Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Steve Whitmire: An Appreciation

Steve Whitmire (right) and unidentified co-worker. Photo via Muppet Wiki.
Today, a few days after Muppet fan site Tough Pigs broke the news that puppeteer Steve Whitmire was leaving the Muppet troupe, with the iconic role of Kermit the Frog to be taken over by Matt Vogel, Whitmire broke his "radio silence" and Internet ineptitude to set up a blog to explain that the decision was a less-than-amicable one: nearly a year ago, The Muppets Studio (a division of The Walt Disney Company) informed Whitmire that he was being fired and replaced due to two offenses which he chooses not to mention (most likely out of respect and being a confidential matter), which he stresses had never been brought up before that moment. Mr. Whitmire remarks that he "remain[s] willing to do whatever is requried to remedy their concerns because I feel my continued involvement with the characters is in the best interest of the Muppets" and that he is "devastated to have failed in my duty to my hero", Muppet creator and original performer of Kermit Jim Henson, whom Whitmire took the duties over from after his unexpected death on May 16, 1990 (and in one of those weird coincidences that makes you wonder if fate plays some part in it, happened to share the same birthday as Whitmire, September 24).

This is an incredibly devastating end to Whitmire's story of his professional career, which started in 1978 when he joined the cast of the original Muppet Show, originating the character of Rizzo the Rat. For every great decision Disney happens to make, they make two dumb ones, as every fan and enthusiast of the company - be it through feature, TV, theme parks, or just a general interest to their contributions in pop culture in general - and this is definitely one of them. I am of course not privy to what exactly went down between Whitmire and The Muppets Studio and/or Disney (as none of us are, of course), but it is indeed a shame that Whitmire was neither informed of them before this time nor given a chance to recifty whatever these wrongdoings were - something that, as he stated, he is still willing to do if possible.

As for letting Jim Henson down...nothing could be farther from the truth.

One of my earliest memories is the ride on the bus to school the day after Jim Henson died. I was five years old. The local radio station was playing Bein' Green in memory of Henson's death after reporting on it, and a conversation between myself and a friend started. I forget the main gist of the conversation, but I remember the final statement in it, delivered by my friend in equal parts curiosity, fear, and sadness: "Then who will do Kermit's voice?"

(Being as we were elementary schoolers, I am willing to give this statement a pass due to our shared ignorance, but it does bring up an aside: the large number of people referring to Whitmire as Kermit's "voice actor" in news reports regarding Whitmire's being replaced is both baffling but also not surprising, given how few people think about what puppeteering really entails but also Disney's admittedly respectable policy not to depict the Muppet performers in public with the exception of a few industry-centric events in order to keep up the illusion that the Muppets are living, breathing characters whenever they make their always amusing appearances on talk shows and other media.)

Finding a new caretaker for an iconic character is incredibly difficult and has a lot of complications. Warner Bros. has for years after Mel Blanc's death hired new voice actors for every Looney Tunes project for the most part, in part due to the fact that Blanc's interpretations of the characters changed over the years and no one at the company can agree on what the "true" Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc. is for the sake of recreation. Both under the Henson Company's ownership and under Disney, the Muppet troupe has done well in making sure only one puppeteer has control of one character in cases where they must be recast, such as unexpected losses (Henson and Richard Hunt) and retirements (Frank Oz, who in recent years has left puppeteering for his other successful career in film directing). It is true that at one point Disney planned on dropping this "one performer per Muppet" policy - yet another one of their foolish decisions - but thankfully were talked out of it due to outbursts from the Muppet fan community.

