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Friday, June 07, 2013

My Journey As A Muppet Fan Part V: Room 209 by Nicholas Napoli

My Journey As A Muppet Fan Part V:
Room 209

Good Morning London! Tuesday had finally arrived and my excitement totally overshadowed my nerves... for now. This was it! Today I would be meeting Kermit and Pepe and at midnight I planned to steal the Baseball Diamond from the Mallory Gallery… it was going to be a busy day. I jumped out of bed, run to the showers, installed my own lock and began getting ready like I had never prepared for anything before. I stuck a cotton bud up my nose and started cleaning inside, why was I doing this? I had no idea especially considering I had never done that before. “What a strange thing to do” I thought to myself as I splashed water on my eyeballs and sprayed some cologne inside my ears… was I worried they were going to think my ears smelled bad? I had no idea but I couldn’t stop pouring cologne all over myself. Soon I was changed and tried whistling my way out of the hotel ready to meet my idols… now what should I do for three hours whilst I wait?

I had left my hotel early on purpose as I had no idea where The Soho Hotel was located and was not about to leave myself trying to find it last minutes.

I was about to meet Bill Barretta and Steve Whitmire! I couldn’t do all this in a nervous hurry on the contrary I needed time to concentrate on my breathing.

It was a good thing I left early because my taxi driver had no idea where he was taking me and after blaming all the road works for my high fare we finally found it… well in all honesty he found it. As soon as I saw The Soho Hotel it all suddenly became very real for me. There was a bellboy standing outside the hotel, I had never been to a hotel with its own bellboy standing guard at the door before. I was not meant to be there until one and did not want to arrive before my time so I quickly looked around me and just opposite from where I was standing I spotted a small breakfast café with Wi-Fi connection! I quickly crossed to the other side of the road, turned on my laptop, went onto Facebook and began telling my family how excited I was. I had kept my true reasoning for coming to London a secret from everyone outside my family but tonight when I posted my pictures online they would all know that when I say “I’m going to meet the Muppets one day” it might actually take me more like a few years but I meant it.

Soon it was quarter to one and that’s when I really began to get nervous, I’m not much of a smoker but on this trip I had turned into a real chimney, I couldn’t stop smoking. I definitely didn’t want to get there late but at the same time do I really want to show up earlier than asked? I’ll just show up at exactly one o’clock… doesn’t that seem a little pathetic?  My greatest fear was that my nerves would once again get the best of me and I would go into an all-out seizure before even arriving at The Soho Hotel. I began puffing on my cigarette whilst at the same time constantly checking my watch. I had five minutes left before it was one o’clock so I decided to throw away my cigarette, chew some gum to clear my breath and began crossing the road.

As I began arriving nearer the entrance to The Soho Hotel my eye’s suddenly met with those of the bellboy’s who began to open the entrance doors allowing me to step foot inside the same hotel as my idols. My nerves finally got the best of me and as I walked into the hotel I realised one very important thing… I was still chewing my gum! Where the hell am I going to spit out my gum? I’m not going to spit it out in front of Bill and Steve am I? Might Bill be looking at me right now? Am I coming off as a gum chewing freak?

Then all of a sudden the next question was asked by the receptionist… “can I help you sir?” Suddenly that warm feeling I felt at the restaurant the day before was slowly returning and around me everything was going dark. I knew I had to find a way to calm myself down otherwise I was going to spoil it for all of us. I quickly swallowed my gum and squeaked out “Bill Barretta” and soon my breathing came back and I had successfully beaten that son of a seizure. “Yes Mr Barretta is expecting you, please use the lifts around the corner” said the receptionist and with that I began to walk away wondering how many years it would take for the gum I had swallowed to leave my system.

After getting my nose stuck between the lift’s doors I was soon standing inside not only making sure my nose wasn’t broken but making my way up towards The Muppets. I was supposed to meet Bill at The Soho Hotel in Room 209 and when I finally found the right door I realised I did not have the cojones to knock on it. I stared at the number 209 pinned to the door in front of me and could not believe that on the other side of this door I might find Bill, Steve, Kermit or Pepe and if I was really lucky maybe the four of them would be there together having lunch. “Okay Nick it’s time to knock on that door” I kept repeating over and over inside my head but I couldn’t… suddenly the door opened. Was it Miss Piggy? Was it Fozzie Bear? Maybe even Animal?  Nope it was Stefan who was part of the crew and as he stepped outside he held the door open for me and said “are you going in mate?” I couldn’t believe how nervous I was especially considering this guy looked much younger than me. I wasn’t ready for this, I might believe I’m a man back home but at this very moment I felt like a little English lad. “In or out dude?” once again asked Stefan and finally I was able to pull myself together and said “Meep-Meep” as I rushed into Room 209.

