The hands that moved the world
Published: Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, April 7, 2010 13:04
"Muppets are a movement, marrying the rye and the ridiculous. The muppets make sense of how hard life can be and how each of us can make it beautiful."
These words came from Jessica "Max" Stein in her March 31 presentation titled "The Rainbow Connection" as part of Women's History Month. Stein said the muppets represent everyone, from Kermit who is proud of his amphibian heritage to the eccentric Gonzo, who tries making ludicrous performance pieces into high art. Stein's presentation was inspired by her self-published book of the same title, which looks into the life of puppeteer Richard Hunt. Stein was visiting from the City University of New York where she is a professor of English.
Hunt was the hands behind many of the characters on "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show." On "Sesame Street," Hunt manipulated puppeteered the characters Sully, Gladys the Cow, Don Music and Forgetful Jones. Working alongside Jim Henson on "The Muppet Show," Hunt played the characters of Beaker, Statler (the old man in the balcony), Janice and Sweetums. Hunt contributed to the initial genesis of the Miss Piggy muppet, who would later be played by Frank Oz.
Hunt was a homosexual and, like any artist, brought his own experiences to his art. Stein argues that there are certainly indicators of Bert and Ernie's homosexuality. The duo live together, sharing every aspect of their lives. Cooking, sewing, tending plants, the couple could be seen in this light.
There were over-arching messages that "The Muppet Show" hoped to to portray. Neither Bert or Ernie existed below the waist but their upper half differences were apparent. The wide faced, horizontal striped Ernie and the lanky, vertically oriented Bert. Best friends despite their differences.
Much of Hunt's upbringing is reflected through one of his well-known characters, Beaker. Frequently teased as a child, Hunt had to persevere through adversity in most of his interactions with other kids. Hunt held a paper route as a child and children in his school were known to follow the future puppeteer, tipping his bike over and throwing the newspapers into puddles.
Stein pointed to Don Music, the "Sesame Street" character, as another example of Hunt's personality showing up in his work. Don Music was an agonized musician who often subjected himself to pain. Don Music's habit of banging his head against the wall was often imitated by watchers of the show, so his character was eventually dropped.
Hunt was known to his colleagues as a mentor, always willing to help out those who needed it. From a young age Hunt would be seen teaching those around him. He would organize his siblings to perform acting routines. His skill in presentation and ad-lib humor was also apparent in this way. Hunt's mother said "Richard could be a real son of a bitch," in the way that he joked and fooled about.
Jim Henson, the creator of "The Muppet Show" and close friend of Richard Hunt, died of pneumonia in 1990. Hunt spoke at his funeral, saying, "Please watch out for each other, love everyone, forgive everyone, including yourself. Embrace love, truth, and the human heart. Have mercy on each-other, for one day we will open up like cocoons and spring forth like butterflies."
This eulogy reflected Hunt's very mission in life, to spread happiness to everyone he could. Hunt lived his life with a sense of general spirituality, investing love in every person he knew. "The moment is all we have," Hunt said. "Stop giving ourselves a hard time, just let go and learn to become aware. We must allow things to happen."
Hunt died of AIDS related complications in 1992. Aware of his condition, Hunt contributed to the "Gone But Not Forgotten" episode of "Fraggle Rock" which focused around the cycle of life and death. Hunt played Mudwell the Mudbunny, who dies. Through his death life comes forth. Mudwell sings the song "Just a Dream Away:"
"Feel the water flowing. Feel it coming, feel it going. In the river, in the rain and in the sky. One day it's an ocean. One day ice in motion. One day it's a tear drop in your eye. It's just a dream away. You've got to leave to stay. We'll meet again someday, Just a dream away."