Muppets Gone Missing: Bonnie Erickson
Josh Green: Welcome to “Muppets Gone Missing”. This column will focus on the hidden treasures of The Muppets and/or Sesame Street. Examples of this will consist of segments or characters that wound up on the cutting room floor, or were used, but not to their fullest extent. This week’s interview is with the legendary Muppet designer, Bonnie Erickson.
Bonnie Erickson: In my capacity as executive director of The Jim Henson Legacy, I am still very much involved with Jim Henson’s work and with many of the people who collaborated with him on the worlds he created.
JG: I actually did go to the Jim Henson’s Fantastic Worlds exhibit presented by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and I absolutely loved it. The original art and documents written by Jim Henson were certainly the highlights, but also seeing the actual Muppets on display was awe-inspiring.
BE: Thank you. It was a pleasure to work with the Smithsonian on that exhibit. It toured for four and a half years and was seen by almost one million people. We were happy to be able to share the power of Jim’s art, his imagination and his positive view of life with so many.
JG: So can you tell me about Muppets that weren’t used as much as you would have liked?
BE: Well, first things first. It would be difficult to think of anything we built that didn’t get used! Once a Muppet was out of the prototype stage it was used and reused as needed. If you look at Jim Henson’s sketches and the characters that inhabited his on-camera worlds, you will see how ideas, shapes and sketches were never wasted and would pop up in new places. We would take The Muppet Show Whatnots and Sesame Street Anythings, which were rather generic Muppets with interchangeable parts and make them into whatever characters we needed….so everything was used one way or another. For instance, on Sesame Street the character that is always waited on in the restaurant by Grover is Mr. Johnson, also known by many fans as Fat Blue, a rotund, round-headed, blue rod puppet shape used often. A change of eyes, nose, wig and costume and you have a totally different character.
BE: As I said, nothing was wasted. Take Jim Henson’s The Christmas Toy, for instance. That was a wonderful special that ran in 1986. It was so well regarded that it was made into a spin-off series in 1994 called Jim Henson’s Secret Life of Toys, using some of the same Muppets that we had used almost a decade earlier.
But in terms of specific characters that I wish were used more, I guess I would say George the Janitor. I designed George the Janitor for one of Jim’s Muppet Show type pilots called The Muppets Valentine Show which aired in 1974. He is a curmudgeon of a character whose only love is his mop. He’s been in bits here and there, and was a regular on The Muppet Show in season one. From that point on, he wasn’t used as much as I would have liked. But he still made appearances in backgrounds occasionally. He was the precursor to Beauregard. I always thought there could have been two custodians in The Muppet Show. That crowd certainly made enough of a mess on the set! (Laughs)
BE: Well, Jim always wanted to do a Broadway musical with The Muppets. Over time the workshop built many of Jim’s designs for this project. It was an experiment with a very different approach to style and content than what we did on television. It featured larger characters and other worlds. It’s a shame that the musical didn’t materialize during his lifetime.
JG: Now, before I let you go, you have had such a diverse career, can you give me a timeline of some of your professional highlights?
BE: Sure! I worked as a costume designer on and off Broadway before my first job with Jim in 1970. I was hired by Jim to costume the puppets on Tales from Muppetland: The Frog Prince. I went on to design and build characters for The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, variety shows and TV specials. Much of my work was on characters that were eventually used on The Muppet Show.
In 1977, my husband, Wayde Harrison and I formed our own production, design and marketing company, Harrison/Erickson, Inc. We created characters for television commercials and the stage, and found a niche business developing mascot and merchandising programs for major league sports teams. I continued to consult on productions for The Jim Henson Company and on licensed products for Jim and Children’s Television Workshop as Sesame Workshop was called then.
JG: Yeah, we have to talk about that for a second, because I live in Philadelphia, and you designed the holy grail of mascots, the Phillie Phanatic, the mascot for the baseball team the Philadelphia Phillies!
BE: Always generous and always a friend, Jim recommended Harrison/Erickson, Inc. for the job of creating a mascot for the Phillies and the Phillie Phanatic was born. Initially we leased the Phanatic to the team for appearances and paid a royalty to them for the licensed products we did. The first year of licensing we did over two million dollars in sales in the Philly area. Eventually we had a number of successful programs with teams who wanted to be able to control of the characters and were able to enforce the copyrights so we sold the Phanatic and then others to the teams.
JG: Do you realize how popular the Phanatic is?
BE: (Laughs) I do! The Phillies came to us before mascots like ours were out there and they are still our clients and we attend games every year.
JG: When I was growing up, the Philadelphia Phillies were always lousy. But it didn’t matter, because the Phillie Phanatic always provided me with more than enough entertainment.
BE: That is the idea behind a mascot. They are an important part of a team’s community relations and they act as cheerleaders and figureheads no matter how the season is going for the organization. Behind each successful mascot is a good design and performable costume, a talented performer and a team that supports and promotes the character.
JG: So in 1978, you created the Phanatic. What was next for you?
BE: In the sports world the next mascot was Youppi!, originally the mascot for baseball’s Montreal Expos. But when the Expos left Montreal and became the Nationals, Youppi! stayed in Montreal and became something like a free agent. He is now the mascot for Montreal’s hockey team, The Canadiens. I love that story. In all we created sixteen mascot character programs. We have one with the Hiroshima Carp in Japan, The Washington Wizards, The Jacksonville Jaguars, The Kansas City Chiefs, and The Orlando Magics. The Phanatic and Youppi! Are in The Baseball Hall of Fame.
At the same time we were doing TV commercials for McDonalds, Burger King, HO Oats, Budweiser and other products in the states and Nutella, Flik Flak Swatch watches and more in Europe.
But I never was too far from Jim and in 1983, I oversaw the build of Fraggle Rock. In 1986, I worked on The Tale of the Bunnie Picnic, a TV special which introduced the character of Bean Bunny. And in 1987, I was a consultant on Muppet Babies Live. Then, in 1989, I went back to focus on Harrison/Erickson, Inc. and consulting on Sesame Street products
After years as a trustee on The Jim Henson Legacy and then president, I became the executive director in 2011. The establishment of permanent exhibits of Jim Henson’s work at The Museum of the Moving Image in New York City and the Center of Puppetry Arts in Atlanta has been a major part of the work of the Legacy during that time. The Henson family has donated over seven hundred objects to these museums as well as to the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. making Jim Henson’s legacy available to the public for years to come.
JG: What an amazing career!
BE: Thank you. I’ve been very lucky.
JG: Of course. Thank you for filling me in on so many pieces of Muppet history that many people might not be aware of.
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Josh Green lives in Philadelphia, PA with his lovely wife Lauren. Having worked at Dynamite Entertainment and TV Guide, Josh is now a freelance writer for Graphic Policy and the creator of the “Muppets Gone Missing” column, so that he can still dabble in pop culture. While he is not dabbling, Josh lives a simple life, where his main enjoyment is spending as much time possible with his wife, whose very existence gives Josh purpose for everything.