Friday, July 6, 2012

Old School Lane's Nickelodeon Tribute: Interview with Cheryl Blaylock

Cheryl Blaylock became a puppeteer in Sesame Street and had done extra work in The Muppets Take Manhattan before becoming her best known role as Eureeka in Eureeka's Castle. From 1989 to 1995, she was everyone's favorite sorceress in training. After that, she had done puppet work in many other kids' shows like The Adventures of Timmy the Tooth, Oobi, and Blue's Room. Today, she works at a non-profit organization in New York called Trees New York where she's the director of Youth Programs.

Kevin and I had the chance to interview Cheryl so I hope you enjoy.

Patricia- What shows did you grow up watching that got you interested in puppeteering?

Cheryl- I grew up in Kalamazoo Michigan.  At that time, we had two television channels, NBC and CBS.  OMG, this is sounding like ancient history!  I watched Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo and was a big fan of the Banana Man.  Had me in 3-yr old hysterics.  We also had Channel 3 Clubhouse, a locally produced show that had a puppet show and a very interesting artist character who would do "squiggle lines" (a kid would draw a squiggle line on an easle and the Artist would make a drawing out of it).  I was amazed by him.  Later on in high school, I realized he was my Art teacher, Don Bonevich.  What a privilege to have him for a teacher.  He was an actor, puppeteer, sculptor, painter, ceramist.  So cool.  Had a goatee and used terms like "trite" and "dogmatic."  And he let us grade ourselves.

Patricia- Who were your influences?

Cheryl- Jim Henson, Jim Henson, Jim Henson.  First viewing:  The Glutton on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Laugh riot.  Speaking of Ed Sullivan, Topo Gigio.  Mahna mahna.  Ballet.  Airplanes.  Mummenschanz.  Kukla Fran & Ollie.  Shari Lewis.  Nestle's Quik w/Farfel.  Judy Holliday.  Lucille Ball.  Goldie Hawn.  Tracey Ullman.  The Beatles.  The Beach Boys.  Joni Mitchell.  Lar Lubovitch.  Martha Graham.  Isadora Duncan.  Philippe Genty.  Claude Kipnis.  Maira Kalman.  Helen Keller.  Joseph Campbell.

Kevin- What was the audition process like for Eureeka's Castle?

Cheryl- It seemed a wonderful opportunity to connect again with my puppet buddies.  I had been going back and forth from NY to LA pursuing acting and puppeteering, doing a few TV shows, commercials and voice over.  Seemed like there were only a handful of us doing TV puppetry at the time.  So - compared to most auditions that are highly competitive with lots and lots of auditionees, it seemed more like a small rep company audition with colleagues.

Kevin- Do you still have your Eureeka puppet?

Cheryl- Eureeka is owned by 3/Design Studio and I believe she's preserved safely somewhere.

Patricia- What were some fond memories that you have when doing Eureeka's Castle?

Cheryl- I meant to do that...  Batley, played by Jim Kroupa.  There was a great camaraderie between all the cast members, Pam Arciero, Brian Meehl, Noel MacNeal and Lynn Hippen.  We were all fairly new and all had experience on Sesame Street and with Muppets or Muppet-style puppets.  And it was a nice break for 3/Design Studio.  And I got to write a couple of pieces that were actually produced.

As the show got more popular, we were occasionally asked if we gave tours.  The producer came in one day to tell us that there was a little girl who was such a fan that her mother just had to bring her on the set could they please please please, so we had a special day when she came in with her parents & brother.  I don't know exactly what she had in mind, but the moment she saw the sets built up above our heads and puppeteers below and lights and cameras, she turned and buried her head in her father's chest for the rest of the visit.  We all hoped she wasn't scarred for life.  ...Her brother loved it though!

Well, not exactly in the category of fond memories, but the news of Jim Henson's death came during one of our shoot days.  It was bizarre.  Someone mentioned it.  We all kind of said, hey, that's not a funny joke, something like that and continued working...  All I remember is that they finally shut down the set and took all six puppeteers in the green room and sat us down to tell us.  It was just too unbelievable to be true.

