Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Old School 3D"

Pittsburgh  Tribune-Review

Puppeteer wants kids to try their hands at creativity

By Kellie B. Gormly

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Children's entertainment of today is so high-tech that the old-fashioned charm of hand puppetry can, unfortunately, get buried, says a prominent puppeteer who is doing a workshop Saturday at the August Wilson Center, Downtown.

"Puppets are sort of like the old-school version of 3-D animations; it's the animation you can touch," says Noel MacNeal, of Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a puppeteer and production consultant for "Sesame Street," and the author of "10-Minute Puppets."

MacNeal -- who played Bear in the Disney TV series "Bear in the Big Blue House" -- will be coming to the August Wilson Center for a Family Puppetry Workshop, based on his book released last month. He plans to demonstrate to kids and adults how to make the simplest puppets in as little as 10 minutes, using everyday materials like paper bags, napkins, socks -- even your hands.

"I made this book as friendly and simple as possible," says MacNeal, who lives with his wife, Susan, and their son, Matthew, who appears on the cover of "10-Minute Puppets."

"It was my way of reintroducing the magic of puppets to this generation -- not only to kids, but also to parents," MacNeal says.

Participants, he says, will enjoy the empowerment of learning how to make puppets: "Look at what you can do with what you just made," MacNeal says.

After the workshop, MacNeal will do a book-signing, and visitors can enjoy a meet and greet with Lionel from "Between the Lions."

He says he is excited to perform at the August Wilson Center, which represents part of his racial heritage. MacNeal's mother is half African-American and half Native American; and his father is half African-American, half Italian. MacNeal, who was born and raised in Harlem, N.Y., says that the Family Puppetry Workshop should draw members of any ethnic background to the center.

"It's a great way for the August Wilson Center to let people know we're here for everybody," MacNeal says. "It's a great way for the community of Pittsburgh to know about what's there."

Joe Wos -- executive director of the ToonSeum, which is partnering to present the workshop -- says puppetry is an instant form of animation. Skills of puppetry even apply to modern, high-tech entertainment like video games: the player manipulates an onscreen characters' movements. Still, classic puppetry with real-life puppets is priceless, Wos says.

"There's a magic to it; it's almost unexplainable," he says. "It can be charming in its simplicity, too -- that magic of ... a simple object and watching an artist bring life to it."

MacNeal, Wos says, is "an extremely talented performer -- one of the best."

Kellie B. Gormly can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Can Daddy Come, Too?

This morning, my son and I walked to school with our neighbor and his daughter. I told him that we got the invite to his daughter's birthday party and replied "yes." He then asked if I had a chance to check his status on Facebook. "No," I said, "but I will now."

Here's what he said:

"I think it's a little bit sexist when people e-mail kiddie birthday party invites just to the mom and not to the dad (when they have both e-mails or can find them pretty easily). If dads can't be trusted to get things onto the calendar, do kids with two dads not get invited anywhere?"

I smiled because he did tell me that it was a reaction to the fact that some did respond one way or the other..... to his wife's email.

The FB responses were fun, too (15 as of this writing):

"No real pattern - it's either random or dependent on which one of us has a closer connection to the other parent. Totally bizarre."

".. whichever parent SEEMS like he/she is in charge of that sort of thing. Sometimes I just feel bad bothering both parents; seems unnecessary."

"Ask my husband how he feels about the Maclaren stroller ad that says something like 'Made with Mom and Baby's Needs in Mind.' Or about the lack of changing tables in men's restrooms. Or more recently, the lack of family bathrooms at Disneyland, where our daughter refused to enter the men's room with him."

"I email the dad when I know the dad welcomes the email, or, when the mom's a bitch. But you're right it's sexist and annoying." (my favorite)

But, come on, there really is a stigma here. The majority of ads, both on TV, in print, and online, are geared directly at mothers. And it's because mothers do a lot, starting with the whole carrying the child for nine months scenario (remember "Childbirth trumps everything"). A lot is expected from them, from physical to emotional nurturing, that society and often, family place on them. But in many cases, more and more each day, this is changing. It's the having to mention that it's changing that's a little annoying.

