Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Chasing Lions on the Trampoline

My son made me smile in a big way the other night. My wife wasn't able to take the kids to their tumbling class, so I had to fill in. For the last five minutes the parents get to come in and watch. Everytime I take them to tumbling they are always very excited to show me what they can do. This week, my daughter went first and showed off some things she could do on the trampoline. When she was done, the teacher called my son over to the trampoline. Now my son has never liked trampolines. I've seen him stand at a distance and watch while all his friends from church have a blast on the trampoline. It's just one of those things he's very skittish about. I expected to see him go over to the teacher, shake his head, and refuse to jump on the trampoline. Imagine my surprise when he stepped on to the trampoline. Not only did he step on, but he jumped. He even did a bunch of special jumps the class had been working on. My smile was so wide my cheeks hurt. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

I just finished reading a wonderful book called "In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day" by Mark Batterson. It focuses a lot on facing our fears and that the greatest opportunities, and our greatest victories, often come about when we face our greatest struggles. It was a book I really needed to read as I'm in a time where my life seems to be filled with great victories one day, only to be followed by great struggles and fears the next. Seeing my son jumping on the trampoline, holding this book in my hand (I had been reading it in the lobby as I waited), I thought about how God must feel when he watches us face our fears. I felt this huge my smile on my face and all I wanted to do was run over, grab my son, and tell him what a great job he did. I imagine when fear comes at us, and we keep moving forward, God can't contain his smile either.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Genius of Goelz: Gonzo's Dancing Chickien Act

The character most associated with Dave Goelz is none other than The Great Gonzo. In some ways, studying the growth of Gonzo's character is also a look into the development of the skills of his puppeteer.

Before "The Muppet Show" Gonzo was just a Frackle called Snarl who made his debut on a TV special called "The Great Santa Claus Switch." The puppet was handed over to Goelz as "The Muppet Show" began production.

During the show's first season, Gonzo was kind of a sniveling, pathetic looking guy with a nasal voice. He was more of a strange performance artist at this point, specializing in acts such as eating a tire to the music of "Flight of the Bumblebee" and demolishing a vintage automobile with a sledgehammer to the music of "The Anvil Chorus" (followed by eating the crank shaft acapella). He was an interesting character, but it wasn't until Season 2 that he really began to shine.

Between seasons 1 and 2, Goelz, who began his career with Henson as a puppet builder, redesigned the Gonzo puppet. The shape of the nose was changed a bit, and, most notably, the eyes were made larger and a surprise mechanism was added. Whereas before the eyes cold only look droopy, now they could look excited, which I think was a big key for advancing the character. A study of the changes to Gonzo's features, "Gonzo through the Years," can be found at the Muppet Wiki.

With a more expressive face, Gonzo's body language began to change as well. In season 1 Gonzo was kind of stiff, but in season 2 we began to see a calm Gonzo and an excited Gonzo. Calm Gonzo is somewhat like he was in Season 1. The eyes are droopy, head pointed down somewhat, and the arms are held in close to the body. The excited Gonzo is more...well...wide. The eyes become wider, the mouth opens wider when speaking, and the arms spread out wider. What's great is watching the transition between the two. A fantastic early example occurs in the episode hosted by Rich Little when Gonzo asks Kermit if anyone has showed up to audition for his new dancing chicken act (By the way, this is the first appearance of Gonzo's fascination with poultry). It's calm Gonzo who enters the scene, but as he starts to describe the idea for his new act the eyes open up, the arms get wide, and the voice pitches up. He's excited about this great new act and it shows. This all happens gradually over the course of two sentences.

A few minutes later we see the same thing happen again, only much quicker and to a greater extreme. When Kermit turns down his request to have the dancing chicken on the show, Gonzo goes from calm to excited x10 in just the space between Kermit's line and Gonzo's response.

"But Kermit, why!?!"

This time, Gonzo gets himself so worked up that he's left panting as Kermit responds to. Breathing is such a subtle thing to add to the manipulation of a puppet, but here it helps Gonzo to look alive and to help sell his emotions.

It's great when you have a character that can play so well at two extremes of the emotional spectrum, as Gonzo does. Gonzo can move between the extremes quickly, but Goelz always does a wonderful job of transitioning, sometimes within a split second.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Genius of Goelz

I've always had a hard time answering questions that go like this: "What's your favorite (blank)?" I mean I'm a huge movie fan, but if you ask me what my favorite flick is it might be "The Wizard of Oz" one day and "The Empire Strikes Back" the next. Favorite food...maybe a Chicago Style Hot Dog maybe a banana. Depends on the mood.

I can think of only one category I won't waver on, favorite puppeteer. Granted, "Who's your favorite puppeteer" isn't typically listed in Cosmo as a top ten ice breaker at parties, but since puppetry is my chosen profession it's understandable that I would have an opinion on this subject.

Many puppeteers have had an impact on me. Burr Tillstrom, Bil Baird, Richard Bradshaw, Roy Brown, and, of course, the Muppet Performers. I grew up in the golden age of the Muppets. I was born a year and a half after the debut of "Sesame Street." I was there for the premiere of "The Muppet Show," and returned every Saturday night after. Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Caroll Spinney...these performers not only taught me my ABC's, they taught me the art of puppetry. Each of them has influenced me in some way, but none more so than Dave Goelz. Zoot, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beauregard, Boober, Traveling Matt, and, of course, The Great Gonzo are just a few of the characters brought to life by this amazing performer.

Goelz was the junior member of the Muppet team when "The Muppet Show" premiered in 1976. He had worked as an industrial engineer before his interest in making puppets let him to Henson, first as a puppet builder and later as a performer. He learned his art on the job and over the course of the last 30 years he has earned his place as one of the finest puppeteers of all time.

