Sesame Workshop artist explains why Kermit spoke to him

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Louis Henry Mitchell remembers the night a sock came alive on the Ed Sullivan Show half a century ago.

It changed his life. On Tuesday, Mitchell will talk about his work as creative director of character design for Sesame Workshop, which produces the iconic children's television program "Sesame Street."

Mitchell, 59, says he dreamed of working for legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson, who died in 1990. That quest began as a child, when he saw Henson on the famous Sullivan show and watched Kermit come to life on Henson's hand.

"That's when it dawned on me that a man was doing that," Mitchell said in an interview with The Eagle. "I got so excited trying different materials and turning my sock into a puppet."

In time, Henson would reveal the behind-the-scenes secrets of his Muppet creations. "It was part of my education," Mitchell said.

He will provide his own insider view Tuesday at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, in an illustrated talk, "Muppets on Parade: Sesame Street at 50."

Lemonade will be served on the terrace before the 5 p.m. talk, with time for questions afterwards.

Mitchell's appearance compliments the museum's exhibit "Woodstock to the Moon: 1969," a visual look at the year that both the museum and "Sesame Street" began. Both celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year. "Sesame Street" features prominently in the exhibit through illustrations, character drawings, animation cels, photographs, video and a Cookie Monster puppet.

When Mitchell watched the first "Sesame Street" episode when he was 9 years old, "little did I know I was looking at my future and the crown of my career."

In 1992, Mitchell submitted drawings to the Sesame Workshop and became a sought-after freelance character artist, joining the company full-time in 2000.

"It takes a while to establish an understanding of the characters, who they are and how to interpret them," he said.

An early assignment he got was to design a Big Bird balloon for the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade — one of the Brooklyn native's "favorite things in the whole world."

"I was so excited to see my sketch on Herald Square," he said.

In 2015, he designed a new "Sesame Street" character, Julia, who is autistic.

Research is key to Muppet design, he explained. "First and foremost I have to find out what the initiative is that the character is going to represent. It really is a group effort, we work very symbiotically," Mitchell said.

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For photo shoots, he poses Muppets with wire armatures, creating a "still performance" that expresses their personalities.

The museum exhibit includes a Cookie Monster Muppet. "He's my absolute favorite character," Mitchell said. "He would give away his last cookie because he loves his friends more."

Rockwell lessons

Mitchell considers Norman Rockwell "one of my mentors, even though I never actually met him."

In the 1970s, Mitchell came across "Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator," a hefty tome that cost $81. His mother, who lived to age 98, "found a way to get that book and it became a bible to me."

Through another book, "Rockwell on Rockwell: How I Make a Picture," Mitchell learned "not just how to draw, but how to be an artist," wearing out several copies.

"Rockwell educated me in how to tell a story," he explained. "There is so much life in his characters, that's what I try to bring into the images I draw."

Visiting Rockwell's studio at the museum "was like Mecca, to be in the place where he created so many of the paintings that influenced my own work," Mitchell said.

The mission of "Sesame Street" is "to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger and kinder." It endures because the program is genuine and safe, Mitchell said, "and it's going to continue to evolve and grow."

"Our 50th anniversary is a huge milestone — and we're sharing that anniversary with the Norman Rockwell Museum."

Mary Berle, the museum's chief educator, said the exhibit seeks to examine the 1960s "holistically," by providing a sense of what was happening at the time.

A landmark year in a tumultuous era, Berle said, 1969 felt like a time for the nation to regroup as people considered "what do we want to be for our kids it galvanized our leaders to action."

"Sesame Street" became an entire world for children to experience diversity and inclusion across all fronts, "showing the best of humanity every day," Berle said.

Both Rockwell and "Sesame Street" espoused humanitarian values, and both knew how to harness the power of media — one in print, the other television.

"Since 1969, `Sesame Street' has been this wonderful presence and force in our country and abroad," said Berle, whose father was Henson's classmate at Harvard.

Mitchell's talk, she said, will appeal to "anyone who grew up watching `Sesame Street.'"


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