Jim Henson sounded like Kermit the Frog—or maybe Kermit sounded like him. An acclaimed director today, Frank Oz works with Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton with a voice unmistakably like Fozzie Bear’s. Yet, Dave Goelz doesn’t sound like The Great Gonzo. His voice doesn’t have the happy-go-lucky timbre of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, nor does he give you the impression that he’s as lovably slow as janitor Beauregard. Goelz sounds more like everyone’s favorite high school teacher – patient, kind, intelligent. Not once does he sound like he’s about to eat a tire to “Flight of the Bumblebee”.
In the world of Muppets, Goelz is best known for performing Gonzo, the fuzzy blue “whatever” who delights to maniac stunts in the name of art, rounding out the trio of Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. For twenty years, Gonzo defied explanation. He isn’t human, he isn’t a turkey (“He looks a little like a turkey, but not much,” said Kermit in “The Muppet Movie”), and while he was proven to be an alien in “Muppets From Space”, the others in his species didn’t go into any further explanation. Gonzo is just that: Gonzo. The Great Gonzo leapt at the chance to fire himself out of canons, or hypnotize himself into lifting hundred-ton weights above his head. He was the spirit of freedom in all of us. There is no relating to Gonzo except on his own terms, and there’s something very liberating in that.
“It is true, he’s crazy but free,” Goelz says about his best-loved character. “I think Gonzo’s message is ‘Pursue your vision’.”
Goelz joined The Jim Henson Company, then called “Muppets, Inc”, in 1973, when Jim Henson, along with Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, worked feverishly on the acclaimed children’s show “Sesame Street”. Goelz was hired for his industrial design background, and was immediately put to work in the Company’s NY Muppet Workshop. But building puppets wasn’t the same as operating them. “The first day I met Jim, I told him that I was interested in performing,” Goelz says. “And he said, ‘Well, we only have three star performers right now, but we can use background people from time to time on specials.’ But the fact that I was already an industrial designer and I had built some puppets that were pretty good made it logical for me to start out with the Company in the Workshop.”
Goelz spent his first summer stretch working on special puppets and effects for a Broadway play that Henson hoped to produce. By the second summer, however, the play had been abandoned for an all-new series of projects that would require much more of Goelz’s attention. “When I came back the next fall, the whole push to get a TV series was in full-swing. We had a couple of specials with ABC – one was the “Muppet Valentine Show” and then in 1975, “Sex and Violence with the Muppets”. I built an eccentric old character called ‘Brewster’ for the “Valentine’s Special” who I later rebuilt into ‘The Guru,’ a gentle bald and bearded soul who dished out advice that sounded like a cross between Ann Landers and fortune-cookie wisdom. He was used in a guest shot we did with Herb Alpert, but he never became a major character. I worked on the Dr. Teeth band (a.k.a. “The Electric Mayhem”). I built Animal and Floyd and Zoot. Then I did a bunch of ‘Whatnot’ heads – which are the basic blank heads that we would dress with features to make them into different characters from time to time. One of these heads was finished by Amy Van Gilder and became Lew Zealand, the boomerang fish thrower, performed by Jerry Nelson.”
In 1976, thanks to producer Lord Lew Grade, team Henson flew to London to shoot a pair of pilots for “The Muppet Show” – the first with English actress and dancer Juliet Prowse, the second with American comedienne and “Laugh In” staple, Ruth Buzzi. The difference for Goelz between this series and the previous specials, on which Goelz had worked as a background puppeteer, is that Jim Henson had decided to give him his shot as a Principal Muppet Performer. “– But in addition to working in the Workshop,” says Goelz. “So my typical day involved running back and forth between making puppets and performing. And I of course didn’t know anything about performing. At all. I guess I had an aptitude for it, but it was something I hadn’t had any training for. So I was learning on the job, and I found the whole thing very stressful. At the end of the first season, I said, ‘Jim, look, is there any chance I could come back next year and just be a performer, and not work in the workshop?’ And he said ‘yes’. So I sort of blended into the performing world that year.”
For Goelz, the first and second seasons were a growing process. ITV was a hugely successful company at that time, producing specials and series with top name stars like Julie Andrews, Bing Crosby, Tom Jones and Herb Alpert. As a result, the stage and technical crews were hard to impress. They had, especially, little patience for an untried performer cutting his teeth on a brand-new syndicated series.
“They were used to these high-profile entertainers, and they all had just seen everything. They liked the Muppets, but you know, I was a cub. It was boring for them. I’d go out there and hear the newspapers go up. In the first year I got one laugh. I was performing Gonzo and just over-emphasized the word ‘No’. That was it, and then I was on a roll. In the next season I got another one! Learning the trade was a slow process. First of all, it’s probably hard to learn to be a performer just for a human, but then to learn it through this complex mechanism of puppetry is a great deal more difficult, because you literally have to focus on about eight things at once. For example, Muppet Performers need to use monitors while performing, which requires them to “think in reverse”. That takes you about a year to get comfortable with. Every once in a while when we were doing large characters and wearing black hoods that were hard to see though, they would reverse the scan on the monitors so they would behave like mirrors, enabling us to more easily find our character. I found that confusing, because I had become so used to seeing the image in reverse. It’s a funny thing, I think that there have been scientists who have done research on people by putting upside-down glasses on them, so that the image is inverted. It takes a while for them to adapt and then their brain interprets everything as normal. It’s sort of like that. You have a strained period where you’re thinking in reverse – ‘wait a minute, if I want to go that way, then I have to turn this way’. And then it becomes unconscious after a while. And now it’s completely unconscious. We always work with normal scan monitors, and I think it’s a wise thing to do. There are some puppeteers who require a reverse-scan monitor, but if you show up to do the “Today” show, and they can’t reverse their monitors, you’re in serious trouble!”
The story continues in part two of THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH: DAVE GOELZ UNDER THE STAGE>>>