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Joseph Scarbrough launched what he called "The Scarblog" as a way of cataloging his work over the years, as well as going into greater detail of things on his mind (known as "Unfinished Thoughts").

Sunday, October 8, 2017

My Day at the Knoxville Fanboy Expo

Not exactly sure why it was promoted as a reunion, but whatever.
For many years, I swore I'd never go to a con: not only do I not care for having to slither my way through large crowds, but when I've seen photos and videos of the kind of crazy, creepy, and depraved activities that go on among attendees at such things, I really wanted nothing to do with it. However, when I learned that some of the cast members of SESAME STREET were going to be at the Knoxville Fanboy Expo the weekend of October 6-8, I knew that this was a rare opportunity that I could not pass up at all, so for something like this, I was glad to make an exception.

Needless to say, I was both excited and nervous at the same time: having never been to a con before, I was a complete novice at this, so I needed to be shown the ropes, and there was a time or two where I was sent on something of a wild goose chase as far as tickets are concerned (more about that later), but again, the opportunity of meeting these legends of the world's most famous street was exhilarating - I hadn't felt this excited since the night Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood came to my town to put on an improv comedy show ten years ago.

After spending several minutes finding a place to park, then walking a couple of blocks over to the convention center, I was apprehensive, because again, being a novice at this, I didn't quite know what to expect, and I was kind of concerned about making a fool of myself. After arriving, I had to go through security measures worthy of national airports pre-TSA days: I had to have my bag checked, empty my pockets, remove my cap, and have a metal detector waved up and down my body; after that, I was ready to proceed. After going through a line to present my entrance ticket, I was given an armband like a hospital patient, then found myself going down three flights of escalators where two large ballrooms were - one for the Fanboy Expo, another for some kind of a convention a local grocery store chain was having . . . take a guess which one I went into.

Once I got inside an enormous room with hundreds of thousands of people walking around the different booths and tables set up for the guests, I was informed the cast of SESAME STREET were all the way in the very back side of the room. As I navigated my way through a maze of people, booths, vendors, and other people swarming around in this huge room, I could finally see in the distance posters hanging on the back wall for each of the guests' individual table, and as I could draw closer, I began seeing the faces of people who felt like they have been my old friends for as long as I can remember. I was lucky enough that not too many people were waiting in line at any of the tables, but I knew I needed to be brief and courteous, so I made it a point not to hang around any of their tables too long and hold anybody else up.

