Friday, September 25, 2015

When Madeline Met Big Bird

On the set: stage manager, Madeline, Gardner, Big Bird, & Kermit Love.
Photo courtesy of Rob Gardner.

Madeline Kahn appeared on Sesame Street several times, beginning in 1977. “Sing After Me,” her duet with Grover the Muppet, stands as one of her most charming performances, and it reunited her with Tony Geiss, lyricist for “Das Chicago Song,” her signature number from Green Mansions, Upstairs at the Downstairs, and New Faces of 1968. (She would perform Geiss’ material again in Don Bluth’s animated film, An American Tail.) But singing with Grover revealed a persistent problem in Madeline’s work with the Muppets: she tends to look over the puppet’s head, rather than fixing it straight in the ping pong-ball eyes.

That wasn’t a problem for her in 1981, when she appeared as an extremely avid birdwatcher in a few scenes with Big Bird, who (unsurprisingly) towers over her. A few clips from that episode (Number 1576, according to the Muppet Wikia) have appeared online, and they resonate today in ways nobody can have expected, 24 years ago: it turns out that Big Bird really doesn’t like being under constant surveillance.

I sat down recently with Rob Gardner, who was Big Bird’s “valet” during Madeline’s 1981 appearance — by which he means that he took care of the costume, helped Muppeteer Carol Spinney in and out of it, kept fans from plucking its feathers, and sometimes wore it himself, as a stand-in and model in still photos. Though writers didn’t spend much time on the set, Gardner even got to meet Tony Geiss, “a lovely guy” who went out of his way to help the Muppeteers in their work.

In those days Jim Henson was often in England, shooting The Muppet Show, “but I remember when Jim would come in, it was like the pope had arrived.” Tasked one day with spraying the rods that operate Kermit the Frog’s arms, “I was very nervous that I was going to slip and just blacken out Kermit’s face.” Later, Henson complimented one of Gardner’s puppets: “It was just like being blessed!”

Madeline’s fellow birdwatcher, Cedric, is played by the late Richard Hunt, a puppeteer and aspiring actor.

Gardner’s entrĂ©e to Sesame Street was an invitation from a puppeteer named — believe it or not — Kermit Love, whom he’d met at a puppet festival in San Luis Obispo in 1977. “There was no promise of a job,” Gardner remembers. “I was just going to come to New York for three months and check things out.” His first day hanging out at the Sesame Street set, the guest star was James Earl Jones. “It was like, Okay, this is great,” Gardner says, and for the next three months, he continued just to hang out. An experienced puppeteer already, he gradually got to know the Sesame Street Muppeteers. Then one day, when Big Bird was scheduled for location shooting all over Manhattan, Kermit Love decided he “didn’t want to get up early in the morning, so they hired me to take care of Big Bird and Snuffleupagus,” Gardner says. It was the start of a four-year gig. “It was magic.”

When Madeline came to shoot Sesame Street, “I didn’t really speak to her,” Gardner says, “because when you’re on set, you don’t want to be a gushing fan. You have to be very quiet. I just remember there was very little rehearsal, but she was just so very charismatic. She has a line where she sees Big Bird for the first time, and she goes, ‘He’s a very, very big bird!’” He laughs. “It had this sexual overtone to it, and it was just wonderful.”

Madeline meets the Canary Brothers.

During the episode, Madeline sings another Tony Geiss number, “Brown Bird in the Cherry Tree,” live on the set to a prerecorded track. She’s joined by the Canary Brothers — Gummo, Zeppo, Curly, and Moe — “little birds on strings, floating around, fluttering around,” Gardner says. “I heard later that she was so enamored of the birds that from the shoot they brought her two little birds to have in her apartment. I’m hoping they were hanging in the window.”

Veteran Madeline watchers will recall that she once told Johnny Carson she had “a phobia of balls coming at my face,” and you can see in the number that she’s not fully prepared for birds coming at her face, either. Yet she does seem to enjoy herself.

“She was absolutely charming,” Gardner says. But I had one important question for this witness to Madeline’s encounter with one of her all-time tallest co-stars: was Madeline really 5 foot 3, as she often claimed?

“Noooooooo,” says Gardner. “She was tiny!”

Gardner and Madeline, with Big Bird and Love.
Photo courtesy of Rob Gardner.

You can watch clips of Madeline’s appearance here and here.

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