New England Fan Fest 7 brought legends to Warwick, RI
June 18, 2019
The BIGGEST show in the smallest state!
November 8, 2019
Exclusive: Puppeteer Noel MacNeal
Joseph Bruen: You were born in Harlem New York. Explain to us what it was like growing up as a kid for you.
Noel MacNeal: My mom was a single mom. My father left us when I was 18 months old (and ran off with a woman whom he married, but never divorcing my mom and having another son, and never telling THEM about us – but that’s another story), so she worked two jobs to pay for private junior high/high school for me (rather than going to the public school where the kids g0t stabbed or the other where the kid got shot). But we weren’t in the projects or a walk up. We lived in the Lenox Terrace, in a two-bedroom apartment with a terrace and a doorman. (In fact, we are featured in the book, “Sacred Bonds” by Keith Brown.)
Joseph Bruen: When did you first become interested in puppets and that whole world in general?
Noel MacNeal: When I was a kid there were more puppets on TV; Burr Tilstrom still had “Kukla, Fran, & Ollie.” Shari Lewis had Lambchop. Mister Rogers. And Paul Winchell had “Jerry Mahoney Time.” (FYI: Did you know that Paul Winchell invented the artificial heart? See? Puppetry saves lives!) I had grown up with these and ones on local TV and they were either little hand puppets or marionettes.
One Sunday night, around 6:30pm, there was a half hour special hosted by two puppets talking about (and showing clips) of a brand new show starting tomorrow morning. The one with the football shaped head was named “Ernie” and his friend who reminded me of an upright banana was named “Bert.” And the show? Guess! I had NEVER seen puppets like this before. Their mouths moved, Ernie’s hands actually could pick things up. And when I saw Big Bird? A puppet that could walk and talk at the same time?!? WOW!!!
I watched Sesame for years and any guest appearances and specials the Muppets did (such as The Great Santa Claus Switch which they should remake) and during my high school time was when the Muppet Show premiered. I watched it and then as I was nearing senior year it occurred to me; this guy Jim Henson not only has a career at this but he’s got all these other people making a living doing this too. I began to do research on any colleges that offered puppetry courses. (Back then I had to go to the library; it’s like Barnes & Noble – but FREE!) And I found two schools; one, The University of Connecticut in Storrs, Con., to this day, had a four year program to get your masters degree in puppetry. The other, at that time, was Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY that had a theater department and within it a puppetry course (taught by Kermit Love the designer and builder of Big Bird and Snuffy – and no the frog was not named after him; just a crazy coincidence).
Now I had all my info ready and prepped to show my mom. My mom was a single mother working two jobs (as you’ve read) so I was a little nervous. But we sat down and I said, “Ok – I want to be a puppeteer.” And then braced for impact. And she looked at me and said, “OK. What do we have to do?” Wow. OK. And I should here each college’s info. “OK,” she said, “What do we have to do?” And I told here the requirements and deadlines and she said, “Ok. What do we have to do?” That’s all she said! She never dismissed, ridiculed, or became angry at the idea. She always said, “Don’t get a job; get a career.”
And I have.
Joseph Bruen: In 1981 you worked on the very first television series episode of The Great Space Coaster as a voice actor as Knock Knock the Bird. Explain that whole experience for us from getting the gig and what led up to it.
Noel MacNeal: Actually I too over the part of Knock-Knock the Woodpecker from John Lovelady (who left to puppeteer a talking orangutan who was the star of the short lived show “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” on NBC). It was season three and the summer of 1982. I was performing her during the day and then working at night on the special “Don’t Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (wrangling Big Bird and Snuffy).
Joseph Bruen: When you first got into the wonderful world of Entertainment, did you see yourself going as far as you have come?
Noel MacNeal: To be honest I had no idea where this would lead me. My very first paid job as a professional puppeteer was one that Kermit’s shop had. Kermit did side projects and one was for Maggi Boulion Cubes. Three commercials with three pairs of puppets. Jim Kroupa (who I met at Pratt; my freshman year, his senior year) was the other puppeteer. And it would be a week of work – in Paris. So this 20 yr old kid from Harlem’s first professional paid gig also was his first time getting a passport, getting on a plane and flying, and going to Europe. And on the flight I remember thinking, “I don’t know how this (my career in puppetry) will end but this is a REALLY nice way to start it.”
