This blog post is special for two reasons: It’s the first to feature an interview that I carried out specifically for Canada Through My Eye, and it’s the first to shine the spotlight on someone that I’ve admired, wanted to meet, and even envied for a long time.
You see, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with Jim Henson and the Muppets. (Some would say that obsession never left.) My younger sister and I regularly staged our own versions of The Muppet Show with our puppets (homemade or store-bought) and stuffed animals. During my elementary-school years, I frequently plotted out a career plan where, at the age of 20, I would pack up these toys in a trunk, go to New York City, audition for Mr. Henson, and spend my life working for (and with) the man behind these wonderful characters.
Little did I know that, in 1982, another longtime Muppet/puppet enthusiast from my home province of Nova Scotia – specifically, Pugwash (remember Pugwash?) – was on his way to Toronto to audition for a new Jim Henson production, Fraggle Rock. Jointly produced by Henson Associates, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Home Box Office and Britain’s Television South, the beloved series would provide a five-year master class in puppetry and TV production for a young man named Terry Angus, who went on to co-create and perform in the late-’80s CBC children’s series Blizzard Island and now has decades’ worth of puppet construction and performance under his belt, ranging from public appearances to a new series of viral videos on his YouTube channel.
Above: Terry Angus (bottom right) and Jim Henson (centre) on the set of Fraggle Rock.
Terry was recently kind enough to chat with me about his experiences before, during and after Fraggle Rock, from the Halifax home base of his company Angus Puppets. I’ve edited the interview a bit, partly for space considerations and partly because it’s hard to capture the joy in Terry’s many delightful Muppet voice impersonations through a written interview transcript. (Seriously, I could have listened to Terry rattle off those familiar characters for a good five hours.)
But, even in its edited form, what you’re about to read is a first-person account of the remarkable journey a determined young man with cerebral palsy took in the early ’80s to work with his heroes on a made-in-Canada project that still touches fans around the world to this day.
Q: How old were you when you were bit by the puppetry bug?
A: “I think I was in Grade 10 when I got seriously interested in it. You’ve got to have puppets [to be a puppeteer], so that came out of necessity, the building part of it – you can’t puppeteer without puppets. So I took apart one of the Kermits from years ago, those old Fisher-Price dolls…I had the doll and the hand-puppet, and as I grew, so did my hand, so I had to take it apart and figure out how to build my own bigger Kermit puppet. And I did some research here and there, some magazines on Henson [Associates] and how they built things, so you figure it out that way too.”
Q: You grew up in a rural community like Pugwash – how hard was it to get the stuff you needed to make your puppets? Did you and your family have to make runs to Halifax?
A: “It was very hard. When I made my first Kermit puppets and stuff, I had to use upholstery from chairs, and they were so stiff you couldn’t tie the seam line [on the heads] and make it disappear like you can with fleece, or better yet Antron Fleece – it was just too impossible to do.”
Q: You found out, while you were in high school, that auditions were happening in Toronto for this new Jim Henson production called Fraggle Rock. What were people at home, like your teachers or parents, saying to you at that time about the idea of a career in puppetry?
A: “My teachers were trying to pin down who to talk to, to get the auditions set up. And because I had cerebral palsy, the CBC people in Toronto didn’t seem to think it was a good idea to send me down – ‘if this guy’s got a disability, we don’t want to hurt his feelings.’ So they didn’t encourage it, but they didn’t 100 per cent kill it, either, especially since that was just one phone call. And then [CBC] got another phone call from Social Services about me, and they thought, ‘Hmm, two different calls on one guy, this is interesting.’ So they thought, ‘Okay, let’s see this guy, let him come up and try.'”
Q: What was your reaction like when you realized you were going to be able to audition for Henson Associates and for Jim Henson himself?
A: “For me, it was like, ‘Let’s get my act together so I can pass the audition – let’s get through this.’ (Laughs) So I had to figure out what to do, and what puppets to use – you can’t depend on someone providing the puppets, so I figured I’d better bring my own puppets…We had to convince my father to let me go, too, because he was afraid that I was going to get hurt if I went up there and they said no. And my mother and I had to convince him that I had to try, at least – I wasn’t stupid, I knew my odds, but if I didn’t try, what was the point? It took a fair bit of convincing, but I convinced him to let me go on the flight, and my mother came with me.”
