On February 17, 2004, The Walt Disney Corporation entered into an agreement with the Jim Henson Company and acquired The Muppets, completing a deal that had originally been put in motion almost fifteen years ago by the late Jim Henson himself. According to the deal memo sent out by Disney, “The transaction includes all Muppet assets, including the Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal characters, the Muppet film and television library, and all associated copyrights and trademarks, as well as all the Bear in the Big Blue House characters, television library, copyrights and trademarks.” For the family, and for Muppet fans across the world, this marks the end of an era. Last year, the “Sesame Street” characters were sold across the board to The Sesame Workshop. With the Muppets under Disney control, this is the first time that Henson’s creations are not living under the family roof. What this means for the characters, only time will tell.
In 2002, while working for the magazine, I began working on a series of articles to spotlight the 25th Anniversary of “The Muppet Show”. While the anniversary came and went without the pieces seeing publication, the fine folks at Film Threat have offered me space for the original articles. We begin with an interview with the wonderful Karen Prell, who got her start puppeteering on the beloved show – a show of which she was a fan herself when she was hired.
Karen Prell is one of those talented behind-the-scenes performers that you rarely hear too much about. For a little over ten years, Prell worked with the Jim Henson Company on three of their major television productions – “The “Muppet Show”, “Sesame Street” and (starring as “Red Fraggle”) “Fraggle Rock” – as well as the film productions, “Labyrinth” and “The Dreamchild”. In the ‘90s, she moved on to another whimsical company, Pixar, to work as an animator on A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. That’s twenty years of being a relatively unsung hero, working to make puppets dance, breathing life into 1’s and 0’s.
In Prell’s own soft-spoken words, getting to work with the Muppets and the Henson Company was very much a ‘stunning fairy-tale come true’. “I’d been watching ‘The Muppet Show’ on television and becoming an obsessive fan, sending letters and photos. I’d done my own little live puppet shows through the community college in Seattle, using my own totally Muppet-rip-off puppets that I’d made. Like taking a store-bought Grover puppet, put ears on it and call it a cat. That kind of stuff. A few that I made from scratch, but totally Muppet-y looking. Certainly not making a living from it by any means. I’d done a lot of graphic arts work and was thinking that my bread and butter was going to come from commercial art and puppeteering was just going to be a hobby. Unless I got a job with the Muppets! Which actually happened!”
Dreams often come true thanks more to luck than anything else, which is certainly true in Karen’s case. Of course, persistence can often create luck out of the blue, which is also certainly true. “Actually, the whole reason I got on’“Sesame Street’, in 1979 they were really trying to find some good female Muppeteers. I think they were getting pressure from PBS and various people because mainly the female puppets – except for Prairie Dawn, who was done by Fran Brill – were done by guys doing female voices. So I think a lot of pressure came down – ‘could you please use female puppeteers for a few more female characters – if not all of them?’ That was about the time I sent a video – actually two of them, so that was kind of the reason that they looked at me. They were really trying to find some good female Muppeteers. So they had two new characters, two monsters that they were trying to introduce on the show: Deena and Pearl. They were supposed to be sort of a female monster Ernie and Bert. Pearl was more of the Bert, reserved type, played by Brian Miele. Deena was sort of this short, chubby little hyperactive monster, similar to Elmo, actually. She ran around shrieking ‘Play, play, play! Deena want to play!’ So everybody wanted to hit her with a baseball bat. That was the main character that I played on ‘Sesame Street’.”
Of course, the Henson company wasn’t just calling women at random hoping to reach some puppeteers. Here’s where the persistence part of the story comes in. “I had been pestering the Muppets, sending them letters and pictures of my puppets going (high excited voice) ‘I wanna be a puppeteer! I wanna be a puppeteer!’ Kinda like Deena ‘yayayaya!’ One of the people from the (Children’s Television Workshop, the producers of ‘Sesame Street’) came up to the University of Washington to do a lecture. He knew about me, and he said ‘I’ll be in town, and let’s meet up afterwards’. So I went to his talk and I brought one of my rip-off Grover puppets, showed him a bit of what I could do. He wasn’t very encouraging, though. He said, ‘Well, they really don’t have much for women puppeteers and you’re too short’. At the time, they were going with people who were Jim’s and Frank’s and Richard’s and Jerry’s heights. Everybody was like six-foot something. Jerry wore built-up shoes, but still. But the fact that they didn’t do too much with female characters was what was stressed. At least those performed by women! (laughs) But he said, ‘Send in a videotape’. And then he went away. And I was like, ‘Right!’ Now this was before VCRs existed. Okay, how in the world am I going to get a videotape…? The local community college had this huge, clunky, pneumatic video machine – it was like you rolled out this enormous washing machine and feed in the giant seat-cushion-sized tape and you’d get a lovely black and white image. (I did) some of the live shows that I’d been performing with people from the college, and shot a few other bits with me playing with my Muppet-rip off characters. (laughs) I even had one of the Fisher Price Kermit puppets and was doing a really horrible Kermit imitation. So we shipped that off to Henson.”
The story continues in part two of THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH: IT’S TIME TO PLAY THE MUSIC – AN INTERVIEW WITH KAREN PRELL>>>
All photos courtesy of Karen Prell. Do not reproduce.