17 Secrets of Magicians

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Whether they're performing a big illusion that makes a tiger disappear or showing off card tricks on a table, magicians spend years perfecting their performances. We spoke to several from across the country (and beyond) to find out how they learn their trade, the type of resource they spend thousands of dollars on, what they hate most at shows, and the one question they really wish you'd stop asking.

1. THEY DON'T GO TO MAGIC SCHOOL.

Surprise: There’s no Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry out there. "There's no real training," says Dave Taylor (a.k.a. Magic Dave) from Southend-on-Sea in England. "It's all personal experience, lecture notes, DVDs, books, etc. You can go to workshops, but for most things you have to be self-taught." One big asset, he notes, is a local magic club, which can provide feedback on shows.

Randy Follis, a magician from southwest Missouri, agrees: "The training is mostly independent. Researching books, DVDs, and—if you're fortunate enough to find them—fellow magicians." After that, all that's left is a lot of hard work and practice, practice, practice.

2. THEY SPEND THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON BOOKS.

“Most magicians are serious scholars," says Las Vegas magician Xavier Mortimer. "I don't know any professional magicians who don't have their own extensive libraries about our craft." (One notable example, Harry Houdini, assembled close to 4000 books on magic and spiritualism, now held at the Library of Congress.)

The costs of those books can add up, though: "Most books are small print runs, for a small audience, which can lead to high prices," Mortimor says. As an example, Denny Haney, who owns the Denny and Lee Magic Shop in Baltimore, Maryland, says that one book he sells—Soirees Fantastique by the French illusionist Christian Fechner—goes for $3000.

3. THEY MIGHT SPEND A YEAR PERFECTING ONE TRICK.

Magicians are nothing if not obsessive. Danny Whitson, a comedian and magician from Knoxville, Tennessee, says he spent a year in front of the mirror mastering one particular move. "It sounds insane," he says, "but a great magician is always learning."

All that rehearsing can take a toll on loved ones. "You spend most of your time rehearsing a trick over and over again, to the point where it annoys everyone else around you," Taylor says. "My wife threatened (jokingly) to leave me if I kept playing with a Rubik's Cube after I spent a solid two weeks learning the ins and outs of a trick."

4. THEY CAN EARN THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS PER GIG.

Magicians can earn more than you might think, but it depends on the type of gig. "Corporate gigs pay the most at $800 to $2500, then your bars, clubs, festivals $300 to $1000, and a birthday party $200 to $500," Whitson says.

While that might seem substantial, as Taylor notes, "you are self-employed, so you could work lots in a week and then the next two weeks have nothing. Then, there's the task of advertising yourself, administration, rehearsals, prop maintenance, etc., which take up your time. You might only have two shows in a week for two hours and get paid £500 [about $675], but you still work a full week doing everything else.”

5. THEY AREN'T ALLOWED TO HAVE BAD DAYS.

A happy magician showing a trick with playing cards
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"Being a pro magician basically means you are selling a product—yourself," Taylor says. "You have to convince your audience you are the best even when you don't feel like it." That means pulling through a bad show, or a bad day, with a smile: "If you're in an office you can be in a bad mood. If you are in front of hundreds of people performing that's another matter."

6. CONNECTING WITH THE AUDIENCE CAN BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE TRICKS.

Doc Eason, a legendary magician who performs at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and at the Stonebridge Inn in Snowmass, Colorado, is known for his incredible memory; he does one trick where he memorizes the names of 20 people in the audience as well as a card held by each person. Despite the impressive feat, Eason says, “The trick is not the thing ... what is the thing is connecting with the audience. Without connection, you just become a clever person who learned to do a few cool things." Establishing that connection is a matter of eye contact and remembering the names of the people in the audience, Eason says—which requires plenty of practice in front of friends, family, and then strangers before taking to the stage.

7. THEY HATE CELL PHONES MORE THAN HECKLERS.

A person in a suit working magic on a cell phone
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Magicians have probably dealt with hecklers (“I know how you did that!”) since they first stood on a stage. But today’s electronics are considerably more annoying, performers say, what with people constantly recording the show, checking messages, or texting during performances. “Holding audience attention is increasingly difficult," Eason says. However, he doesn't ban cell phones, since that can "start a show on a hostile note."

Randy Forster, a magician from Delaware, handles the annoyances of technology by turning them into an opportunity for humor. He'll open a show with a comment like, “If you have any devices with you with an on-off button, such as a snow-blower or generator, please turn them off now.” Should someone’s phone ring, he’ll say, “We’ll just hold the show until you get that,” or “Put the phone on speaker so we can all hear.”

