The positive effects of sharing things you love.

So last week, I gave my students a new, quick, research assignment to find out about voice actors. It was simple and I hoped, fun. It turned out really great – and the best part was, we all enjoyed it and everyone learned something new, including me.

They were to work in pairs to find some basic information about performers who are famous for their voices. The list of names included, (but was not limited to) Nancy Cartwright (The Simpsons), Billy West (Futurama), Mel Blanc (Looney Tunes), John DiMaggio (Futurama), Dan Castellena (The Simpsons) and of course several Muppeteers, such as Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Kevin Clash, Caroll Spinney and Jerry Nelson.

Their presentations were simple and to the point and consisted of Name, Birth/Death (if applicable), where they live, career highlights, and major characters. Then they were asked to find two contrasting YouTube clips to share with the class. In some cases, I helped. In others, they had a myriad of examples. In all cases, the students were impressed with the variety and skill of these performers and their vocal abilities. It was a great week.

This week, we moved on to creating simple props. The Grade 9s were to create something with a basic shape – rectangle, square, round, cylinder – but to represent something realistic. Essentially a brick, stone or stepping stone. They went to town. I’ve now got on display some headstones, a paving stone, several versions of bricks, an oversized hunk of chocolate with a bite removed and a swiss roll. All made from cardboard, florist foam or styrofoam. Incredible.

Simple Bricks and other Props on display.

The Grade 10s get their pick of props to make. It just has to be something that a character could use on stage in some manner. I’ve now got several weapons, including a couple of animation inspired swords, an overly large hammer – it’s hard to describe, it’s SO huge, Thor’s hammer, (complete with leather wrapped handle), Pooh’s Hunny Jar – complete with BumbleBees on it, a diary, a Marauder’s Map, a sorcerer’s collection of goodies, pumpkins made from dryer tubing and an amazing Mad Hatter’s Hat – so incredible and large that it won’t fit in the display case. Most of these creations were made with less than $5 and some with $0! That’s what I call creative prop making! These kids had a blast and were coming to class early to get to work on their creations. It was amazing to watch them work and collaborate and encourage one another. So thrilling.

Assorted Props on Display!


Adventures in Atlanta

So… it’s been 3 solid weeks since I left for my puppet making adventure in San Francisco and a lot has happened since then.

First, I had that adventure. Then I returned and immediately recorded a new podcast, which hopefully many of you are enjoying. We also had a fun photo shoot scheduled for our team, which was great – I’ll post a few shots here.

Fun Photo Shoot with Balloons!
The team… looking cool with the shades!

Second, Jerry Nelson passed away and that sideswiped the Muppetverse for a bit. Me included. All other thoughts and projects seemed to take a back seat. But he’d want us to continue to create, so we do… and then…

School began.

Wow. I think this feels like a potentially good year. We’ll see how it goes with the theatre projects and the masks and the puppets and the rehearsal, etc. etc. But as I’m here at the end of the first week, I’m feeling pretty positive about 2012-2013. And while I’m looking forward, I realize I still have one story to tell that is in the past, and that’s my trip home from San Francisco, via Atlanta – and the Center for Puppetry Arts.

You see, I had a layover on the way there and the way back. Both in Atlanta – which is a pretty impressive airport, let me tell you. It has a train, for heaven’s sake! It takes you from one gate to another. Wow. It is definitely planned with the comfort of the traveler in mind. But that’s not the point of my blog – just a compliment to the Atlanta Airport Design Team.

You see, on the way home, I paid extra for an 8 hour layover in Atlanta, just so I could get to the Center for Puppetry Arts. And BOY, was it worth it. If you’ve not been there, and you like puppets, even a little bit, then you NEED to get yourself there. Or at the very least, sign up for a webinar from their site – I’m going to do one in the next couple of weeks.

So, here’s what I did….

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that on Monday I was up and exploring San Francisco as a tourist and went to the Academy of Sciences and bought pretty shoes and had Mexican dinner and then got on a plane – at 10 p.m., on the same day, tired but happy. By 6 a.m., (the next day), local time, I was in Atlanta, where I left the airport and took public transit into the centre of town. I had advice from a lovely lady at the turnstile as to how to buy a pass and I was on my way – luggage and all to find the Center.

Well, that took almost no time at all. Off the train, up one block, around the corner and… there it was as plain as day. And it’s now only 7:30 a.m. They don’t open until 9. So, I’m off in search of a coffee shop, which I found about a block away and I sat nursing my coffee and nibbling at a muffin and wondering how long I could survive on no sleep and tons of excitement. Finally, I trekked back to the Center – but I was still too early, so I had to wait outside for about 15 minutes until they opened. And when they did, I was it. The ONLY guest. And I mean ONLY! So, were they put out? Were they disappointed? Absolutely NOT! They were beyond generous. Beyond.

First, they offered to store my suitcase. Thrilling. Second, I was offered two kinds of tickets – either a normal admission to the exhibits for about $8 or a special passport for the day with events, etc. for about $10. I had to clarify – “You mean $8 plus $10?” I asked. No. They meant $8 OR $10. Ridiculous. I went for the whole hog and after selling me my ticket, I was told to meet with the guide at 10 o’clock beside Big Bird. (I ask you, who else gets to say things like that every day?)

So, there I was… alone in the Jim Henson exhibit for 1 hour. It was devine. Despite the sleep deprivation. I soaked it all in. I actually couldn’t really decide where to look first. But look I did, and at every little detail, without having to elbow or crane over anyone or navigate around people.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather they were a bustling, busy empire. But it felt so special to be alone with those creations for an hour. It really did.