A most excellent book
With my copy of A CELEBRATION OF 40 YEARS OF LIFE ON THE STREET, I was ready to go through and get the signatures of my old TV neighbors. Starting at one end of the line of tables, I began with Alan Muraoka, who was incredibly warm and friendly - I spoke with him briefly, discussing his twenty years on the show, and how he had been running Hooper's Store longer than any previous owner - including Mr. Hooper himself (something he said another fan had pointed out to him earlier, and he wasn't even aware of it). I shared with him my vivid memories of when he was the newcomer to the street, catering a big Birdkateer meeting, and running out of food in the rest of the store. I asked him how he felt about Hooper's Store makeover to look more like it did in the old days, which he said took him by surprise at first, but really loves it (especially the store's vertical neon sign). I also asked him how he enjoyed his time in Knoxville; he spoke highly of our famous Market Square area (think New York's Times Square, but smaller and cuter) and how he really liked the architectural design of our town as well. After Alan signed my book, I moved on to my next TV neighbor: Roscoe Orman, otherwise known as Gordon. We spoke about how he was the longest-running and most well-known of the Gordon's on SESAME STREET, but I also told him about how much I enjoyed his guest appearance on an episode of SANFORD AND SON, in which he played a bank robber; he told me how he remembered it was hard for him - playing a bad guy - to keep a straight face when taping that episode, because of how funny Redd Foxx was (not to mention his partner-in-crime in the episode was a dimwit who was bungling everything up). Roscoe also spoke highly of Knoxville, saying that he and the rest of the cast enjoyed really good barbecue at Calhoun's on the river - something that Emilio Delgado agreed with, as he was my next TV neighbor. I told Emilio how so much of what he did as Luis was before my time, that he and Maria were already married by the time I was born (he found an old photo of him with long hair in the 70s very amusing). Next was Bob McGrath, who was perhaps the most conversive of the guests I spoke with; I broke the ice with him by telling him I had recently listened to him and a group of hippy Muppets singing "Good Morning Starshine," which he shared an anecdote with me of performing that song with the Yip-Yip Martians at Carnegie Hall, as well as other concert performances he had done over the years. He also had a number of albums with him (one of which I bought as a souvenir) - one of them he found personally amusing, because of comments he had received from teachers who said they loved using songs he sings for teaching purposes, and that they love his vocals . . .but that they would like to be able to use his songs without vocals; this particular album contained songs he recorded with his vocals, and instrumental versions. Before leaving, Bob asked what I did, and I told him that I was, indeed, a puppeteer, and that the Muppets played an instrumental part in inspiring me to become one. He told me about a time he got to work with Shari Lewis, and what an amazingly talented and hard-working performer she was. Speaking of puppeteers, the final guest I got to meet was the legend behind the bright yellow feathers and matted green fur, Caroll Spinney himself. Meeting Caroll - something I had been wanting to experience for years - was certainly the highlight of my day, and the first thing I did was thank him for being an integral part of inspiring me to become a puppeteer, to which he thanked me for the compliment.

This is where I ran into some complications during my visit: I had purchased a special package that covered my meet-and-greet with the cast members, among other things, however, it wasn't until I reached Caroll's table that his chaperone informed me that I was supposed be given individual autograph tickets for each of the guests (specifically, pink tickets), which nobody had given me (again, I was a novice at this). What ensued was a wild goose chase: while Caroll, his wife Debi, and their chaperone offered to watch my bag and contents for me (Caroll even offered to cover for me if I was unable to obtain a proper autograph ticket), I was sent back to the entrace of the room to inquire about the tickets; once there, they informed me I would actually have to go back upstairs to the main entrance to inquire; after going back up three flights of escalators, I was told at the main entrance line that I had to go over to another help desk across the lobby to inquire; finally at this help desk, they were able to provide me with what I had been missing: my complimentary lanyard, and tickets . . . which were blue, instead of pink. Because of this confusion, one of the staff members went back down three flights of escalators with me to make sure that blue tickets were just as acceptable as pink tickets - which they were. Finally, after all was said and done (and the chaperones got their proper tickets for their guests), I was ready to speak with one of my puppeteering heroes.

Sadly, Caroll was not in the best of shape: his speech was low and weak, and Debi or his chaperone often finished his sentences for him, or answered my questions for him. He also struggled to sign the book for me, but he took the time to share an anecdote about Oscar with me, regarding the color changes he went through; I asked him about Jim Henson's original intentions to make Oscar purple, which Caroll said he remembered, and found it odd that Jim made him orange instead, saying that Jim never explained why (though I understand it was because those early primitive videotape cameras couldn't record the color purple very well), and how Jim changed Oscar green for an appearance on THE FLIP WILSON SHOW, which Caroll said was a really fun appearance to do. Caroll also had some things available as souvenirs, so I purchased a DVD copy of the wonderful biographic documentary I AM BIG BIRD (if you haven't seen it, you have to). I left Caroll a parting gift: a printed copy of some digital artwork I did several years ago, based on a comment I once heard that he, Jim Henson, and Frank Oz are the, "Original Rat Pack of puppetry," hence "The Muppet Pack." Caroll said he was going to hang it in his home studio.
I gave Caroll Spinney a printed version of this artwork I had made back in 2012.
After getting to meet the cast, it was soon time to go upstairs for a Q&A panel - which also included a sing-along. I filmed this panel, so you can watch if for yourself below:

Admittedly, I found the Q&A panel to be slightly disappointing. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, because I certainly did, but as you can see from the video, most of the questions were planned ahead of time, and audience participation was limited to two or three questions; I confess I wanted to ask Caroll if his performing duties became exclusive to Big Bird and Oscar after the first couple of seasons was a conscious decision to ensure he's always on-hand to perform the characters as they were becoming more and more prominent fixtures on the street - I probably should have brought that up as I was speaking to him at his table. But nevertheless, it was fun being able to sing "Sing" with the cast.