For awhile I've been wanting to try and put into words some of the things that I love about Goelz's work. I'm finding it a lot harder than I thought. In a recent radio interview, Goelz himself couldn't even describe his performance style. I think what makes it so difficult for me is that even though I know there's a puppeteer bringing the characters to life, in my mind the characters of Dave Goelz, more than any of the other Muppet characters, seem to really live. Creating that illusion of life is one of the marks of a great puppeteer. Dave Goelz is the master in that department.

I have a feeling I'm going to come nowhere close to describing what makes Goelz's work so intriguing to me. I'm gonna give it a shot, though. Luckily you can always grab the DVD's and check out the real thing. Stay tuned for more.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

iPod Favorites

Last winter I finally got myself an iPod, and I've got to say I'm having a lot of fun with it. What's great is I get to take my albums, download the songs that I really enjoy, and leave the filler material sitting on the shelf. Or even better yet only purchase the songs I like from a place like iTunes and not even bother with the rest. So if I should feel a strange yearning to listen to the song "99 Luftballoons," in German I might add, I need not shell out $15 for the one track I want.

Don't get me wrong, though, there are some albums that are worth having the whole thing in your MP3 player. It's a pretty rare thing to find such an album. Even some of the greatest records of all time have their weak spots. I mean come on, you can't tell me that you haven't ever skipped over "Within You, Without You" when spinning Sgt. Peppers.

So, here are a few favorites I keep tucked away in my iPod in their entirety.

This is the final Genesis album to feature the five piece lineup of Tony Banks (Keyboard), Mike Rutherford (Bass), Phil Collins (Drums), Steve Hackett (Guitar), and Peter Gabriel (Vocals). It's a concept album that tells the story of a street kid named Rael and his adventures in subterranean New York City. The story is weird, disturbing, and you won't have a clue what is going on unless you read the synopsis in the album's jacket. Some true Genesis classics are featured here, including the title track, "The Carpet Crawlers," and "In the Cage"...a song which had an even better incarnation in the live portion of the "Three Sides Live" album. Some of the band's most unique compositions appear on this album as well, such as the instrumental piece "The Waiting Room." Even though there are some elements of the story I don't care for, I find "The Lamb" to be one of the best examples of the progressive rock genre.

Abbey Road - The Beatles

If there's any band who's entire body of work deserves a spot in your iPod, it's The Beatles, but if I had to single out one album, I'd have to go with "Abbey Road." I enjoy the entire album, but there are four songs in particular that jump out for me..."Come Together" written primarily by John, "Oh, Darling" written primarily by Paul, "Here comes the Sun" written by George, and "Octopus' Garden" written by Ringo. In these four songs, I think the listener gets and interesting picture of the personalities of the four Beatles at a time when their partnership was reaching it's end.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots - The Flaming Lips

I've heard that the band claims this is not a concept album, however, apparently there are plans in the works to turn this into a Broadway musical. Even if there is no story line, the more I listened to this psychedelic/alternative/prog album, the more a story began to form in my head. Favorite tracks include "Fight Test," "Do You Realize??," and the instrumental "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 2."

Testimony - Neal Morse

I've blogged about Neal Morse's awesome double album "Testimony" before. It is, I feel, the best Christian rock album ever, and ranks up there in the list of all-time great Prog albums as well. Morse was one of the driving forces of Spock's Beard before God moved his life in a new direction. This album tells the story of Morse's coming to the faith. It's an extremely original and moving work that is best enjoyed when listened to in it's entirety.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Across the Universe

The new movie "Across the Universe" opens in limited release next week. This film builds a story using Beatles songs as the framework. Even the character names are taken from Beatles songs: Jude, Lucy, Prudence, JoJo, etc.

I've been intrigued by this film since I first heard it announced. For one thing, it's directed by Julie Taymor, the person who brought puppetry to Broadway in a big way with the stage version of "The Lion King." I'm also intrigued because this idea of creating a movie storyline out of Beatles tunes has been tried before. It was called "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and it ranks among the worst movies ever made. Here you have folks like Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, and George Burns playing characters mentioned in Beatles songs...Billy Shears, The Hendersons, Mr. Kite.

I have to admit having a special place in my movie-geek heart for really bad movies. "Sgt. Pepper's" is one of those that's so bad that I highly recommend it. I mean it's got George Burns singing "Fixing a Hole," what more could you ask for?

Let's hope that Taymor's film fares better.

Friday, September 07, 2007

10,000 Miles

I get to meet so many great people as I travel to puppet ministry festivals all over the country. One of those people is Larry Baker from Germantown, OH. Larry has been a part of his church's puppet and clown ministry for many years. He's become a familiar face at I-Fest and various other puppet festivals. The "P" on the shirt Larry is wearing in the picture to the left is for "Puppeteer," even though Larry will tell you that he's primarily on propateer for his team.

Larry is an older gentleman, though he can see he is legally blind. He can't do every job on his puppet team, but he serves with all his heart and is always anxious to learn new things.

When this clipping about Larry from The Germantown Press was brought to my attention, I just had to share it. It seems that Larry walks around the paths of Germantown every day. In January of 2002 he began keeping track of how far he was walking. When he realized he was racking up the miles he set a goal to walk 10,000 miles before his 70th birthday. Well, he met his goal, with a couple weeks to spare (Larry's birthday is next week).

Larry is one of those people who reminds me of what an impact puppet ministry can have. I'm not saying that Larry walked 10,000 miles because of the puppet team, but having known Larry I've seen how important it is to him to serve on the puppet team and the impact it's had on his life. Through his puppet team, Larry has ministered to others and the team has ministered to him. "I give God the glory for being able to do this" is what the paper quoted him as saying about his 10,000 mile achievement.

So, Larry my friend, congratulations on an awesome job! Thank you for being a friend an inspiration to me!