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Thursday, May 28, 2020

A Celebration Of Steve Whitmire: 38 Magical Years Of Muppets by Nicholas Napoli

Discussing Steve Whitmire’s Muppet situation seems to be a heated conversation these days, actually I think it’s been heated since day one. It feels like one is bringing up politics when they discuss Steve’s situation with Disney and The Muppets, and especially more so if The Henson Company is involved in the discussion. To this day I still find myself affected by the situation, as much as I try, I can’t get over it. I simply cannot regain my Muppet Fandom back to what it once was and believe me I have tried to move on, I have tried to look forward, I am trying to be optimistic but I still have so many questions, so much regret, so much everything that I decided to write an article about it. The same situation can have a lot of different meanings for different people, the same person can trigger many different emotions for every unique individual. We are all different, we all think differently, we all see things differently and most importantly we all experience the same thing differently. This is why we will never be able to all be in full agreement because the situation is different for each of us. Although our opinions are different, if you’re reading this, I respect your own opinion very much, for the simple fact that if you’re here, you’re probably a Muppet Fan, I am too, any Muppet Fan is a friend of mine. 

Steve Whitmire joined The Muppet Team in 1978 by invitation from Jim Henson after having been introduced to him through connections by Carroll Spinney and Jane Henson. Steve was only 18 years old at the time, a youngster looking for a direction in life, a direction which Jim Henson provided for him and Steve dedicated 38 years of his life to that path. Steve joined Jim Henson as early on as The Muppet Show days and in my mind, there is a written rule, if you were part of The Muppet Show, you are forever an essential player to The Muppet Legacy. Steve’s first character was introduced on The Muppet Show and for many of our childhoods he became our Rat of the 90’s. Rizzo The Rat, this is a classic Muppet character who fans were lucky to still have the original performer bringing to life after so many years. When I was growing up during the 90’s, watching my VHS copies of The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island and even my Muppets From Space DVD, it was clear, Rizzo was one of the core Muppet players alongside Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal. Then there is my favourite Fraggle, up until a few years ago I had been a wimbler all my life and for that reason Wembley Fraggle has always been very important to me, especially through childhood, I could relate to him very much. Bean Bunny, Lips, Andy Pig, Sprocket, B.P Richfield (Dinosaurs), even a Skeksis Scientist from the original The Dark Crystal, all these characters, plus many more, all created by one man. Not only did Steve create many of our favourite characters, he then took on the roles of many other iconic ones too, when it was his time to help and step in for Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Jim Henson. Beaker, Statler, Link Hogthrob, Muppet Newsman, Ernie and most importantly of all Kermit the Frog. 

After Jim Henson passed away, all Muppets came together, be they from The Muppet Show, Sesame Street or even Fraggle Rock to celebrate Jim Henson. The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson was the first introduction to a world with Kermit but without Jim Henson. Steve Whitmire was not the fifth person to take over Kermit, he wasn’t the ninth, he inherited Kermit directly after Jim Henson, he was the first person to prove that Kermit could live on under the right guidance, Jim Henson had chosen wisely. I myself was only four at the time, I had no idea Jim Henson had died and it wasn’t until 2002 that I would finally get the chance to watch this special. My first introduction to a new Kermit, as I believe must have been the case with many, I know this is true for my family and friends, The Muppets Christmas Carol, One More Sleep Till Christmas, that’s when I was first introduced to Steve Whitmire’s Kermit. I was six years old when I had seen The Muppet Christmas Carol for the first time (my first Muppet movie theatre experience), when I first learned Jim Henson had died and that someone else had taken over as Kermit. I didn’t realize Kermit had been replaced throughout the entire film, at the start of the movie it said “in memory of Jim Henson and Richard Hunt” and I kept asking my Mom what that meant. At the end of the movie she told me Jim Henson had died and someone new had played Kermit in the movie I had just seen, that eventually led me to Steve. For 27 years Steve Whitmire was my Kermit, for the older generation he was Jim Henson’s replacement, for my generation and many that came after, he was the only Kermit we had grown up with. And even though it was no longer Jim Henson, for 27 years Steve was able to pull off the illusion of Kermit the Frog masterfully. 

