteers for Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
Their performance stage was near the front of the Plaza Inn, the restaurant at the end of Main Street that’s famous for its fried chicken. Well, Eric and Steve didn’t have to shoot for a while, and they were smelling that famous fried chicken and geeting hungry, so I treated them to a tasty lunch, consisting of fried chicken, green beans and tasty mashed potatoes, all of which they chose to eat beneath the stage, rather than at a table. I thought that odd at the time, but I guess it’s true that Muppeteers are most comfortable in cramped dark spaces.
It’s Jennifer Garner!
While Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobsen were eating their lunch down below in the belly of the stage, I was standing outside, next to it, keeping watch. While standing there, I was approached by a very nice lady asking if she could take a picture with the Muppets. I looked at her, then looked across the way into Disneyland’s hub, where I noticed Ben Affleck standing looking at me. I then looked back at the beautiful lady who was looking at me with a gorgeous smile and bright eyes opened wide with anticipation. She was staring at me, waiting for me to reply. I finally realized that it was Jennifer Garner, who just so happened to be at the park with her family the day of our filming. Not that she wasn’t immediately recognizable, I had been on set since 4:00 AM, and was still a bit euphoric from my close encounter with Gonzo, that it took me a second to reply.
She had seen Kermit and Miss Piggy rehearsing earlier and was eager to have her picture taken with them. I agreed, I did tell her yes, perhaps a bit too quickly, but like me, I could tell she loved the Muppets, perhaps just as much as I did, so how could I refuse her? And I also enjoyed watching her in the TV series “Alias” at the time (now streaming on Amazon Prime), so I have to be honest, that did help with her request.
Thankfully, Steve and Eric were gracious to oblige. I truly should have asked them before I committed them to taking the photograph. Thankfully, they were so kind about it and happily agreed. PHEW! They then quickly popped Kermit and Miss Piggy up for the photo with Jennifer Garner. Although, thinking about it after the fact, with them having just eaten fried chicken, just moments before, in the belly of the stage with just a few napkins, I’m almost certain the insides of those famous Muppets became a bit greasy. Poor Kermie and Piggy! But, the end result was a beautiful photograph of Jennifer Garner, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy that ended up making it into PEOPLE magazine that year, which was fun to see.
Back To Work. Filming Continues…
The taping the rest of the day went smoothly and when we finally wrapped the day, I was the last person to leave the set. It was a long 18 hour day, but, I think I smiled every second of it. I had many memorable days working for The Mouse, but, I do believe that this…this was my BEST DAY EVER.