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It's not easy being (ever) green

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This auditions announcement has almost become a Rorschach Test among Muppet enthusiasts.

Copyright Muppet Holding Company LLC

The  fine print in this casting notice reads:

Seeking experienced puppeteers with improvisitional and vocal skills. Relocation is not required, however you must be available to travel. Auditions will be held in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Please call 407-828-1087 for additional information.

Now some folks see this ad as the culmination of a lifelong dream. A chance to audition for a puppeteering job with the Muppet Holding Company. Which could eventually lead to a job working with characters that they've loved since their childhood.

While still others see this casting notice as a nightmare. A sign that the Walt Disney Company has absolutely no respect for Jim Henson's beloved characters. A clear indication that many veteran Muppeteers will soon be out of work.

Well, the truth of the matter is ... Neither side is right here. For the lucky few who actually land a job with the Muppet Holding Company (MHC), there'll be no "standard rich & famous contract" waiting for them after they make their rainbow connection. But -- rather -- just the chance to perform these much beloved characters on the Disney Cruise Line and/or at one of the Disney theme parks.

And -- as much as I know that it'll disappoint the folks over at the newly created SaveTheMuppets.com website to hear this -- the mere fact that MHC is holding auditions in New York City, Los Angeles and Toronto this month does NOT automatically mean that Steve Whitmire (I.E. The veteran Muppeteer who currently performs Kermit), Dave Goelz (I.E. The puppeteering genius who helped create Gonzo the Great) and Eric Jacobson (I.E. The talented young puppeteer who currently performs Frank Oz's old characters: Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal et al) will soon be out of work.

So what exactly are the long term ramifications of the Muppet Holding Company holding these new puppeteer auditions? With the hopes that I might actually be able to get an answer to that question, I made a call to MHC yesterday. The next thing I know, I've got Martin Baker on the line.

"Now who's Martin Baker?," you ask. Well, I'm sure that all you hardcore Henson fans out there will recognize Martin's name, given the number of times it's appeared in the credits of Muppet-related productions. Starting 'way back in 1979 (when he was the VP in charge of production on "The Muppet Show") Mr. Baker has ridden herd on virtually every single major Muppet project over the past 25 years. TV shows like "Fraggle Rock" and "Jim Henson's The Storyteller." Feature films like "The Muppet Movie," "The Great Muppet Caper" and "The Muppet Treasure Island." Martin even had a hand in this year's TV movie, "The Muppets Wizard of Oz" ... But we won't hold that one against him.

Anyway ... Given Baker's longtime association with Jim Henson's characters, the folks at the Muppet Holding Company thought that Martin would be the perfect person to help them tackle a most difficult project. Which was that MHC needed to find some additional puppeteers pronto. Talented performers who could help the Walt Disney Company deal with its growing desire to showcase & promote these classic characters.

"You have to understand that the Muppets are now part of this major corporation that has theme parks and cruise lines. Places where people would really enjoy seeing Jim Henson's characters," Baker explained. "So what we're trying to do with these auditions is find puppeteers with the necessary skills to properly perform the Muppets in these new venues."

Now it might seem strange that someone who's had such a long association with the Jim Henson Company would be willing to take on an assignment like this. Which (at first glance, anyway) appears to be seeking out performers that could possibly become replacements for the very people that Martin has worked with & become friends with over the years. Veteran Muppeteers like Whitmere, Goelz and Jacobson. But Baker explained that that's really not what's going on here.

"Our core group of performers will still get the high profile jobs. The TV shows, the movie work," Martin continued. "This new group of performers -- as talented as they might be -- will only get the secondary jobs. When Kermit needs to appear at the opening of a mall or in a new show at the theme parks."

It's actually this aspect of Disney's plan to up these characters' public profiles that has some Muppet fans upset. The very notion that -- if Miss Piggy & pals should start appearing in every Disney theme park or on board every Disney Cruise ship -- that these classic characters will then somehow be diminished, seem less special. That their increased visibility will eventually reduce the value of the Muppet brand.

