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The Muppets Take Santa Barbara

Everyone has their own fond collection of Muppet memories. Whether yours involve Big Bird visiting with Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street, Gonzo launching his motorcycle off a plank on The Muppet Show, or Yoda espousing wisdom to Luke in Star Wars, it's safe to say they've played a key role in your life. I was always partial to the Muppet Babies as a child, and I've tried my damnedest to keep their power of "imagination" intact ever since.

Last night, as the official kick-off event for Santa Barbara's first annual "Puppet Palooza," my girlfriend and I got to see four of the Muppet puppeteers live and onstage at the Marjorie Luke Theater. It was fascinating to hear them talk about their careers—how they got involved in the business, how they gesticulated their puppets about, how they felt honored to carry on Jim Henson's legacy. But it wasn't until they pulled the Muppets themselves out of their crates that the magic happened.

There were no platforms or barriers for the operators to hide behind; no ventriloquistic efforts to project their voices while keeping their lips from moving. But when the Muppets started talking, they came alive. And the puppeteers disappeared.

Bill Baretta became Rowlf, Peter Linz became Walter, Eric Jacobson became Miss Piggy (like seriously, a guy in a backwards baseball cap became a voluptuous, prima donna pig), and Matt Vogel became Kermit the Frog. Although Jim Henson has passed on, and Frank Oz has moved on, their characters are alive and well.

Like I said, magic.

At the end of the affair, there was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. About a dozen people lined up in each aisle, taking turns before a mic to either offer accolades or acquire long-sought answers. There were only three more questions to go, and the puppeteers had just re-boxed their personalities, and everyone was beginning to consider bailing to the parking lot to avoid the inevitable gridlock, when the next woman asked the puppeteers if they could please take Kermit, Rowlf, and Miss Piggy back out of their boxes. They were happy to comply. Again, the people disappeared, and the Muppets came to life. The woman was talking to the Muppets. She had something very important to say to them.

"Kermit, I want to thank you for giving me the courage to sing. I do that, now. I am a singer. And Rowlf, I want to thank you for inspiring me to play the piano. I have been playing since I was nine years old. And Miss Piggy, I... I want to thank you for making me realize how beautiful I am. Because I am. I am beautiful. Thank you for teaching me that."

There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Sometimes I get down on us humans. We pollute our environment. We say cruel things to each other. We even go to war. It's not too difficult to tilt your head and squint your eyes and see us as a cancer on the Earth. I often imagine the plants and animals being much better off without us.

But then Muppets happen. They remind us of our power to laugh and learn and inspire and cry. They allow us to make light of our imperfections. They console our spirits. They touch our hearts. The Muppets may be the best we have to offer this world. And that ain't so bad.

That ain't so bad, at all.

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