Joseph Bruen: What were some of your favorite tv shows and movies growing up as a kid?
Noel MacNeal: I loved Burr Tilstrom and “Kukla, Fran, & Ollie.” It was so clever. I found out as an adult that there was never a written script. There was the general idea of the that day’s show (eg. It’s Ollie’s birthday) and then Burr would just do it, with Fran along for the ride. Burr’s voice characterizations were solid. You could close your eyes and each character was clear and defined. Who cares that Ollie’s lip sync was off. That was just the way he was.
Joseph Bruen: My all time favorite movie as a young child was “Follow That Bird,” without a doubt. I would sometimes watch it 3 times back to back in one sitting. You were part of that 1985 classic. What was that experience like? Tell us all about how that came about for you and your involvement in the film.
Noel MacNeal: Getting “Follow That Bird” was a story in itself. One of the original ideas I heard about was with Big Bird becoming the President of the United States. During a scuffle on Air Force One (near the end of the movie), the villains push Big Bird out of the plane – and as he falls, Big Bird learns to fly! Well, then the other storyline was approved and masterfully written by Judy Freidberg and Tony Geiss.
I got to be Big Bird’s wrangler, his “double” (e.g. the hay stack that runs across the field with Big Bird’s legs), and my own character: “Madame Chairbird” of the Feathered Friends Society that relocates Big Bird to his adopted family. She is right at the start of the movie an sets it up. That was beyond amazing as opportunities go. (I also woke up with a massive head cold and was knocked up on Dayquill. Thus her voice is very “unique.”
I love telling how for the big finale scene when Big Bird comes home, there was to be a shot going completely 180 degrees to show that Big Bird had all kinds of people and birds and monsters and animals to love him. However, not enough extras were hired. So it became this unintentional cameo shot of practically everyone who worked on the movie. Carroll Spinney’s wife, Debbie is in it, I’m in it, my MOTHER (who was visiting) is in it. The crew, departments, office staff, all in it.
Joseph Bruen: You also did some voice over work in the 1985 television series Jim Henson`s Little Muppet Monsters. What was it like working with Jim Henson and his crew?
Noel MacNeal: I remember that summer was fun. We did the show at a studio on 106 St off Park Ave in Manhattan. Jim wasn’t performing on the show but Richard Hunt was. He was puppet captain (assigning roles among his duties) and even directed us. I first met Richard on Sesame and worked with him there and then again on Follow That Bird. He was wonderful. Funny, talented, wickedly sharp, and generous. Whenever he invited myself and other puppeteers out during Sesame’s lunch hour, he always paid. One time we even plotted to take care of the check before he had a chance to pick it up. But he had called in his credit card info and had it taken care of – before the check came!
Joseph Bruen: Who is your favorite Jim Henson character and why?
Noel MacNeal: Of all the characters Jim performed, my favorite was always Rowlf. He was a dog that could play the piano, riff with the best of them, and had a sense of humor about life (cause it happens when you’re a dog who can play the piano.
Interesting fact: the Sesame Street insert “Do the Rubber Duck” (in which I lip sync Oscar to Carroll’s track on the song) is the ONLY insert to feature ALL of Jim’s Sesame characters at the same time: Kermit, Ernie, and Guy Smiley.
Joseph Bruen: In 1990 you did a quick voice over spot on The Cosby Show. Did you do that from a studio or were you on set with the actors? What was that experience like?
Noel MacNeal: It wasn’t a voice over spot. It was an episode where Henson characters are part of Cliff Huxtable’s dream. The episode was called “Cliff’s Nightmare” and he encounters random Muppet characters including Gonzo. I got to be “Dog Lion” (the huge walk around that resembles a Maurice Sendak character) and got to throw Cliff around and a wedge of swiss cheese in the fridge. And used my voice for both.
