Dave Goelz has been inside a Skeksi, been seen eye-to-crotch with Steve Martin and danced with chickens and cheese. Beginning in 1973, when he was just 26 years old, Goelz joined Jim Henson in crafting one of the world's most beloved oddities: the Muppets. From The Muppet Show to The Dark Crystal, whether down on Fraggle Rock or taking Manhattan, Goelz is an icon whose name eludes people. But mention Gonzo the Great or Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and you don't just get a reaction, you watch a person revert to childhood memories of gleeful lunacy and lessons learned from fleece marionettes.
The puppeteer is coming to Portland this weekend to teach a little Muppet history during the Northwest Film Center's Jim Henson retrospective, introducing two rarity-packed clip shows. He took some time to talk to WW fanboys about chicken fetishes, Kermit and the joy of working alongside a master innovator of entertainment.
He brought Gonzo along for the ride.
WW: Kermit the Frog, despite his reputation, is a little bit of a jerk in early commercials. Was that intentional, that he's mean to other little Muppets?
Dave Goelz: It's hard to know. Kermit certainly evolved over the years. But in the beginning, Kermit wasn't even a character. In the very beginning, he was just a lizardy thing.
Is there one Muppet you've performed who's most like you?
People ask me that all the time. I guess the answer is no. I've always taken the characters I do from some aspect of myself that was usually a flaw, and take that flaw, sort of isolate it, amplify it, and then try to make it lovable.
What's the craziest idea Jim Henson ever had?
I'm remembering the very first day we shot The Dark Crystal. The shot was the deathbed scene, where all of the Skeksis are filing past. We were all doing Skeksis, walking on a riser that was about 2 feet high. In the dark. The way we did Skeksis, there were two of us inside—I was working the head and the left hand, and another person was working the right hand in there with me. We're both watching a monitor strapped to my chest. And I stepped off the riser. And I could feel myself starting to fall, with the character, and the other guy was coming with me. Mind you, there were four people down below, duck-walking on the floor, each doing a lever that worked a facial expression. And as I started to fall, I thought, "This is crazy. Jim has really bitten off more than he can chew this time…. His optimism has done him in." And then somebody caught me…. Within two weeks, we were all ad-libbing with the characters.
People watch the Muppets and say to themselves, "What were these guys smoking?" So what were you smoking?
Well, nothing. There were a couple people on the shoots who used a little marijuana, but generally this was just a chance to take your imagination out for a walk every day. It sounds—I guess—unlikely, but it's true.
What's the deal with Gonzo and all those chickens?
It's just physical. I don't think it's any lasting attachment. The way it happened was, Gonzo had a crush on Piggy on the first season of The Muppet Show, and she would just deck him with a karate chop. And then the writers decided Gonzo would audition dancing chickens. And they arranged with our animal trainer, Mike, to train some chickens to dance. Mike said, "Well, I can do it, but I'll need three weeks."
He was trying to teach real chickens to dance?
Right. He claimed he could teach real chickens to dance. And so the day of the shoot came, and the chickens came in, and they just didn't do anything. And Jim just loved this—he loved chickens 'cause he thought they were so silly. We had Gonzo set up in the basement of the theater on a box, and somebody outside the door would throw a chicken in, and the chicken would walk around, and I would ad-lib. I had to ad-lib, because we didn't know what the chicken was going to do. All they did was walk in and peck at the floor a few times, and then walk off the set…. I had Gonzo look to the camera and say, "Nice legs, though." And Jim just fell apart, he thought that was so hysterical. So that's how Gonzo's fixation with chickens started.
Could we speak to Gonzo?
[In Gonzo voice] I'm right here. I was just listening in. I loved what you were saying about the chickens.
One thing you may not know about Portland: We have a giant population of urban chickens.
[Still in Gonzo voice] No! Are you serious? Right in the city? I'm free Saturday night.
Dave Goelz appears at the Northwest Film Center's "Muppets, Music Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy" at the Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., 221-1156. He introduces
at 2 pm Saturday, May 2, and
at 4 pm Sunday, May 3. Hear Dave Goelz talk in his Gonzo voice