8. THEY'RE NOT ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL.

Haney says there are several types of magicians: those who specialize in close-up magic (like card tricks on a table), illusionists (think Siegfried and Roy or David Copperfield), mentalists (those who pretend to perform mind-reading), the "bizarre" (think sword swallowers), and children’s entertainers (balloon animals), among others. While some may do one or more types of magic, they generally stick to one category, and develop routines that play to their own strengths.

That's worth keeping in mind when you're hiring a magician. Although many magicians are happy to accommodate special requests, keep their specialty in mind—"someone who does close-up [magic] might hate animal tricks and wouldn’t do them within the scope of a close-up act. Each has its place," Haney says.

9. THEY'RE TIRED OF THE DORKY STEREOTYPES.

"The media gives magicians a bad name sometimes," Taylor says. "Think Howard Wolowitz on Big Bang Theory with his cheesy, annoying manner and performing at inappropriate times." Then there's the memorable Gob Bluth from Arrested Development, whose ineptitude as a magician is matched only by the obnoxiousness of his personality. Magicians like Taylor aim to change those unpleasant associations: "Many magicians, like myself, try to make the magic cool. Not over-the-top cool, but entertaining enough that you’ll talk about it in the pub that night and be impressed and not use 'geeky' to describe it."

10. THEY'VE HEARD ALL YOUR JOKES BEFORE.

Rich Bloch, a magician, inventor of magic effects, and owner of Dickens Parlour Theater in Millville, Delaware, says that when you think you’re being clever by asking the magician, “Can you make my husband disappear?” or “Can you saw my wife in half?” or “Can you change this dollar into a $1000?”—you aren’t. Also, the magician has probably heard the joke “How’s tricks?” before, even if they laugh with wide-eyed amazement like you’re the first person to ever crack it.

11. DON'T ASK THEM TO WORK FOR FREE …

Two magicians playing a trick with a bag of money
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Taylor’s pet peeve is someone asking, "Can you work for free?" or saying "I don't have much of a budget, but it will be great exposure for you."

"Unfortunately, exposure won't feed my family or pay my phone bill," he explains. "And I hate to say it, but 99.99 percent of these ‘exposure’ gigs don't lead to anything else. You wouldn't ask your electrician to work for free so why ask entertainers to?”

12. … OR TO EXPLAIN THE TRICKS.

As tempted as you may be to learn how a trick is done, don’t ask unless you’re paying for a private lesson. Once you learn, you’ll probably be disappointed, our sources say. “It’s usually something very simple,” Haney says. “It’s always more fun to be amazed.”

13. THERE ISN'T NECESSARILY A PENALTY FOR REVEALING HOW TRICKS ARE DONE.

While revealing a trick can lead to some ostracism for magicians, doing so won't get them sent to magicians' jail. For one thing, magic tricks aren't copyrightable, so it can be hard to prove ownership, and there's usually plenty of resources out there explaining tricks already. They have occasionally even been revealed in court—as when David Copperfield was forced to reveal the method behind his Lucky #13 trick after a participant claimed he'd dislocated his shoulder during a Las Vegas performance.

But there are certain centerpiece tricks—ones the magician created or purchased for thousands of dollars—that can ruin a magician's act if their mechanics are revealed. For example, Bloch has a trick where he copies someone’s signature while he’s blindfolded; it's a key part of his act, so revealing how it's done could be devastating. If a trick like that is unmasked, a magician might sue, as when Teller of Penn & Teller filed a lawsuit against a Belgian entertainer who posted a YouTube video of an illusion similar to one of Teller's signature tricks, and promised to reveal the secret behind it for $3050. Even though magic tricks aren't specifically copyrightable, Teller won his lawsuit because he'd registered his trick as a "dramatic work," which is protected by copyright.

14. THEY AVOID USING TRICK DECKS.

A white-gloved magician holding playing cards on a red background
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Although there are numerous trick card decks out there, Haney and Bloch both say a good magician needs only a standard Bicycle deck. “If you have a funny back, if people don’t recognize it, they automatically suspect it’s a trick deck,” Haney says.