A few years ago, a cable channel, let its female on-air host go. They were looking for a new female on-air host but for the interim asked if I would host it. It was a night time show to help kids get through their bedtime routines while showing short shows from their programming. Since they knew I had hosted a TV show, they thought I'd be OK doing this. Granted my previous hosting duty was a big old talking, cha-cha-cha-ing bear who owned his own home. But I knew who to interact with the camera keeping in mind that it's not a camera, it's a kid; a kid who has never seen me before. It's a trick I used on Bear to always keep it fresh in my mind. Plus it's true.

But one concern was raised and I was asked about it. "Do you think people will accept a man being that nurturing to a child. Especially at night?" I was floored, completely gob-smacked (as the saying in England goes). Did you just ask me this? As I my face did not register any of this, I replied, "Yes. Starting with Mister Rodgers, Captain Kangaroo, both hosts of Blues Clues, people see how nurturing and natural it is for males to interact with children. And being a new dad myself, I'm already being nurturing at bedtime. Every night."

The dad who posted the status is awesome. He is always hands on in every way possible.In fact, his wife has been traveling more and more for business so he's been, at times, a single parent. And I get it. I and so many more guys are doing whatever we can, whenever we can, even staying home full time to do it. Living in Park Slope (Kid Central and apparently where the most blogs in the entire U.S.A. come from... glad I could help that stat), I see more and more guys hauling babes in Bjorns and pushing tots in strollers. They go to the play spaces with them, run errands with them, read to them at the local Barnes & Noble, and of course, feeding and... the result of feeding. When was the last time you saw any of THIS in an ad? Name one ad that just shows a dad doing what is always expected of a mom.

At our son's Thanksgiving class party, he volunteered to bring in turkey. There was no way I was going to cook a whole extra turkey for a kindergarten class. Solution? I got turkey deli slices and that morning I rolled them up, cut them in half, and my son stuck tooth-picks in them. they were a hit, I am proud to say, and all the moms complimented the ingenuity involved... to my wife. "No," she said, "my husband , did it." "Oh!"was the response, the mixture of "Oh no way" and "Oh, let me get this foot out my mouth; excuse me."

I think the sting of the stigma comes from the fact that, the more we dads do, the less notice it gets until one of us complains... like this.... and then it's an almost forced recognition. Maybe we have to much ego invested in this. By DNA programming, we are the "fix-it" factor: we see a problem and we try to fix it. Which, when mission accomplished occurs, the "hero" gene kicks in, as we stand hands on hips, eyes to the sky, the wind whipping through our capes.... You get the idea. A mom is always "Wonder Woman" but it's always a surprise to see a dad be a "Superman."

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Does it Have to be with Puppets?"

Sesame Co-Productions: The Content Seminar

I have had the honor to travel on behalf of Sesame International and work with some of the most extraordinary individuals and help them create their own version of Sesame Street. From Mexico to India, Japan to Palestine, and South Africa to Nigeria, I have helped train puppeteers, instruct writers in how to write “Sesame,” and directors on how to shoot puppets, solo and with humans. I’ve even helped train a few “wranglers” (those unsung heroes of TV puppet productions who make your favorite characters look good on the air). But one part I’ve never done was “The Content Seminar.”

I have never been to a Content Seminar. I just attended my first. But “what” you ask “is a ‘Content Seminar?’” Listen closely.

Before India’s Grover shows off his “cute and adorable” French basket to us, or Ireland’s Poddo uses the “Big Thingy Machine” to answer the question of the day, they and their friends, their entire Sesame world, was constructed with a content seminar. This is when the key learning points and educational themes (or the curriculum) are presented, discussed, and decided upon. Especially to narrow down what exactly needs to be addressed for that particular country’s child population. And there is much discussion, and debate, and dialogue, and monologue, and talk, talk, talk, talk, talk,…… And Power Point. LOTS of Power Point. (Those of you in league with the corporate world know what this means; I’ve got enough to explain.)