Inside Room 209 it was nothing like I had expected, there was no Bill, no Steve and no Muppets just a bunch of people working hard around a giant desk with papers scattered all around them.

They all wore Disney logos upon their shirts and that made me even more nervous… was I in the presence of The Muppet Team? A young lady then approached me and asked “are you Nicholas Napoli?” I just stared at her and could not seem to remember if I was Nicholas Napoli or not. “Would you like a glass of water?” was her second question even though I had not answered her first one and with all the courage I had in myself I looked her straight in the eyes and said “Mahna-Mahna”.

After I drank my water I started feeling much better and was actually able to ask if I was surrounded by the Muppet Team… apparently I wasn’t. They might not have worked primarily with the Muppets but it was a pleasure to meet them, they actually worked for Disney and were my breathing coaches’ moments before my life finally had true meaning. They told me that Bill and Steve were finishing some interviews and would soon join us when suddenly the door opens and at the same time my heart explodes.

I had finally calmed my nerves when all of a sudden Bill Barretta walks in through the door smiling at me followed by Steve Whitmire. At that very moment in the span of two seconds my whole Muppet life flashed before my eyes…

Hi-Ho! I’m born                                                                                                                                          

I am introduced to the Muppet Babies                                                                                                  

I play with my first Muppet
puppets on the beach                                                                        

I wanted
to be

Watching Muppet Treasure Island
on the big screen                                                                         

Realising I was Gonzo                                                                                                                                

Muppet Vision 3D                                                                                                                                      

Expanding my Muppet collection
with action figures!                                                                        

Mocked by my friends for being a Muppet Fan                                                                                   

Ready to make my way to America to meet
the Muppets…. life got in the way                            

The Muppets (2011)                                                                                                                                  

Standing before Bill Barretta and Steve Whitmire

Somehow my chewing gum had found its way back into my mouth but nothing was going to stop me from making a good first impression so I quickly re-swallowed my gum and extended my hand towards Bill. I had never felt the urge to call anyone Mr other than my teacher but when it came to Bill for some reason I felt like being one polite son of a bitch yet at the same time I could not seem to speak. “You must be Nicholas?” happily asked Bill after I had been shaking his hand for five whole minutes. All I wanted to do was put Bill in a bag and run back home to Gibraltar where I hoped to display him in my Muppet Room. Yet I did not want to come off as a crazy obsessed Muppet fan so I restrained myself. All of a sudden I began to sing “Hey A Movie” in my head and next thing I know I’m picturing me, Bill and Steve flying away together in a colourful hot air balloon and then we were all sitting together at Muppet Fest 2…

After I had finally snapped out of my fantasies Steve Whitmire who stood just behind Bill leaned in and shook my hand as he asked Bill “is this Nicholas?”

I couldn’t believe this both Bill and Steve had just mentioned my name and best yet they were both looking right at me waiting for an answer.

I decided right there and then that I did not want to come off as a crazy fool so I bluntly told them the truth.

“Please let me freak out inside for a moment and I’ll get right back to you” and that is exactly what I did. I began to freak out inside as Bill and Steve uncomfortably laughed amongst one another and finally after I had let the fan inside me go crazy I decided to speak up and properly introduced myself. I can honestly say I was still nervous whilst speaking to them and the only reason I was actually able to get through that conversation was because they both made me feel so comfortable speaking with them. In my head I felt as though I had known these two men since I was a child but I knew that to them I was simply a new fan they were meeting for the first time yet they treated me as if they too had known about me for years, I felt very welcomed. I kept my Muppet questions bottled up inside although I did have to ask one very important question “where was Clueless Morgan?” Without going into detail let’s just say whoever you are I’m going to kill you one day.

I thought I’d freak out upon meeting Earl and Robbie Sinclair but honestly that fear I had of having another seizure once I met them had completely vanished. Within walking distance from Room 209 to the downstairs café I had gone from walking with my idols to sitting down with my friends for lunch. Then I could not believe the words that Bill spoke next “pick whatever you want from the menu Nick” Was I seriously about to have lunch with no other than Mr Frog and Mr Prawn themselves? Now one of the many strange things about me is my inability to eat anything that isn’t either pizza, spaghetti or bread rolls, let’s just say I have a very limited menu. I don’t really eat much of anything but if you’re offering me lunch with Bill and Steve then you can put a dead turtle on my plate for all I care… I would never pass up a meal with Bill and Steve. I now felt much more comfortable and that’s when I began making a fool of myself.