I always enjoyed the Muppets - whether it was on Sesame Street as a youngster, Muppet Show reruns on the Turner networks and later Nickelodeon when I was a little bit older, and anywhere else I saw them - but it wasn't until they were under Disney's ownership that I really started to appreciate them, watching Muppet Show reruns on DVD with my grandmother, a fellow Muppet fan (Statler and Waldorf were her favorites) and pop culture enthusiast. From there I learned to appreciate the performances of not only the original Muppet perfomers such as Henson and Oz, but also the talented performers who have replaced them such as Eric Jacobson, David Rudman, and Whitmire. Fans have remarked that the personalities of the characters have changed a little, which may be true - people have remarked Whitmire's Kermit isn't as prone to comic angry outbursts as Henson's was (and in my own opinion, his famous arm-flailing "YAAAAAY" is the one aspect of the character Whitmire had the most difficulty nailing, but nobody's perfect) - but given the impossible task of replacing a character and a performer many thought irreplacable, Whitmire gave his all - not just as Kermit, but as Henson's other beloved characters such as Ernie and other memorable Muppet characters including Beaker.

Perhaps the most telling story about Whitmire's devotion to the Muppets - and proof positive that, despite his claims, he did not let Henson down - is an anecdote about the 2011 feature film The Muppets, Disney's (pretty much successful) attempt to bring the characters back in the public eye. As a metaphor for how the Muppet franchise itself had languished in the time between the last Muppet feature (1999's much-despised Muppets from Space, whose plot involved revealing that Gonzo - who proudly considered himself a "whatever" for decades - was in fact an alien, a revelation which was tantamount to blasphemy for many Muppet enthusiasts), the plot involved the Muppets living their own lives and going their separate ways, but getting back together with Kermit's help after an intentionally cartoony oil tycoon villain named Tex Richman threatened to tear down the original Muppet studio for his business to do one last show to save the day. As originally written, the film was to have revealed that "Tex Richman" did not actually exist and was all a ruse (what TV Tropes would call a "Xanatos Gambit") devised by Kermit the Frog for the sole purpose of getting the Muppets back together again. Upon hearing about this, Whitmire requested that if this plot twist was to stay in place that his name be taken off the credits of the film, as he felt it was incredibly out of character for Kermit to lie in any way, even if it was for good intentions. And if you think about it, he's right.

David Rudman's Cookie Monster is not Frank Oz's Cookie Monster, but both have their hilarious charm. Steve Whitmire's Kermit the Frog is not Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog, but it's as damn close as you can get; perhaps a little softer-spoken and less prone to comic outbursts, but still the good-hearted but in-over-his-head-far-too-often ringleader of this nutty bunch. If it were not for Whitmire's devotion to not just Kermit the Frog but also Jim Henson, things would have ended up a lot differently and Whitmire's departure, sad as it and the events surrounding it may be, would not be as much discussed as it is being.

To The Muppets Studio and The Walt Disney Company: I disagree with your decision, and I wish it didn't have to come to this, but for the most part you have been doing well with bringing The Muppets into the 21st century, especially with the viral videos and the well-written character Twitter feeds (and I'm not just saying this because I know a few people who work for them). I wish cooler heads could have prevailed in this situtation and an amicable decision been made on both sides, but what's done is done, sadly, and I wish nothing but the best for the Muppet franchise and performers - who have truly become a part of the Disney family - in the future.

To Matt Vogel: You have done a fantastic job inheriting Muppet characters such as Floyd Pepper and Count von Count (always one of my personal favorites), and as the perfomer for Big Bird in a number of public events such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade, you are proving yourself well as The Bird's official understudy for when the day eventually comes - God forbid - that Caroll Spinney can no longer perform him. Obviously, this task is one of the biggest for you to undertake yet, but given your performances past, I know you can do it, and I am sure the world's most famous frog is in capable hands under your care.

And to Steve Whitmire: Thank you for your 39 years of service to giving us laughter (the third greatest gift of all, after ice cream and children) and helping to Kermit the Frog's own dream, singing, dancing, and making people happy - a dream which gets better the more people you share it with. As the frog himself said (with help from his original caretaker, Jim Henson), you've done just what you set out to do. You have not failed in your duty to Jim - in fact, for those of us who only started to appreciate what he helped set in motion until long after he left this earth, you helped us enjoy both what he did and those what those came after him continue to do even more. Thank you, Steve.

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