Q: I understand that, before auditioning for Jim Henson, you also auditioned for Richard Hunt, who was one of the key Muppet performers at the time. What was that like?
A: “That’s a famous one, there. (Laughs) He was auditioning people who were on the list ahead of me, and people were going in and coming out, and they were coming out frazzled. One lady came out and said, ‘He’s crazy, he’s crazy!’ So my mother leaned over and said, ‘If they want crazy, you give them crazy.’ Richard Hunt is very much a New Yorker kind of guy, very in-your-face. He performed Scooter, Janice, Beaker, and Statler [for The Muppet Show], and Don Music [for Sesame Street]…He acted quite like a drill sergeant. But I had a good idea what was going to happen, so I said, ‘Okay, don’t let yourself get rattled, this guy’s going to be crazy.’ He was very fast, just to keep you off balance. He shouted things for you to do: ‘HI, I’M RICHARD HUNT AND I WANT YOU TO STAND RIGHT HERE AND TAKE YOUR PICTURE’ – they took a Polaroid and all that – ‘ALL RIGHT, DO YOUR THING!’ And he stopped, and then I had to do my thing. I took my puppets out, one by one, and he would have me sing ‘Happy Birthday’ or things like that. And then I brought out the Kermit puppet that I have, and I said: ‘Uh, excuse me, Mr. Hunt, I’m sorry, but I don’t really like how you’re treating a lot of these people that are coming in for the audition.’ And he said, ‘OH YEAH? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT, FROG?’ And I had Kermit gulp: ‘Uh, nothing, you’re doing a great job, keep going!’ And Richard really enjoyed the audition – he said, ‘You’re great, kid!’”
Q: So far, so good. Now, you had a chance to audition for Jim Henson himself a couple of days later. What was it like to prove yourself in front of this man who was in charge of everything here, but also a personal hero for you?
A: “[After the first audition] my mother had to go back to Nova Scotia, because we worked on a farm, and Mom had to leave Monday…Luckily, I had an aunt in Markham that I could stay with, so I stayed at my aunt’s for a week – Wayne Moss, who ended up being our floor director for Fraggle Rock, drove me in for the audition. So that [Friday] night, I went in – thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too very long to see Jim himself, and we got right in there. So I kept with the same routine – I had Fozzie Bear say, ‘My wife likes children, but I can’t ‘BEAR’ them! Ahhhhh!’ And then I thought I’d have Kermit come out at the end this time, not almost off the bat like I did with Richard, and I’d have him say, ‘Hi, Daddy!’ And Jim got a kick out of it – he laughed and said [in his Kermit voice], ‘What the hey?’ and then, ‘Good grief, another me!’ I had done Fozzie too, and then Jim asked me, ‘Who else can you do?’ Then they started shouting out characters for me to do…And after I did that, Jim was very satisfied, and he was nodding his head ‘Yes,’ he was very happy. Then he went off and got a book and brought it out…and started signing it. And I thought, ‘This is either a thank-you-for-coming thing or I’ve got it.’ So I said to Jim, ‘Excuse me, does this mean I’ve got it?‘ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah. Don’t you know?’ (Laughs) A lot of people in the room said, ‘Jim, no, he’s too young!’ They were objecting because of my age and that kind of thing. And Jim said, ‘No, I think he’ll do just fine.'”
Q: So you graduated from Grade 12 that year, and you were like, “So long, Pugwash, I’m off to work with my hero”?
A: “Yeah, I was very lucky – they were going to shoot in the summer anyway, so they wanted me to go back and continue my schooling. They didn’t want me to go through Muppet training, because I already knew about the monitors and how to use the monitors. In high school, we had this old Sony reel-to-reel videotape machine, and I learned how to use that, and how to use a monitor through that. And I knew from reading information [about the Muppet performers] that they used monitors [while operating the characters], so I knew all about that.”
