Earl explores mind of Muppets maker

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Michael Earl gave life to Ernie’s right hand.

Jim Henson’s ‘right hand man’ recalls, reflects

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | A frog, a log, a swamp, a song and a dream: That image, from the opening scene of 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” is also the first thing you see upon entering “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World.” Through early March, you can find that world — in the form of a remarkably insightful Smithsonian traveling exhibition — in Astoria. Make the trip. It’s worth the effort.

Snake your way through the lobby of the Museum of the Moving Image, up a set of stairs and past the amphitheater’s screening of Jim Henson’s 1965 live action short “Timepiece,” and you’ll come face to face with the soft-spoken visionary’s most enduring creation. There’s Kermit the Frog — under glass, frozen in time, not having aged a bit since his days on public television, in the movies and as a TV variety show host.

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Puppet School co-founder Michael Earl (with glasses, back row, left) preps a new generation to build on the Henson legacy.

In addition to drawings, storyboards, props, video clips and photographs, the exhibit features 15 original puppets. Some are familiar and iconic. “Sesame Street” buddies Bert and Ernie are there, as is Miss Piggy — in full bridal regalia, eagerly anticipating her wedding to a certain amphibian. Other Henson creations, seen in the form of video clips from his early work on 1960s TV commercials, are less familiar. But they set the stage for things to come (Sir Linit, a knight whose body is made out of a spray can, looks an awful lot like Ernie; and the clumsy gait of a giant dragon anticipates that of Big Bird).

“I was taken with the fact that people were laughing at this old commercial of the dragon coming around the corner and knocking grocery items off the shelf with his tail,” says Michael Earl. A four-time Emmy Award-winning puppeteer (formerly Mr. Snuffleupagus on “Sesame Street”), Earl and his business partner, Roberto Ferreira, joined us on a trip through “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World.” Of audience reaction to those ancient black and white TV commercials, Earl notes, “I thought it was funny that they laughed so much. I saw it twice, with two different groups of people, and it reminded me of the timelessness of Jim’s humor.”

Earl, who had touched or worn most of the Muppets on display, began his career as a 19-year-old puppeteer working on “The Muppet Movie” (that’s him, as Big Bird, in the film’s climactic scene). Early on in the filming, Earl recalls, “I noticed there was a spot on the monitor, where the director sits. Jim was standing there, and I said, ‘There’s a spot on the picture.’ It turned out there wasn’t a spot on the film, just the monitor. Very graciously, instead of getting annoyed with this young kid, he said, ‘It’s okay. We have people to take care of things like that.’ In a gentle and caring way, he let me know I needed to relax and not worry.”

Henson’s mellow demeanor remained consistent throughout their years of working together, Earl says — adding, however, that the businessman who ran the Muppet empire was “a delegator who only gave one minute to a problem. When he set a goal, he wouldn’t look at the whole staircase, just a step at a time.”

When it came to creative collaboration, delegation was a necessity. Earl spent time as Henson’s right hand man — literally. “It would have been around 1978,” Earl recalls, when for the first time he performed as “Sesame Street” regular Ernie.

“The Muppets have something called ‘right handing,’ ” explains Earl. “When Jim and Frank [Oz] would do Bert and Ernie, they needed somebody to do the right hand, and sometimes I’d be assigned the job. The right hand has to sort of compliment the lead puppeteer. If you watch any Muppet performance, you’ll notice the left hand is the most active — which is not something people would think about, because it’s supposed to be seamless. But the technique behind that seamless quality is that the right hand movement is very subtle, like salt and pepper on a meal.”

The meat of the exhibit, for Earl at least, was the wealth of production notes. Henson’s handwritten thoughts shed light on the conceptual phase of everything from “Fraggle Rock” to 1982’s “The Dark Crystal” (an ambitious original fairy tale that Earl refers to as Henson’s “Fantasia”).

“I love that you could see inside the mind of Jim, through his sketches and storyboards. I love seeing all those pieces together in the exhibit, because it gave you a more complete picture of who he was.” Having known Henson largely as the man who’d show up on set as a puppeteer, Earl says he now has a greater appreciation that, “This was only one side of him. I didn’t see the intimate nature of his conceptual mind. When you see the actual drawings with pencil marks on it you realize that even though he had people like Don Sahlin build [Muppets] for him, the original idea for a character like Rowlf still originated with Jim. So there are the two sides of him that I now think about — the one that came to work, and the one that sat quietly and conceived these other worlds and characters.”

Michael Earl and Roberto Ferreira are founders of the LA-based Puppet School, which recently brought its curriculum to NYC. Beginning Feb. 25, Earl will teach a 4-week course in NYC (Interimediate TV Puppetry Workshop). Beginning Feb. 26, The Puppet School offers a 6-week course, also in NYC (Beginning TV Puppetry Workshop). For info, call 818-986-9944 or visit puppetschool.com, facebook.com/puppetschool and youtube.com/puppetschool.

Through March 4
At the Museum of the Moving Image
36-01 35th Ave. (at 37th St.), in Astoria
Subway: M (weekdays only) or R to Steinway St. Q (weekdays only) or N to 36th
Museum Hours: Tues.-Thurs., 10:30am-5pm; Fri., 10:30am-8pm; Sat./Sun., 10:30am-7pm
Admission: $12 ($6 for ages 3-18; $9 for students & 65+; admission to the galleries is free on Fridays, 4-8pm
For info, call 718-777-6888 or visit movingimage.us
Also visit puppetschool.com and