I entered the soundstage at Hollywood General Studios where Lucille Ball and Burns and Allen had made their popular television shows decades ago. I heard a familiar voice in the darkness and searched for my friend, Greg Williams. I spotted him, high on a marionette bridge holding Robert Downey, Jr. in the air, or rather his puppet likeness. We were on the set of Martin Short’s hilarious Comedy Central show, Primetime Glick. The puppet hit the floor and the scene started. I couldn’t take my eyes away. The puppet had become a living, breathing, and very funny facsimile of the actor, with perfect gestures and attitude. I spontaneously joined the crew’s laughter and applause when the cameras stopped. “Wow, how cool was that!” I thought, ”that’s what a puppet can do in the hands of a great puppeteer.”
Truly, all puppeteers amaze me - the way they bring inanimate things to
life. Fortunately, I’ve seen firsthand the careers of Greg and his partner
Steve Sherman grow over the years. I’ve known Greg since Le Conte Junior
High School. We then attended Hollywood High School together. I am writing
this article from a beautiful office they let me use when I am working in
Their new studio on Chandler Boulevard has two shops, offices, a shooting stage and ample parking. Located in the heart of the NoHo Arts District, and close to many major studios, the high ceilings and skylights provide a warm, creative atmosphere, perfect for a clientele that spans the globe. The studio is always alive with activity and I must say, I do some of my best work when I’m here.
With twenty years of feature film, television and commercial credits, Steve and Greg make their work look easy. It’s obvious they enjoy what they do. Whether performing, building, designing or writing, Steve and Greg bring a solid work ethic, sense of style and a healthy dose of madcap fun to their puppetry. “It’s funny,” says Steve, “people are always fascinated when they find out what I do for a living.”
On any given day, the two are at their studio, filming puppets on green screen or launching a new website creation (like wwww.puppetstudio.com) or building characters for a movie or an educational DVD release. It’s all in a day’s pleasure, not work, for a team that has been featured on big and small screens, in live performances and more. Corporations from Mattel to Bayer have hired them for their expertise.
GREG IN PUPPETLAND
Greg earned his BA from UCLA where he majored in Film and Television, and graduated as member of Phi Beta Kappa. However he became a professional puppeteer early on, while attending Hollywood High. “I had been staging shows since I was eight, performing for the neighborhood kids.” he says. In high school, he landed his first job ever at the legendary Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Just fifteen, he had unknowingly started with the best in the business and a fellow Hollywood High alumnus to boot.
Greg began with Baker as the party room busboy, then moved through stagehand, lighting technician, and finally puppeteer. Eventually he became master of ceremonies and theater manager. To this day, he works and performs with famous puppeteer, including managing Bob’s website, www.bobbakermarionettes.com.
After graduating from UCLA, Greg incorporated puppets into a series of successful educational films. Around the same time, a huge, weekly television audience watched the Muppet Show. When Jim Henson made his first feature, The Muppet Movie, in Hollywood, Greg performed as background puppeteer, thrilled to be close to the company. Frank Oz moved Greg up to the front line of puppeteers for the film’s final number. “I so adored the Muppets,“ says Greg. “I went home that night and wrote a spec script for the Muppet Show. Like a goof, I sent it off to Henson’s New York office.” Two months later, a letter arrived. Henson thought enough of the submission to hire Greg to write for Muppet Press, a division of Random House. “Jim Henson made me a published author” says Greg, with Kermit & Cleopigtra and The Case of the Missing Hat starring Fozzie Bear. “My visit to the Muppets London studios in the early 80’s was a defining moment for me.”
KING OF COMICS
Across town in those flower-power years, Steve Sherman attended Venice High and served as cartoonist for his school paper. “I’ve been drawing cartoons since I was three years old,” says Steve. When he took a part time job with Marvelmania, the licensing arm of Marvel Comics, he met Jack Kirby, co-creator of legendary characters like Spiderman, The Hulk and the Fantastic Four. Jack hired Steve as his assistant when he moved to DC Comics in 1969.
Steve’s interest in puppetry dates back to the early years of television. “My favorite show, of all time, was Bob Clampett’s Time for Beany,” says Steve. “I was fortunate enough to be able to catch those early shows, along with Thunderbolt the Wondercolt and The Willy the Wolf Show. It gave me the opportunity to see Stan Freberg, Daws Butler and Walker Edmiston perform, as well as Jimmy Weldon, Paul Winchell and Frank Herman.”
THE CHANCE MEETING
An audition for Sid and Marty Krofft’s puppet school run by noted puppeteer Tony Urbano brought Greg and Steve and hundreds of others to audition for a chance to work with the famous Kroffts. Seeing the success of Jim Henson’s Muppets, the Kroffts had decided to reinvigorate their puppet productions and ramp up staffing. “There was a big ad in the Sunday paper for auditions”, says Steve. Greg adds, “I got a flyer in the mail that read ‘Be a Professional Puppeteer.’” The two were among the twenty who made the final in the Krofft’s program.