The content seminar for every version of Sesame Street abroad varies; they run from the casual to the highly formal, depending on how many entities are involved. I will now save time and cyber space and skip the excruciatingly long speeches afforded the more formal one that I sat through (and if I never hear the words “power point” again, it will be too soon) to the fun part (aka Day Two of the seminar).

At one point, folks are divided into groups of different topics and to brainstorm either items to be used for the show (such as skits, songs, animation, or live action pieces) or to comment on the topic itself and whether it is even relevant to the children and culture of their country. For example, helping kids deal with a fear of the dark is mute in one area due to the fact that a lot of rural villages have no electricity. So kids are use to the dark. What some DO fear are bullies, teachers, and fathers.

Yes. This is one of those times when you realize how big and different parts of the world are.

Our group, which discussed art, music and social studies, went last and I assisted the designated presenter with the help of one of the rehearsal puppets I brought from NY for the puppeteer auditions the following week. So he and “Donnie” (the puppet from the Jim Henson NY Shop I named) talked about our topics of art and music and the fact that some people in the region don’t participate (or even condone) it but, that it should be included for families who do. Also, dance and a very festive regional one every child would know (and another team member rose and demonstrated it with “Donnie”) and social studies meaning everyone’s place in their family and community and helping one another. You know….. stuff we in the U.S.of A take for granted. After all the other presentations, there were questions and critiques. Even someone asking, "Does it have to be puppets?" But after ours? None. Instead there was applause and the sense that suddenly, having seen the human and puppet interacting, even singing and dancing to get the message (aka “lesson”) across, in such a natural, easy way, everyone suddenly had the exact same moment of “Oh….. THAT’S what this show will be about. NOW I get it!”

It was fascinating to see what a content seminar entailed. As I said before, some are much more casual than the one I got invited to, but all still try to gather as many minds as possible to collectively agree what goals to achieve and what issues to address for that particular country. And more importantly what a child in that nation will take away from watching this show.

After all, it’s going to be their Sesame Street.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

They Call Me "Mister" Noel

I am writing my last post from Nigeria. It's almost 11:00PM. In the comfort of my hotel room (the very posh and elegant Protea Hotel Ikeja), it's the last twenty-four hours here; this time tomorrow night, I should be on a plane heading back to the U. S. of A. after eleven days with the new production team for Sesame Square.


This has been a truly amazing trip. The vibrancy of Lagos and its people. The food (and let me tell you they do NOT skimp on portions here; these folks know how to eat); the culture and the pride wrapped around it. The music, the languages, the styles of clothes and fashion that completely run the gamet. All unforgetable.

But it's those brand new "dollie-wrigglers" I've trained that I will remember and be grateful to. It's all due to these four puppeteers I chose to perform these twocharacters that helped me enjoy being so far from home and hearth. Trust me, it would have been a lot harder if they weren't getting it, or not trying, or just complaining. (And dear God, there is nothing worse then a whiney puppeteer.) But they are the opposite. These four individuals who, just six days ago had never even met, let alone held up a puppet, have developed a true chemistry with each other and are collaborating to enhance scenes given them, all on their own. When I came in this morning they had gone ahead and not only started work on the scene I assigned them, but made it better! All on their own! Aside from focus, lip-sync,keeping the puppet straight,performing lines, handling props, and doing it all on little rollies (those round slightly cushioned seats with wheels to slide along the floor on).

And they've picked up on all this in just SIX DAYS.

"You're leaving tomorrow?" one asks.
And he retorts, "Why?"
"Because," I say with a smile, "I have a life."