Q: My research shows that you were also involved in other Muppet productions like the 1982 TV special The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show in addition to Fraggle Rock. How did it all evolve for you in your first summer working with the Muppets in Toronto?
A: “Well, that came later – The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show was at the end of the summer, and we were shooting the first 12 or 13 episodes of Fraggle Rock during the summer, and that was half of the first season. It was at the end of that when they did The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show – they held me over for a couple of weeks to work on that. Then we would break for about a month or so, and then come back and do the rest of the bulk of the first season. And at that point, the Gobo Fraggle puppet had changed! And so did Ma Gorg!” (Laughs)
Above: Gobo Fraggle, Terry Angus, and Gobo’s performer, Muppet legend Jerry Nelson.
Q: I wanted to ask you about Gobo, because I’ve heard so many stories about how Jerry Nelson gave him what he considered a distinctly Canadian accent, even peppering his lines with “eh?” for the early episodes. Did you notice that?
A: “It was in honour of Canada that he did that. I think he also loved Bob and Doug McKenzie – he thought that was quite neat. So he would have lines like [in Gobo’s voice], ‘Don’t complain about MY lima bean soup, eh?‘”
Q: (Laughs) I never knew that, all these years. Well, Gobo was one of many new characters that we would meet through Fraggle Rock. What was it like for you, working with the Muppets except for the fact that it wasn’t ‘THE MUPPETS’ – it was a brand new cast and a brand new show?
A: “Yeah, it wasn’t the Muppets – and anytime I did get to work with the Muppets, that was an extra thrill. But it was a brand new show, so you got to see these new characters, not knowing whether it was going to work or not or whether it was going to fly, that kind of thing. I enjoyed the time there – you get to know the characters while you’re there, and it was amazing. I found out, a little later on, that [Fraggle Rock] was all about trying to stop wars, that’s what it was all about. What starts wars is pretty much the fear of someone else – you have all of these different nationalities and you have all of these people not understanding each other, and being frightened of each other. So with Fraggle Rock, you have Fraggles, Doozers, Gorgs, and these are different entities and either they like each other or they don’t like each other – Junior Gorg wanted to capture the Fraggles and cage them. Later on, the idea is how to learn from each other and learn how to get along, because in a lot of ways, we do need to get along with each other in order to live on this Earth. That was the attempt, to get everybody to understand each other. We need that now, more than ever.”
Q: I did enjoy the idea that you had these three very different worlds – Fraggles, Doozers and Gorgs – and technically, there was a fourth, if you consider Doc and Sprocket on the other side of the Fraggle hole, and you had all these different types of characters co-existing within spitting distance of each other.
A: “Exactly. And they didn’t know about each other, and even when they knew about each other, they didn’t understand each other. And that’s the key to learning how to get along with everyone else in the world – to learn about each other and to understand each other more. Depending on who you are, it might work or it might not.”
Q: Within your own work on Fraggle Rock, you got to work with people like Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Steve Whitmire, Richard Hunt, and even Jim Henson himself would be there doing characters every so often. What was it like being on the set with these people that you’ve grown up idolizing over the years – were you ever a bit ‘over the moon’ or did you manage to rein it in and work professionally with these guys?
A: “At first I was over the moon., but very quickly I reined it in, because this was a professional [production]. But everybody was more like family, anyway – everybody was treated like family. So it became a very friendly atmosphere right off the bat – I was brought in, and it all became a family in the end. Although sometimes, in a family, you’ll disagree with your brothers and sisters, but you still got on as a family. Jim didn’t seem like the boss at all, because he was just one of us – he performed, so he was just like the rest of us goofing around and that kind of thing.”
Above: Terry Angus, directly behind Jim Henson, on the Fraggle Rock set.
Q: I remember reading that Jim Henson seemed like a perfect fit for the Fraggle Rock recurring character Convincing John, because Jim seemed like the kind of person that would grab an idea and run with it and he would bring you on board, even if you were a little suspicious of it at the start. Was that the case? Was he able to really sell an idea or sell something on the set like that?
