“Furry Nostalgia'”

THE MIDDLE SEAT: Column by Steve Matuszak

I know I am going to get lambasted for this column, but I just can’t help it. I am about to risk sounding like an old man tearing into the new generation for forgetting all the great things about the last generation.

Well, maybe that’s exactly who I am and what I am doing. Kids I used to babysit are now entering college so why not just accept my declining age and get on with it.

Ready …. I miss puppets!

Yes, you read that correctly. I am writing this as my 21-month-old daughter is watching “Elmo in Grouchland” starring Vanessa Williams and Mandy Patinkin and you know what, it is a wonderful movie. And most of that wonder comes through the living legacy of Jim Henson’s amazing creature creations.

Sure, once in a while you can see a wire controlling a hand. So what! If you look really hard, you can see all kinds of subtle flaws in classic movies with puppets, muppets and furry little human hand-held and full body-donned costumes.

But those movies, even more so than some digital computer animated films today, really moved me, scared me, excited me, enthralled me and – most of all – compelled me to lose myself in the story.

Who can forget the Skeksies, Mystics and Gelflings of “The Dark Crystal”. I remember seeing the TRAILER for that movie and being entranced when the gelflings rode those tall creatures and were attacked by the evil Garthim. How cool were the Garthim??! Bring it!

And “Labyrinth”?! It was a cornucopia of cool creatures from upside down jokers guarding doors to little British caterpillars. It was an enchanted other world in which I never NOTICED any wires. And who cares if you can now, looking back. Dance Magic Dance!

You know you loved “The Black Hole” when it came out. The robot VINCENT was outdated but you rooted for him anyway against Maximillian! I recently saw it again and noticed a wire for Maximillian because I was LOOKING FOR A WIRE! And I still loved it.

I remember Yoda shuffling around in Luke’s stuff in the swamp, playing with the little light. Then, days later, mystically staring into Luke’s eyes after Luke tells him “I am not afraid,” responding “You will be. You will be.” Eerie, scary cool!

Sure, some of these are puppets in a person’s hand while some are full puppet-like human or bigger sized costumes (can you say – “Snuffaluffagus”). And some of them are puppet-based animatronics, like E.T., the dinosaurs up close in “Jurassic Park”, and many more.

But come on – JAWS scared the crap out me with his menacing, ice cold dead eyes as he chomped away at the salty captain. It was a robotic puppet but it was a real shark to me while watching the film and freaking out about my next trip to the beach … still!

Nowadays, with computer technology, we have nothing to sense that we can touch or feel anymore. We have nothing in real space and time. Sure you count the merchandizing dolls and t-shirts, but that’s not the same. I am not saying some modern computer generated characters are not appealing like Woody and Buzz LightYear. I am just saying there is no need to completely do away with puppets, costumed actors, animatronics and the like.

Even Broadway has managed to try and keep the gorgeous and intimate tradition alive with “The Lion King”, “Equus” and most recently – WAR HORSE.

If you didn’t see the Tonys and don’t know what they are doing with puppetry in WAR HORSE, than I will not waste your time with Mummenschanz!

I still see small breaths of life when I watch Cirque’s KA in Vegas where, beyond the magical boat scene, my breath was further taken away by mere puppet shadows on a screen done by human hands right in front of my eyes.

Everything old can be new again! And everything new is worthwhile too! I just think we keep throwing out the baby with the bathwater – which has even become a play itself!

I am not AGAINST newness and technology. I am FOR all things creative, even Fraggle Rock puppets who share joy and music with whimsical head movements while engaging our fear through the subtlest body wriggle when darkness comes.

To all of you theatre pioneers and cinema risk takers who still see the value of a mask, costume extension or entirely separate creature extending from your fingertips I say – Bravo! Children of the world, there is still joy in making a mouth out of your hand and letting each finger represent an entirely new entity!

My child, even though she may know how to edit in Final Cut, will still be encouraged to put on a puppet show for Mommy and Daddy. And we will watch and cheer with passion and glee! And she will learn to be the character, be the movements and reactions, be the voice and be the story. She will extend herself and her creativity as well as her arms.

This little piggy went to the merchandising market, and this little piggy was called “Miss” and wore cheap makeup, pink tight dresses and had an ATTITUDE (and a crush on Kermit)!

You got a favorite puppet, muppet, animatronic or other? Let me know. I want to remember with you. I want to take myself back to the days where I forgot there was someone under there because I was rapt with attention at what was going on above – between the fields and flowers that hid the puppeteers walkways and wires.


  1. While you are at it….

    What about Sigmund the Sea Monster?
    How about HR Pufnstuf?
    The Banana Splits?

    Call me old fashion, I liked clay-mation too. Who could ever forget the skeleton fight scene from Jason and the Argonauts? Classic!!!! Nuthin better than that! Probably not suitable for your daughter, but still.

  2. Jay,
    Yeah! “Sigmund the Sea Monster and Johnnie and Scott are friends!” That song came back to me in a flash! HR Pufnstuf was a classic. I watched the Banana Splits growing up! Man I had forgotten all about them – that was wild memory! ET was very real to me when I saw the film. I cannot imagine connecting with ET if he was created digitally. The gremlins were cool, scary, quirky and bizarre – everything you want in a creature.

    Let me tell you, Jason and the Argonauts was cool in EVERY frame, every creature. The skeleton Fight scene is still cool when I catch it now on cable. I’ll take that over the latest Clash of Titans animated scorpions any day. Cool memories man!

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