15. THEIR TRICKS DON'T ALWAYS GO AS PLANNED.

Magicians sometimes perform in unusual environments—outdoors, at birthday parties, etc. Taylor remembers the time he was performing in a church hall for a corporate event and fell victim to its old wooden floor, which was riddled with gaps between the boards. "I was doing an escape from a replica set of Victorian prisoner chains and it's supposed to take 20 seconds in total," he says. But just as he went to flee, he realized he couldn't move his legs. "Turns out the chain had got trapped in the floor, meaning I couldn't get my feet out of the set of chains. I was stuck to the floor and could hear the music ticking away. Panicking, I grabbed hold of the cloth [that was supposed to drop and reveal him] and covered my feet with it as I yanked at the floorboards. I spent about 30 seconds of hell trying to subtly escape from the chains while talking to the audience as cool as I could. With a large yank, I managed to get my feet free, injuring an ankle in the process, and hobbled off stage as soon as I could."

Occasionally, even the little "disasters" turn out OK. Follis says he was once working a restaurant when a couple's dollar bill, which was part of his trick, got "a little too close the flame and burned—only a little, but clearly visible." In a panic, he tried to replace the dollar, but the couple "insisted on keeping it as it was their first date and they thought it would make a great story." The next Halloween, the same couple came to his show, sat in the second row, and told him how much they enjoyed the performance—followed soon after by an invitation to perform for their first family Christmas as a couple.

16. MISDIRECTION IS KEY.

“The essence of a magic performance is misdirection," Bloch says. "Not as in causing someone to look here rather than there, but displacing their expectations." He compares magic to humor, which often seems funny because of the unexpected turns a joke or a skit takes. "The unexpected is what causes the laughter reaction," Bloch explains. "Magic is the same. People expect an assistant to remain stable on the table, yet she floats, so you are changing the direction of their expectations.”

17. MAGIC TRICKS CAN HELP PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN INJURED OR WHO HAVE DISABILITIES.

Over the years, magicians have realized that learning to do tricks can be a valuable form of physical therapy. Haney says a customer bought a trick for his wife who had suffered a stroke; her doctor had said she’d never use her right hand again, but the trick gave her a goal to focus on, and she ended up regaining the use of her hand.

Several magicians have created programs that combine magic with other forms of physical and psychological therapy: David Copperfield founded Project Magic in 1981 to teach people with disabilities how to do sleight of hand work as a means to improve their dexterity, problem-solving skills, and self-confidence. After being in a debilitating car accident in 1988, magician Kevin Spencer created a “Healing of Magic” program that uses simple magic tricks to boost physical skills and motivational levels. According to his website, the concepts of “magic therapy” are now being used in more than 2000 hospitals, schools, and rehabilitation facilities worldwide.

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Movie and TV Extras

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

Background actors are the unsung heroes of television. Without them, most movie and TV scenes would be empty and unrealistic. But while we’re obsessed with movie stars, we never hear much about the people moving around behind them—because by design, we’re not supposed to pay them any attention. Here are a few insights on what it’s like to get paid to blend into the background.

1. Extras Are Not Professionals.

The chances of using background acting as a foray into stardom are pretty slim. “You’re not gonna get your big break as an extra,” says Claire Beaudreault, who has been an extra on shows including Orange Is The New Black, GIRLS, and Law & Order: SVU.

Most of the people you see in the background of a film or TV show have other jobs and are just doing extra work for fun. “I didn’t do it because I saw it as some backdoor into acting or anything,” says Jason Feifer, who was an extra in a scene of the 2004 film Jersey Girl. “But there are definitely people who do that.”

And there are always a few extras on set trying desperately to stay in front of the camera. “It’s a silent vie for control,” says Dillon Francis, a Los Angeles-based actor who was an extra on the movie Easy A back in 2010. “It was kind of interesting to watch. These guys would learn where the camera was going and redo their vector so they walked in front of it.” That’s a quick way to get a slap on the wrist from the director or a production assistant.

2. Extras Have to Do a Lot of Hurry-Up-and-Wait on Set.

Days on set can be excruciatingly long, sometimes lasting more than 15 hours and starting at odd times or ending at the crack of dawn. And a lot of that time is spent just sitting around waiting to be used in a scene, or repeating a single shot a dozen times. “There are days you get to set and you wait and wait and you never get used,” says Amy Rogers, a regular extra featured in TV shows including Homeland and Banshee, “or you work all day and the footage never gets used.”

Extras spend their down time in a designated “holding” area reading or playing card games. On the set of Easy A, which was set in a high school, extras had to wear backpacks stuffed with bubble wrap to make them seem full. “A fun way to distract yourself in downtime was to open up your backpack and pop bubbles,” Francis says.

3. What Looks Like Booze On Camera Isn't Actually Alcohol.

A glass of apple juice spritzer
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While posing as party-goers in bar scenes, extras need something to fill their cups. But film sets are no place for drunk actors, so the props team uses a number of tricks to fool the camera, some less appetizing than others. Apple juice is a good substitute for beer, according to Beaudreault: “Or it’ll be seltzer with a little food coloring in it. There will be bottles that have been cleaned out and their labels removed and fake labels put on.”

