Ahead of The Walt Disney Family Museum’s #Play2018 events on Saturday 13 October!, it’s an absolute honour and a privilege for us to interview the legendary Dave Goelz, puppeteer and puppet builder, best known for his work with The Muppets!
Introducing: Puppets, Pencils and Play…
BD: First off, can you tell us a little bit about how – and why – you became a puppeteer and puppet builder? I understand that after having seen Sesame Street you became curious about the design process and craftsmanship involved in its production. Was this a defining moment for you? Or had you always had a fascination with the craft?
DG: I fell in love with puppets at age five, when I watched Time for Beanie and The Howdy Doody Show. I watched the characters through the eyes of a child, but also through the eyes of an adult. I wanted to know how Howdy’s mouth worked; how long Howdy’s strings were. My parents bought me a Howdy Doody marionette, and I thought the strings were too short. It seemed to me that Howdy’s strings were ten feet long, so I asked my father if he could put longer strings on my marionette. I figured I could work him from the top of our ladder. Fortunately, he talked me out of it. I also had a Howdy ventriloquist dummy, but it was the kind with a pull string at the rear of the neck. I wished for the kind with a hollow body and lots of controls inside. Every time I visited a toy store, I looked for that kind of dummy, but never found one. I still check, every time I’m in a toy store. The weird thing is I’m a grownup; I could just have a professional dummy made. But I don’t, because it’s only five-year-old Davey who wants one.
BD: We believe that drawing is a universal language, with the ability to change lives; what are your views on the importance of drawing? Moreover, what role has the practice of drawing played in your own career?
DG: I’ve drawn from earliest memory. I used to design cars at age seven. My parents got me a Handy Andy drafting set, and I was off and running, drawing side-views of my own designs for futuristic cars. Then I started cartooning, drawing Disney characters, and creating a few of my own. My father, a mechanical engineer, taught me to design and build things. That led to my education at Art Center, and in my first career as an industrial designer, I designed using elaborate chalk sketches. When I started working for the Muppets, I designed characters using the same chalk technique. Everything I design starts with drawings.
BD: Over the years you have worked not only in making puppets, but also in performing various characters. As you may know, our Big Draw festival theme this year is ‘Play’. Would you say that taking a playful approach to your work was key in the physical creation, as well as the emotional development of each character?
DG: Jim Henson was all about play, which was a special treat for his business people, because their otherwise dry meetings were always fun. They all say it was the best job they ever had. I’ve had the privilege of being paid to play for forty-five years, and I’m still going. I believe play keeps you young.
BD: A key component of the theme of ‘Play’ for our Big Draw festival is in encouraging having fun, letting loose and embracing happy accidents. Do you believe in such a thing as a ‘happy accident’, and the power to learn or develop from your mistakes? If so, are there any experiences you can point to from your own life and career that would support this?
DG: Sure, I’ve had happy accidents during my time with the Muppets—like every single thing I’ve done! Jim welcomed and enjoyed failure. How else can you create really fresh work? We took those failures and polished them into something useful. But look at the whole range of the Muppet Show characters: they’re all failures in some way. That’s why they need each other. I think their flaws affect the audience in a deep way. We can all relate to their struggles.
BD: With regard to your work performing characters such as Gonzo, Zoot and Bunsen, what did you find was most difficult about distinguishing a unique and memorable identity for each character, and how did this differ from visualizing and creating their physical appearances?
DG: The physical appearance and character are intertwined. A well-designed puppet will let you know who he is before you even pick him up. We have the best puppet designers in the world, focused on creating intriguing characters. Our performers are always welcome to work with the shop when a new character is being created. For example, while Mari Kaestle was building Link Hogthrob, we all speculated on what a chauvinist pig would look like. That led to his gold chain, and the fake chest hair he wore. When we work together, ideas beget better ideas. As our Fraggle Rock producer Larry Mirkin used to say, “We’re all working in service of the best idea.”
BD: With reference to your character, Gonzo, you have said that over the years he evolved with you, and that as you became more confident in your abilities, his character began to grow. Was this self-belief key in the development of your characters?
DG: Each character is different. Gonzo evolved more than my other characters, probably because of the close friendship between our head writer, Jerry Juhl, and myself. Jerry saw my growth and incorporated it into Gonzo. The fear-based Boober Fraggle also evolved, because at first, I had trouble making him entertaining. Eventually, we created obsessions for him, such as cooking and laundry, that made him feel momentarily secure. Bunsen Honeydew has become more gleeful and silly, while remaining oblivious to the suffering of his assistant Beaker. Other characters, such as Zoot the Sax player have remained relatively stable. He still doesn’t know what’s going on. Zoot just lives through his music… what year is it? That’s somebody else’s problem.
BD: What would be your advice for those interested in puppetry, puppet building and the performance industry? What sort of challenges or opportunities await the industry’s future generation of puppeteers?
DG: My advice would be: if you love it, just do it, and try to get good at it. I don’t know a lot about puppetry in general, because I really come at it from a character perspective. Puppets are a great way to do a larger range of characters than are available to an actor, since each character has his own unique body. It does seem that high profile puppet opportunities are rare. You have to do it because you love it. If you can make a living, so much the better.
Thank you to Dave Goelz and the team at The Walt Disney Family Museum!
Interview by The Big Draw: Interview: Matilda Barratt, Edited by: Rachel Price.
We hope you enjoyed our interview with Dave! If you have been inspired by his insights into the world of puppetry, play, drawing and design? Why not become a part of the world’s largest drawing festival or find an event near you this autumn?
Visit The Walt Disney Family Museum for their annual, museum-wide family event on Saturday the 13th of October to celebrate Walt Disney’s contributions to the world of art and drawing.