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INTERVIEW WITH STEVE WHITMIRE

January 1998

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Steve!

Youíre welcome! Thank you for asking me to do it, Gina!

When did you first start to work for The Jim Henson Company (JHC) and what did you do?

I joined the company in 1978 during season 3 of The Muppet Show. I was 19 years old and had met Jim after meeting Carrol Spinney at a Puppetry Festival. It was Carrol who encouraged me to contact Jim for an audition. I started out doing background characters, and often standing in for Frank with Fozzie. Piggy had become a major character and someone had to puppeteer Fozzie while Frank did Piggy. My very first episode of the series was the Alice Cooper show, and I was inside of Thog as he made a brief cross holding a sparkler. My favorite job during that time, and probably ever, was working with Jim performing Rowlfís hands on the piano. I would spend hours learning every nuance of a pre-recorded piano track so that I had every note memorized. It was so much fun!

Did you invent Rizzo?

During the Muppet Show, all us background puppeteers were encouraged to grab whatever puppet we wanted (aside from main characters) for the background of the backstage scenes of the show. One day I was rummaging through a box of old puppets in storage and I came across some old rat puppets built by Don Sahlin for the Musicians of Bremen television special Jim had done several years earlier. They were crude puppets built with bodies made from quart-sized bleach bottles and mounted on two foot long sticks. They mostly just bounced around when you wiggled them, but I really loved them, and sneaked one into the backstage scenes, having it dance insanely. Jim loved it, and soon it was decided to work my rat into the family.

I went about designing an easy-to-use control for the rat. It was built by the shop and put into a new rat puppet that I designed and built certain pieces of. So, I didnít really "inventí him; more like RE-invented him. His name was Frankís idea, from the Dustin Hoffman character in "Midnight Cowboy".

What was your favorite Muppet movie to work on?

My favorite to work on was probably the first film, The Muppet Movie, because I was so new to it all. I actually prefer television to film work because of how much quicker weíre able to see the result of our hard work.

What did you do with The Jim Henson Company between 1990 and 1992?

Well, not a whole lot, actually ... letís see. We did the Muppet tribute show to Jim in 1990. We finished the Muppetvision 3D film for Walt Disney World, which was the last film Jim directed. We started Dinosaurs ... a few things.

Since the sets where the Muppets perform are built for puppets that go over the puppeteers heads, how do real people look the correct height when they are next to a puppet?

Most of our sets are between three and four feet off the ground and we cheat the characterís heights all the time. It would never work otherwise. If a character like Rizzo only appeared at his true height next to a human actor, youíd only see the human actorís feet when you saw Rizzo. Thatís an extreme example, but the idea is true for most of the characters. Even so, we do know the relative heights of the characters to each other and make an effort to keep that in mind.

Do you have a favorite Muppet?

I can remember the Muppets since I was about seven years old, or so. Some of my favorite Muppet television shows were the "Muppetland" specials Jim did back around the time Sesame Street started, "The Muppet Musicians of Bremen" being my favorite. Of all the characters, Rowlf the Dog is the one I remember for the longest from seeing him back on his days as a regular part of the Jimmy Dean Show. I suppose my favorite character has always been Kermit, and he became even more of a favorite after I met Jim and discovered how much a part of Jim Kermit is. Of the characters I have performed, my favorite is Rizzo the Rat.

Do you collect Muppet items?

I have a large display of Muppet items that I have received from Henson over the years in one room of my house. Itís a lot like a museum, but at the same time, it serves as something of a "yearbook" since it is a reminder of all the various stuff Iíve been a part of.

When I was a kid, I had an early (I think it was done by Hasbro) Rowlf the Dog from the Jimmy Dean days. I loved that puppet and would love to find one, if anybody out there has one.

Do you have any other hobbies?

I am an animal lover and my wife and I have eight cats. Plus I help out any way that I can at an animal preserve for big cats in Los Angeles called the Shambala Preserve. It is a refuge for many species of big cats, lions, tigers, cougars, cheetah, etc. to live out their lives in the event they are rejected by zoos, animal parks, circuses, etc. It is run by actress and conservationist Tippi Hedren, most well-known for her roles in the Hitchcock films "The Birds" and "Marnie". It is by far my favorite charity. They do outstanding work and are one of the only places like this in existence.

I have often said that if I werenít a puppeteer, Iíd probably do something in construction. I enjoy very much carpentry and renovating houses.

Is there an official Muppet fan club?