“Vinegar is sometimes used to approximate the texture and viscosity of booze,” Rogers says. “You’ll stand there with a glass of vinegar for eight hours.” And because filming can be a long and mind-numbingly repetitive process, nobody has time to replace melting ice cubes, so they’ll use gelatin ice cubes. Or, for the ultimate cheat, plastic wrap can be put in a cup filled with water to resemble crushed ice, according to Gale Nemec, who teaches a workshop for background actors. (This approach also apparently makes for festive centerpieces.)

4. Smokers Get Paid More.

When actors smoke on set, they’re usually not sucking on real cigarettes. On Mad Men, for example, the actors smoked herbal cigarettes that didn’t contain nicotine or tar (which is great, considering Jon Hamm reportedly smoked 74 of them shooting the pilot alone).

Non-union extras usually get paid minimum hourly wage, but according to Rogers, they get a small pay increase if they’re asked to smoke in a scene. “They call that a ‘bump’ in the business,” she says. The same rule applies if your car is featured in a scene. “They want boring cars that will never be noticed on screen,” says Steve D’Avria, an extra in The Hunger Games and Homeland. “My 2003 Toyota Camry has been in more TV shows than I have. You get a whole $20 for it.”

5. Extras Have Been Wearing the Same Duds for Days ...

On a film or TV set, continuity is key. To create the illusion that a scene is happening in real-time, rather than over a series of hours or days, every little detail must remain the same in each shot and from every angle. Extras are meticulously examined for accidental inconsistencies in their wardrobes. “You’ve gotta wear the same clothes every day,” Rogers says. “The production assistant will take your picture for continuity to make sure you haven’t taken off a necklace or something. For the Homeland finale, I wore a pair of leggings and a raincoat for a solid week.”

6. ... And They Usually Have To Bring Their Own—The Blander, The Better.

Row of men's shirts in blue colors on hanger
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Background actors are usually expected to bring their own clothes to set unless the production has a large wardrobe budget. And if you were to peek into the closet of a regular background actor, you’d see hangers upon hangers of gray and dark blue clothing items. Muted colors are preferred on set to make sure extras are as unremarkable as possible. Shirts can’t have any visible logos, and white clothes are discouraged because they “have a tendency to shine like a beacon on camera,” Francis says.

If you resemble one of the principal actors, you’re probably not going to get much camera time. “On Homeland, you’ll never see them place anyone near Claire Danes who has the same hair color as her,” Rogers says.

And pro tip: never look at the camera. “One guy in The Hunger Games kept staring at the camera and they finally just told him he had to sit down,” D’Avria says.

7. Wardrobes for Extras Get Recycled.

If an extra has to wear an elaborate costume, there’s a chance it’s been used before on another set. “One outfit I wore for Insurgent was worn on Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Dawn McHargue, who has also appeared in The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Nashville, and Necessary Roughness.

8. Extras Are Great Mimes.

Extras often need to make a scene appear alive and bustling while at the same time remaining totally silent on set so as not to interfere with the actors’ dialogue. This means pretending to conduct a conversation without actually making any noise, and every extra seems to have their own method. “I’m either pretending to flirt with someone or gossiping about something,” Beaudreault says. Also, dance scenes are often filmed in silence and the music is added in later.

While filming a crowd scene for the movie Jersey Girl, Feifer says he spent hours pretending to applaud and cheer. “They would do entire takes where the audience would go through the whole motion but we wouldn’t clap. We would fake clap but not actually get our hands to meet.”

9. For Actors, Seasons Are Irrelevant.

It’s amazing what a little fake snow can do to transform a summer day into a winter wonderland. “Sometimes when you’re shooting a winter scene, everyone is in heavy jackets and hats and gloves and it’s actually 100 degrees outside,” Nemec says. “You can gauge whether it’s actually cold or not if breath is coming out of the actor’s mouth. If not, it’s a good bet they’ve put snow on the ground and it’s hot as all get out and everyone is playing like it’s cold.”

For indoor scenes, air conditioning has to be turned off to eliminate background noise, which makes for a sweaty situation. Between takes, overheating extras strip their layers off to cool down.

10. The Movie Stars Are Off Limits for Extras ...

“As a general rule, don’t speak to them unless they speak with you first,” advises casting director Tona B. Dahlquist.

While filming on one movie, McHargue and her fellow extras were told to avoid looking the star in the eye. “They were very adamant that we were not to go near him or touch him or we would get kicked off set immediately,” she says.