I finally finished my day with a photo-op with the entire group; it was rather heart-warming to hear Alan say, "It's like seeing an old friend again," when I stepped into the photo booth for my turn.
These are the people in my neighborhood.
After the picture was taken, the cast said I could visit their tables again if I wanted to, so I did, leaving them with some parting words before they departed for lunch, thanking them once again for coming to town, and how wonderful it was to get to meet them; they really are the warm, genial, neighborly people that you've seen on TV all these years.

In closing, there's two specific things that each of the cast members mentioned when I spoke with them: 1. They are blown away that SESAME STREET is about to approach Season 50 in a couple of years; I was told that the production staff is already preparing for the season, and Bob even mentioned the possibility of special live appearances in celebration. 2. The t-shirt I was wearing. They loved it. I told them that I've had the shirt for almost ten years, and to this day, it's still the one piece of clothing I have that gets the most comments from people wherever I go.

This day was a real treat for me, as it's certainly a rare opportunity to get to meet anybody involved with SESAME STREET, or the Muppets in general, in this part of the country, considering most events like this seem to be exclusive to either New York or Los Angeles; I probably would never get an experience like this ever again, so this will certainly be a day that will live on in infamy in my memory.

You can also see more photos I took from the expo on my Facebook page.


Didn't know till the last minute that Gary Busey was going to be there. I caught a glimpse of him getting on an elevator.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Birthday Tribute to Jordan Sibayan

Jordan and I with our creations
Today is a rather special day: September 24 happens to be the birthday of Muppet creator Jim Henson, and it also happens to be the birthday of now-former Muppet Performer Steve Whitmire . . . but today also happens to be the birthday of one of the most important people in my life.

Jordan Sibayan is a rarity in that he's been one of my closest and dearest friends for many, many years - he's the kind of friend that you see people in works of fiction have and you wish you had a friend like that. This is why I'm lucky, because Jordan actually is that kind of friend: loyal and true blue. We've gotten to know each other through our shared interests in puppetry, cartooning, writing, general goofing off, and the passion we both have in our own creative pursuits; the two of us are often one of the first ones we'll go to whenever we've finished a new project for input from the other. We often collaborate with each other, and his contributions to my work have ranged from knocking around various different story ideas (my personal favorite is one we scripted involving Steve D'Monster, Bethany Crystal, The Squirrely Squirrels, and an army of spiders), to even providing me a little funding for a more involved and elaborate project (and I probably should get around to repaying him somehow).

Suffice to say, he's one of my most loyal supporters, but not just where our creativity is concerned. I think I can safely say that Jordan is also, perhaps, one of the very few people in the world who may actually know me even better than I know myself: he always has a keen sense in knowing when I might like to look into something new - a YouTube video, some kind of artwork, an amusing article about something random - and will probably like it . . . and more often than not, he's absolutely right. It's as if he's always tuned into my frequency. You know how some people out there say that nobody "gets" them? Jordan definitely "gets" me. And even more than that, I may not say this enough, but he really has saved my life. More than once. In times of the past, where I have found myself at rock bottom, feeling that life is too much handle, running against the wind, he's always been one person I knew I could confide in, and that he could help me get through difficult times, because he's always had my back. That has meant more to me than any of the sillier things we get ourselves into (such as spider armies). And even now, just as he's always been there to support me, I also try my best to support him as well, whether it's living with muscular dystrophy, or having to fight to protect the rights of himself and others like him that the Drumpf Dictatorship has been trying to take away from them. That's something else I can say about Jordan as well: he's a fighter who never gives up, no matter what the obstacles are, and as such, I'm always in his corner - even as of this post, as he travels to D.C. to, once again, fight to protect the very rights that the big bag gov'ment is continually trying to take away from disabled people across America.