I had seen the name Steve Whitmire written many times before but I had yet to hear it spoken and because of this I never knew how you actually pronounced Steve’s surname. This had been bugging me for some time now so I turned to Steve and asked “how is Whitmire pronounced?” Steve commended me on getting so close to the proper pronunciation and then for some reason I decide to turn to Bill and ask “is it pronounced Barretta?” Oh-My-God what was I doing? I know exactly how you pronounce Barretta so why did I feel this sudden urge to ask him? Did I not want Bill to feel left out? Did I enjoy making Muppet fans look ridiculous? Bill congratulated me on getting it right and as I smiled at him I also began crying inside with embarrassment. I could see that two tables away from us sat a famous English footballer and for the life of me I could not remember his name. I thought to myself “if my friends knew I was sitting this close to what’s his name they would punch me in the face for not getting a picture taken with him” but I had other important matters to deal with, I was learning how to pronounce words. Today’s lunch was brought to me by the letters B and W and by the number Free.

As our lunch came to an end I had come to notice a few things about Bill, Steve and myself. Pepe, Johnny Fiama, Bobo Bear and even Big Mean Carl all came from certain parts of Bill’s personality but if I had to label him as one Muppet specifically I think I’d go for Rowlf the Dog. Ironically Rowlf is one of the characters Bill has since taken on after Jim Henson’s passing and I for one could not be happier over Rowlf’s grand return. Steve Whitmire also had the honours of taking over another of Jim Henson’s characters becoming the new Kermit the Frog and there is nobody better for the job. Steve is Kermit or Kermit is Steven but however you want to think about it these two have spent so much time together that it’s hard to forget about Kermit even after Steve has put the character away. All I know is I wanted to find Doc Hopper to help me capture Steve so I could grow old with him in the swamp singing all about the Rainbow Connection. Soon I found that we had left the table and had actually begun walking back into the hotel lobby and I had not offered to pay for anything. I had eaten my meal, I had talked non-stop, I had made unfunny jokes, I had been so caught up in the moment of lunch that I completely forgot to offer to pay for it.

Bill was about to give me the best gift anyone could ever have given me and it wouldn’t take up to nine months to arrive.

I happily followed Bill as he lead me to whatever room my green friend and crustacean companion were staying in. We came upon this particular room still within the hotel but it was no Room 209 in fact it was a totally different room which had been transformed into a small stage and on the floor just below the cameras laid Steve Whitmire. I couldn’t believe it, was I about to experience actual backstage Muppet mayhem? Not only was I about to meet Kermit and Pepe but I was going to see them at work too! This had been a lifelong dream of mine, I always wanted to be on a set with The Muppets and see what’s not seen on camera. I hadn’t even thought
about that possibility yet here I was about to see first-hand how the magic happens. We take it for granted when seeing the Muppets on screen but the more real they look the more uncomfortable the position the Muppeteers have to put themselves into. Steve Whitmire was practically lying on his back to the ground with his hand placed in the form of a mouth as he tried to find the perfect height for Kermit on camera. All of a sudden somebody taps me on my shoulder and I turn around to find myself face to face with no other than Pepe the King Prawn himself! Remember the first time you had sex? Well this was even better than that!

I always imagined how I’d feel the first time I ever spoke to a Muppet and this was exactly how I thought it would go. I couldn’t speak, you’d think that after getting to know Bill I’d feel a little more comfortable speaking to Pepe but to me it felt as though I were meeting a completely different prawn who I had never met before.

I seriously did not speak a word to Pepe instead I just kept smiling at Bill like a moron. As I smiled at Bill I noticed that Steve had been handed Kermit the Frog and in mere seconds the Frog was going to come alive too! The Prawn and the Frog! Bill then went above and beyond and allowed me to stick my whole arm inside his Pepe… it felt magical. One thing was to meet Bill and Steve and yet another thing was meeting Kermit and Pepe but being able to sit backstage and actually control a Muppet was just too much happiness all at once. I was controlling Pepe the King Prawn and I could not have been happier yet at the same time I had no idea what I was doing.