Kevin- What was it like working with R.L. Stine?

Cheryl- I think I still have a script somewhere - by Jovial Bob Stine.  That's how we knew him.  He became R.L. Stine after Eureeka.  He talks about it in his biography It Came From Ohio.  There's even a photo of me and Eureeka in the book.  Bob was the head writer and there were several other writers on staff including Judy Katschke, who created it.  Many of them were also children's book authors.  We always hoped they didn't get too offended when we (as always happens) improvised around their scripts in the process of taping.  Bob was a good sport.  I love that he gave himself the name Jovial Bob Stine.  You really see it when you look at him.

Kevin- How did you react when you heard that Goosebumps became a huge best selling book series?

Cheryl...Jovial Bob...???   OUR Jovial Bob?  I had no idea.  He has always been a neighbor of mine.  When his biography was published I called to ask if he'd autograph my copy.  He said sure, come on over.  We've moved.  Oh, did they move.  The doorman lead me to a private elevator, door opens, yep, there's good ol' Jovial Bob.  In the house that Goosebumps built.  O. M. G.  But he was still exactly the Bob I knew.  Very genuine and kind.  And seemed kind of amazed by it all himself.

Patricia- When people find out that you were Eureeka, do they ever demand that you do the character?

Cheryl- Of course!  ...well, maybe I encouraged it a bit.  Doesn't happen much anymore, thank goodness.  I don't know why, but it's always a little shocking to know the people who remember Eureeka fondly are now in their 30s.  Yikes.  But yes, I did commit to memory one of Eureeka's little songs, just for these moments:
My name is Eureeka, I'm an almost wizard
Which means that I'm a wizard but, not quite
I'd love to take a lizard in the middle of a blizzard
Make him be a bunny rabbit in the summer sunlight
My tricks don't always work but I never sweat it
Me weep or moan or sweat it forget it
There's just too much to do and I know I'll be okay
Cause I know that it's true
Every wizard has her day!
(thank you Peter Lurye)

Patricia- In your opinion, what was it about Eureeka's Castle that became so popular and loved by many people?

Cheryl- That's so nice to hear.  I'm stunned.  Was it popular and loved?  Maybe Eureeka really did become a wizard.  Seems like magic.

Kevin- What was it like working on the set of Sesame Street?

Cheryl- Ok, dare I confess this?  I had never seen Sesame Street before I started working on the show.  I was hired to assist Caroly Wilcox with the costumes and props.  They had a sort of haphazard system of recording what the anything puppets wore.  My first day, I gathered everything together as best I could and brought it over to the set.  By this time I had at least figured out which puppet was Ernie and Bert.  Great.  Next scene is Guy Smiley, who is an anything puppet I had put together.  Jim says "Where's his jacket?"  Jacket?  Of course he has a jacket.  Of course, it's here somewhere.  Thank god we broke for lunch and I could run over to the workshop and grab the jacket and save my job!  I spent the next weeks viewing every tape of Sesame Street I could find.

Kevin- What was it like working with Jim Henson?

Cheryl- Well, what is it like be in the presence of genius?  It's hard to believe I've actually outlived him.  He always seemed miles ahead in age and talent.  Extraordinary.  He seemed, like Kermit, to be the calm center of a wacky cyclone that he created around himself just by loving silliness.  I remember when we were in Aspen shooting a special with John Denver and I went over with him to see how they were doing getting the set built for the next day's shoot.  We arrived to see that they hadn't even started.  I would have been furious!!  He just calmly went about talking to them, blablabla...I said, you know Jim, you can get mad now.  He said, well, what good would that do, really?  True.  But couldn't you see Kermit, arms flying in the air, "But we need the set TOMORROW!!"  And I loved that he would take a project like a PSA for the World Wildlife Federation.  I used to stay after work and spend time in the conference room going through the video library.  Wilkins Coffee, Time Piece, The Cube, Youth 68, etc, etc, etc...  That was an education.

Kevin- Do you think that they should release Eureeka's Castle on DVD?