Baker quickly dismisses this idea. Insisting that Jim Henson didn't have a problem with Disney wanting to have the Muppets appear in multiple performance venues at the same time. More importantly, that Jim himself was comfortable with the idea that other puppeteers would eventually begin performing his classic characters in his place.

"I remember talking with Jim back in late 1989, early 1990. When it was obvious that all his new creative assignments for the Walt Disney Company were going to prevent Jim from being the puppeteer who always performed Kermit," Baker explained. "But Jim was okay with that. Just as long as the performer who was replacing Jim gave a consistent performance with Kermit, preserved the integrity of the character."

What mattered most to Henson (Back then, anyway) was that his characters would live on long after he was gone. This is actually one of the main reasons that Jim approached Michael Eisner back in 1989 with the idea that the Walt Disney Company should acquire the Jim Henson Company. After all, given the Disney corporation's proven ability to keep core characters like Mickey Mouse, Snow White & Pinocchio relevant to each new generation of children, Henson knew that the Mouse had what it took to keep the Frog evergreen.

Which brings us back to what the Muppet Holding Company is trying to do today. Which is helping Kermit & Co. connect with a generation that doesn't really know the Muppets. Kids who don't necessarily think that this group of puppets is anything special. Funny or cool.

The new Muppet-based shows that currently are in the works for the Disney theme parks & the Disney Cruise line will hopefully go a long way toward dispelling the notion that Miss Piggy & pals are merely nostalgic figures. Characters that wouldn't really appeal to today's audiences. Which is why it's crucial that the Muppet Holding Company finds just the right performers to bring Kermit & Co. to life in these new settings.

Of course, should a particular puppeteer in one of the theme park or cruise ship shows prove that they have real promise, Martin suggests that there might be the possibility that this performer could then eventually work their way up into the "A" team. Join the core group of performers who portray the Muppets in all the movies and on TV shows.

"Not because we're anxious to replace anyone, mind you. But -- rather -- because our core group of performers is aging," Baker explained. "Just over the past few years -- due to career commitments and health reasons -- we've had to find replacements for both Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson. Recruit performers to cover the characters that these two used to portray."

"And I'm certain that we're going to have to do that again in the future," he continued. "So why wait? Isn't it better if we're proactive now? Set up a situation where at least we have a few options should we ever need to replace a performer. Rather than scramble, to try & cover for someone at the very last moment."

"Don't get me wrong. We have complete respect for what our veteran performers do with their characters. Which is why we hope that they continue to work for Muppet Holding for many years yet to come," Martin concluded. "But -- at the same time -- we want the Muppets to live on long after this core group of puppeteers is gone. Which is why it's important now to do some advance planning. To think about where the next generation of Muppeteers is coming from."

Which is why Baker really enjoyed taking part in last Thursday's auditions at Ripley-Grier Studios in NYC. Watching as over 80 young talented puppeteers went through their passes as they tried to win a spot at last Friday's callbacks.

"Jane Henson (Jim's widow) actually came by for that first day of auditions," Martin recalled. "She had such fond memories of when Jim used to hold auditions that she decided to drop by, just to sit in for a few minutes. Well, that few minutes stretched out to a few hours. Jane had a really great time watching those kids work."

After an unspecified number of puppeteers were called back to Ripley-Grier on Friday, Baker & his team then set their sights on the next round of auditions. Which will be held next week in North Hollywood at Screenland Studios. The first round of auditions will be held on September 23rd, while call backs are scheduled for Sept 24th.

As for the Toronto auditions ... No information regarding dates and locations has been released about those yet.

Speaking of which ... If you'd like some more information about the next round of auditions that the Muppet Holding Company will be holding for replacement puppeteers, then I suggest you give the MHC hotline a call at 407-828-1027.

I know, I know. Given the number of  negative stories that I've written about MHC over the past year or so, I bet that a lot of you folks thought that I'd throw in with the conspiracy theorists. Join the people who were saying that -- just by holding these auditions -- Disney is irrepairably damaging  the Muppets. And that what the Muppet Holding Company is doing must be stopped at all costs.