An interesting note about Pepe which I had never thought about until that moment was the fact that his mouth is too small to be controlled by a hand.

Instead Pepe’s mouth is controlled by pulling down on a wire located inside the puppet with your finger and then his neck movements, which are not controlled by Bill’s hand either is in fact controlled by rotating a small ball on the palm of your hand. Finding the right combination between pulling and rotating at the same time is quite difficult. It’s like trying to pat your head, rub your stomach and walk all at once, it might sound simple but it’s harder than it sounds.

All of a sudden my shyness was gone and I became the character, I began speaking in my very own Spanish Pepe accent commenting on how it was a great pleasure to see Bill from this angle instead… O’kay! I would never have felt comfortable doing that silly voice in front of others yet having a Muppet on my hand helped me forget about everyone else around me and for those five minutes I became a real prawn. In five minutes everything I ever wanted in life was happening, I was puppeteering a real Muppet and it was no other than Pepe the King Prawn. I had not only been introduced to Bill and Steve but I had also met Kermit and Pepe and now my four new friends were getting ready to promote their movie’s European DVD release.

Bill placed himself next to Steve on the floor as together they held Kermit and Pepe above their heads focusing them for the camera. I hoped they didn’t have to stay there too long because that looked like a very uncomfortable position but I can tell you first hand that these guys are totally dedicated to the Muppets. They remained in that position for well over two hours. As I began to tremble with excitement Bill offered me a seat right behind him as they performed. I was about to watch the Muppets perform! I sat down and was so close to Kermit and Pepe that had I leaned forward I probably would have appeared as though I were being interviewed along with them but that’s a dream for another day. Before the first interviewer was allowed in Kermit and Pepe had the responsibility of talking about their latest movie at the time directly to the cameras. Kermit and Pepe performed the same take over ten times. I was not complaining because as a fan I could have sat there all day but also as a fan I thought they had done perfectly but Kermit and Pepe were not willing to give up until it was Muppet standard perfect. They were truly dedicated to what they were doing which should have come as no surprise to me as I had been a fan of their work since as long as I could remember.

I asked Bill where the director was and apparently there was none and yet Bill and Steve performed as though twenty directors were watching them.

These two men were lying ever so uncomfortably on the ground and they could simply get up and leave whenever they wanted since there wasn’t anyone telling them what to do yet they stayed there as long as they had too and why? For us fans! Most of us believe these characters truly exist and I’m one of them, even whilst watching Bill perform Pepe I still believed Pepe was real and why is that? The Muppeteers! All that talent we see on screen doesn’t just come from them opening and closing their hands, it comes from countless hours of dedication into making these characters as real as possible. I always knew the Muppets were in good hands (pun intended) but seeing it with my very own eyes just gave me that much more confidence in them and at that moment I knew the Muppets will still be around for a very, very, merry, long time… they aren’t going anywhere. The Muppets have been around for well over fifty years and I’m so happy knowing that they will still be around to duplicate that number.

This was all too much excitement but now it was going to get even better because the interviewers were being allowed in. Something I hadn’t realised until then was that this was also the first time many of them were meeting Kermit and Pepe just as I had moments ago. I felt an instant connection to all of them and next year we plan to celebrate the day we all lost our virginity to The Muppets by watching The Muppet Show Sex and Violence pilot episode at The Soho Hotel lobby.

Every single interviewer was so excited and either completely professional or completely crazy but every one of them instantly began interviewing Kermit and Pepe as though they were actually speaking to those two. Only a handful of them remembered that Bill and Steve were under those characters but the rest happily joked and giggled along with Kermit and Pepe… the second even managed to get a few phone numbers. Kermit and Pepe were on fire as they immediately made joke after joke, I hadn’t seen the Muppets this funny in a long time and when I finally had a moment to bother Bill I did. “Bill where’s your script for these interviews?” I asked and was shocked to learn that they had no scripts, this magic was not only coming from them alone it was coming from them as they improvised their way through the interview and they were both… HILLARIOUS!

Two particular interviews stood out for me the most with the first being this cute little girl who was so excited to be interviewing her favourite Muppets.

She was one of the best interviewers there that day and even asked Pepe something we all desperately wanted to know. “Pepe are we going to see more of you in the next film?” she asked and Pepe replied by informing her that he had been busy directing, editing, writing and producing the last movie but you never know what might happen next time. The little girl seemed so happy to be in the same room as Kermit and Pepe and I realised that even though I was probably fifteen years older than her I still got as excited over the Muppets as she did. In fact every single interviewer who walked into that room that day got as excited as if they had become children again and I imagine that’s the same feeling we’d all get upon meeting the Muppets. If you think about it what childhood memory still makes you giggle to this day?

