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.
Joseph Bruen: You played the Bear in the popular television series Bear in the big blue House through out the late 90`s. This is quite the popular role with children all over the world. Any interesting stories come out of that series? At what point did you realize that it had become such a popular show?
Noel MacNeal: I am most proud of Bear because he was part of the Jim Henson Company and therefore part of the “Muppet” family (as is Sesame and Fraggle Rock was). I told Carroll Spinney that “I’m using every trick you taught me” to perform Bear. In fact, the first two seasons were shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios (in Long Island City, N.Y.) and Bear’s studio was directly upstairs from Sesame’s. One afternoon, Carroll brought up Big Bird so that we could get a photo of Bird and Bear together. But Carroll wasn’t wearing Bird’s legs (that are like a pair of pants with the feet attached) so both characters are standing behind the couch and seen from the waist up!
Bear (and me riding his furry coat tails) got to appear on other TV shows (such as Wayne Brady and Donny & Marie and several appearances on Hollywood Squares), parades (such as The Walt Disney World Christmas Parade), and travel (to London for appearances on their Playhouse Disney and spots for Channel Five). But the best part was whenever Bear met kids. Families would visit the set and we set it up so that their visit was recorded and then give them the tape to keep (nicknamed the “Bar Mitzvah tape” by assistant director Dean Gordon). And whenever I did appearances I always asked to visit a children’s hospital or ward. The most memorable was the visit to the one in Mexico City. This facility was huge and old (with out dated computers and no a.c.; thus no sheets on the beds) and known as “the last stop” for most patients. Bear did a show in the hospital auditorium and children were brought in. As I performed the song “It’s You” (all about the many things Bear liked about you), in the front row was a young boy in a wheelchair. He was half paralyzied, including half of his face. Bear squatted in front of him and touched his hand as he sang. And suddenly, one side of his face slowly smiled. From inside I could hear people sniffling and I had to focus so hard, keep it together and not burst into tears. Afterwards I was told that a mother thanked us for coming “for people like us.”
Joseph Bruen: You were apart of the television series Oobi for 5 years, which is quite the run for a children’s TV show. You played the character Kako through out the whole series. It was certainly unique and very popular with the kids. Was this show any different for you or just business as usual?
Noel MacNeal: Oobi was a fun challenge because the puppets were our hands with glass eyes on our fingers. That’s it! Plus, they only spoke in one to two words at a time. And they would often reference something like a crayon, then use it the normal way a hand would, then put it down and revert back to “puppet mode.” Which is why when we found out that the kids were doing a musical we asked “how?!?!” But it actually worked and is one of the best episodes we ever did.
Joseph Bruen: Over the years, were there any projects that you didn’t take on that you regret not doing today?
Noel MacNeal: The reason I didn’t take certain projects was because I was either not involved with The Jim Henson Company or I was still a kid. But I would have loved to have worked on The Muppet Christmas Carol (shot in England and so used British puppeteers), specifically as The Ghost of Christmas Present. That performance is magical with the beautiful warmth of Jerry Nelson’s tones and the flawless manipulation of Don Austen. That is character I would have loved to have done.
Joseph Bruen: What was your involvement in the 2008 movie “A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa?”
Noel MacNeal: I got to play Sweetums. That was an honor because it was Richard’s character and I always loved what he did with him. And by the way, the head is the SAME head he used. Because the handle for operating the mouth as a dresser draw handle screwed to the lower jar. You grab it and yank, yank, yank!
Joseph Bruen: By far your longest run was with the Iconic television series “Sesame Street” in which you were part of from 1982-2007! How did you first get that gig in1982 and what was your reaction when you signed on for it?
Noel MacNeal: I got to be Big Bird for the 2015 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day (and for this year’s 2016 addition which is Macy’s 90th anniversary of it) and then got to be Bird again for two days on the show (that December) because Matt Vogel (who does Bird when Carroll is unavailable) was still busy with shooting The Muppets (on ABC).
I started out in 1982 thanks to my puppetry teacher Kermit Love (remember; the guy who built Big Bird and Snuffy?). The fall of what would have been my senior year, his assistant on the show quit and he needed a new one. And offered the job to me. Pratt’s theater department when I joined would close after I left. It was being phased out and I would, literally, have been in a class by myself. I never looked back (and also never graduated) and got such an education in TV production just from the first week there and sitting in on the production meetings. I was twenty-one years old and knew this (entertainment production) was where I belonged.
Joseph Bruen: You must have so many stories from your days with Sesame Street. Can you share any with us today? What was it like working with the likes of Carroll Spinney, Roscoe Orman, Emilio Delgado, Sonia Manzano, Loretta Long, Bob McGrath among others?
Noel MacNeal: This show has gone from a kids show to become a national treasure (and I wish some of the new powers in charge saw with the same amount of respect that way). I grew up with this show and now to suddenly be a part of it was a dream come true. I remember seeing the set for the first time and how shocked so many things I viewed as “real” was fake; except the mailbox. It IS a real mailbox. (And the steps of 123 were from an actual brownstone being torn down. They’ve since been replaced with ones where the puppets can “sit” on them, full body.)
