From the Muppets’ big screen debut 35 years ago, through this year’s “Muppets Most Wanted,” the great Goelz, Dave, has brought to life a fuzzy, little weirdo we all know as Gonzo.
The master Muppeteer will return—with Gonzo in tow—to San Francisco for a Q&A and screening of “The Muppet Movie,” at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 16, at the Castro Theatre. The Muppets’ silver screen debut followed Kermit the Frog from the swamp to Hollywood, meeting pals like Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Gonzo along the way. The tale parallels Muppet creator Jim Henson’s formation of his troupe of fellow performers, Goelz said. The man, who has spent a lot of time with a purple, curved-nose whatsit on the end of his arm, said the making of the movie was full of body-contorting challenges for the Muppeteers.
“The beginning of ‘The Muppet Movie’ opens with Kermit playing the banjo on a log in the swamp. Jim was in a metal canister underwater that was hoisted down by a winch that was rigged to a pulley on the bottom of the swamp. There was an air hose going in so he could breathe, an electrical cable for his monitor, so he could see the image of Kermit. He was in that thing for about four hours, and he was literally folded up to get into it,” Goelz said. “When they let them out at lunchtime, he couldn't stand up for a while. He would never ask us to do something that he wouldn't do.”
Goelz has many amazing stories of the behind-the-scenes Muppet magic, which he’s eager to share on the stage of the Castro. Gonzo may answer a few questions, too. “I really do prefer talking about the Muppets than doing them,” Goelz laughed.
When he signed on to perform Muppets with Henson and company for “The Muppet Show” in 1976, Goelz didn’t know he was also going to become a pseudo stuntman. Bringing the Muppets out of the theater setting and into the real world meant making them do the things we take for granted—like riding bikes or driving cars. Every time you see a Muppet driving a vehicle, there’s a hidden driver somewhere, and for every Muppet you see in a car, there’s a Muppeteer like Goelz crammed onto the floorboard.
“All the ridiculous positions we’ve gotten into over the years, you don’t want to know,” he said. Yes, we do. “For one of the shots, the camera was shooting over Gonzo’s shoulder, and I was on a sling hanging outside of the car, driving along at 30 miles an hour by a guy who couldn’t see,” Goelz recalled.
Putting the Muppets into a 90-minute film also gave us a chance to see more depth in the characters. Some of the credit for their deepened emotional impact has to go to songwriter Paul Williams, who penned such classics as “Rainbow Connection.” He also wrote a song specifically for Gonzo called “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” one of the more touching scenes of the flick.
“Paul identified with Gonzo. Paul was short. He sort of perceived Gonzo as a flightless bird and could relate to him in that way,” Goelz recalled. “It was so emotional, I was actually scared to perform it.” Years later, at Henson’s memorial service, his peers performed a medley of Henson’s favorite Muppet tunes. “I did that one,” Goelz said of “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.” “By that time, I had learned how to sing it better.”
“The Muppet Movie” is jam-packed with cameos from comic legends like Richard Pryor, Bob Hope and Mel Brooks, but it was another puppeteer that wowed Goelz and his friends. “Edgar Bergen was a treat,” he recalled. “We had him on the show, and when we did the read through, he had all of his characters and sat in a chair, and we sat there watching, and our mouths were hanging open. We were utterly in awe. It was a private show by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and Effie Klinker and Mortimer Snerd,” Goelz said. “Mortimer Snerd, kids today should be so lucky to know that because he was just wonderful.”
Bergen died shortly after filming his cameo in “The Muppet Movie.”
“Jim, Frank [Oz] and I went to his memorial service. The family had asked Jim to say something with Kermit,” Goelz said. “He was kind of nervous, but he got up in front of the congregation and said, with Kermit’s voice, ‘I want to thank Edgar Bergen for what he did for our people.’ Which was a lovely thing.”
The climax for “The Muppet Movie” which features another of Goelz’ characters, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, is a Western standoff and was filmed on the same set as “High Noon.” We see a gaggle of full-bodied Muppets standing up to villain, Doc Hopper, played by the late, great Charles Durning. Under a cleverly placed sheet of plywood is a Muppeteer for each of the 14 Muppets standing in the dirt.
“They cut holes for everybody’s arms. We had monitor cables going in, and the cables had to be covered with dirt. We were just underground for more than a couple of hours,” Goelz said. “Somebody else puts the puppet on you, and you can’t get out of it. All you can do it crumple the arm over, but you can’t get the character dirty; so people from the workshop were putting down cloths so we could rest our arms. You wouldn’t believe the trouble we go to to get the shots. It’s ridiculous!”
“The Muppet Movie” is part of a weekend of comedy screenings and live shows, sponsored by SF Sketchfest. Later on Saturday is the Benson Movie Interruption with Doug Benson showing “Twilight: Eclipse” at 4:20 p.m., and at 9 p.m., there’s a screening of “Office Space” with Stephen Root, who played Milton. At 8 p.m. on Sunday, “The Tonight Show” bandleader Fred Armisen will perform. Visit SFsketchfest.com for more info.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. He recently published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family several years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/coreyshame.