INTERVIEW WITH STEVE WHITMIRE
Puppeteer with The Jim Henson Company
Performer of Kermit the Frog, Rizzo the Rat, Wembley Fraggle, Ernie of Sesame Street, Foo Foo the Poodle, Bean Bunny and many other wonderful characters!
BY Gina 1998
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Steve!
You're welcome! Thank you for asking me to do it, Gina!
When did you first start to work for The Jim Henson Company (JHC) and what did you do?
I joined the company in 1978 during season 3 of The Muppet Show. I was 19 years old and had met Jim after meeting Carrol Spinney at a Puppetry Festival. It was Carrol who encouraged me to contact Jim for an audition. I started out doing background characters, and often standing in for Frank with Fozzie. Piggy had become a major character and someone had to puppeteer Fozzie while Frank did Piggy. My very first episode of the series was the Alice Cooper show, and I was inside of Thog as he made a brief cross holding a sparkler. My favorite job during that time, and probably ever, was working with Jim performing Rowlf's hands on the piano. I would spend hours learning every nuance of a pre-recorded piano track so that I had every note memorized. It was so much fun!
Did you invent Rizzo?
During the Muppet Show, all us background puppeteers were encouraged to grab whatever puppet we wanted (aside from main characters) for the background of the backstage scenes of the show. One day I was rummaging through a box of old puppets in storage and I came across some old rat puppets built by Don Sahlin for the Musicians of Bremen television special Jim had done several years earlier. They were crude puppets built with bodies made from quart-sized bleach bottles and mounted on two foot long sticks. They mostly just bounced around when you wiggled them, but I really loved them, and sneaked one into the backstage scenes, having it dance insanely. Jim loved it, and soon it was decided to work my rat into the family.
I went about designing an easy-to-use control for the rat. It was built by the shop and put into a new rat puppet that I designed and built certain pieces of. So, I didn't really "invent" him; more like RE-invented him. His name was Frank's idea, from the Dustin Hoffman character in "Midnight Cowboy".
What was your favorite Muppet movie to work on?
My favorite to work on was probably the first film, The Muppet Movie, because I was so new to it all. I actually prefer television to film work because of how much quicker we're able to see the result of our hard work.
What did you do with The Jim Henson Company between 1990 and 1993 (the quiet time) ?
Well... let's see. We did the Muppet tribute show to Jim in 1990. We finished the Muppetvision 3D film for Walt Disney World, which was the last film Jim directed. We started Dinosaurs, and we did Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992, which was my first major role as Kermit.
Image of Kermit and Rizzo © The Jim Henson Company
Artist - Gina