Cheryl- That'd be great if they did release DVDs.  I'd buy one.

Patricia- Do people still remember your work as Eureeka?

Cheryl- I've been presenting environmental programs with a non-profit organization, Trees New York, and sometimes I talk about my background.  When I mention Eureeka it brings back fond memories for a few people.

Patricia-How did Trees New York get started?

Cheryl- The organization has been around since the early 1970's.  They got started as a way to train and license people to volunteer to prune and care for the city's trees when there were major cuts in the Parks Dept budget.  I took the training as part of a new hobby when I started a volunteer garden in Riverside Park.  The executive director asked me if I'd be interested in developing their youth programs and I thought I'd give it a try.  So far we have four programs, my favorite being "Trees? Who Cares??" a visit with Mrs Crabapple, the cantankerous puppet who hates trees.

Kevin- What was it like being on Muppets Take Manhattan?

Cheryl- It was great to shoot in New York so we could all stay home.  I was working in the workshop at the time and starting to get auditions for TV commercials, so I was really torn.  I wanted to be on the set, I wanted to puppeteer but I was still just learning and I also wanted to be available for acting auditions when they came up.  So I ended up working mostly in the workshop except for special days on the set.

Kevin- What was it like being on the set of Muppets Take Manhattan when Kermit and Miss Piggy got married?

Cheryl- It was kind of special for me because I was dating Ronn Lucas, an extraordinary ventriloquist.  I asked Jim if Ronn could be one of the extras.  Jim said, do you think he'd do it?  I said, are you kidding?  He's such a fan!  So Ronn and I got to be in the trenches together for the marriage scene.

Kevin- Who is your favorite Muppet?

Cheryl- I love Janice.  I think she never got her due.  We don't know her very well.  And maybe that was the point about the band members, they were all sort of iconic types, not full-blown characters.  But I'd still like to see more of Janice.  I think she's got potential.  Love with all my heart every single character Jerry Nelson has ever played.  There must be thousands at this point.  Each one distinctly different.  I also loved my character, Mona Monster on Sesame Street.  I had lots of ideas for her.

Kevin- What did you think of the new Muppets movie?

Cheryl- Fantastic.  So many awesome moments.  The picture gallery.  Are you a Man or a Muppet?  Uncle Deadly.  To die for.  A fitting tribute and new beginning.  May there be more.

Patricia- Kevin Clash had a documentary done about his experiences as a puppeteer and being Elmo. Will you ever consider doing that about your experiences being a puppeteer?

Cheryl- Wasn't that amazing how much footage he had on his early career?  It seemed like there must have always been someone following him with a camera!  Glad he did.  That was a great film.  I have actually made documentaries, but not about myself.  One of them, In Vienna, They Put You in Jail: The Max Birnbach Story won best documentary at a film festival.  A total departure from puppetry.  It's the story of a man who escaped the occupation of Vienna in WWII.  It's available through Cinema Guild.

Patricia- What was it like being on Oobi?

Cheryl- That show was just brilliant.  A puppetry purist's puppet show.  And inspired from Puppetry 101 when you just start with a coupla ping-pong balls, your hand and a camera monitor, learning eye focus and lip sync.  Leave it to the talented Josh Selig to create a fantastic show around the idea.  I was happy to provide a bit of diversity with Frieda the Foot.  I had to actually go back to Puppetry 101 to train my foot to lip sync.  Oh yes, I was determined to do some kind of toe wiggle that could be convincing.  My favorite moment was when they had her play dress up and she popped up wearing a shoe.  That scene was with my Magellan, the amazing Noel MacNeal doing a southern accent.

Patricia- What are your upcoming projects?

Cheryl- I'm developing some more programs for Trees New York.  One for special needs elementary age kids involving puppets, nature and discovery, hosted by Mrs Crabapple.  Another one for teens about climate change and new careers evolving that are dealing with it.

Patricia- Alright, thank you so much for taking the time answering our questions.

Cheryl- Thank you!

To know more about Trees New York, check out the website at Hope to see you around Old School Lane soon. Take care.

-Patricia and Kevin

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