They don't want me to leave. Very flattering. The puppeteer who asked the question calls me "Mister" Noel. I found out that this is a form of respect for someone who is ...um.... well.... ...... older. Fine. I've reached that. But it is nice that they want me to stay and to learn more from me. The photo of me holding Kami is when I was checking something on the monitor for her. These are both beautifully made puppets by the Henson Workshop NY. But they do belong to Tekalani Sesame, the South African version. And these are the actual puppets from that production; it was thought they would translate well for this version. However, THIS Sesame deserves it own characters and I've already given them an idea for one for next season that is completely Nigerian when they see it; We'll see (money pending). But it is time for me and them to move on.

What I regret about leaving is not being able to see them in studio. It got pushed a week to let them all get up to speed. And that was a very wise decision on the producers part. But they are going to be so good. And each day they will just get better. And take care of each other. And bust each others' chops. And give the children of Nigeria such happy memories to look back on.

"Oh I remember that show from when I was little. I loved that show," someone will say years from now (after watching YouTube cause that sure as heck is not going away).And what a great responsibility to have; creating memories.

Odabo. (Good-bye)

OK.......... We got time for three quick Nigerian jokes before I go. And having survived Lagos traffic, I get these more than ever.

Q: What is the most important part of any moving vehicle in Lagos?

A: The horn

Q: What is another name for a pedestrian?

A: Risk taker

.... and finally.....

Q: What is another name for a traffic light?

A: Wishful Thinking

(Trust me NY; if you can make it HERE you can make it anywhere!
See you soon my little family!)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

THIS is Lagos

So after being here since July 4, I FINALLY get the day off. And as promised the executive producer treated me (and the producer from Sesame Workshop) to a grand tour of Lagos. After all, when she offered I said, "Absolutely. You have a lot of rumors to dis-spell." Well,... mission accomplished.

Once again, this is the clear case of "this-is-NOT-the-place-from-CNN." Everyone here is NOT sending out scam emails to idiot Americans. Everyone is NOT trying to blow up an American naval craft. (In fact, the jack-ass who tried that wasn't even Nigerian; he was just born here.) There aren't pirates roaming the beaches; there aren't gangs of kidnappers prowling the streets. Nope. Sorry to disappoint.

Lagos (which is Portuguese and pronounced "Lay-gus" and also called "Èkó" in the Yoruba language) is a city. It's a big city. It started on Lagos Island where all the government offices were because until 1991. Abuja was designed to be a "capital city" in the same way Washington D.C. was; it was all thought out. But Lagos is "organic," it's grown out from that original island to the mainland. Ikeja, the area we're staying and where the production office is, was founded by colonials who wanted to be nearer to the new airport nearby. This city is busy with people doing what all people in big cities do; live a life. Just like we do in New York.

Yesterday, after a morning session with the puppeteers (who are getting better each time), I went prop shopping and wrangler supply shopping with the two ladies who will be handling the job (one of whom is the right hand assistant for "Kami"). And we went to Lagos Island to.... the mall. YES people! An actual mall. And guess what I saw. Brace yourself. People, no, entire families shopping. Can you imagine? Here? Well, yes.

And today's tour took us to Victoria Island next to Lagos Island. This Island reminded me of shots of Miami beach and Beverly Hill with all the palms and all the (very) rich homes behind the gates. We got to visit Bogobirt House. (www.bogobirilagos.com)This incredible bed-and-breakfast hotel has an extensive art collection, all available for purchase and rooms all themed after Africa; so much tile and wood carvings adorn the walls of your guest room and the chairs you sit in. And outside was a man with the most gorgeous hand made garments for men and women. (I of course bought a shirt.)

