Whenyou think of the Muppets, you probably picture Big Bird, Miss Piggy, Bert and Ernie, and, of course, Kermit. But it’s likely you also think of the lanky, bearded non-puppet Jim Henson, the man behind the Muppets. After this weekend’s avalanche of puppets in Santa Barbara, you might start to think of another bearded figure, the PuppetPalooza festival’s producer and all-around impresario, Mitchell Kriegman. This tireless promoter of all things puppet brings several decades of experience in children’s television, comedy, theater, and young-adult novel writing to bear on what will be an unprecedented opportunity for Santa Barbarans to experience the full range of what’s happening in the world of puppets. From world-renowned popular children’s acts to the furthest-out avant-garde performers who work with such pop culture giants as Spike Jonze and Missy Elliott, all of the puppeteers who will appear this weekend have one thing in common — they are friends of Mitchell’s.
Talking to Kriegman about what he has planned, you’d think that every participant — from the festival production team to the foundations who backed it and the people at Paseo Nuevo who have given PuppetPalooza a home to the puppeteers and the puppets themselves — had an equal part in creating the project, but take it from the puppet’s mouth: Without Kriegman, this festival never would have happened.
PuppetPalooza’s sprawling, unpredictable shape directly reflects both Kriegman’s wide-ranging, highly eclectic personal taste and his relentlessly evolving, improvisational approach to organization and execution. For example, with 10 days to go, the details of the festival were seemingly fully in place. The schedule had gone to the printers, and it looked as though all the venues were a done deal. One week later, things had shifted, in some cases radically. With less than a week to go, a streak of cold weather combined with a forecast of rain for the festival weekend had turned things upside down.
Big chunks of the weekend’s schedule have changed location in the past few days, including the late-night puppet slam and Sunday’s family festival. Expect the unexpected, especially as you approach Paseo Nuevo. Is that a whole store devoted to puppets? Check, and it’s been there for a month. Where’s the Saturday-night puppet slam now that SBCAST has been deemed too exposed to the weather? The Alhecama Theatre. Yet the most surprising move is still to come. What’s that you hear coming from the empty Macy’s space on the corner of State and Cota streets? That’s a rock band called Van Goat, and they will be in there on Sunday, providing a lively soundtrack for the dancing and performances of dozens of puppets.
Thanks to the progressive thinking of the folks at Paseo Nuevo and the fact that they have recently acquired the Macy’s property, the downstairs of that former department store can come alive with family entertainment. Kriegman can’t hide his delight at this latest development, as it brings back memories of his days as a fixture in the New York club scene, where pop-ups like this one were considered the coolest of the cool events. In fact, the entire aesthetic behind PuppetPalooza might best be understood as a fusion of Kriegman’s parallel tracks of interest. On one side, there’s the hard work and earnest engagement with children’s issues and ideas that made his TV shows Bear in the Big Blue House and Clarissa Explains It All hits. On the other, there’s the former New Yorker’s yearning for the serendipity of a night out in the city at the time when alternative spaces like The Kitchen and mega-clubs like Palladium were equally adept at providing unpredictable art experiences.
From the beginning, Kriegman has come at things from an oblique angle. Raised by Freudian psychiatrists on the grounds of a mental institution and educated at Vermont’s notoriously flaky Bennington College, he found his first calling among the performance artists and video auteurs of the New York avant-garde. Featured in the Whitney Museum with an audio installation called The Telephone Stories when he was still in his twenties, Kriegman was a regular on the city’s downtown scene, performing and producing video art under the pseudonym Marshall Klugman. This led first to work on PBS, which was friendly to such experimentation at the time, and then to a season (#6) as a writer and performer on NBC’s late-night sensation, Saturday Night Live.
Turning ever so slightly away from his roots among such art-world figures as Nam June Paik, William Wegman, and Tony Oursler, Kriegman moved into the world of children’s television. After stints with the Disney Channel, HBO, and the Comedy Channel, he found a home at Nickelodeon, where he would enjoy his highest-profile success as the originator and producer of Clarissa Explains It All, starring teen actor Melissa Joan Hart. Nominated for a Primetime Emmy, Clarissa anchored Nickelodeon’s successful Saturday-evening programming block for five seasons and ran for a robust 65 episodes. Kriegman revisited the franchise in 2015 with Things I Can’t Explain: A Clarissa Novel, while series star Hart went on to fame as Sabrina the Teenage Witch on ABC.
Kriegman’s puppet phase began soon afterward, when he took on the task of animating Winnie the Pooh for a Disney project called The Book of Pooh, which aired 2001-2003. Sensing that the show needed to differentiate itself from two previous Pooh-based series, Kriegman developed “shadowmation,” a patented animation process that combines real-time, virtual sets with bunraku-style puppets. This technical development drove the production concepts on Kriegman’s next three television shows — The Book of Pooh, PBS’s It’s a Big Big World, and Disney’s Bear in the Big Blue House. Employing large teams of puppeteers alongside live actors and a crew of television professionals, Kriegman learned the ins and outs of the burgeoning puppet scene. Many of the characters that you will see around Santa Barbara this weekend, including the giant sloth Snook, are alumni from these shows.
Perhaps the best story to illustrate what PuppetPalooza is all about comes from early 2002, when New York City was still reeling in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Kriegman was making Bear in the Big Blue House at the time, and his team had watched the towers fall from their soundstage at the Chelsea Piers. Together with music-world friend Nile Rodgers, the guitarist from Chic, and fellow children’s television executive Chris Cerf, Kriegman devised a plan to unite all the characters in children’s television for a “We Are the World”–style video to raise money for New York’s disaster relief funds. The ensuing video, sung to the tune of Rodgers’s classic disco hit “We Are Family,” remains the only instance in which such familiar faces as Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, and SpongeBob SquarePants appear together. Crossing seemingly insurmountable barriers of copyright and corporate control, the “We Are Family” video continues to attract viewers and even fan remixers on YouTube, where it lives in perpetuity.
For Kriegman, it’s the message in “We Are Family” that resonates most deeply for Santa Barbara today. As one early slogan for the festival had it, “Puppets Are People Too.” Kriegman likes to point out that puppets, unlike animated figures, occupy the same space as humans. They are part of our physical-space families, and to see them in groups, especially after a difficult period of natural disasters, is reassuring. “The standard model for festivals today is an adult-oriented event with a kids’ corner,” Kriegman told me, “and I wanted to flip that. Let’s have an event that’s oriented toward kids with an adults’ corner.” “I believe in puppets as a mental-health measure,” he said. “The children need to know we are together, and this is the message that PuppetPalooza was created to send — we are family.”