It's easy to take things for granted, which is why I wanted to pay a special tribute to my longtime, loyal, true blue friend who has made a bigger difference in my life than he may even know and I probably haven't even taken the time to acknowledge.

Happy birthday, Jordan! Thank you for being here!

Postscript

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Elusive Knoxville Panda (UH)

And now for something completely different!

For years, there's been a local graffiti artist who has been leaving his tag all throughout town, sometimes in the craziest of places. I have no idea who this graffiti artist is, however, his tag, which is always a stylized "PANDA" (and an "UH" whatever that means) continues to fascinate me: you never know when you're going to see a new one, or where you'll end up finding it, but this is one of the reasons I continue to be fascinated - it's like a great, big, calligraphic Easter egg hunt. And one of the intriguing things about these PANDA tags is that they're a lot like snowflakes: each one is different from the other, which makes looking for and finding them an even bigger treat - the way I see it, the more detailed and elaborate they are, the better!

Anyway, my fascination with PANDA has grown as the years have passed, so I decided to produce this fake, pseudo-nature documentary of the various different PANDA tags we have throughout town:

Friday, July 21, 2017

My Final Thoughts on Steve Whitmire

Could it be? The first time in the history of since I started this Scarblog, I actually finish my thoughts?

At any rate, I'm sure you have read my previous post about Steve Whitmire's termination with Disney/Muppets Studio . . . much more has come forward since then, and while it looks like the situation has pretty much plateaued at this point, here are my final thoughts:

Disney/Muppets Studios, Cheryl Henson, Lisa Henson, Brian Henson, and Rick Lyon have all come forward with the same, or very similar stories regarding Steve Whitmire and his business conduct over the years, and through it all, Steve has defended himself in the wake of each new accusation. As this progresses, it's honestly becoming harder and harder for me to sympathize with Steve. I'm not saying that I think he got what he deserved, or that he shouldn't have fought for the integrity of the Muppets - I actually agree with him on several different points, as you have read in my previous post - but with multiple people coming forward and saying the same thing, there has to be some truth to it, which makes me wonder if perhaps Steve isn't being entirely honest himself.

Monday, July 17, 2017

My Unfinished Thoughts on Steve Whitmire

Boy, the world of the Muppets just can't seem to catch a break these days, can it? 2012 saw the loss of performers Jerry Nelson and Kevin Clash - Jerry having passed away in August after battling COPD in the final years of his life, and Kevin resigning from SESAME STREET in November after an unfortunate scandal tarnished his reputation. 2013 saw the loss of Jim Henson's wife and original performing partner, Jane, after quietly battling cancer. 2014 saw the loss of Jim and Jane's second son and fellow performer, John, who suffered a sudden heart attack. In 2016, performer and writer Joey Mazzarino left SESAME STREET (this after rising to the rank of head writer for Season 40 in 2009) over creative differences with Sesame Workshop's new staff. And now, in 2017, performer Steve Whitmire, who had notably took over Kermit the Frog after Jim's untimely death in 1990, has been let go by Disney.

I'm sure that a majority of the people who read Scarblog (if anybody even still reads this thing, since blogging has pretty much died in recent years) are either fellow Muppet Freaks or fellow puppetry aficionados, and as such, you're probably already familiar with this situation that's been in the news all week long, so I'm not going to waste any body's time and repeat all of the known sordid details, because you've probably already read about it yourself from various different sources. What you can do, however, is see Steve Whitmire's statements for yourself, as he has recently started his own blog to share his experiences with fans and friends across the globe:
http://stevewhitmire-muppetpundit.com/
Note: It's been speculated that this may not actually be the real Steve Whitmire behind this blog, so take it however you will.