In 2016 Steve was asked to step away from The Muppets against his wishes, he had spent 38 years dedicated to this legacy, if it were up to him, I imagine he probably would have done another 38 years more. I was so saddened when I first learnt of this news, although this happened back in October 2016, it wasn’t until almost a year later that fans began to find out what had happened. I didn’t take it very well, I was angry, I was sad, it was all a bunch of Muppet political drama, such a negative time, best to move forward and hope for positivity instead. Steve Whitmire had practically been part of The Muppets since the very beginning. He actually operated Kermit’s left-hand playing banjo via remote control during the original The Rainbow Connection sequence. Knowing Steve’s dedication to The Muppets, had he been asked, he would have been right there underwater, inside a container, next to Jim Henson. I still don’t understand how a man so carefully chosen and guided by Jim Henson himself, to help keep his legacy alive, especially considering how young Steve was compared to the rest of the team, how can this man no longer be associated not only with The Muppets but Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and all things Henson? Ever since a young age, I realized I was drawn to The Muppets through Jim Henson’s talents, all my life it is Jim Henson who I have admired and The Muppets happen to be a big part of him, it’s not the other way around for me. When I think of other properties I admired as a child, if I’m honest since I’m not passionate about them, their creator has no connection to me but when it comes to The Muppets, it’s not just The Muppet characters, it’s all things Jim Henson, including the people who he brought in to join his team. This probably explains why I watched The Dark Crystal countless times when I was young even though I didn’t really enjoy it (at that time), it scared me every single time and never once did I see Kermit in it. I like learning stuff from Jim Henson, his teachings from his movies, everything about him and luckily Steve is one of those few selected people by Jim Henson himself, who can provide us with this kind of knowledge through his talents. 

The Disney situation is a sensitive subject and more so the Henson one but as a fan who has been invested in the Muppet property obsessively since the age of three, I’m very confused and disheartened, the magic was ruined for me after 27 years, it is tainted, it’s made me lose my passion, I thought that was something I could never lose. The way I see it, there are two groups, the ones who accept that Steve is gone and then those who cannot accept it. What I am led to believe is that Steve stood up for Kermit and The Muppets and this passion was considered as difficult to work with, many other things might also apply but as a fan that’s the version I’m led to believe from everything I have read online. I remember reading at one point that Steve was very controlling and possessive of Kermit, I understand why people can find that frustrating. My view is that it was a good thing that he was possessive of Kermit, you need that dedication to keep the puppet true to itself if that support is not being given by production. Since that is my view and I agree with him on that decision therefor it affects me differently from others who might have a different view on that part. It was said that Steve was difficult to work with, there is so many ways to interpret this, could he have been lashing out his frustration at others? No excuse for that unless they were responsible for the situation with The Muppets portrayal. Or is the difficult to work with referring to his passion for Kermit and in trying to keep him consistent against productions wishes? 

One example given for Steve’s concern over Kermit was during an episode of The Muppets (2015) where Kermit lied to his nephew Robin about his relationship with Miss Piggy. It might not sound like a big deal but it is, Kermit would never have lied to Robin and after following The Muppets passionately for thirty years, something some might consider a minor detail can make a huge difference in changing the perception of a character. In The Muppets A Celebration Of 30 Years, when Robin asks Kermit what’s his favourite thing about The Muppets, he gets a very real and honest answer from Kermit “Those times when we don’t try to be just funny, and I think maybe those are my favourite parts”. As you get older you don’t realise or you might forget but for me that line meant a lot to me as a kid, from the first moment I watch that special. I admired so much that Kermit was so real with Robin, there were so many fun Muppet things to show but Kermit treated him as an equal with his actual honest answer and as a kid that made an impact on me. One-time in promotion for the 2015 series, Kermit made a comment that Denise (his new pig girlfriend) was old enough for him, again a minor throwaway line, which after 27 years altered my perception of the character, one I idolized very much. I know without Steve there Kermit might have said a lot worse on that show, although when the show captured Kermit correctly it worked much better and I did enjoy it. I wish we would have got a second season, season one was very productive trying to make things work just as every premier season of any show, had they continued they would have found their success. 