Then it was onto Terra Kulture. This center for art and performance has a gallery, bookshop, boutique and a stage. It's where I was treated to a performance of "The Jero Plays" writen by Wole Soyinka. Mr Soyinka (whose full name is Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka) is Nigeria's foremost playwrights. "The Jero Plays" are two combined into one: "The Trails of Brother Jero" and "Jero's Metamorphosis." They concern the charlatan preacher who uses religion to his own advantage. And it's based on actual fake prophets and preachers who roamed Bar Beach. They were written in the early '60's but going by Bar Beach after the play and just a block away, we saw some!

We passed the first Anglican Church built in Lagos, traveled over two of the "Three Bridges" connecting Victoria and Lagos Islands to the mainland. And we passed many neighborhoods, some very rich and some very not-rich. And as we drove by one area, I saw a four story building that had seen better days and in the doorway was a woman. She was sitting and tossing her baby up and down. And they were both laughing. See? Two people just living their lives just like you and I.

Tomorrow it's back to the fleecey grind-stone before taking off this Wednesday. Better get to sleep.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Prepare Yourself

The National Theater of Nigeria is in Lagos. This building in the shape of a general's hat, was home to some of the most superb theatrical performances and concerts ever seen in Nigeria. Upon entering the building, you look up and see this beautiful carved wood, representing the hat's "band", wrapping around the facade.It was built in 1977 as the chief forum for the International Festival of Black Arts and Culture,and was the prime center for performing arts in the country.

But that was a long time ago.

Now the building is a shadow of it's former self, in need or repair and care. So why am I telling you about a former "Nigerian queen" who's beauty has faded to a memory. Because that is where Sesame Square is. Or more actually where the set is being built. That's where I went to today; part of my morning meetings to weigh in about the set and the studio stage.

So I and the producer for Sesame Workshop and the producer for the Square get out of the car and meet the set designer who then leads us inside the theater to the scenic shop. We start off entering and walking through the under ground garage of the theater. Very dark. Very deserted. Very.... wait.... is that piles of wood? That looks like set pieces against that dark corner. And as we approach the wooden frames of what looks like houses, I suddenly realize; this doesn't lead us to the scenic shop. This IS the scenic shop.

We did have a successful meeting figuring out how to fit the little structures in the very limited-spaced studio. I was pleased that my suggestion of "false perspective" (the biggest one closest to camera and scaling down the rest away from camera) was welcomed and accepted; especially since the designer has theatrical experience I knew he'd get what I was talking about.Luckily he also used his computer to reference the design just has the lights went out for about 15 (long) seconds.

Next, it was onto the studio itself, to check out how much or how little space they are going to have. Well, once it saw it, it's the latter. It's sixteen feet wide by twenty-one feet long, with a ceiling height roughly ten, at the most. Yeah. But this was the best and by that cheapest studio they could get. See, here Lagos is the capital of Nigeria's entertainment industry known as "Nollywood." There are loads of productions, such as their versions of soap operas, going on all the time. Some productions have even built their own studios and won't rent them out to anyone. So independent ones take complete advantage of this and hike the price since there is no other game in town.

But they will somehow, God bless them, make this work. They are going to make ALL of this work.

When we got back to the offices, I made my way upstairs to the rehearsal room to see what the puppeteers had done without me. See, before I left, I gave them this assignment: read the script, block it (meaning go through the motions of where you have to be and when within the scene), rehearse it, and then tape it to show me the best two takes they'd be proud to show me.Not only did they do it but they did an ALTERNATE they came up with themselves.So instead of two takes, I got to see FOUR! And it was all GOOD! Really GOOD!

So we moved onto another scene and during the course of it, Zikwe, just before showing his surprise to Kami, ad-libbed the line, "Prepare yourself." This phrase, not only cracked me up in his reading when he said it but, sums up so many aspects of this adventure for me and for them, especially.

Saturday? Well, not only do I get to work with the new puppeteers but now I have to make time from that to now show the wrangler/prop person what props puppets can use by going shopping for them with her. Including key components for the wrangler's kit (the things needed to not only prepare the puppets for camera but any upkeep on them needed) that was NEVER shipped over.