What I am going to do, however, is offer up my own two-cents worth on why the Muppets seem to be struggling so much lately. . . . Actually, the Muppets haven't been struggling so much lately, rather, they've kind of struggled since Jim Henson's sudden death in 1990 - the struggle has just gotten more and more apparent in recent years because of the things that have transpired, and more. Since Jim's death, the Muppets have been in multiple hands over the past two-and-a-half decades: the Jim Henson Company retained them up until the late 90s when they sold the characters to German media company EM-TV, and when that failing company began going under in 2003, the Jim Henson Company bought back the Muppets, only to sell them again a year later to Disney, where they have remained ever since. This isn't the first time Disney has had their hands in the Muppets: Jim was already in negotiations to sell his company and all of its properties (minus the Sesame Street Muppets, which Jim promised to leave with what was still known as the Children's Television Workshop at the time) to Disney before his death, but because the deal was never finalized in writing (as Jim always prefered to do business with a handshake), the Jim Henson Company continued to own the characters and properties, while Disney distributed certain titles like THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL and MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND.

Bad concept.
Still, Disney didn't finally get complete control over the Muppets until 2004, and since they were so eager to get their hands on the Muppets, what did they do with them? Nothing. At first. Well, that's not entirely true: they did give us a TV movie in 2005 with THE MUPPETS' WIZARD OF OZ, and a TV special in 2008 with LETTERS TO SANTA, but other than that, Disney pretty much did nothing else with them. Years later, actor/filmmaker Jason Segel sought to remedy that, and shopped a script to Disney that eventually lead to the Muppets' first theatrical movie in over a decade in 2011: THE MUPPETS. THE MUPPETS, while met with mixed reaction from fans and critics, did well enough to garner a sequel in 2014, MUPPETS MOST WANTED; with the Muppets back in the public eye, Disney felt like they were ready to blow the dust off a new Muppet show they had previously shelved several years prior - a Muppet version of THE OFFICE, known as, well, THE MUPPETS . . . and the show failed, thus getting canceled after a single season. Meanwhile, there's certainly been some creative differences within the Muppet world: although he had long retired from the Muppets, Frank Oz strongly disliked the 2011 movie, feeling is was disrespectful to the characters and failed to capture the spirit of what made the Muppets so unique and wonderful in the first place. Not only that, but based on information that's floating around, it seems that Steve Whitmire has also not been entirely pleased with the way Disney has been handling the Muppets all this time, and this is supposedly what lead to his termination.

As I said, after two lukewarm theatrical movies and a failed TV show, it seems as though the Muppets are facing new struggles right now - why? Well, before we get into that, let's take a look at something else: In 2015, longtime Henson/Muppet rivals, Sid & Marty Krofft, made a triumphant return with a new preschool show on Nick Jr. - MUTT & STUFF - co-produced with Cesar Milan; the series became a smash hit, and after enjoying an inaugural season of 40 episodes (impressive, when you consider most Krofft shows from decades past generally lasted 17 episodes), it was renewed for a second season with another generous amount of episodes: something that seldom happened to previous Krofft shows. That same year, Nickelodeon also began airing ALVINNN!!! AND THE CHIPMUNKS; initially produced for just two seasons, this series also became an unexpected hit for the orange network, that it's since been renewed for an additional third and fourth season (the third just began airing this summer). Like the Muppets, these others have also been around for decades: the Kroffts practically dominated Saturday Morning television in the 70s and into the 80s with a string of psychedelic kids shows like H.R. PUFNSTUF, THE BUGALOOS, LIDSVILLE, SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS, LAND OF THE LOST, THE LOST SAUCER, FAR OUT SPACE NUTS, and several others; meanwhile, the Chipmunks have been putting out squeaky albums and singles since their creation in the late 50s, and they've also successfully starred in a number of TV shows, TV specials, and movies.

