The design was based loosely on a drawing that my friend Ryan Lucas had done for a dorm T-shirt. He’s off-white because the fabric store had a very limited selection of fleece.


He appeared in my first video project, Freeform, which won a College Television Award (“Student Emmy”) from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. But a much bigger sign of his success as a character was the fact that he was asked to appear in two different student videos not produced by me; one being a cross between Love Connection and The Dating Game, and the other being about an inter-species breakup. He was a very suave duck.


How did you get to work on Sesame Street ?

Through a bizarre series of events, I got to meet Muppet Performer David Rudman and he told me that at that time, the Jim Henson Company was having a huge casting call for female performers. I came to New York and auditioned, made all the cuts, but that only put me in a talent pool that would not necessarily guarantee me future work.


A few months later, I was invited to participate in a month-long workshop in New York, and after that, I veeeery slowly got folded into the Muppet Performer pool and started working on Sesame. It was about five years before I really felt like I was one of the team.


What characters do you play on Sesame Street?

I currently play Baby Bear’s little sister Curly Bear. I have also played the short-lived characters Elizabeth and Lulu. Mostly, though, I play lots and lots of walk-on characters...numbers and letters and vegetables and sheep and chickens and talking teapots and fairy tale characters and subjects on “Elmo’s World” and...well, just about anything. Recently I got to do some fun parodies: Liz Lemon in “30 Rocks,” Mariella in “Pre-School Musical,” a cow in “True Cud” and Detective Brenda Leigh Johnson in “The Closer.” (She too closes cases: suitcases, eyeglass cases...) I put them here! And I got to be a tomato when First Lady Michelle Obama visited the Street.


Muppet Wiki (www.muppet.wikia.com) keeps track of who plays what characters, but of course there have been massive numbers of Muppets over the decades, in both regular and walk-on roles, so it’s impossible for all of them to be listed, and like all wikis, it has a margin of error and should not be taken as gospel. It’s a great jumping-off resource for all things Muppet, though.


How long have you worked on Sesame Street?

My first day of work on Sesame Street was November 3, 1993. I played Monster #3 and I actually had several lines in this debut, which included “I want salad” and “She said she’d be right back.”


Prior to that, in June of 1993, I “apprenticed” on the Sesame Street 25th Anniversary Home Video where I puppeteered an Oinker Sister in the big finale number.


Since my first day on the set in 1993, Sesame Street’s 25th season, I have worked at least one day every season since then.  I was not added to the credit crawl until 1998 (Season 30) and because there used to be different crawls for different directors, I was inexplicably in only half of them. I was added to all of the crawls (which used to only run on Fridays) the following season (Season 31, 1999) when I became a contracted performer.


What is it like to work on Sesame Street?

I grew up with Sesame Street...the golden age of the show. So to be a part of that legacy, even in a small way, is a true honor and privilege. Of course, after so many years, any set starts to feel like every other set...with the same long days and politics and stale snacks and exhaustion. You actually get used to seeing Snuffy stored up in the lighting grid or lifeless Muppets piled on a table or Bob in a chicken suit. In fact, you can get downright blasé about it. What makes the place truly special are the people. That cast and crew...I love them so much. And almost all of them came to see AVENUE Q. Bob McGrath even came to see my first solo cabaret at Birdland - a returned favor, I suppose, for my having seen him in concert when I was three years old!


I had an amazing experience: on February 22, 2010, the cast of Sesame Street was honored by AFTRA with an AMEE Award for Entertainment, and I was a part of that group who shared in the award and its presentation. What an incredible thing, to share an award with people I’ve admired since childhood.


I heard that you sang on the R.E.M. insert “Furry Happy Monsters” (the parody of “Shiny Happy People”). Is that true?

Yes. It’s true. It was a wow. If you want the whole story, click here.


Did you ever meet Jim Henson?

Jim Henson died on May 16, 1990, when I was a freshman in college, so sadly, I never got to meet him. I have been fortunate enough to have met and/or worked with most of his colleagues, as well as his family.


What is your favorite puppet character you have ever played?

I enjoyed playing Uma (from Oobi) so much. I wish I had the rights to the character, as I would love to do little videos with her where she gets frustrated by the world around her. I want to see her just try to open a sugar packet for two minutes, then end with her in a spotlight singing Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.”  But who has time for all those potential lawsuits?


I also had incredible fun guest-puppeteering the über-cute Gertrude the Groundhog on Jack’s Big Music Show - and not just because Jon Stewart was in the episode! (Although that was amazing. I was an idiot, such was my awe.)


Is it fun to be a puppeteer?

Sometimes it is more fun than you can believe. More often than not, it is very painful and sweaty.  The Muppeteer motto is: “If you’re comfortable when you puppeteer, you’re not doing it right.” It is many, many things, but one thing it is not is easy.


Have you worked with all of the other Muppet Performers?

With the exceptions of Jim Henson and Richard Hunt, who both passed away while I was in college, I have had the great honor and pleasure to work with all of the major American Muppet Performers. They are incredibly special people and damn fine performers, and I have found inspiration from each and every one of them, both on-camera and off.  Just about all of them came to AVENUE Q as well, and Fran Brill was even at opening night, as well as at Birdland. It all sounds very golly-gee, but it’s very true.


What is your favorite Muppet Movie?