"Prepare yourself."


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Good. Let's Do It Again

Thunder woke me up this morning. I looked out the window and it was pouring rain. And Lagos does not do well with rain.

In general, here are the three things you begin to notice about the streets in Lagos:

1.) No traffic lights. Instead certain, I mean, the rare, intersections has a police booth where an officer will step out to direct traffic.

2.) No sidewalks or crosswalks. Really. People just walk along the edges of where there should be one along side......

2.) "Drains." Actually, two feet wide, two feet deep trenches. Some areas are exposed and you step over them and some areas are covered over by slabs of concrete or (along the side streets)planks of wood to walk across to get to the shop of your choice.

So adding rain to this and the traffic congestion does not make for a smooth morning commute. Luckily I wasn't driving.

So when I arrived at the office, three of the puppeteers I just cast were late. I wanted to speak to all of them and show them a surprise but had to wait. I downloaded a couple of Sesame bits from You Tube (oh what did we do before You Tube?)as references of performance and pacing to show everyone and looked over a script with the director until they finally were all assembled."Well," I said to them, "Welcome to Sesame Square." And after I showed them the clips, I brought out the "surprise." Up to now, they've worked with rehearsal puppets. But in the case I was opening, that just arrived, was "them;" the real "Kami" and "Zikwe." The four of them melted; they loved seeing them and especially trying them on. "And if you're very good," I said, "You get to play with them." At the end of the week. Meanwhile, let's get back to work ...... and have some fun.

Back up to the make shift rehearsal room upstairs and I had them practice again in front of the camera and use the monitor. It started yesterday to help me make my final decisions of who could do this. Everyone of the final round tried it and suddenly going from a mirror to the camera was,...... SURPRISE!...... every movement is the opposite. So today I had my brand new puppeteers do the following: Kami comes into frame in the foreground calling for Zikwe and, starting from the back, he walks up to her. They recite the alphabet together and then walk off. And how long did this take to do? This took three hours. But wait; remember these are people who never did this before today, who began learning this Monday,just two days ago. And each time it got better and better. It happened again after lunch having them practice the classic Sesame song "Sing."

Both these exercises help them with their camera work, their pacing, their ability to take direction and their stamina ("Shake it out. Good.... Let's do it again."). And it also helps them get to know each other. After all, the puppets already have "chemistry;" now the puppeteers need to have their own.

Tomorrow? Working with actual scripts and scenes.



Monday, July 5, 2010

Welcome to Nigeria!

As I got off the plane, walking through the connecting tunnel, the lights went out and flickered back on a second later.

"Welcome to Nigeria!" the attendant at the other end, happily declared.

It's that sense of humor about themselves and their country that you get from Nigerians. They know everything that is wrong; they know it's far from perfect, if it ever will be. They even admit that they were never meant to be "a country." Nigerians are tribal and the three main tribes that still exist comprise the west/south west, east/south east and north. It was, once again, the brilliant minds of the British and French and others, who decided how to carve up and slice out Africa (for themselves first). And it's stuck.

That's enough history. Let's deal with the present.

I'm here to audition and train puppeteers, to consult with the director, and basically help in anyway I can the newest Sesame Workshop co-production, "Sesame Square," Nigeria's very own "Sesame Street." This is the latest version to be added to Sesame's global franchise; think Starbucks with a curriculum. It will be a half hour with inserts from our Sesame with voices dubbed in; in English the official language of Nigeria, by locals to give Ernie, Bert, and Grover Nigerian accents. But the beginning, middle links and the end of the show are on the set of the Square.

The Square's stars will be Kami and Zikwe. Kami is basd on South Africa's Sesame character who lives being HIV positive, as a way to educate, not just kids, that ANYONE HIV + is NOT contagious, dangerous, or a freak. Zikwe is her bigger burly friend with a hear of gold, blah, blah, blah..... You know, the usual. What's interesting is that his name won't be Zikwe here.... maybe. They've run a contest to have him named and the winning name is to be announced at midnight.... of the day they begining shooting. YES! The puppeteers will have worked with scripts and practiced saying Zikwe and then when they walk in the first day, "Oh by the way his name is now 'Master Abercrombe Fitch, Esq.' Cheers!"

