Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Sesame Street puppet masters bring Muppets to life

From Nick Glass and Lianne Turner
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
Sesame Street's original star<strong> Big Bird</strong> has led the show since its first episode in 1969. The eight-foot Muppet often doesn't understand what's going on, but sets the tone for the show by never hesitating to find out. Sesame Street's original star Big Bird has led the show since its first episode in 1969. The eight-foot Muppet often doesn't understand what's going on, but sets the tone for the show by never hesitating to find out.
HIDE CAPTION
The stars of Sesame Street
The stars of Sesame Street
The stars of Sesame Street
The stars of Sesame Street
The stars of Sesame Street
The stars of Sesame Street
The stars of Sesame Street
The stars of Sesame Street
The stars of Sesame Street
The stars of Sesame Street
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sesame Street has enchanted adults and children alike for over 40 years
  • Creator Jim Henson died in 1990, inspired a new generation of "Muppeteers"
  • Puppeteering tough physical work, with some artists needing shoulder operations
  • Sneak peek inside workshop reveals Frankenstein's lab of spare eyes and noses

Art of Movement is CNN's monthly show exploring the latest innovations in art, culture, science and technology.

New York (CNN) -- Since the 1960s, Sesame Street's puppets have been running, singing and dancing their way across our TV screens as if possessed of a life of their own.

But behind Sesame Street's Muppet puppets is a world almost as surreal -- where "Muppeteers" and Muppet makers create the comedic illusions that have bewitched generations of children, and earned the show over 100 Emmy Awards.

The life of a Sesame Street Muppeteer

If you thought the job of the Muppeteer -- putting your hand in a puppet and putting on a funny voice -- was child's play, think again. From hiding inside Oscar's trashcan to lip-syncing Kermit singing "It's Not Easy Bein' Green," Sesame Street's puppeteers must be prepared to stretch their bodies -- and imaginations -- to the limit.

"We get into all sorts of crazy positions," says Muppeteer Eric Jacobson. Most of his time is spent with at least one arm above his head. "Sometimes we'll be lying on the ground. Sometimes we'll be inside a piece of furniture with our arms sticking through a hole in a seat," he says.

"This is our green 'Anything Muppet,' which is blank. So what kind of character can we create with this?" asks Jason Weber, Creative Supervisor of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. "This is our green 'Anything Muppet,' which is blank. So what kind of character can we create with this?" asks Jason Weber, Creative Supervisor of Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
Making a Muppet
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
How to make a Muppet How to make a Muppet

Read this: 10 greatest movie puppets

Indeed, it's not uncommon for long-time puppeteers to undergo shoulder and hip operations after years of straining skyward. What makes it all worthwhile, says Jacobson, is making the human connection.

"Normally I'm looking at a monitor and making sure that you at home can see the puppet's eyes, because they just don't have a soul without their eyes," he says. "When you can see their eyes you can tell where they're looking, you can tell that they're engaged, that they're thinking, that they're listening."


Henson's legacy

When Jim Henson started work on Sesame Street 44 years ago, he never could have known that it would become one of America's most influential children's television shows.

The father-of-five tragically died from pneumonia in 1990, at the age of 53. But his legacy lives on in the new generation of puppeteers, like Jacobson, who bring Sesame Street's fantastical creatures to life.

"I was in my freshman year at film school, thinking I was going to be a director, writer, producer," explains Jacobson. "When Jim Henson passed away I suddenly realized how much this man meant to me growing up and I felt like I had to do something to continue his legacy.

"I was a part of that first generation of kids who grew up watching Sesame Street, so those characters were like family to me."

A master class in puppetry
'War Horse' puppet comes to life
Art and innovation of puppetry

Watch this: 'War Horse' puppet comes to life

Today, Jacobson is the puppeteer behind legendary Sesame Street residents Grover and Bert.

Bringing to life the unique personalities and voices of these creations demands huge coordination and quick-fire comic timing to keep the viewers engaged with the characters.

First and foremost, says Jacobson, the puppet must look like a creature from the real world. "You're conscious of the puppet's posture and making sure that it looks as though it has a believable skeleton -- you want to make sure it doesn't have a broken neck," he says.

Material world

If bringing Muppets to life is an art form, so is creating them. Step inside New York's Muppet Workshop and it's a bit like stumbling into Frankenstein's laboratory, with drawers full of spare eyeballs, noses and mouths.

Watch this: Master puppeteer Basil Twist

The puppets are made from foam and rubber with the seams hand stitched to allow for greater flexibility. The big gaping mouths are created with the same gasket rubber found in cars, with each character usually taking around two-and-a-half weeks to create from scratch.

"We'd like to think they last forever but they don't," explains Rollie Krewson, who has been making Muppets for Sesame Street and other Jim Henson productions for almost 40 years.

Years of singing and dancing their way along Sesame Street inevitably take their toll and, sadly, every Muppet has its expiry date.

"Over the years it just deteriorates, and after 15 to 18 years you have to totally replace it -- it just goes to little toast crumbs."

The Muppets of Sesame Street might not last forever, but after more than four decades bewitching audiences, it seems their appeal is as strong as ever.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Jason Hullinger, a computer security architect in Los Angeles, went to Joshua Tree National Park in December to catch the Geminid meteor shower.
For thousands of years, man has looked to the stars in search of answers. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone?
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Fri October 10, 2014
Greek technical diver Alexandros Sotiriou discovers an intact
Armed with the most advanced marine technology available, archaeologists have recovered new treasures from the ancient shipwreck.
updated 12:02 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Immortal Jellyfish lifecycle
Does the secret to eternal life exist already and live in the sea?
What bots have you made in your backyard? Share your homemade robots and you could get featured on CNN.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide took this breathtaking selfie during Expedition 32 on September 5, 2012.
He may be best known for his part in the historic Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, but did you know Buzz Aldrin snapped the "first space selfie?"
updated 5:06 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Man has been making images of the moon for millennia. Explore our gallery of some of the most eye-catching creations.
updated 9:52 AM EDT, Mon August 11, 2014
Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin with the first lunar rover.
Google shoots for stars with competition asking innovators to send a robot back to the moon by December 31, 2015. Will any one be able to do it?
updated 5:38 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
For half a century, "Alvin" has quietly traveled through the seven seas, uncovering the ocean's mysteries.
updated 8:39 AM EDT, Sat August 2, 2014
A NASA image of one of the Voyager space probes. Voyager 1 and its identical sister craft Voyager 2 were launched in 1977 to study the outer Solar System and eventually interstellar space.
Voyager 1 continues to reveal the mysteries of the solar system to a captivated Earthbound audience 37 years after launch.
updated 3:43 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
solar flare july 2014
From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
ADVERTISEMENT