Steve Whitmire: The Heart of a Puppeteer

Steve Whitmire
Photo by Eddie Clay

You may not know his face, but you know his voice. Or, at least versions of it. Kermit the Frog. Ernie. Rizzo the Rat. Beaker. Wembley. This is the legacy of Steve Whitmire, a Muppeteer from 1979 to 2016, who stopped by the Hyatt Hanover on Friday afternoon to talk about his storied career, which included taking over that beloved green frog from the creator himself, Jim Henson, in 1990.

Whitmire grew up in the Atlanta area, something he acknowledged as he took the stage, saying he’d just eaten at the Silver Skillet and expressing gratitude to be spending time where his artistry blossomed, despite coming from a home that had “nothing to do with anything to do with the arts.”

He described his mom as a housewife who had a green thumb. “No pun intended,” he followed with characteristic wit. His dad worked in the prison, so home was a place to be silly. Whitmire said he had an incredible home life. Coupled with the “incredible, interesting” culture of the ’60s–’70s, influences surrounded Whitmore, nudging him along the entertainment path.

“I was an incredible fan of what Jim was doing,” Whitmore said of watching Rowlf the Dog on The Jimmy Dean Show, reading about Henson in TV Guide, and of discovering Sesame Street in its first season in 1969. He would record just the audio using a cassette recorder, construct his own puppets, and pair the two to perform the episodes for the neighborhood.

“Well,” he said about his childhood creations, “they were pretty crude.”

When Whitmire auditioned for Henson, it was not for a specific job. Henson said he would use him in either the “shop” to build puppets or as a puppeteer since Whitmire was skilled in both crafts. Turns out, Whitmire had written Henson a fan letter as a child. Henson replied, telling Whitmore about a build-your-own-Muppet-type-puppet pattern in Women’s Day. Whitmire’s mom bought it and began sewing puppets for her son. She eventually passed the gauntlet to child Steve, who learned to stitch, seam, and hem himself and got a sewing machine, instead of a bike like most boys his age.

Years later, Whitmire visited the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky, dedicated to ventriloquism, and got a few gigs building Muppet-style puppets. Around the same time, he created his first original character—Otis, a beach bum—who he used in his first job, which was at The World of Sid and Marty Krofft, an indoor amusement park in downtown Atlanta. Whitmire and Otis greeted people at the top of an escalator. This led to his next job: a live show on a local TV station.

“We took phone calls,” Whitmire said to audience laughter. But, this led to a chance meeting with Carroll Spinney—the man behind Big Bird—and that led to a meeting with Henson.

“My God, it all just fell into place,” Whitmire said, reflecting on the series of events, and timing, that led to 40 years with the Muppets.

Around the same time, serendipitously, Henson’s wife Jane passed through Atlanta, so Whitmire met her at an airport restaurant, hauling his trunk of puppets with him and performing an impromptu show for a table full of kids, who watched his local show.

“That’s why you got the job,” Jane later told him. Whitmire was just 18 and working for Henson amounted to going to the top puppetry school. He was also getting a crash course in life outside Atlanta.

He flew into New York, stayed at the Drake hotel, got his first taste of winter, and wandered the streets, trying to understand how to get from A to B, pay for food, and stay warm all the while, again, hauling his trunk of puppets. But, he said, “I was very mentored and nurtured from the get-go.”

Whitmire said he spent three days in New York with Henson, meeting Frank Oz along the way, playing with puppets, and being sized-up, as that was how Henson determined who he would hire. It was important that individuals fit into the ensemble first. Whitmire fit and was shuttled to London. This was the early days of Henson’s company, Whitmire told the audience, and so everything was very casual, which is something he tried to replicate after Henson’s death.

But, times change, Whitmire admitted. His time was a “good time to come into puppetry.” He also talked about how it is different being inside the world of puppetry—building the worlds—and encouraged aspiring puppeteers to consider that as well as the difference between being a puppeteer and working for the Muppets.

“I never thought I was going to work for Jim,” he said.

But, he did, and because of that he was able to regale the audience with fun stories from sets over the years—like filming the underwater banjo scene in The Muppet Movie or the logistics of filming at Disney World or the challenges of using certain technology on the set of Dinosaurs.

He said some of his favorite scenes to do as Kermit the Frog are cameos when Kermit is just a normal guy on the street, such as those he did for the show 30 Rock. He called Tina Fey an “amazing, fantastic person to work with” and said that the show wrote Kermit perfectly.

Whitmire loved working with John Denver. “He was just a nice guy,” he said about the musician, who died in 1997, and that he was “exactly the person you hoped he’d be.” He also said Denver had a perfect, angelic voice and that he misses him still.

He also talked about his voice changing as he’s aged and how he once told Henson that he felt all his characters sounded too similar, to which Henson quipped that Burt Reynolds always used the same voice.

But, reflecting on Kermit—and all his characters—Whitmire gave a glorious glimpse at the creative flow—the separation of self from character even as you create it in the moment. “It wasn’t as if I was him,” Whitmire said, when describing watching Kermit on a monitor as he was performing him live. “I sometimes had no idea what Kermit was going to do next.”

Fortunately, we do know what Whitmire is going to do next. He’s launching a live call-in show on 8/31 at 8:31EST via his website, featuring Weldon the IT guy—a puppet he has built himself, taking him full circle. Giving the audience a sneak peek, the show looks pretty awesome (Wanna see a Dark Crystal parody? Then this is for you). And, you can call in using the Discord app, which is available for free download. Also, follow Whitmire on Instagram: Steve_Whitmire.

Author of the article

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occasional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except Game of Thrones because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled--such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.