Being Gonzo: Muppet performer reflects on a half-century in blue fur

Dave Goelz warns young puppeteers: ‘You’d better have good cartilage.’

Credit: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

Dave Goelz, a Muppet performer for 50 years, is the man behind the scratchy-voiced Gonzo, a distinctive blue puppet with the nose of an anteater.

Though Goelz spends his time behind the scenes while his arm does the work, his face and personality were well-known to the audience at the Center for Puppetry Arts on Wednesday evening.

Credit: Tonya Wise/Invision/AP

Credit: Tonya Wise/Invision/AP

He spoke to a sell-out crowd at the puppetry center about his half-century under the stage, and also helped unveil a Great Gonzo puppet that the Walt Disney Co. is lending the center to display in its museum.

“He’s one of the core,” said Bill Myer, Atlanta make-up artist, who attended the event. The core of the Muppet masters would be Jim Henson (Kermit), Frank Oz (Miss Piggy), Carol Spinney (Big Bird) and Jerry Nelson (The Count). “Somehow I got in before they closed the door,” Goelz joked.

Goelz, 77, also performs Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Waldorf, Zoot, and Boober Fraggle, among other puppets, but, he told the audience, he found that the Great Gonzo had a sympathetic correspondence with his own personality.

Credit: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

A native of Burbank, California, Goelz was fascinated with puppets as a child. He studied industrial design in college, and in addition to building things for Hewlett-Packard, John Deere and American Airlines he also built puppets for himself, which he occasionally used in training films for his employers.

Credit: Grace Callaway

Credit: Grace Callaway

His puppet-building skills got him a job with Jim Henson, but when he started performing he was the only member of the crew with no stage training. “I had no qualifications, no acting experience,” he said, confessing that he had a bit of the imposter syndrome. Stars would come in to perform on the Muppets’ variety show and Goelz would be tongue-tied.

Gonzo, with his sleepy, downcast eyes, was the same way. “Gonzo had low self-esteem and that came from me.”

Goelz requested that he be allowed to redesign the puppet in his second season, adding a mechanism to let the puppet open his eyes wide in surprise, excitement or joy. His personality changed. “Gonzo entered phase two, the manic phase.”

Then, Gonzo was tapped to serve as the stand-in for Charles Dickens in the 1992 film “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Writer Jerry Juhl wanted the language of Dickens in the movie, “which is magic,” said Goelz. ”And that’s how Gonzo entered phase three, the soulful side.”

The character of Gonzo resonated with many members of the audience as well. “He‘s long been regarded as the King of Weirdos, and I like to consider myself the same way,” said Riley Smith, an employee at Disney World who drove up from Orlando, Florida, for the event. Smith also brought along his own home-made Gonzo.

Cherlyn Beatty, a burlesque performer, drove from Pittsburgh to hear Goelz speak, and to seek his autograph.

“Will you sign my arm?” she asked from the audience., showing off autographs from other Muppet stars, including Carol Spinney, Fran Brill (Prairie Dawn) Kevin Clash (Elmo) and Steve Whitmire (formerly Kermit), that she had turned into tattoos.

Goelz demurred, saying COVID-19 restrictions forbid him from signing autographs. “If you want one, everyone else will want one too.” But the audience shouted their approval of Beatty’s request. “Go ahead!” And Goelz gave in.

He spoke in conversation with the center’s executive director Beth Schiavo and took questions from the audience.

Audience members asked about Gonzo’s love affair with a chicken, and about the physical challenges of puppeting. (”I know many orthopedic surgeons on a first-name basis,” said Goelz. “Don’t do this unless you have good cartilage.”)

A youngster asked the very simple question, “What is Gonzo?” In other words, is he a monster? An animal? A strange person?

“He’s a misplaced being,” said Goelz. “I really don’t know. Maybe it’s better that way.”

Credit: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

The puppet being loaned to the center was dressed in saddle shoes and an argyle sweater, an outfit from the 1981 film, “The Great Muppet Caper. It would be one of the few surviving Gonzos with a nose intact.

Goelz warned that one problem with foam latex, which Muppets are made of, is that it disintegrates over time. For Gonzo, that means his distinctive curled nose will eventually fall off. “So enjoy this one while you can.”

“You spoke of a performer having a Muppet soul,” said one audience member. “Can you tell us what is a Muppet soul?”

Goelz thought carefully before answering.

“It’s a love of character,” he said. “A love of humanity, a love of mirth, and play but with something underneath it. A depth. So that there is a soul.”


The Center for Puppetry Arts

9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Includes the Worlds of Puppetry Museum and special exhibitions (such as the Poncili Creación show now through Oct. 29), a gift shop and puppet performances. Museum tickets are $16; performance ticket prices vary. 1404 Spring St. NW, Atlanta. 404-873-3391,