Another interviewer then asked Pepe if the rumours were true, did he have hundreds of children running lose around the world?

I desperately awaited his answer as honestly I had never heard that
rumour before yet I was intrigued for Pepe to dish out the gossip. “Si, si it’s true O’kay, I have many, many scampi’s all over the place” and then this happened…

Nicholas… wait for it… Napoli! I was an heir to the royal throne! I always knew I was related to a Muppet, all my life all I wanted was to be a Muppet and now I knew why. I had found my big papa
prawn yet he was not willing to admit this in court but I didn’t care I just grinned there like a moron as though I actually truly believed I was this prawn’s son. When the interview finished Bill turned to me and asked “you’re one of Pepe’s children, what do you think about that?” and like the big fat geek that I am all that I could think to say was “I’m part of Muppet history” I’m crazy is what I am. What I meant to say was I’m part of something the Muppets have produced but it came out so nerdy.

It had been such a fun, awesome, wonderful, life changing, glorious, terrific, fantastic, celebration of a day but sadly the interviews had finished and Steve and Bill needed their much needed rest. It was all coming to an end… yet it was going to happen all over again the next day or in your case the next instalment. I said goodbye to Steve, goodbye to Kermit, goodbye to Pepe and along with Bill walked back to Room 209 so I could collect my stuff.

As we walked back to Bill’s room I thanked him for the best day of my life and couldn’t stress how much this day had meant to me.

Not only did I fulfil a lifelong dream but I had accomplished it too
which was just as important. Thanks to Kermit and Pepe I was now able to move forward and most importantly I had gained my confidence back and no longer felt ashamed to call myself Gobo’s uncle. I felt much better about who I was and were I had got in life and if I could control my nerves whilst in the presence of Bill and Steve then I could control my nerves in front of anyone meaning… NO MORE SEIZURES but I was terribly wrong as I’d soon find out. As we arrived at the door to Room 209 I looked at Bill as he looked back at me. I hoped music would begin to play around us to the tune of “The First Time It Happens” but sadly the music never began. Bill opened the door into his room and I suddenly remembered I had brought two books along with me all the way from Gibraltar, one by Pepe and another by Kermit which I hoped both Muppeteers would sign for me. Sadly I’d have to wait for Steve to sign his tomorrow but Pepe was right in front of me and gave me something I never thought I’d possess… an autographed copy of Pepe’s own guide to life titled “It’s Hard Out Here For A Shrimp”. I hugged Bill goodbye, thanked him all over again for a wonderful day and promised I would see him tomorrow.

I walked out of the hotel that day and had no idea how to release my happiness so I did what any ordinary Muppet fan would do.

I rushed to the Disney Store and picked up two Kermit the Frog pens this time in case I once again threw up on one of them and began dancing around the store whilst singing “The First Time It Happens”. I was living my movie exactly as I had always planned until I reached half way through my musical and two security guards came and chucked me out… jokes on them I hadn’t paid for my pens yet. I rushed back to The Leafless Tree Hotel that night not caring at all who might join me in the shower that night. All I knew was I had to talk to somebody about my exciting day and Mustafa as always stood behind the counter. I began telling Mustafa about everything that happened to me that afternoon until he said to me “my shift is over my friend”. I was confused as I was lead to believe that Mustafa worked there 24 hours a day but apparently I was wrong. Mustafa looked at me uncomfortably and when he realised I would not leave he picked up his coat and walked out of the hotel. I stayed there waiting for the new guy to show up so I could tell him all about my day but after an hour of waiting I realised nobody was coming.


That night I sat at my computer and wrote a hundred page thank you email to Bill and then I performed “Hey A Movie” for my entire family to see via Skype. I was eager to upload my pictures
onto Facebook for two reasons. This was the biggest accomplishment in my life and I wanted people to know about it. All my friends were so supportive and all it took was for me to actually achieve my dream to gain their support. After happily updating my Facebook page I went to have a cold shower and actually hoped Herbert would join me this time as I was eager to tell someone, anyone about my awesome Muppet filled day… even if I had to be naked whilst doing so.

 - Nicholas Napoli

Thanking Nicholas so much for Part V.

My Journey As A Muppet Fan Part VI:
Noodles with Martin Baker

coming next week!

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