A: “Well, the show worked, didn’t it? (Laughs) I always saw him as being quite a bit like Cantus, too – the spiritual side of him. And he loved to work, too. Work was not ‘work’ for Jim Henson – it was play. He didn’t refer to that as ‘work’ at all.”
Q: I recall seeing a Jim Henson quote that suggested that “the secret to success is hard work, but work can be fun.”
A: “Exactly. That’s the way he treated it – it was play for him. It was funny because he’s so quiet and reserved himself, but when he put a character back on [his hands], suddenly something came out of him that he was wild and crazy on the floor, and then he was back to, ‘Hmm-hmm-hmm…'”
Q: Fraggle Rock debuted in January of 1983 on both CBC and HBO. When did you guys on the ground floor, having put all this hard work into getting the show off the ground, have a sense that maybe it was going to work and perhaps it could be a hit and people would love it? Was there a tipping point for you?
A: “Yeah, when we heard there was going to be a second season.” (Laughs)
Q: There you go! That’s usually a good indicator.
A: “You don’t usually know how people are going to react to something. You liked it, and I liked it, and we hoped that the audience was going to like it too.”
Q: Was there any reaction from your friends and family back home when the show came on the air? What were they saying?
A: “They were pretty happy with it, and they congratulated me and said they enjoyed the show. I remember seeing the first episode and being nervous because it was in front of people – in front of my family. I wanted them to like it, but I didn’t know if they were going to like it. They said they loved it, but I was wondering, ‘Did they really like it or were they just being nice?’ I knew the first few episodes were kind of on the shaky side, because they didn’t really get their fingerprints on it until we came back from the summer hiatus and did the second set [of episodes] from the first season. Even the puppets were revamped and rebuilt…Around the 25th or 26th episode, it really flies right there. The first episodes were wilder episodes like ‘Let The Water Run,’ when they’re trying to get the water to flow in the Fraggle Pond, and they bring in these pipe-bangers to bang on the pipes and get them to turn on. That one was a little odd, but you see them trying to get their footing when you see the first few episodes, and then everything starts flying after that. Everybody gets more comfortable with their characters and their stuff, and they figure it out more.”
Q: Tell me a bit about your own Fraggle Rock roles, like Morris Fraggle and Storyteller Fraggle (above, with Terry). What were some of the most memorable moments you had with some of these characters?
A: “For the most part, I was doing background roles and extra characters. Richard Hunt did the first Storyteller Fraggle episode, ‘The Terrible Tunnel,’ but I took over her around the 23rd or 24th episode. Richard was busy doing Sesame Street and he couldn’t get back [to Toronto] to do that, so [veteran Muppet writer-producer] Jerry Juhl handed me the puppet and said, ‘Can you do the Storyteller?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, do you want me to do my own [voice] or do you want me to do it just like Richard?’ And he said, ‘It’s up to you.’ So I did kind of a combination of both – I sort of incorporated Richard’s voice a little. And when [series writer] B.P. Nichol wrote for the character, B.P. had her swooning for [Gobo’s uncle] Travelling Matt, so I picked up on that, and they loved what I did with that, and they said, ‘We’re going to make this a regular thing – she’s head over heels for Matt.’ We even had a flashback episode where I played the Storyteller as a young character, and I had to do a little-girl voice for her. [In Storyteller Fraggle’s voice] ‘Oh, Matt, you’re so wonderful, Matt, oh!’ But don’t watch too closely when I first do her, because I accidentally had her hand going up and down on her…”
Q: No! (Laughs)
A: “I had no idea I was doing that. B.P. Nichol said, ‘I love the way you had yourself fondling her.’ And he laughed and chuckled, and I said, ‘What? What do you mean? I did?’ And then I looked back at the episode later and I was like, ‘Oh my…’ But nobody else picked up on it except B.P. But we kept the idea of her pining for Travelling Matt.”
Q: On a serious note, what was it like for you to graduate from being a non-speaking background player to bringing your own voice out and creating or re-creating some of these characters, being able to make them your own?