When it came time for the adventure part of the day, I didn’t even know if they’d run the program with just little old me there… but that was a silly worry that was put to rest, right quickly by the adorable and generous staff. Most especially Aretta. Ladies and gentlemen, this is one special lady who loves her job. And I don’t blame her. It seems like a really great job. But she went above and beyond the call of duty. She showed me around like I was some impressive VIP who’d just given millions to the place. It was an incredible visit. I played for the day. We had shadow puppets. We told stories. They showed me African puppets and toured me through the collection and opened up a few doors that would have otherwise remained closed. It was just great.

By the end, I was just overwhelmed and couldn’t take it in anymore – and even though I didn’t want to leave, my head and heart were too full, and of course, there was a plane getting ready to take me back home. So, I departed. But, as Aretta kept saying, “when you come back…” well, now I have to, right?

So, I will. Someday.

I’m going to go back there, someday.

August 24th, 2011

Like many Muppet Fans, I have spent this day in reflection.

This day marked the morning where we heard the news of Jerry Nelson’s passing.

We knew this day was coming, as his health had been in decline, but as Muppet Fans, we enjoy a sense of fantasy, whimsy and denial of things “sensible”, so, I think, many of us decided that this day was still a long way off. Or we hoped it was.

Waking up this morning was tough. I mean waking up. I didn’t have foreknowledge of any sort. I hadn’t stayed up late and heard the news, I just have allergies and I’m tired. When I went to my computer and saw the Muppet Central update, well, tears sprang to my eyes. Literally. And yes, teacher friends, I mean literally, the tears sprang there and quietly and consistently ran down my cheeks. This has repeated itself on and off throughout this day.

It’s not the same as when Jim died. Then, I was in denial and anger. (In a way, I still am in denial and anger…but… ). Today was profound grief. Today is the loss of a great, gentle and supportive talent who was suffering and didn’t deserve to do so. Jerry was ill. And now, he’s not. I’m happy about that, but I’m sad for the cure to his illness.

I’m sad for his close friends and family. I’m sad for the Sesame Street Gang and the Muppeteers who will feel this loss so keenly. If I am feeling this loss, I can only imagine their woe at this time.

I’m happy for his fans. His many, many legions of fans, who don’t even know they are his fans. These people still have hours and hours and hours of recordings to enjoy. At least he was able to continue to work to a decent time in his life. I wish he could have continued longer.

I spent most of this day traveling and working, so my connection to the discussions and sharing of memories were via smart phones and wifi, (thank heaven we have these things now, for immediate commiserations). Only now have I had some time to put my thoughts into words. And this is a good thing, as this morning, I had none. Just dumbstruck silence at the loss.

I will revel in the sharing and the celebration. I will remember and rejoice that we were so lucky to share his genius. I will research, repost and reblog to keep his memory alive. This won’t be difficult as he left us so much to enjoy. I will continue to follow and create and share joy, because it seems that’s what Jerry did best.

I am humbled to have been entertained by this wonderful person. I am profoundly sad that he has gone on to another adventure. I am extremely grateful that he left us some of his magic. I am inspired.

As one tweet said today….(@ToasterBoy – Grant Baciocco)…

“Listen, Jerry Nelson’s gone. We all gotta ramp up the nice about 110% to make up for the deficit.”

He’s right. So, … challenge accepted.

You with me?


Muppet Central Radio Game

Here’s a little game I play, with myself… (don’t be dirty)

I like to put on the Muppet Central Radio channel when I’m working on some chores. You know, the dishes, laundry, whatever. Something that would be great fun on Sesame Street, but at home, by yourself, it’s mundane and depressing. Then I play a little game.

First, I have to be a distance from the computer or my phone – which is easy, cause I’m busy doing some chore. But as each song comes on, without looking, I run through as many details of the tune as I can possibly think of whilst listening. Now sometimes this is easy. For example when the Oscar winning Man or Muppet is played, I can remember who wrote it, for what purpose, who sang it (character and performer), and of course the scene plays in my mind. And I sing along at the top of my lungs.

Sometimes it’s not so easy. For example, I may hear what is unmistakably Jim Henson’s voice, but at first listen it may be difficult to tell if the character is Kermit or Ernie – he’s not given away a tell tale character giggle yet or said “Hi Ho!” So, without looking, I try to decipher the setting, the character and everything I can from simply listening. It’s also fun when a “What-not” song comes along, to determine which character is Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt or Louise Gold, etc. Or, when it is clearly an Ernie and Bert segment – is it Jim & Frank or Steve & Eric, etc. Again, often easy, but still enjoyable.

This evening a segment from an early Veterinarian’s Hospital came on, and without Piggy actually before my eyes to distract me with her beauty, it was so easy to tell that the voice was Richard Hunt. This is, of course, how I knew it was an early episode.

I do frequently check to see how close I am in my guesses and what info might be there on the station, but if I’m stumped, then there’s always the good ol’ reliable Muppet Wiki to help me along. If you’ve never explored the Muppet Wiki – you are in for a treat!

It’s a simple and fun trivia-esque game that would be hard to play with another person – unless they were in the room with you, as their load rates could be different and they might be one song ahead or behind you – should you ever try to play this with someone while chatting or skypeing. Just a thought.

But of course, no one out there is quite as nerdy as I. Are they?

Let me know if you are.