I’ve been a huge obsessed fan of the Muppets since I was three years old, The Muppets (2015) was the first time Kermit (and other characters) lost my respect. This is a major reason why Steve was on the right track in my opinion. I imagine myself as a test-fan, someone who had been obsessed with The Muppets for 27 years, only to lose that obsession slightly not because there were no new productions but because of a particular production. That to me I think is proof enough that not only was Steve in the right but it’s been proven with time, the fan base feels completely down, more so than ever since he left. Steve definitely was trying to protect Kermit’s true identity, therefor standing up for Jim Henson’s vision, because Jim Henson’s vision is what attracts his fans and if fans aren’t as invested that’s because they feel the vision is not truly there anymore for the franchise, which is exactly what Steve was fighting for. There’s still a lot of talented people behind The Muppets to keep the passion and legacy alive, but why remove such a strong piece of the structure? I think Steve Whitmire suffered from the same fate as Mark Hamill, being so dedicated to your character when it is being handled by different visionaries each time is stress at an all-time high. Mark Hamill voiced his concerns over how Luke Skywalker was handled in Episode 8, his guidance was ignored, the movie failed and fans were divided. Steve Whitmire voiced his concerns over how Kermit the Frog was handled in The Muppets (2015), his guidance was ignored, the series failed, fans somewhat stayed united, Steve Whitmire was fired, the fanbase divided. I imagine the people behind these decisions have nothing but the best intention to make the product they are working on be the best possible but that just doesn’t work out if you ignore the source material you’re working with. When someone who has portrayed a character for so many years is questioning your decisions in the character, it is obvious that fans will reject it too. Why waste time making something the fans will reject, when the power to give the best most entertainingly than humanly possible Muppet production can still be accomplished if done right. These days it is easier to ignore little details from the past in order for more freedom in creating new stories in the future but all that does is take people out of the illusion that this world they are so fanatic over is real. Little things like Scooter can have a mother who he has an obsessive relationship with but Gonzo cannot have a mother lost on holiday, might not mean much, but it’s important to fans. Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal do this very well, they respect the canon and whatever continuity has ever been established in the past. 

I personally have lost my passion for The Muppets since Steve Whitmire has been gone, that childish excitement The Muppets gave me is broken, it doesn’t feel like magic anymore. Before Steve was fired, I would watch every Muppet clip no matter how short, these days I’ve missed out on so many. The new Muppet show is delayed, the old me would have been so bothered and frustrated by this, but honestly, I wasn’t excitedly counting down the days as I have always done for every Muppet production since I was three years old. I still remember the countdown for The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets Tonight, Muppets From Space, Kermit’s Swamp Years, It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, The Muppets Wizard of Oz, Muppets Letters To Santa, The Muppets (2011), Muppets Most Wanted and even The Muppets (2015), the longest years of my life. When I think of Kermit now, I remember the situation and I get sad, what’s the point of watching something that just makes you sad? I hope this feeling doesn’t last forever. I was so happy when I learned Steve had attended what I believe was an official The Dark Crystal convention as a guest speaker, immediately I regretted not going, I learned there might be another convention in October and simply assumed Steve would be part of it and have decided to go if it does happen, what a Muppet rollercoaster of emotions I ride. Steve being recognized as part of The Dark Crystal by The Jim Henson Company, were things starting to fix themselves? Apparently not as just a few weeks ago the Fraggles made a comeback and unfortunately Steve Whitmire was nowhere to be found. I feel that even if The Jim Henson Company wanted to hire Steve they can’t as by doing so it goes against Disney’s statement that Steve is difficult to work with. Or perhaps The Henson Company just does not want to work with Steve anymore. I find this so hard to believe because never in my life would I have imagined that The Jim Henson Company would remove a performer from a character he created, only to continue using it without him. It’s been a few weeks now since the series premiered on Apple TV, I think there are now four episodes available, I still haven’t watched them. This makes me realize how unexcited I am about Muppets/Fraggles and anything Henson these days. The old me would have paid any price to Apple in the past to watch even a second of new Fraggle Rock content and now I still haven’t watched it. When I heard the news, I realized Wembley had been recast and with that I just ignored everything about it. I think I actually prefer Fraggles over Muppets so this should be a really big deal for me, especially considering the facts that anything new with the Fraggles is so rare but I simply don’t care. I completely ignored everything about it, didn’t even read the comments on social media, the old me would have read every single internet comment based on this. Eventually it was brought to my attention that fans were showing their displeasure at Steve’s absence from Fraggle Rock and so I did a bit of research and realized, the majority of people want Steve back attached to The Muppets and all other Jim Henson related characters. 

Even though Steve Whitmire is no longer attached to The Muppets, The Henson Company or Sesame Workshop that does not mean his puppeteering skills cannot continue to be valued. Weldon The Internet Troll has hacked his way into our existence and this to me proves how important it is to create new characters, I would have loved to have seen this Troll be part of the Muppet gang. I have to say I’m loving how Weldon is dealing and interacting with the coronavirus. I’ve always enjoyed South Park because they’re controversial but make you think of import things and they keep up with relevant topics of the moment and Weldon has all these qualities. This is the best and most genius way of using puppets in this modern age of technology, the only “cartoon” characters that can interact live with actual guests/audiences and especially at this very moment with lockdown. I saw a clip of Weldon interacting with a clip of Trump, what a brilliant idea, I can’t wait to see how that plays out. I’ve always enjoyed Weldon but as the episodes progress, I enjoy him more and more, he’s found himself I think. I’ve also noticed how Weldon wasn’t very comfortable being truly mean with his guests at the beginning but now that people are more familiar with him, he seems more comfortable with being grumpy towards them. In my opinion Steve has found the perfect balance for Weldon, he’s hot mouthed, he can get away with saying anything, he’s mean but yet has a heart. That balance Steve has found for him is perfect, that’s a hard balance to find, dare I say Weldon is the R-rated version of Oscar the Grouch, the balance between Oscar’s meanness and heart was captured perfectly by Carol Spinney. 

