ACTRESS FRAN BRILL, who's been performing on "Sesame Street" for more than 35 years, didn't set out to be a groundbreaking puppeteer. Brill, who'll be speaking at the Center for Puppetry Arts on June 28, reveals it was an Atlanta-originated stage show, and its lack of success, that led to her to rub felt elbows with Kermit and company.
In 1969, a fresh-out-of-college Brill landed a part in the Broadway version of "Red, White and Maddox," a satirical take on former Gov. Lester Maddox. The show opened amid a snowstorm and eventually closed, leaving Brill in need of work. Without any previous puppeteering experience, she answered an ad placed by the late Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. Brill eventually became the first female puppeteer on "Sesame Street," where she still handles a variety of characters, including Prairie Dawn and Zoe, both Brill creations.
Although she can be seen in the flesh on TV and film, and heard doing voice-over gigs, Brill will always be best known for her Muppet work.
On "Sesame Street's" enduring appeal:
"When the show went on the air, I don't think anyone involved ever thought it would last very long. It was very experimental. There were no children's shows on the air like that. Most children's TV shows were very sweet with a clubhouse and sets that looked like a fairy land or a child's room. But 'Sesame Street' was realistic, set on the steps of a brownstone that was probably Harlem in inner-city New York. So there was a gritty realism to the look of the show that was absolutely unique."
On "Sesame Street's" influence on budding puppeteers:
"There really weren't a lot of puppeteers [in the early '70s]. 'Sesame Street' created generations now who know that being a puppeteer is a possibility or being a puppeteer is a possible career. Now there are universities that have majors in puppeteering. None of that existed back then. Now when they have auditions, hundreds and hundreds of kids from all over the country come. While back then, there were maybe 30, 40, 50 people who auditioned."
What she misses most about Jim Henson:
"He was unlike anybody I have ever known. . . . He was a very serious, intelligent man, but he could also be very, very silly. And everybody tried to make him laugh. . . . He was very centered, could be very still and didn't raise his voice. When you think of somebody being as successful as Jim Henson was, that's pretty rare. People either get really full of themselves, get very demanding, have an entourage or yell at people. And Jim was the absolute opposite of that. He never changed, and he always treated people exactly the same. He never talked down to anybody. He would talk to the head of the network the same as he would to the guy who took out the trash. He just had enormous respect for all living things. . . . He graced my life, and I can't believe I was so lucky. I learned so much about being a human being and a good person from being around Jim."
> THE 411: "My Life as a Muppeteer." Fran Brill. $5-$7. For adults and children 13 and older. 8 p.m. June 28. Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St., Atlanta. 404-873-3391, www.puppet.org.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.