Everyone loved the Sesame Street Muppets. I did. But when I started working on “the Street” was when I started to appreciate the human cast. You see the set was suppose to look like an actual street you’d find in NYC and the humans were, well, people who lived on it. When the Muppets appeared, first because of the neutral set tone, they popped out, and second, the humans represented the viewer – they were our gateway to be in contact with the characters. They were perfect “straight men” (even the women) to play off the puppets. They adult vs kid irrational. And the cast themselves were some of the most gracious, friendly, professional, and genuine people I ever met. I enjoyed when they actually got to do inserts. (I was there for the “Say Hola” dance number between Maria and Luis, among other human only inserts.)
And then of course the Muppet cast were my idols growing up. I, it was a day of Bert and Ernie inserts, and I remember being introduced for the first time to Jim and Frank. I kept it together but inside I was gushing and trying not to cry. And watching them work their chemistry is why Ernie and Bert worked so well. They really did have this connection, as did Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson two of the warmest men I’ve ever known. When I right handed for The Count for the song “The Batty Bat,” it was Richard who taught me the trick of looping my left thumb through Jerry’s pants’ belt loop behind him. That’s the only way we could dance (and was a dance) and keep up and not fall over. Jerry Nelson (and his wife Jan along with Fran Brill and her husband) attended our wedding. When my wife got Jerry’s RSVP to attend, she squealed, “The Count’s coming to my wedding!”
Joseph Bruen: What legacy does the legendary Jim Henson leave to the world in your eyes?
Noel MacNeal: Beyond the physical characters and actual shows he and his colleagues created, it’s Jim’s vision and philosophy for the world. That potential for it, for all of us to rise and be better than we were yesterday and to help anyone having trouble doing it.
“It’s a good life. Enjoy it.”
Joseph Bruen: What are your memories of Frank Oz? Have you ever worked closely with Frank?
Noel MacNeal: One time, Frank conducted a puppeteering workshop for us from Sesame (Pam Arciero, Jim Kroupa, Marty Robinson, Carmen Oshbar, among others). His advice that I still remember and tell others whom Ive auditioned and trained is – “If you’re comfortable, you’re not doing it right.” And it’s true. You can be contorted into a pretzel with seven bodies around you but, long as there’s a pretty picture for the viewers above, that’s all that matters.
And whenever you right handed for Frank when he performed Cookie Monster, he would place Cookie’s left hand on yours saying, “Me like to be on top.”
Joseph Bruen: Explain to us your appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2015 and what that experience was like.
Noel MacNeal: That was an incredible afternoon. There were so many of us from different shows and projects that we’d all worked on together, it was literally (if you were in your twenties to early thirties) anyone’s TV childhood in one room. Then the segment (which is on Youtube) was shot in pieces until the last grand wide shot with all of us, and Jimmy. We all are called to take our places, sitting on the floor, handed puppets – I got to be Animal – and they rolled playback. Then Jimmy walk out to his new studio. When he came back in he said “thank you” to all of us and that was it.
WAIT! What!?!? We ALL thought it was a rehearsal and would do it again. Apparently not.
Joseph Bruen: Out of all the projects you have been apart of, which has been your favorite?
Noel MacNeal: I would not trade one for another. I have loved all the roles and projects I worked on. And they have allowed me to go to wonderful places and meet incredible people, and I’m not talking celebrities. But having to chose I’d say, it was and always will be “Bear.” I grew up a Disney and Muppets fan so to have a character created by The Jim Henson Company for The Disney Channel’s new kids off shoot was an honor. Our set was so much fun, our crew told me others wanted to work on it. And Bear got to guest star on other shows; and visiting children’s hospitals was the absolute best.
Joseph Bruen: Where can fans follow you on the internet / social media?
Noel MacNeal: I have Facebook pages for my company and books:
On Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nmacneal/
On Twitter I’m at: @NoelMacNeal and @Noelyourhost (and more about that coming up).
Joseph Bruen: Any upcoming projects that you would like to plug or speak about?
Noel MacNeal: Yes! I was inspired by the fan emails I’ve gotten from the parents of kids with Autism and Special Needs and that they still watch the shows (on dvd and even VHS). And I realized that there isn’t a show like Bear (or Mister Rogers) on – and I know for a fact the networks won’t create one anytime soon. My passion project is THE SHOW ME SHOW. This is the online/downloadable series I want to create for kids with Autism and Special Needs. I call it “educational vaudeville” cause the “guest stars” will be a sound, a color, a shape, or a number.
The Twitter account is: @Noelyourhost
There’s the developing Youtube Channel for it:
I will be adding content as well as asking my friends, colleagues, and fans to contribute.
And the Facebook page:
Joseph Bruen: Thanks so much for joining us and taking the time Noel.