With success like that, how is it the Muppets aren't really enjoying that same level of success in this modern age of entertainment? What is the big difference here? I think it all lies in the handling of these properties. Sid & Marty Krofft have the creative freedom to make MUTT & STUFF the way they want to, without a lot of interference from Nickelodeon, and likewise Bagdasarian Productions has complete creative control over ALVINNN!!! AND THE CHIPMUNKS as well (this after they had very little input with the string of live-action/CGI movies that Twentieth Century Fox had control over); MUTT & STUFF has the Krofft charm that their previous shows had, and the Chipmunks certainly sound and act more like the way we knew and loved them than they ever did in those Fox movies. In short: the creative forces behind these shows are in control . . . this isn't happening with the Muppets, and in fact, just the opposite has been happening. With the exception of THE MUPPETS' WIZARD OF OZ and LETTERS TO SANTA being directed by Muppet director Kirk Thatcher, Disney seems to be going out of its way to avoid bringing in actual Muppet writers or directors to handle new Muppet titles: aside from Jason Segel and his writing partner Nick Stoller doing the screenplay for THE MUPPETS (Nick also wrote MUPPETS MOST WANTED), Disney also brought in FLIGHT OF THE CONCORDS director James Bobin to direct both of their theatrical movies; as for the 2015 series, Disney brought in writers from shows like THE BIG BANG THEORY, THE OFFICE, and MODERN FAMILY. It seems to me that Disney feels the need to try to bring in people from other successful mainstream shows to try and give the Muppets more of a mainstream appeal, in hopes they'll achieve mainstream success, but that isn't what the Muppets are about at all (why do you think ALVINNN!!! on Nick is doing better than those terrible Fox movies?): a new Muppet show would have been most excellent if it didn't try so hard to be "The Big Muppet Modern Office Family Theory" - I mean, really, the mockumentary format has overstayed its welcome; not all sitcoms have to follow that format. The Muppets have never been about trying to follow the zeitgeist of what mainstream entertainment is, so why try to conform them to that? Jim Henson was a one-of-a-kind creative genius who always did his own thing in his own way; Sid & Marty Krofft are a dynamite duo who always did things their own way; Ross Bagdasarian & Janice Karman are a power couple who try their hardest to ensure the Chipmunk franchise retains its integrity.

That's right kids, if you're not careful, the evil people from the
networks and major studios will take your creations away from
you!
Why can't Disney take a hint and realize that perhaps the key to the Muppets' success is to just let the Muppets do their own thing in their own way? Because Disney is what Lloyd Kaufman would refer to as a Devil-Worshipping International Media Conglomerate (and ironically, so is Viacom, and they own Nickelodeon, which has been letting Krofft and Bagdasarian do their own thing in their own way, so go figure), and what's the main objective for Devil-Worshipping International Media Conglomerates? Money. Matter of fact, this is what almost all of Hollywood has been reduced to: money-making machines. Why do you think so many movies are turned into franchises and become infected with sequelitis? Money. If entertainment properties don't bring in a satisfying amount of profit or revenue, then it will pretty much just be discarded. Again, THE MUPPETS 2015 series did poorly in the ratings, and as such, it got canceled and was not renewed for another season . . . and why did it do so poorly? Because this wasn't the Muppets as we know them, this was the Muppets trying too hard to be something they're not. Hollywood thought it was doing itself a favor by assuming all creative control over shows and movies themselves, but that has ended up with just the opposite results. Why has MUTT & STUFF been so successful? Because Sid & Marty Krofft have creative control over their own show. Why has ALVINNN!!! AND THE CHIPMUNKS been so successful? Because Bagdasarian Productions has creative control over their own show. So, again, this begs the question: why can't Disney take a hint from one of its rivals, and perhaps start letting the Muppets just do their own thing? The results could very well be surprising.