That might not seem much to you or I (and it's still a pain)but these are people, not just brand-new-puppeteers, but EVERYONE, who have NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE. Entire production teams for these co-productions, in cases, are people (writer, directors, producers,camera and sound operators, etc.)who have never tried to entertain and then educate; educate through entertainment before, let alone put on a puppet show.I spent over two weeks last year in India just working with their writers to get them up to speed on how to "write Sesame." Here I will work with the director on the best camera angles to shoot Muppets. It's amazing how Sesame has to teach others how to do "Sesame" before these people can begin to teach their country's children.

You don't appreciate "schtick" until you see people who've never had it.("Laugh! There are children in India who've never had vaudeville!")

So yesterday I started the auditions and saw twenty-four potential puppeteers out of whom, three were good. And women. Maybe not a big deal to you but for those in "puppetdom," you know how it can be quite the "boys'club." But here, these three kickd the guys' butt. They were very good and coming back again today to continue. So "Kami" will be set. Now we got more guys in coming for "Zikwe" (or whatever his name is; check your watch). And because the rehearsal space in the office building wasn't ready yet, I did the auditions in front of a mirror in the building's lobby. Yup. And that's fine. It still worked and I still saw what I needed to see. And when it comes to "going with the flow," well I will take this moment to brag.... after my first trip to South Africa, I AM THE MASTER.(But that's another blog.)

More details tomorrow.


Monday, May 31, 2010


Today is Memorial Day. Folks get the day off from work and school. There's going to be barbeques, pool parties, and games on the beaches and lakes across our country. And all this fun is due to the somber side of this day.

Today we should all take a moment to acknowledge and remember those who have and are currently serving our armed forces and who voluntarily put their lives at risk to for the sake of our freedom.

But we should also take another moment to a moment to acknowledge and remember those who have and are currently serving our armed forces with their unwavering support and love. I'm talking about all the families.

In 2005, Bear in the Big Blue House got a "spin-off" series called "Breakfast With Bear." Bear went to the actual homes of real children who showed him how they would start their day. We did them in NY and LA and visited homes in apartments, the suburbs, even the Big Apple Circus. But the one I remember the most was the visit to Fort Irwin.

Ft. Irwin is situated in the middle of the Mojave Desert and is the largest training facility in the U.S. It is roughly the size of Rhode Island and even has it's own "village" for the military to practice in. It also has it's own town for the families of the enlisted to live. It's got a supermarket, movie theatre, even a hotel.

"Jonathon" was the boy we got to visit, whose dad was stationed in Iraq. In fact, while we were shooting the breakfast scene, he called home and his wife said she couldn't talk now because "Bear is in the kitchen" and hung up. "Call the man back!" Bear insisted, "It's OK! We'll wait!"

While we were at Ft Irwin, I did "meet n' greets" for the families to get photo ops and chat with Bear. Just before we left, we were asked if Bear could go "across town" and visit that neighborhood, in particular one family who's husband/father had been killed two weeks prior. "Absolutely," I said, "but don't tell me which family it is." Bear rode in the back of a hummer over (so cool by the way) and met everyone there and after we left I asked which ones they were.

I have always wanted to go back with Bear, even tried organizing a visit with other Disney characters but to no avail. But this past week, I found out that I can have copies of my puppet making book shipped there for free and with my upcoming book tour in the fall that includes California, asked if I could go back and visit. The people there are wonderful, hard working, loving, and just like any other family trying to do the best they can each day...... with of course that one exception: the loved one(s) are away.

