After my all-night therapy session writing responses and as I was putting the final touches on my statement, I received word from the producers at The TODAY Show that they wanted me on Thursday’s show. I threw clothes and a toothbrush in a carry-on bag, and raced to the airport. Having done the morning shows so many times before I knew how early the next morning would be, so I hoped to arrive in time to get to the hotel and go straight to sleep. Almost worked, too…but, not quite.
I’ve done that show dozens of times as Kermit and other Muppet characters, and it’s my favorite kind of appearance. Totally unscripted and completely improvised, those are the types of challenges that, for me, allow the characters to evolve, as opposed to a film or television series that is scripted. On live TV there’s no safety net, and those shows offer a sense of freedom to let a character like Kermit out of the tightly held reigns of corporate control and let him be who I know him to be.
But this time it was to be very different. For the first time in my career, I wouldn’t be hiding under the camera’s probing eye, I would instead be scrutinized by it with news journalists asking the questions of me…no fun, but oddly still a chance for character growth.
I never get nervous about live television because as Kermit the mistakes are so much fun to get out of, but, I was nervous this time. I didn’t know what I’d be asked, or if it might be something I’d chosen not to confront, so it’s a little harder to deal with than a puppet’s eye falling off…although that would be pretty bad.
But from the moment I walked in the door at TODAY it felt a bit like a homecoming with the old familiar faces of so many crew members greeting me and giving hugs and handshakes. There was Al Roker, one of the nicest people I’ve worked with over the years headed my way, saying enthusiastically, “MISTER Whitmire!…”. What a relief. Thank-you my friends for making me feel so welcome.
Afterwards, I walked the city streets to stay awake and soak up some vitamin D. My path took me up Broadway towards Lincoln Center, and I took a detour on Central Park South. Looking east, there was “The Sherry Netherland” where I visited Jim several times in his New York City apartment.
Many years ago for his birthday, I had given him a tiny little store-bought glass bearded ‘head’ with bare arms and legs sticking out of the hair. It looked a little like a two inch tall ceramic cartoon Jim Henson. The little man would stand up on a surface with one arm up in a wave, and I had made a tiny little half-inch Kermit puppet out of felt using the pearl head of a straight pin cut in half for eyes to put on the little man’s arm. It was about the size of a gummy bear.
Years later, he had done away with the little bearded glass man, but the first time I visited his apartment I had been overjoyed to notice he had kept the tiny little Kermit and placed him on a shelf with a handful of other far more impressive art objects.
On my walk, I found myself absorbed in an atmosphere of intense familiarity, as though scenes from the past were somehow happening in front of me.
Ahead of me there was Jim, my wife, Melissa, and me walking back to the Sherry after having dinner the night after one of his masked balls at the Waldorf. To my left, the two of us were in a taxi together heading back to the office on 69th Street after a long day of shooting on “Muppet Take Manhattan”. Then, it was the day after his death when the performers met at the apartment with the family to be asked how we felt on whether or not the Muppets should go on.
And then, I had a feeling that made me actually stop on the sidewalk and look around to see who was nearby. As I walked past Sarabeth’s, I literally felt the presence of Debbie McClellan like a ghost from the past as I remembered the many meals we had together over the years. I really felt as though she was there for a moment and was tempted to go inside.
Feeling Debbie’s presence stayed with me for the rest of the walk. My own wife used to tell Debbie that she was my “work-wife”. I really miss her and our adventures traveling all over the world, working in shorthand to bring the very unique presence that was Kermit to millions of people. Debbie and I would split meals at restaurants after a long day’s work, and our little Kermit team would extend stays in England, Europe, and Australia so that we could vacation together.
Because of the great potential that would have been unleashed if the two of us had began working in tandem, as planned, I had begun saying to people that the most important individual involved in the Muppets today is Debbie McClellan. That’s because navigating the corporate minefield while making sure ‘no Muppet is left behind’ would have been vital as I leaned towards the creative. But at this point Rizzo the Rat, Lips the trumpet man, Foo Foo, Bean Bunny, not to mention Statler, Beaker, Link Hogthrob and most importantly, Kermit the Frog, will never recover.
Right after Jim died I had a few very significant dreams where he spoke to me, and as it was then, since October as my mind tries to process another loss the dreams have happened again. I think it’s because I sense that this time, he’s really gone.
Those dreams have alternated with another recurring one, being in an empty soundstage the day after production has stopped. Anonymous people are clearing out, and there is Debbie. All is well between us and the next Muppet gig is a go with me working on it, then she just disappears.