Friday, July 6, 2012

Old School Lane's Nickelodeon Tribute: Interview with Noel MacNeal

Noel MacNeal had been doing various amounts of characters for Sesame Street being the different relatives of Snuffleupagus, but there are two roles that he is most known for. For my generation, he was Magellan from Eureeka's Castle.

For the kids who are now in their late teens, he is Bear from Bear in the Big Blue House.

He has done puppeteering for many movies and kids' shows from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III as Raphael to Madam Chairbird from Follow That Bird. Today, he does puppeteering classes for kids in New York City and has written a book called 10 Minute Puppets. 

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

Kevin- What was like operating the puppet for Magellan? Was it compared to Carrol Spinney when he did Big Bird?

Noel- First of all, it was fun playing Magellan. And yes, he was built on the principle of "Big Bird technology." Meaning, my right arm was up through his neck and my right hand operated his mouth. SInce it was TV puppetry, I had a monitor (aka small TV) strapped to my chest with a microphone next to it for me to do the voice. But I had NO vision to see out of; the monitor only showed me what you'd see at home. This is how TV puppetry is done. And since Magellan had to be taller than everyone else, while the other puppeteers held the puppets up and walked around the floor, I was on risers that were connected and wooden boards as "boarders" drill onto the sides to keep me from falling off. (See? It's that fun?)

Patricia- Do you have any advice for anyone who anyone who's interested in puppeteering?

Noel- I grew up watching Jim Henson and co., Shari Lewis, even those Sid & Marty Kroft shows (like HR Puffenstuff and Lidsville). Today, there are so many ways to see performances and puppet styles via the internet. So, I'd advise to  look online at what puppet companies are in your area and contact them about internships, especially for any summer shows. Also, start making your own videos for Youtube. It's fun, and great practice for monitor work. That way you can also start building a "reel."

Kevin- Did you ever meet R.L. Stine? If so, what was he like?

Noel- A very nice man. His credit was "Jovial" Bob Stine, which we (the cast) found ironic after reading some of his scripts. (Which is why I became a writer for the show for season 2. "If you want something done right, do it yourself." ;-)

Kevin- What was your response when you found out that Goosebumps became a huge best selling book series?

Noel- Actually when I asked him about the series he was very self-depricating. I asked how he came up with all those stories and he said it's "the same story; I just keep changing the names of the characters."

Patricia- Who was your influences in puppeteering?

Noel- Burr Tilsrom was the puppeteer for Kukla, Fran, & Ollie. I loved this show. VERY old school by today's standards but Burr was a master at character voices and improv. ALL their shows was not scripted; they'd talk about what the show could be that day, such as Ollie's birthday, and then just do it.

Patricia- If you could take one memorabilia from Eureeka's Castle, what would it be and why?

Noel- Webster was such a fun character and a great puppet. Jim Kroupa (of 3 Design Studio that designed and built all the puppets) added an eye mech to him so that they could shift left and right. Brilliant puppet.

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

Noel- There wasn't one. Since I knew and worked with 3Design on other projects, they thought of me and gave me the job. There was 10 minute pilot/test we did with the characters to show Nickelodeon (to test on kids). 

Patricia- What was it like performing the puppet of Webster? 

Noel- I made Webster my Oscar the Grouch. Carroll Spinney said that Oscar is always a good way to vent and not be so "sweet" all the time, the way Big Bird is. So as much as Magellan was sincere and fun to be with, I let Webbster be this small, loud, snarling beast, who always ran Batly ragged. Then, when a bit I wrote with Batly bragging that Webbster was a better pet than Cooey, Magellan's pet, I wrote that Cooey loved Webbster and was very playful and that Webbster (for some unknown reason) was terrified of Cooey.

Kevin- What are some fond memories working on the set of Eureeka's Castle?

The cast. Not just the puppets but their human operators. The nicest and supportive folks I ever got to work with: Cheryl Blalock (Eureeka), Jim Kroupa (Batly), Pam Arciero (Quagmire, Emma the Mouse), Brian Meehl (Bogg, Mr Knack), and Lynn Hippen (Cooey, Kate the Mouse)

Kevin- What was like being on the set of TMNT 3?

Noel- There were "two" sets meaning shooting inside the studio for the turtles' lair and the shogun's palace but the rest was shot outside on location in the mountains of Oregon (which looked perfect for feudal Japan). An entire village was built within this little valley in the mountains. One day as the sun was setting, the fog/clouds started to creep over the edges and down the sides like fingers dipping into a bowl. Quite cool.

Kevin- What do you think of the new Michael Bay movie in which the Turtles are now aliens?

Noel- It's interesting how a good idea (aka franchise) can go through so many incarnations. Superman, Batman, Winnie the Pooh, Spiderman, even the Harry Potter films, have evolved over the years for a new "spin." So Mr. Bay is trying to make it as "different" as he can to make it his own stamp while still keeping with the spirit of the turtles. (But I won't go see it; they'll be too many explosions.)
Kevin- What was it like working with Jim Henson on the Jim Henson hour?

Noel- I only worked on the pitch/pilot to feel it to NBC and was flattered to be asked. I even got a line; I'm the door knocker at the end!

Kevin- Who was your favorite Muppet?