As full time puppeteers, Steve performed the drummer’s hands in the Truck Shackley Band for the Barbara Mandrell Show, while Greg created the sweet and simple Grandma Fudge for The Oral Roberts’ Family Hour. Sharing the same wry sense of humor, they began writing together, submitting ideas for sketches and shows to the Krofft’s.
When the Mandrell show taped its last episode and the Robert’s clan discovered that variety shows were tougher than the pulpit, Greg and Steve found themselves “freelance” puppeteers. It was the catalyst that propelled them to form a partnership and open the Puppet Studio.
With their shingle up and ready for business, they landed an ABC Television show thanks to the Krofft’s recommendation. The network’s producer hired Greg and Steve to build and perform Captain O.G. Readmore. The character had a seven-year run hosting Saturday morning’s ABC Weekend Specials with celebrity co-hosts each week including their favorite - Vincent Price. The show put the Puppet Studio on network television and into high-rise offices in the historic Hollywood Taft Building at Hollywood and Vine.
PRIME TIME PUPPETEERS…
An early break came when Dom DeLuise selected the team to create and perform puppets for his CBS television movie, Happy, costarring Jack Gilford. From then on, the clients kept coming and returning for more.
Steve worked with the script development team for a new TV Movie, Washington Square – the idea that evolved into the long running syndicated television series D.C. Follies. Both Steve and Greg performed dozens of characters on the show that featured puppet look-alikes of famous people interacting with guest stars in a spoof of D.C. politics. D.C. Follies garnered an Emmy nomination for the show’s puppeteers. Later the Kroffts tapped Greg to join the team programming Furby toys in the late ‘90s.
The world’s largest toy company sought them out too. Mattel Toys hired the Puppet Studio as consultants over a five-year period. The firm thought highly of Greg and Steve’s innovative ideas and their knowledge of the world of puppetry. The duo had development input on the company’s major lines. One of their stories for a toy featured alien machines that eventually became the basis for the popular Wheeled Warriors.
When the producers of PeeWee’s Playhouse moved the show from the East Coast to Hollywood for its second season, the Puppet Studio re-created some of the original puppets along with new ones. As a puppeteer on the show, Greg especially enjoyed working with Paul Reubens. “Great comic talent, especially the caliber of Reubens or Martin Short, are a really fun to perform with.”
A couple years later, CBS, filling the void left when Reubens pulled the show, created a series around the Country Western group, Riders in the Sky. Puppet Studio created and built the animatronic puppets that filled the Saturday morning series. Although the show lasted only one season, it provided the perfect entrée into the specialized area of robotics in puppetry and moved Greg and Steve into the top ranks of puppet builders.
The team followed up with Beakman’s World, earning the show an UNIMA Citation for Excellence in Recorded Media. Greg and Steve’s early work with computer animation influenced the show’s creators to incorporate the animation techniques and hardware developed at the Puppet Studio into the long-running show that starred Paul Zaloom as Beakman.
THE SILVER SCREEN
Child’s Play 3 gave Greg his first foray into animatronic puppetry on the big screen, on the team of eight puppeteers who brought Chucky to grisly life. And who can forget the hilarious smoking worm guy on Men In Black. Tony Urbano selected Greg to be on the character, which earned him a big-screen close-up with a comedic a cigarette flick. “I loved Men in Black just for the chance to work with Rick Baker. He’s the best! I got to hop all over the movie including performing a death scene. A team of four of us flew up to ILM to shoot that. I kept saying to myself that entire shoot, how often will I ever get to have a death scene on the big screen. How dramatic!”
Steve missed out on being a wormguy in the first feature but worked the film as a giant squid tentacle. When it came time to bring Mighty Joe Young back to the screen, Rick Baker selected Steve to be on his puppet crew that animated Joe. “I worked on that film for close to a year”, says Steve, “and much of it was spent in Hawaii. Not a bad day’s work. It was an amazing project to work on. It’s not often that you get to puppeteer the star of a big movie.”
A PUPPETEER WEARS MANY HATS ...AND SOCKS
I remember back in my high school days when Greg and I took lots of art classes together. Early on in our association, we formed an artistic crowd where everyone we knew was doing something creative. Since those years Greg has stretched into every craft needed to produce a puppet. When Bayer Japan searched worldwide for a puppet maker for Mr. Heart, the veterinary dog puppet who introduced flea and tick medicine to the country, Greg patterned and sewed the puppet himself and then performed him on the set and for the ad art.