There WAS an official Muppet fan club back during the Muppet Show days and it even published a newsletter, but that was a long time ago. I donít think anything like that exists now, and Iím not aware of plans to start one. The closest thing to that might be the Henson web pages.

What is the most fun thing to do in your job with The Jim Henson Company?

I think we do quality work with great attention to detail most of the time. Itís rare in show business for money not to dictate the bottom line and JHC still retains some of Jimís work ethic. As the company grows, I hope and pray that remains, because it is one of the big things that has made the Muppets unique in an industry presently inundated by puppets on television.

The most fun thing is being able to do good work with the people who are the best at what they do in the world, and itís an ever-growing group of people. Not just with The Jim Henson Company, but the celebrities we work with are first rate professionals. Itís a rare honor to work with true friends, and Iíve had the good fortune to do it now for twenty years.

What is the hardest thing to do in your job with JHC?

Probably achieving a balance between being at home and traveling. I love my home and my life at home and traveling is always an interruption of that. Still, itís nice to see the world, and itís great to see the effects of our work on millions of people. Without the travel, I wouldnít be a part of that, so I try to take it in stride. I sort of take home with me in my heart, and most of my closest friends are people who can take up where we left off.

How many skits have you recorded for Ernie on Sesame Street, since resuming the role as played by Jim Henson?

Iím not sure of the exact number ... maybe 15 or 20? Weíve recorded new ones every year for several years now, and there are twenty something years of Jim doing Ernie that is still in use.

How do you feel about your performance as Kermit?

Itís an unavoidable situation, isnít it? Whatís not good about it is that Jim isnít performing Kermit anymore. Thereís nothing anyone can do about that. Whatís good about it is that itís no longer a copy of Jimís character, although I believe it to be truthful and faithful to who Kermit was from within Jim. Kermit comes from me, from my heart, rather than simply my recollection of Jimís performance, although I usually have Jim in mind as I perform Kermit. Thatís important if Kermit is to be anything more than a corporate icon, like Mickey Mouse. It will always be my tribute to Jim and all that he taught me. Iím constantly thrilled and rewarded when I meet people, children and adults, who love Kermit and I get the gratification of seeing the elation on their faces as they meet him.

The last time I saw Jim, about a month before his death, my wife and I had dinner with him in Florida. At that dinner he told me he was frustrated that I really didnít have any major characters other than Rizzo in the main Muppet family of characters, since I was one of his main performers. We hadnít really done anything that gave me the opportunity to develop any other roles. He said that when he returned to New York one of his first priorities was going to be to find a major character for me ... I suppose he did.

Thanks for the interview, Steve!

Youíre very welcome, Gina!

INTERVIEW WITH STEVE WHITMIRE

June 1999

Did you do the voice for Magic Talking Kermit? This toy will be made by Tyco Toys for the Sesame Street 30th Anniversary.

Yes!

Did you do the voice for Sing Ďní Snore Ernie made by Tyco in 1997?

Yes!

Did you do the voice for the Applause Talking Kermit made in 1998?

Yes!

In press releases, it says that in the new film Muppets From Space, we will see that Gonzo has "family" from another planet? Is this "proof" that Gonzo is an alien too?

Well, I donít want to give away the ending entirely, but ... well ... kind of.

Will he be referred to as an "alien" instead of a "whatever" in all his other appearances?

I donít know - we havenít talked about it yet.

Or is it just a fictional movie plot?

Good question - I expect itís meant to be Gonzoís real life story.

Will there be any songs sung by the Muppets in Muppets From Space? Did you do any of them?

Hmm? ... I think itís all 70ís cover tunes, lots of "Funk" stuff, very "Muppety" music.

A lot of people want to know what, if any, movies will be done after Muppets From Space.

Is there anything you can tell us about that?

There are plans for many Muppet movies in the future. There is early talk about the next one being shot within the next year or so. There is no script yet, but one early direction for the film is to do "Muppet Haunted House" - but we donít know exactly what that will mean yet.

Are there any other Jim Henson Company or Sesame Street projects you are working on now?

Kermit will be the "spokesfrog" for the US Mintís 50 State Quarter campaign, in which the Mint will introduce 50 new quarters - one for each state - over the next 10 years. Check their website:

Are you going to the International Puppetry Festival in Seattle in August 1999?

Probably not - I expect Iíll be working during that time - Either way, I have to keep the time clear - just in case!

Thanks again Steve!

Interviews copyrighted 1998-1999. Reproduction in any media is expressly prohibited without written permission from the copyright holder.