Muppets Gone Missing: Jan Nelson Discusses Jerry Nelson
Josh Green: Welcome back to “Muppets Gone Missing”. This column focuses on the hidden treasures of The Muppets, Sesame Street, as well as any projects involving Jim Henson. 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. It has been a true honor getting to know and interview the wonderful Jan Nelson, the wife of the late-great puppeteer, Jerry Nelson!
Jerry Nelson was an American puppeteer, best known for his work with The Muppets. Renowned for his wide range of characters and singing abilities, he performed Muppet characters on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and various Muppet movies and specials.
Josh Green: Thank you so much for giving me your time to talk about Jerry, Jan. Can you tell me the story about how you and Jerry met? Was he already involved with puppeteering with Jim Henson and The Muppets?
Jan Nelson: Yes he was. Jerry and I met in 1982. He had just come back from England where he did The Muppet Show for 5 years. He had worked with Jim Henson even before Sesame Street in the late ‘60s.
We met at the apartment of mutual friends in my building in Hoboken, NJ. He had come over to go out with my friends, and I asked if I could go along. That was kind of our first date. I didn’t hear from him for over a week after that, but when he finally called he asked me to go on vacation with him for a couple of weeks in Key West and Coconut Grove. That was our second date. We had a wonderful time and I fell in love with him. I don’t know if he fell in love with me as early as that but he later told me that it didn’t drive him crazy to be with me day and night. Evidently that was some kind of a first for him.
Right after our second date he started doing Fraggle Rock in Toronto.
JG: And how closely were you involved with The Muppets?
JN: I loved the whole Muppet family and it is and was a family. I have never met a funnier and more wonderful group of people. I loved the parties and loved being on the set. Jerry and I got married in 1984 when he was 2 years into Fraggle Rock. I spent the next two years in Toronto, hanging around the set. Some people assumed that I worked there. Those were great times. Jerry’s characters were all major characters; Gobo Fraggle, Pa Gorg and Marjorie the Trash Heap.
I never missed a Monday morning read-through. There was a lot of improvisation and playing around. It was extremely funny. Sometimes the puppeteers would come up with something that would get written in. Everyone worked together so well. It was magic!
Jerry and I took lots of great vacations when he wasn’t working. We spent a lot of time in the Caribbean islands and summers in Truro on Cape Cod.
Jerry was so creative. Besides music he also did all kinds of art … like the above seashore art, carved driftwood and found shells put together – Cape Cod
JG: Jerry is responsible for performing many iconic characters on The Muppets and Sesame Street, most notably The Count. But I’m sure that there are characters written for him that didn’t last for whatever reason. Did Jerry ever recount any of these characters to you, wishing he’d had have the opportunity to do more with them? And by the same accounts, were there any truly bizarre characters that Jerry didn’t have an affinity to perform that was also performed infrequently?
JN: Jerry had a lot of “one off” characters but that was understood from the beginning. I know that his character, H. Ross Parrot became acclaimed and was interviewed on a network TV show. However, outside people wanted to take the conversation towards politics (this was when H. Ross Perot was running for president) and Jerry (H. Ross Parrot) was sticking to the alphabet. Jerry didn’t like being pushed and certainly didn’t want to talk politics. H. Ross Parrot was Jerry’s imitation of H. Ross Perot and it was a funny character.
I don’t think there was any character too bizarre for Jerry. I loved to hear about how he used a “bad” (his word) imitation of some actor to get the puppet’s voice. For example Marjorie the Trash Heap was a bad imitation of a Russian actress from old films. He said that Count Von Count was based on a rough interpretation of the old “Dracula” movies except Count Von Count has a compulsion to count. He has to do it.
The Muppets did a Christmas Special for Kraft called The Christmas Toy. Jerry played Balthazar, an old teddy bear that was the oldest toy in the nursery. He used a rough imitation of Colonel Sanders who used to say “Buy one get one free” in a KFC ad of the time.
At the beginning of the shoot the puppeteers would assemble on the set in place. In the quiet minute before they started, I would hear Jerry softly say “buy one – get one free” to get his voice.
JG: I’m also curious if Jerry himself had ideas for certain characters that he wanted to do that never got off the ground beyond a conceptual level? And by the same account, were there any truly bizarre characters that Jerry didn’t have an affinity to perform that was also performed infrequently?