Well, to be honest ... I kind of like what MHC is doing here. Which is helping to bring new Muppet-based  shows to the Disney theme parks & cruise ships. Shows that will feature actual puppeteers performing the Muppets. Rather than some 16-year-old who walks around in a Miss Piggy costume as they pose for pictures & sign autographs.

And as  for the concept that this new group of puppeteers could eventually become MHC's "farm team," the place where Muppet Holding could turn to if they needed talented performers to help out with new TV shows & films ... Well, that appeals to me as well.

Mind you, this is not to say that I don't have concerns that MHC might eventually see these kids as the lower priced alternative to the older, more highly priced seasoned performers like Whitmere & Goelz. And that someday Steve & Dave may not get a call to come into work to portray their characters. All because Muppet Holding is trying to save a few bucks on a particular project.

For now, I'm just going to try & stay optimistic as I think about what MHC is trying to do with the Muppets. Which is basically bring a once-legendary entertainment brand back from the dead. Make the Muppets seem relevant to today's audiences. Grow the fan base for these classic characters beyond the diehard Muppet fans. Win back over the mainstream audience again.

Of course, given the size of this project, it may take some time & involve some real risk. Which is why -- for now at least -- I'm inclined to cut the Muppet Holding Company a little slack.

But how about you folks? What do you make of the Muppets Auditions rorschach test? Is it really a good thing that the Muppet Holding Company is now holding auditions for puppeteers to serve as understudies / alternate performers for these classic characters? Or will MHC's effort here continue to undermine what is already a pretty fragile franchise?

Your thoughts?

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  • How can we trust Muppets Holding Company? Honestly, they are a bunch of rotten liars.

    Here's MHC's Martin Baker, as quoted by you in your article on the Muppet auditions, said: "Our core group of performers will still get the high profile jobs. The TV shows, the movie work. This new group of performers ... will only get the secondary jobs. When Kermit needs to appear at the opening of a mall or in a new show at the theme parks."

    That was in September. But in October MHC released Halloween promotional clips of a fake Statler and Waldorf doing a horror movie countdown to news stations; a fake Statler and Waldorf appeared on ESPN several times. In December promotional Christmas clips were released with fake Statler and Waldorf, and Oscar prediction clips of the fake Muppets were released too. (all these did NOT have Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire, but their sham replacements). I saw a fake Statler and Waldorf on network TV several times since September!. And the web-show “Statler and Waldorf from the Balcony” on Movies.com has recently been plagued not only by fake a Statler and Waldorf but also a fake Dr. Teeth, Animal, Sam Eagle, Spamala Hamderson, and other Muppet impersonations (the first 8 episodes had the real Muppeteers Steve Whitmire, Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta – now all the characters are forced to be played due only to convenience by these replacement Muppeteers). This does not sound like mall opening or theme park – these seem like big gigs (in fact they are the only Muppet gigs going on now).

    So what’s really up with the Muppets and these impersonators? Where are Steve Whitmire and Dave Goelz? Why is Disney using fake Muppets? Why did they lie?  Why are they killing the Muppets souls? What’s going on?

    Please get to the bottom of this and let us all know why the drop in Muppet quality and what we can do to stop it.

    Sesame Workshop gets it...why can't Disney understand the concept of one performer?  In March , The Courier-Mail newspaper said this (http://www.thecouriermail.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5936,18389868%255E28377,00.html):

    "Another lure for parents is tradition. Sesame Street’s Muppets are still operated by the same performers after 36 years, rather than a rotating cast. It's a subtle but important difference. Disney's decision to allow characters to be performed by "just anyone" led to fan backlash and critical drubbings.

    'One performer, one Muppet,' Carol-Lynn Parente, who has been with the show since the 1960s, says proudly. 'Performers bring the characters to life, and they must be respected.'"

    ~~~  www.SaveTheMuppets.com  ~~~
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