My favorite Muppet film is The Great Muppet Caper, though I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for The Muppet Movie. My favorite Muppet TV special is Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. My favorite hour of Sesame Street is Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. Not that you asked. Just covering my bases.


Your husband is a Muppet guy, right? Is that how you met?

My husband, Craig Shemin, started working for the Henson Company as an intern for the archives, and then worked there full time for 14 years, first in PR and then as a staff writer and creative consultant. We met through mutual Northwestern friends. We haven’t had that many chances to work together in a writer-puppeteer capacity, though we did both work on the first season on The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss way back in 1996.

muppets

(and non-muppet puppets)

I have been a professional puppeteer and Muppet Performer since 1993. The “puppet” you see me with above is Uma from the Noggin series “Oobi.” I do not know who took this photo, but it was sent to me by the production and my husband remarked, “You know, Uma has the same expression that you do. Turn the picture upside down and it’s still the same picture.” Here are some of the questions people have asked me about this unorthodox profession:

The three Lulus, in 1999, 2000, and 2001. She never looked the same from one season to another. There was even a Lulu version 3.1 in one episode with red glasses (I didn’t love them - too Sally Jessy!). Then suddenly, she was no longer written for. She’s resurfaced recently, but only as an extra. I’ve even played her, sometimes, by happenstance. Sigh.

Elizabeth lasted from 1997 to 2000. Another inexplicable disappearance. Man, she was fun to play while I had the chance. Of all of my “Sesame” semi-regulars, she was my favorite.

Curly Bear debuted in 2004 and  appeared about once a season until Season 45 taped in 2013, the first season where she did not show up at all, not even in a crowd scene. This is not to say she’s completely dead, just MIA. I credit what longevity she’s had to her eye mechanism. She looks cute even when she has nothing to say, which is often.

Marty Robinson was kind enough to give me an old pair of Uma eyes from when we did the “Oobi” interstitials, so when John E. Barrett took some headshots for me in 2005, I had to get a nice photo, since I don’t recall taking an official picture for Noggin. Oh, Uma. She was so much fun.

I played Gertrude the Groundhog, a green sheep, and Scat Cat on “Jack’s Big Music Show” and had the time of my life, and not just because they were the cutest puppets ever.

Speaking of cute, I loved playing this little pink jacket from one of the first “Elmo’s World”s. In fact, the writers liked her too and brought her back in one episode of “Sesame Street” as Zoe’s jacket that had magically come to life. No, really.

We do a lot of green screen work on “Sesame Street” so that little robin puppets (like the one I am holding for “Elmo’s World: Birds”) can fly. You can also see my 6-inch platform shoes that I have to wear because Muppet Performers tend to be tall. Not that they make me tall, just taller. I remember this period of weight loss with great fondness. And yes, I would normally be wearing a green cowl to cover my head.

With Grizzy, from “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland,” my first and so far last feature film.  I gained a SAG card and fifteen pounds working on it. Ah, the joy of being an unseen puppeteer... you can really let yourself take advantage of craft service.

Another short-lived “Sesame Street” character: Mooba, from Monster Clubhouse, which lasted two seasons. In the second season, she was renamed Googel. I don’t know why, since there was a green monster in Monster Clubhouse named Groogel, but when Mooba got changed to Googel, Groogel got changed to Phoebe. Got it?  I didn’t exactly love Monster Clubhouse, but I loved having a character and loved the puppet, built by Michael Schupbach (who I think took this picture) and I loved that I was thinner in this photo.

It only took me 16 years to get this photo taken.

Craig is now President of the Jim Henson Legacy and often hosts screenings of films and other clip packages of Muppet rarities that he’s produced. And he freelances for Muppets now and then as well, as was the case on Today. He also co-wrote on the Webby-nominated Muppets Kitchen (with Cat Cora!) web interstitials.


Hey, why aren’t there any pictures of you with the Sesame Street gang? Or any of the stars with whom you’ve worked? Or the other Muppet Performers?

For now, I am choosing to not post photos of anyone else without their permission, and if you see the face of a living creature other than myself or my husband pictured on this site, it is either a press/promotional/publicity photo or I have gotten permission.   Thus, I have no bragging photo gallery of me with celebrities. The era of Web politeness must start somewhere. If you’ve ever had a bad photo posted and tagged by one of your “friends” on Facebook, you know of what I speak.


So, what have we learned, kids?


That there will always be people who never understand what you do or why you do it.

No, I did not get Lasik. I am wearing glasses because I was told I needed to wear them when I really didn’t.


On November 13, 2008, we were both involved with the “Muppet Takeover” of the Today show, where he not only wrote for it but also appeared briefly as an extra, and I played a Muppet Ann Curry.

Did you always want to be a puppeteer?

I didn’t even think about puppetry much at all until I was in college. I rediscovered the funny memories of my youth like Bugs Bunny cartoons and the Muppets and Schoolhouse Rock while I was there, and that’s when becoming a Muppet Performer started to gel as a career idea. It was the perfect way to do the character acting I loved without it mattering what I looked like, as I have never been what is considered a “desirable casting type.” So I experimented by building my own horrible-looking puppets (building is an art I am not gifted in) and doing my own experiments and videos.


One of the more successful and better-looking characters I built in college was a duck named Norm. Here he is:

A photo by Paul McGinnis, taken during Season 41. This is actually a celebrity photo, to appease those who crave them... the scarf and hands behind me are those of Michael McKean.