Joseph Bruen: You have also worked on other television shows such as Dinosaurs (1992), Eureeka’s Castle (1991) and Jim Henson`s Dog City (1992). Any fond memories that stick out from working on those programs?
Noel MacNeal: It’s funny how I “worked” on Dinosaurs. I was out visiting L.A. and visited the studio. I was there when they were about to do a scene where Steve (Whitmire’s) character “Robbie” and his pal, “Spike,” are heading to a speakeasy. When the cut to a close up of the sliding window opening an the bouncer inside asks “What’s the password” Spike’s hand hits him in the face. When it was time to do it, they needed someone jus to do the hand and Steve saw me and called me over. I got handed the hand and they rolled and – that’s my (only) work on Dinosaurs!
Eureeka’s Castle is special because it was my first series where I got to create a principal character. I didn’t have to audition; Three Design Studios (which was Jim Kroupa, John Orberg and Matt Stoddart) designed and built the puppets and asked if I wanted to do it. A micro second later I said “YES” and I became Magellan the Dragon.
We did the first season and the first half of season two in New York and then the second half at the newly opened Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios in Orlando. We were even part of the “tour,” the windows up above where tourists would walk by and see down onto the studio floor and see us. Once I went to the PA (Production Assistant who was really rotating actors hired to play the part of the PA and used a mike to speak to the guests) and said that we were doing a complicated set up called “lunch.” “We’re going to lunch which will take an entire hour. These setups take time.” Another time, the control room had clear glass walls so the tourists could see inside and the chairs had signs on the back to let people know who was what (eg. “Director”). Jim Kroupa and I snuck up and sat in the two chairs marked “PRODUCER” and started counting and throwing money away. (Within the industry a nickname for the network that aired it was “Nickel-&-Dime-Lodeon.”)
Joseph Bruen: You worked on the television series “The Puzzle Place” for 2 years in the mid 90’s. You had a good run with that program. Tell us all about it and any fond memories you may have.
Noel MacNeal: “The Puzzle Place” was pitched (from Lancit Media the producers of Reading Rainbow) to PBS but couldn’t get a commitment. Then the Rodney King verdict and resulting riots got KCET Los Angles interested in this show about tolerance and diversity. On the condition that it be shot at their L.A. studios. So myself and the puppeteers (Peter Linz, Jim Martin, Alice Dinnean, Carmen Oshbar) all flew to L.A. and lives at the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank. (Allison Mork of Pee Wee’s Playhouse who originated the character Jodi, lived in L.A.; for season two, Stephanie D’Abruzzso was flown in from NYC and took over the part of Jodi.) Also, for the first month and half, the show was called, “The Puzzle Piece,” but finally had to change it due to a store that already owned that title.
There are many fun memories of that time. BEST cast of puppeteers plus we got to work with several talented L.A. puppeteers (such as Alan Trautman who was cast as “Kyle,” the wheelchaired character featured in a couple of episodes for season two; living in L.A. (for nine months; six for season one and three for season two). But definitely one of the highlights was Carmen and I with Kiki and Leon, flying to D.C. to be part of a press conference a the White House to raise awareness for support of public television. And we got to meet, then, First Lady Hillary Clinton. We first met her in the Diplomatic Room (or the “Dip Room” as it’s nicknamed). I was the last in the receiving line and when she met Leon he said, “I like what you’ve done with the place.” And she immediately responded. “Yeah. Not bad for public housing.”
Joseph Bruen: How did you go about trying to fit in everyday life in between all of your projects over the years?
Noel MacNeal: Being a puppeteer is the same as being a human actor. There are times when there is absolutely nothing and then without fail, “when it rains, it pours,” and you have to choose which job to take (of you took the first an then missed out on the better one). It’s being a freelancer. It’s also why I got into script writing for the shows I worked on. First, “if you want something done right, do it yourself” (instead of constantly re-explaining puppet humor) and second it was a way to keep busy – and make a living. Being married and having a child then brought in new challenges of juggling. Having a (VERY supportive and understanding) spouse helps. A lot.