JN: I don’t think so. As far as truly bizarre characters, I think that Jerry never had a character that he didn’t want to do. I can’t imagine anything being too bizarre for Jerry. He did a terrific job with every character he had.
JG: Who decided which puppeteer would do a character?
JN: I think that the writers sometimes had in mind who they wanted to perform the characters. I emailed Dave Goelz this question and here is his response:
“For a long time I accused Jerry Juhl of creating the Fraggle characters for specific performers, and he denied it. Then many years later, he finally admitted that he, Jim, Jocelyn and Michael had indeed done just that. They did ask us to play around with all the characters in the fifth floor rehearsal room at 201 East 67th street just before heading to Toronto, which we all did. But we all ended up doing the characters that had been created for us. That said, I think the writers sometimes had a performer in mind when writing, but Jim always had the final say.”
JG: It would be remiss of me to not ask you about…you. Can you please tell me about yourself, your life experiences, and your passions? I know for certain that you are an accomplished painter, having drawn the cover to Jerry’s solo album, “Truro Daydreams”.
JN: Thanks! I studied fine art in school but was a graphic designer all of my adult life. When I left my last full-time freelance job, I went to the Art Students League in NYC to study painting. I still go during the school year. I paint in oils. Still life and model during the winter and plein air landscape during the summer in Cape Cod.
I designed and used my own paintings in the fold-out jacket for “Truro Daydreams.” I chose the photos that are in it, and made sure that I was in one. Also the kid that’s with Jerry in one of them is our grandson Tolin. I only wish that I had made my name bigger in the credits.
I consider myself a lucky person. I have a wonderful family, my daughter Lovisa and grandson, Tolin. I raised Lovisa as a single parent but had a good full-time freelance gig at an Advertising Agency that was easy-going about hours as long as I made the deadlines. I also raised her in Greenwich Village, which was a real neighborhood in those days and safe enough so she could play on the street from an early age. I had a couple of close friends who were also single mothers and our children grew up together. We took turns looking after each other’s kids, which enabled us all to have lives.
The greatest luck of all was meeting Jerry.
JG: Which characters do you think represent Jerry best?
JN: All the Muppet characters reflect an aspect of the puppeteers’ personality. Jerry had a great deal of the Boy Scout in him – like Gobo Fraggle. He was also the hippest of the hip, like Floyd the Bass Player.
JG: What was outstanding about Jerry Nelson, the man?
JN: He was so good at comforting people in their time of need. He said what was in his heart about the person. After so many of the people he loved had died, Christine his daughter, Jim Henson, Richard Hunt, Jon Stone, Matt Caldwell (a close friend), he wrote an angry song called “Eye of the Storm”. Then Jerry Juhl died (head writer for the Muppets) and Jerry sang it at his memorial celebration. I was uncertain about this because it was supposed to be a celebration, but everyone was moved by it.
He was very wise and had a Zen attitude towards life. He was a gentle man yet watched some of the most violent shows on TV.
He was always writing “be happy” songs but he could be really pessimistic sometimes. He did consider himself very lucky in life so I told him that he should write a book, “The Power of Negative Thinking.”
We had fights of course, but they always ended in laughter. One of us would make the other laugh and then we would both laugh and it was over.
He cared about his fans. He never felt famous. We both had the capacity to walk into a bar and make friends with everyone there in ten minutes. His personality was larger than life. He walked into a room and had everyone enchanted right away, with his stories and music. He was very much loved.
He said in Muppets he was always the “straight man.” He said he married me because I was HIS straight man (the person who sets up the joke.)
JG: It has been just around three years since your husband’s passing. Knowing him best, what do you think he’d want to ultimately be remembered for?
JN: He wrote his own memorial speech. I’ll quote from it: “I am above all else a Professional, so I like to be on time (or maybe even a little early) and prepared.”
My own feeling is that he would want to be remembered for everything that he was, including being a professional. For being hip and funny, for caring about people, for being stubborn and hard-working while still being “the laziest man on earth” (my words) and proud of it.
I’d like to mention that along with the memorial speech, he chose two songs to be performed. One was “Tides” – everyone’s favorite, and one was “In My Life” by the Beatles. At the time I was not thinking straight. I remember being puzzled by the choice. Yes, he liked the Beatles but he had written so many good songs himself. It was only a year later that I realized that that song was for me. I still tear up, thinking of that.
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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.