Noel- Any of the big ones such as Snuffy (on Sesame), Thog and Sweetums (on The Muppet Show), or the Gorgs (on Fraggle Rock). But Sesame had two of the oddest characters when i was growing up; Oscar and the Count. These two were so different that they would not be the same if created by today's standards, if at all.

Kevin- Do you have any fond memories being on the set of TMNT 3?

I was the puppeteer for Raph, meaning I operated the head via remote control. Matt Hill was the actor inside. It was great working with him and we hit it off immediately and knew how to be Raph, together. Our best scene was with the kid int he village and Raph is helping him feel better. We did a great job but I wanted to do the close up just one more time. Now, I had to ask Matt because he was incased in this thing. But when I did he wanted to also; he was going to ask ME for one more take! (Fast forward to 8:00)

Patricia- What was it like being in Follow That Bird?

Noel- That was my first movie and I loved it. I was Big Bird's wrangler (the person who preps the puppeteers for camera), his understudy (that's me in the field during the biplane chase), background characters (I filled in for Caroll as Oscar when Big Bird falls in front of his trash can), and my own character (Madame Chairbird).

Kevin- Who is your favorite Ninja Turtle?

Noel- Mine. Raphael was a great character cause he could get to be a wise-ass, a bad-ass, even grumpy, and get away with it cause inside, he's this softee who cares.

Patricia- When you did Madame Chairbird in Follow That Bird, how was like working the puppet?

Noel- She was BIG. I had to add stuffing inside the head so my hand could fit. And the set was raised five feet off the floor with holes where the chairs would be for us to reach up and operate the birds. Add onto this that I got the worse head cold EVER that morning. So I am performing the character that sets up the entire movie, on cold meds. I was so stuffed up and horse, I used it as part of her voice (cause I had no choice). So when I've been asked to do the voice, I sort of can't (not without Nyquill to start things off ;-).

Kevin- What was the most complicated puppet that you had to perform?

In some ways it was Rabbit from the Disney Channel series The Book Of Pooh. It was done bunraku style, the traditional puppetry of Japan that has more than one person to perform and character seen from head to toe. I was the head, Paul McGinnis did the arms and Matt Brooks, who built rabbit based on the Disney sketches, did the feet. So we always had to coordinate our moves so that rabbit could look natural (for a talking fussy rabbit).  Add to this we were all dressed in green against a green wall so the the Hundred Acre Wood could be superimposed in, and you have a very involved puppet moment. 

Patricia- Do you keep in touch with any people that you worked with in Eureeka's Castle?

Noel- I do. I've known Jim Kroupa since college, long before Eureeka, as well as Pam Arciero from our work on Sesame. But I also stay in touch with everyone else (through the magic of Facebook).

Patricia- What was the audition process like for Bear in the Big Blue House?

Noel- I had gone it to audition for another character for another show that morning. That afternoon I got a call and was asked to come back to do another audition for a different character. they faxed me the drawing and the lines for this bear. It looked cute and I got a cab, headed back. As soon as I walk in I'm told "Use your own voice." What? We're the Muppets; we don't do that. But Bear was designed to be the anti-Barney and be a show kids AND parents could sit through together. 

So I get in the prototype that just has the foam head and the body (with no fur) and ..... I... love it! It felt so comfortable and  cool and what a great character this will be. Then I thought, "Wait, Noel. It's after 5:00. You're the last one they're seeing and have already picked the guy for this. This is just a formality; a courtesy." So I decided I would just have as much fun as a could since I wouldn't be doing this again. So I had Bear go WAAAAY into the camera and back and run around and..... This was on a Friday.

That Monday I got the call just before 6:00. I got the part.

Patricia- There was a documentary for Kevin Clash and his experiences with being Elmo. Will we see something like that for you and your experiences with Magellan or Bear?

Noel- Not anytime soon. But I like that my book, 10 Minute Puppets, is not only a way of showing people my life-long love for puppets but also lets them have a chance to discover it too.

Patricia- What was the process of getting an episode done on Eureeka's Castle?

Noel- Eureeka was "bits," little short skits. So we would do them out of order. Any bits in the Moat Lair were done, then move to another set such as the Courtyard.

Patricia- What was the best compliment or feedback that you have ever gotten from a fan?

Noel- I always loved (and still have) the artwork kids would give Bear. But one of the most memorable "feedback" was a letter from a mom of a child with special needs. The little girl, since a baby, never really responded our even spoke. When she was two, she was in her high chair when the mom turned on the TV. Bear welcomed them in, smelled something, and sniffed the camera. She said when Bear's nose came that close and sniff, the girl, jumped back, squealed, and smiled. I've always loved how Bear was such a positive part of so may people's lives.

Patricia- Do people know you more as Magellan or Bear?

Both. The "kids" who grew up with Bear are now in high school. The "kids" who knew Magellan have graduated college.

Patricia- What are your upcoming projects?

Noel- I've been working with The Center for Arts Education through the "Parents As Arts Partners" program to teach puppetry to autistic kids and their parents puppetry. I will be teaching a puppetry course for the GO Project summer program to low-income/special needs kids in July.

Patricia- Great. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Noel.

Noel- Whew! Cheers!

You can learn more about Noel MacNeal at You can also follow him on Twitter @NoelMacNeal. Hope to see you around Old School Lane soon. Take care.

-Patricia and Kevin

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