As much fun as Weldon is, what I miss most about Steve’s talents is how he played off with other Muppeteers, most specifically Dave Goelz. Dave and Steve’s pairing are to this generation what Jim and Frank’s pairing were to past generations. Gonzo and Rizzo, Bunsen and Beaker, Statler and Waldorf, Boober and Wembley, Andy Pig and Randy Pig, and if Beauregard and Bean Bunny have ever interacted together then add those two as well. Again, in Muppets history, characters have been left with one half of a dynamic duo, having to play off a different performer and sometimes that connection is not felt as purely as the original. When Jim Henson passed away, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Cookie Monster, Grover and Bert were playing off a different Kermit and Ernie. I was too young to feel the absence of Jim Henson at the time but I was old enough when Frank Oz moved away from The Muppets to feel his absence, what a long time that was. I still remember how fans went around two years with no new Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal or Sam the Eagle, then thankfully Eric Jacobson stepped in and did a wonderful job at bringing those characters back to life. Kermit and Miss Piggy were now played by two different performers, the puppets were there but the chemistry that will always change when performers are replaced. So, the further the character is removed from its original performer, the harder the character’s purity must be maintained to help keep continue the illusion that the character lives on forever, even in its seventh incarnation. I felt so sad when Frank moved away from The Muppets, I felt just the same as I do now but I was eventually able to get over it. I respected Frank’s decision because it was his decision to leave and pass on his characters to another performer but in Steve’s case, he was not ready to leave, he was still willing to continue. I believe he has a right to how Kermit is represented now that Jim Henson has been gone for so long as he has helped keep Kermit alive for 27 years. Some could argue he has no right to Kermit but at least to those characters he developed, he should never have been removed from Rizzo and Wembley, he should never have been removed in general. What a terribly sad thing to happen to the franchise that has always given me the most passion over all others, an obsessive passion, which I now miss very much, never did I think I could lose this feeling. 

There are so many great and talented Muppet performers making up the team, keeping alive Jim Henson’s Legacy through various different outlets. Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, Eric Jacobson, Matt Vogel, David Rudman, Peter Linz, all other Muppet performers, Sesame Street performers, Fraggle Rock performers, The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance performers, Jim Henson’s children and even Frank Oz through his Muppet Guys Talking Documentary. Matt Vogel has now become Kermit’s third performer and if it can’t be Steve I’m glad it’s Matt, the right person to have chosen, always keep main characters (especially Kermit) within the core main Muppeteers. Not only does Matt Vogel perform Kermit but because of him, many characters lost in action for many years returned back to The Muppets including Floyd, Lew Zealand, Robin but most importantly to me was Uncle Deadly. All my childhood life I wondered who was the weird blue dragon seen on a cast poster of The Muppet Show? Eventually I was introduced to him as Uncle Deadly but he had only ever made a handful of appearances on The Muppet Show and had then disappeared as though he had never existed. Thanks to Matt Vogel not only did Uncle Deadly finally return, he was fleshed out as a character and is now one of the general publics top favourites alongside The Swedish Chef, Beaker, Animal and Pepe. Frankie Cordero has now become Wembley Fraggle’s second performer, I have not heard or seen him perform Wembley yet but even without witnessing the new Wembley, believing Steve Whitmire was not done with that character yet makes it hard for me to accept a new Wembley or even a new Sprocket. The other day The Jim Henson Company posted a new Fraggle Rock video on Facebook and I watched it, I was eager to get a glimpse of the new Fraggle Performers. I’ve heard the new Gobo in the past and watching that new clip I heard the new Mokey for the first time but Wembley did not speak so as of yet no new Wembley for me. As a fan, I can accept these changes and I can accept Gobo and Mokey, seeing as Jerry Nelson is no longer here with us and I’ve heard Kathy Mullen was ready to pass on Mokey to a new performer. Wembley however I can’t, haven’t even seen him in action yet but knowing I grew up with Steve Whitmire’s Wembley and that Steve is still available, I just can’t. Peter Linz is Ernie’s fourth performer, I’m so unclear what’s been happening with Ernie through the years, Peter Linz is the perfect new Ernie and I can accept this, as Steve Whitmire had moved away from Ernie a long time ago, as he was to devoted to The Muppets. This is Ernie’s fourth performer, I would have hoped an established character would reach it’s fourth performer after at least 120 years, recasting Muppets must be such a delicate and difficult process, but for these characters to outlive all of us, recasts need to happen. As for other characters such as Statler, Beaker, Link Hogthrob, Bean Bunny, Lips, Sprocket, these days I’m not even sure whose performing which character anymore and we have no idea what is happening with Rizzo yet. Had Steve stepped down when he was ready, having blessed and guided the next performers then none of this would have been an issue for me. 