He did the same thing recently for a TV pilot. After Steve did the initial drawings for the character Keys the Dog, Greg fabricated the puppet and performed him in the pilot. The director Merle Schreibman sent a note of praise to “Keys” that sums up the reputation the Puppet Studio:
I want to thank you for the magnificent performance you gave last week on our little project. Your performance was stunning and exceptional and I appreciated your professionalism and patience. I loved your voice and your mannerisms truly brought the project to life. I don’t often work with someone of your talent and caliber and I am honored to have done so.”
Another Puppet Studio character, Mr. Fabulous, continues to make a splash with his cabaret performances. A sock puppet who channels Liberace’s showmanship, Mr. F’s engagement at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum last April won him a return appearance. And I’m sure many LA Puppetry Guild members recall Mr. Fabulous’ pithy take-no-prisoners column in Angeles Guild of Puppetry’s Puppet Life.
“I enjoy the entire breadth of puppetry,” says Greg, “going from marionette to hand and rod to computer. It’s the perfect fit for me personally going from clowning to designing to construction – how could I ever be bored?”
“Many hats suit a well-rounded puppeteer,” Steve says. The actor in every puppeteer is merely the top veneer beneath which lurk layers of producer, writer, designer, fabricator, costume designer and director. Greg and Steve have worn all these hats more then once at different times in their respective careers.
One more layer added to the mix is digital imaging and computer technology. “I remember those early years when we scraped money together to buy our first computer, an Osborne,” says Greg.
“We began using Amiga computers in 1985,”says Steve, “because we could see the similarities between computer animation and puppetry. Today, Greg is working with Maya, a software program for creating 3D characters and sets.” Now they have six Macs, five Amigas (and the Osborne horded in storage). “I pretty much run the technical aspects of Puppet Studio.” says Steve. “You’ll find Greg learning the latest software to apply to our animation. There’s no end to what is possible when you have the right tools.”
More than any other time in history, creative artists have the capability to let their minds take them into new territory – right at their desktop. And who better to animate characters on a computer than a puppeteer who builds and operates puppets. “It’s got so many parallels and similarities –the earliest terminology for computer animation referred to puppetry,” says Greg.“I am always itching to get back at the keyboards. The permutations and combinations of live action puppetry and computer-generated puppetry looks infinite.”
“Ultimately, you never really know where any of this is going”, says Steve. “But it is an incredible combination for live and recorded production.”
A PASSION FOR PRESERVATION
As if a career as a puppeteer weren’t enough, Greg has been working to preserve his native Hollywood’s heritage before its buildings, filled with movie and television history, are destroyed. Though it appears developers always have the upper hand, tourists and locals can thank Greg for leading the fight that saved two important buildings slated for demolition on the Vine Street corridor.
Greg's skill as a writer has forged a partnership with his father, Dino. Together, they produced a self-published book The Story of Hollywoodland that recounts the history of the area where Greg grew up in the shadow of the Hollywood Sign. The book’s success (now in its third printing) prompted Greg and his Dad to start a larger book on the history of Hollywood. As a result of his work, Greg has serve on board of the local preservation group, Hollywood Heritage, where he edited their newsletter and chaired the Preservation Issues Committee. His Hollywood work has brought him appearances on E! and A&E, where he serves as an on camera authority for his hometown, Hollywood.
IT’S A WRAP
When it was time to produce Puppet Mania 2000, the Pacific Southwest Regional Festival at Cal State Los Angeles,Greg and his co-director Joe Selph pulled out all the stops and presented what many felt was a national level festival with only six short months of preparation. The festival featured performers and guest speakers including headliners Sid and Marty Krofft, Ray Harryhausen the stop motion movie genius, Velma Dawson and a cabaret featuring many of the golden stars of puppetry. The event also featured an exhibit highlighting Alan Cook’s collection.
All these activities may sound like a lot of work, but to Greg and Steve it’s just part of the whole movie.
I’ve seen so many incredible examples of what these two can do with their computer, a green screen, some felt and foam. My personal favorite, the President Bush and Saddam Hussein vignettes can be seen on the Puppet Studio website. It wasn’t long before these topical characters landed in an exhibit at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum and were featured in the Los Angeles Times article reviewing the show.
Though I only get to visit my cozy office at the Puppet Studio a few times a year, I always look forward to what new projects are in the shop. And these days more and more, I see Greg and Steve working at a much more exciting level – embarking on creating and producing their own work. The two have put their heads together to develop several shows that combine all their talents and abilities with that signature, healthy dose of humor. I often tell production colleagues about the show ideas coming out of Puppet Studio, explaining in detail the characters and the comedy. Time and again the listener asks, “I’ve got to see that. What time and channel is it on?” With Greg and Steve’s combination of talents, that may be sooner than later.