So here is to all the brave souls who serve the military and our nation abroad ––– and right here at home.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Today is May 16

If you're reading this you are probably a puppeteer (or you know one). If you're a puppeteer,you probably already know the significance of May 16. If you're a puppeteer and you don't know the significance of May 16, you will get exposed to its meaning rather quickly today.

On May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died.

Today is when many people will take a moment to remember Jim. Those who worked with him, those who met him, those who wished they met him, and mostly those whose lives were effected by his talent in one way or another. And being Jim, it will be positive, even life changing. "Genius," "inspirational," "the 'Walt Disney' of puppetry," and more will describe him.

I knew Jim. I worked with Jim. To me, he was all those descriptions I mentioned. And he did have a life changing effect on me; he (and the rest of the Muppets) convinced me that if he could make a living, a life long career, as a puppeteer, so could I. And I have.

But the other title most people don't think of when thinking of Jim is the other "career" I have also. Jim was a dad.

It was the late 80's (I can't remember which year). We were holding a puppet, with what’s known as “practical hands.” This means the principal performer puts his hand, usually the right, up through the body into the head, to open and close the mouth in time to the words spoken. The other hand goes into a sleeve made of the same material as what the puppet is wearing and into the puppet’s left hand. In this case, the puppet in question was Ernie and I was “right handing” for him — Jim Henson. And in the middle of rehearsal, the Sesame Street lighting crew needed to make a quick adjustment, so, rather than take Ernie off, we just sat down on two wooden boxes near the set. And I remember thinking, “I’m sitting next to Jim Henson. Jim Henson! This man is the 'Walt Disney of puppetry,' even better than Disney. He’s Kermit the Frog. He’s Ernie. I’m attached to Ernie! I should say something. Say something! You’ve got a chance most puppeteers would give their right arm for — and how stupid would that be — couldn’t “right hand” without your right arm . . . . Jeez, Noel! Focus! FOCUS! Think of SOMETHING to SAY!!!"

And then in that multi-second of panic, I remembered what my mom would always do to get someone to talk; if they're a parent, ask about their kids. "People will always talk about their kids." So that's when I turned to Jim Henson and asked, "So... how are the kids?"

And the man looked at me and said, "Oh. they're great," and proceeded to tell me what each one was up to at the time; their projects their interests, where they were. And I could feel the pride this man had in sharing the news of his children with someone else. Being a dad now, I can now see what was in his eyes; him watching them at growing-up and becoming their own persons.

I had other opportunities to chat Jim up. But I'll always remember that first time I really got to talk to him.And today, I feel proud to be a puppeteer and a dad.

Thank you Jim.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Happy FREE Comic Book Day!

It's May! It's the first of May! Which means what? It's FREE COMIC BOOK DAY!

Yes, you read that right.

On 1 May, comic book stores across the country (and around the world) give away FREE comics. Check your local stores for their participation and rules for today. Then get there early!

My five year old son is so interested in reading. In fact, there are several words he can not only read but also write. So a comic book offers a great opportunity for more reading. And there are so many little kid friendly comics out there, now. Just checkout:

http://www.kidscomics.com/ to find them.

For more info on FREE Comic Book Day, plus to watch a video from comic book fan Milo Ventimiglia of TV's HEROES, just go to:


And in the words of the immortal Stan Lee:


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Happy National Day of Puppetry!


This is not only my first "blogging" but it's my first website. And by coincidence it all starts on National Day of Puppetry.


Yes. The 12th Annual National Day of Puppetry as recognized by the Puppeteers of America which, according to their website is a "national nonprofit organization founded in 1937, provides information, encourages performances, and builds a community of people who love puppet theatre." Here is there link for more information about them and this honored day:


This little blog of mine will highlight and talk about puppets as it occurs. After all, that's how my life has gone, thus far; always back to puppets. But being a dad (my other profession) I have discovered a lot of other things just as cool and entertaining for the young ––– and young at heart ––– that I'll share with you.

So welcome!