Interview – Puppeteer Noel MacNeal

I am very excited about this week’s guest on Questions To Inspire.    I have known Noel MacNeal for six years now and Noel is one of those guys that if you spend any time with him, then you are uplifted and inspired.  He is one of the most talented and thoughtful puppeteers in the industry.  I am very thankful that Noel took the time to talk to me about what inspired him and his career in puppets!

We are here today with Noel MacNeal.  Good morning!  Noel right off the bat, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

I launched my career on Sesame Street, where I honed my craft with puppetry legends Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

I was “Bear,” the gentle and lovable star of the Emmy Award-winning series Disney’s Bear in the Big Blue House and its spin-off series Breakfast with Bear, and received a Daytime Emmy Nomination as “Outstanding Performer in a Children’s Series.” I’m is also a writer, director, producer, and author of the how-to books “Ten Minute Puppets” and “BOX.”

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I am also the resident puppeteer for the HBO series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. And I’m currently developing “THE SHOW ME SHOW,” to be an online, downloadable series for kids with autism & special needs. You can watch some of the videos at “THE SHOW ME SHOW Channel” on YouTube.

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I live in Brooklyn with my wife, New York Times best-selling & award-winning novelist Susan Elia MacNeal, (of the “Maggie Hope Mysteries” from Random House) and 13-year-old son, Matt (a budding performer and proud nerd).

That is fantastic.  So many puppeteers like myself want to know how you got started in puppeteering?

When I was a kid there were more puppets on TV; Burr Tilstrom still had “Kukla, Fran, & Ollie.” Shari Lewis had Lambchop. Mister Rogers. And Paul Winchell had “Jerry Mahoney Time.” (FYI: Did you know that Paul Winchell invented the artificial heart? See? Puppetry saves lives!) I had grown up with these and ones on local TV and they were either little hand puppets or marionettes.

One Sunday night, around 6:30pm, there was a half hour special hosted by two puppets talking about (and showing clips) of a brand new show starting tomorrow morning. The one with the football shaped head was named “Ernie” and his friend who reminded me of an upright banana was named “Bert.” And the show? Guess! I had NEVER seen puppets like this before. Their mouths moved, Ernie’s hands actually could pick things up. And when I saw Big Bird? A puppet that could walk and talk at the same time?!? WOW!!!

I watched Sesame for years and any guest appearances and specials the Muppets did (such as The Great Santa Claus Switch which they should remake) and during my high school time was when the Muppet Show premiered. I watched it and then as I was nearing senior year it occurred to me; this guy Jim Henson not only has a career at this but he’s got all these other people making a living doing this too. I began to do research on any colleges that offered puppetry courses. (Back then I had to go to the library; it’s like Barnes & Noble – but FREE!) And I found two schools; one, The University of Connecticut in Storrs, Con., to this day, had a four year program to get your masters degree in puppetry. The other, at that time, was Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY that had a theater department and within it a puppetry course (taught by Kermit Love the designer and builder of Big Bird and Snuffy – and no the frog was not named after him; just a crazy coincidence).

Now I had all my info ready and prepped to show my mom. My mom was a single mother working two jobs (as you’ve read) so I was a little nervous. But we sat down and I said, “Ok – I want to be a puppeteer.” And then braced for impact. And she looked at me and said, “OK. What do we have to do?” Wow. OK. And I should here each college’s info. “OK,” she said, “What do we have to do?” And I told here the requirements and deadlines and she said, “Ok. What do we have to do?” That’s all she said! She never dismissed, ridiculed, or became angry at the idea. She always said, “Don’t get a job; get a career.”

And I have.

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Wow!  That is support beyond support!  You have worked on a lot of wonderful projects over the years.  What would you consider one of the best moments of your career?

The best part was whenever Bear met kids. Families would visit the set and we set it up so that their visit was recorded and then give them the tape to keep (nicknamed the “Bar Mitzvah tape” by assistant director Dean Gordon). And whenever I did appearances I always asked to visit a children’s hospital or ward. The most memorable was the visit to the one in Mexico City. This facility was huge and old (with out dated computers and no a.c.; thus no sheets on the beds) and known as “the last stop” for most patients. Bear did a show in the hospital auditorium and children were brought in. As I performed the song “It’s You” (all about the many things Bear liked about you), in the front row was a young boy in a wheelchair. He was half paralyzed, including half of his face. Bear squatted in front of him and touched his hand as he sang. And suddenly, one side of his face slowly smiled. From inside I could hear people sniffling and I had to focus so hard, keep it together, and not burst into tears, myself. Afterwards I was told that a mother thanked us for coming “for people like us.”

What advice would you give someone who wants to learn how to be a puppeteer or following their dream in general?

As the slogan goes – “Just do it.” Just give it a try. And then try again. Remember what mom always told me, “Don’t get a job; get a career.” Figure out what you can do to help that dream come true, whether its puppets or something else. Want to be a puppeteer? Maybe there’s a theater company in your area that uses puppets. Or your local public TV or public access channel needs to fill their time slot. That’s what Jim Henson did with Sam & Friends. And of course there’s always YouTube to not only put together your own videos to air, but a resource in puppeteering AND puppetmaking info.

And if you want to learn how to make puppets and learn how to puppeteer on camera you can always come to Beyond the Sock workshop http://www.beyondthesock.com (BtS you can mail me my check any time).

You have been a part of a lot of educational projects over the years, from children’s shows, like Sesame Street and Bear in the Big Blue House, to writing for The Magic School Bus.  Tell us what importance you hold children’s education (and even adults) in today’s world?

The rule for writing for kids for TV shows is “don’t SAY it – SHOW it.” It was true on all the shows I performed on, directed, and wrote for. Education should be about discovery. About being introduced to new ideas and seeing how they work (or sometimes how they didn’t; learn from the past). Make mistakes! You learn from mistakes! You’re never too old to learn something new because the whole world is your classroom.

What was your favorite subject growing up?

Art. I loved to draw and doodle.

If you had a list of books that every person needed to read while in school, what would be on that list?

I’ll limit it:

ALL of the “Maggie Hope Mysteries” (by Susan Elia MacNeal)

ALL the Harry Potter books (by JK Rowling)

A Wizard of Earthsea (by Ursula LeGuin)

The Sneetches & Other Stories (by Dr. Suess)

Neverwhere (by Neil Gaiman)

Be Like Water: Practical Wisdom from the Martial Arts (by Joseph Cardillo)

That is an amazing list!  My daughter and I have read The Sneetches so many times for her bed time story.

Time for a very serious question, if you can only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what movies is it?

“Mary Poppins.” Hands down.

I love Mary Poppins and can’t wait for the new one to come out.  Normally we end with a silly question, but today I want to end with something else.  I have talked to you many times over the years about THE SHOW ME SHOW.  I know how important this project is for you and how passionate you are about it.  Before we go, tell us a little more about THE SHOW ME SHOW.

Jim Henson’s core belief was to “leave the world a little bit better” when you were here. That’s what I want to do with The Show Me Show. To give the kids with autism & special needs (no matter how old) and the caring people in their lives a place they can go to to have fun, have a smile, and have it be just for them.

Thanks Noel for taking the time to answer a few Questions To Inspire others.  If you want to keep up with Noel and see his upcoming projects please go to http://www.noelmacneal.com and also help support THE SHOW ME SHOW at http://www.patreon.com/theshowmeshow.

THE SHOW ME SHOW will be an online series for kids with autism and special needs.  You can follow THE SHOW ME SHOW at https://www.facebook.com/Noelyourhost.

Thanks everyone for reading Questions To Inspire and check out some of our other interviews!  See you next time!

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