A: “I was very nervous. I was actually more nervous when I had one line in one episode before the Storyteller Fraggle. There was an episode called ‘Finger Of Light,’ where [my character was] calling for the World’s Oldest Fraggle. And I dropped the ‘s’ off of ‘World’s,’ and I had an anonymous Fraggle sticking his head into Gobo and Wembley’s room-window, saying, ‘Hey, everyone, they’re calling for the World Oldest Fraggle!’ My voice was also weak on that line. So one-liners are the hardest, because you’re concentrating on it so much…And I thought to myself, ‘Well, there’s the end of my doing lines for the future.‘ (Laughs) You’re nervous about doing it for the first time, and I was still nervous every time I took on the Storyteller – I was worried that I wasn’t going to take direction well. But it went okay.”
Q: By the time Fraggle Rock got under way, Jim Henson had already been coming into Toronto and other parts of Canada for over a decade to do Muppet productions. Was there a little bit of chest-thumping among yourself and the other Canadian participants in Fraggle Rock that big hits like that series and the other TV series were being shot in Canada? Was there any patriotic pride on your part?
A: “We were certainly proud of the fact that Canada was being used and that he was able to come in and do that. There’s a sense of pride there, I think so.”
Q: Fraggle Rock wrapped up in 1987 – what was the day like when you folks found out it was winding down? What was going through your mind then?
A: “At the first read-through of that season, we found out that it was going to be over and done with. My future wife, Cheryl Ripley, had moved up and started a job in Toronto, and suddenly [snaps his fingers], ‘That’s it, uh-oh, we’re screwed now.'” (Laughs)
Q: What happened then? Did you immediately start looking for other opportunities in Toronto, or with Jim Henson and his company in New York? Or did you just think, “Well, maybe our best bet is to head back to Nova Scotia?”
A: “I did look around for a few things, but there was nothing that would pay well enough for us to stay in Toronto. Fortunately, we knew we were going to get [a CBC Halifax commitment for] Blizzard Island, and I knew we had that before [Fraggle Rock wrapped up], so that helped. But there was no way that we were going to be able to survive in Toronto. I tried out for [the Canadian inserts for] Sesame Street, as they were holding auditions at that time, but unfortunately I didn’t get on.”
Q: What do you think were the most valuable lessons that you learned from your time on Fraggle Rock?
A: “I also learned what worked and what didn’t – puppets are very technical devices. Let’s face it, TV is a big liar – you can do things on TV and get away with it through cuts and rigging things and all that sort of stuff. Puppets lend themselves to that, through a lot of editing. So I came out of [Fraggle Rock] knowing how it’s all done, and I could take that information and apply it, in the future, that other productions that I was a part of… There’s a lot of technical stuff that you learn from that, and how to pull things off. I learned a lot from watching Jim and the others. You learn how to treat people, and Jim very much led by example. He was very nice to people and very good to people, so I came away with a lot of that.”
EPILOGUE: While his work on Blizzard Island prevented Terry Angus from continuing his role as a supporting player in Jim Henson’s late-’80s Muppet productions, the two men shared the stage for this mind-blowing TV appearance in 1989, which also marked the last time Terry had the opportunity to speak to the Muppet master prior to his far-too-soon passing in 1990. (This interview for the fan site Muppet Central gives a little more detail about that specific experience and how it connected to Terry’s original Fraggle Rock audition.)
Even as he has spent the past three decades developing such delightful original characters as Cliff the Elf (you’ll hear about him in a future blog post) and Butch G. Cat (seen here, fending off a very familiar-sounding rabbit), Terry Angus has proudly maintained his connection to his Muppet/Fraggle days, even building replicas of the original characters that rival – and, according to some critics, surpass – their current incarnations within Walt Disney Productions. (Fraggle Rock, for clarification’s sake, is still under the ownership of The Jim Henson Company.)
Thanks again, Terry, for an hour of telephone time that helped me dance my cares away. Hope to see you on Fraggle Rock Road (yes, it exists) sometime soon.