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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.

1 comment:

  1. You certainly had a wonderful experience my friend. They are amazing people and they make Sesame Street so awesome,

    50 seasons is remarkable. Well 50th season to be soon and some of them have just about been around from the beginning. I think Bob were and also "Luis", they do go back a long time.

    Best wishes Joe. I should try to keep in touch more.