I would feel the same way I feel for Steve Whitmire as I would for any other performer mentioned throughout this article, who faced the same situation as Steve. I like The Muppets, I like their performers, I just want it all to be happy and perfect again and in order to do that, I feel a lot more people other than just Steve Whitmire need to be brought back to The Muppets. If the original Kermit isn’t here to be the leader behind the scenes then who better than the original Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, both of Kermit’s best pairings combined into one person, probably the only person who can closest capture the magic of the original Muppets and that wizard is Oz. I’ve always believed a company’s main goal is to make money, even more so than the art. But when you create a masterpiece, that’s when the money starts to come in. People who understand The Muppets and worked with Jim Henson means a true continuation of Jim Henson’s legacy, which mean more monies! How does one attempt to make the best Muppet production possible? You bring in Frank Oz, why has this not happened yet? The Disney Company should realize that once Frank Oz is gone, the closest The Muppets can get to themselves without Jim Henson will be lost forever, why is nobody jumping at the chance to do this? I think The Muppets can join the billion-dollar club but to do that they need all the right people, Jim Henson’s people. Jerry Juhl, Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson, some of them are no long with us but many are still here and the talent they each possess individually should be put together to create something special, at least one last time. Paul Williams, he needs to write more Muppet music, Kirk Thatcher and Jim Lewis need to write more Muppet material, Drew Struzan has to make more Muppet posters, Frank Oz needs to direct again, Jim Henson’s children need to be involved and everybody who Jim Henson had chosen should be brought back together again. The best way to help keep Jim Henson’s Legacy alive is by keeping and uniting those few that he chose to be part of his team, and even entrusted them with The Muppets even once he was gone. There are also so many lifelong Muppeteers who work in the background, all these performers deserve a chance to create new characters to welcome into the Muppet family. Not only does this help them grow as performers but it also gradually gives The Muppets a larger cast of characters to play around with. This is something very important that Muppets Tonight got right by introducing so many new characters that are now considered part of the classic Muppet family. 

The Disney Company has accomplished great things with The Muppets, the 2011 movie was pure Muppet magic at its best. As were the live Muppet Shows and The Electric Mayhem’s first ever live concert. The Muppet Babies Reboot was a genius idea, promote who ever greenlit that production. Muppet Babies has given The Muppets a whole new meaning to this new generation of kids. Muppet Babies the original series is what led me to The Muppets and the reboot has now done the same thing for so many new fans. There should be a Muppet Babies Reboot every ten years, as I think this is the best way to gain new generations of fans to discover The Muppets and all their past glory. A few days ago, I decided to watch Prop Culture, Episode 8 as I had heard it was based on The Muppet Movie. I wasn’t going in to it very enthusiastically as I normally would have, it was just something I was going to watch to pass the time. I’ve watched it three times now, I even cried the first time, a Muppet production made me cry, the magic is still there. Gonzo came out for a brief moment and since the whole episode worked so well, it made Gonzo’s appearance even more enjoyable. That was an amazing episode, I hope they make others based on other Muppet movies. Everything needed to make the best Muppets possible is available, it just all has to come together and work as a team and this would include Steve Whitmire. This was a mistake made in the past, can the future not be fixed? Can The Muppets be put first before anyone else? Bring everyone back, most fans don’t just want the Muppets, they want the people attached to them too. 

- Nicholas Napoli

1 comment:

  1. Bless you Nicholas, for this fine article. I've bookmarked it for the future. I was up late last night working with Steve, as I'm one of the callers / Troll Mob on his new YouTube Live Broadcast. CAVE IN. His new puppet Weldon is my Troll Buddie, as I'm a regular now. Our friendship began on Muppet Pundit when he was speaking with his most trusted fans to get through the worst time in his life, after being let go by Disney / and what was left of the Henson organization. We had a few real trolls infiltrate, the blog site, and thus we were there to fend them off. Weldon is an Internet Troll puppet and is an amazing new character. If you do not know about this, then here is the link Last night's show is still in etid, He will also post this, when he's finished this. I am Anne Terri, the first guest caller..