But occasionally extras get a candid glimpse of a movie star’s true personality. For example, while filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria saw Jennifer Lawrence chilling at a card table munching on M&Ms, and watched Josh Hutcherson (who played Peeta) ride around set on a BMX bike.

On the flip side, Francis was the victim of one star's on-set meltdown. “She sees me standing there and she freaks out, saying something about how she’s had a rash of stalkers lately and I’m within a 50-foot perimeter,” he says. “She’s glaring at me from the tent and a PA runs over, moves me a few feet away and says ‘sorry’ and runs away again.”

11. ... And Social Media Is a Good Way for Extras to Get Blacklisted.

Young people taking photo with smartphone
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Phones aren’t allowed on set and photos are strictly forbidden. “While filming Insurgent, there was a girl who took a picture of the set and shared it,” McHargue says. “Lionsgate security came from California to Atlanta and they took her away. She will never work on a set again. She’s blacklisted.”

If you’re sneaky, you can swipe a harmless item from set as a keepsake. While filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria says there were signs in the bathroom that said, “Flush the toilet or you’ll be sent to the Hunger Games.” “I borrowed that sign as a souvenir,” he says.

12. The On-Set Catering Is Pretty Good.

Vats of catered food
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The quality of food on set varies depending on budget, but generally, extras eat some amazing grub brought in by professional caterers. “The food on Iron Man 3 was the best food I’ve ever had,” McHargue says. “We ate with the cast and crew and we had anything you could think of: the best steak, shrimp, lobster, and crab. The buffet table, you couldn’t see the end of it.”

The catch: You often don’t get to eat lunch until about 3 pm and dinner starts at 10 pm, according to D’Avria. Extras are advised to bring a few snacks to hold them over until feeding time.

13. Extras Can't Watch TV Like Regular People.

Once you know how a movie is filmed, it’s hard to watch it with fresh eyes. “I can’t watch TV anymore without looking at the background actors and seeing who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong,” Nemec says.

15 Secrets of Sesame Street Puppeteers

Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
HBO

For 50 years and more than 4500 episodes, Sesame Street has been imparting valuable moral, ethical, and social lessons to young audiences using a sprawling cast of puppets. The Sesame characters—Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, the Count, and others—have become instantly recognizable to generations of viewers. But behind every memorable character is a human performer, one tasked with juggling the technical demands of puppet operation without losing the humor and heart that makes their furry counterpart so memorable.

To get a better sense of what goes into this unique skill set, Mental Floss spoke with three veteran Sesame Street performers during the show’s semicentennial celebration. Here’s what they had to say about crossed puppet eyes, grooming habits, and enjoying a long career finessing felt.

1. Sesame Street puppeteers usually get started lending a (right) hand.

Though there’s no definitive set of directions for puppeteers to get to Sesame Street, a number of performers selected to work on the show begin as apprentices with one specific task: operating the right hand of characters alongside the veteran cast members. “A lot of performers will almost only do right hands for a very long time,” Ryan Dillon, the puppeteer behind Elmo, tells Mental Floss. “Some characters, like Cookie Monster, require two performers with two practical hands.”

Dillon started working on Sesame Street in 2005 at the age of 17. He performed as a right hand and as supporting characters for years before scoring the Elmo role in 2013. Throughout that training, he accompanied the main puppeteer, who uses their dominant (usually right) hand to control the mouth and the other to control the left hand. The newcomer will manipulate the right, a duty informally known as right handing. “It’s a great training ground,” Dillon says. “You’re working directly next to a performer with years of experience. You become one character together.”

2. Sesame Street puppeteers have tricks for making their characters emote.

Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird (L-R) appear in a scene from 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird delve into fine art.
HBO

Peter Linz, who portrays Ernie (among other characters) on the series, tells Mental Floss that getting a puppet to exhibit a personality takes some finessing. “You have to show the entire range of human emotion through something that doesn’t have an expression,” he says. Linz, who also teaches classes on puppeteering, says that there are some techniques to get puppets to show off their mood, however. “You can make them look sad by having them look down. You can get them to smile by opening their mouth. If they’re angry, maybe you close their mouth and then shake their arms ever so slightly. There are degrees of subtlety in all of that.”

Linz says the audience does part of that work themselves, projecting their own feelings onto a puppet. The ultimate proof might be in the example of Miss Piggy. While not a Sesame Street cast member, Linz says it’s telling that people often seem to believe the vivacious and flirtatious porcine character bats her eyes. “She can’t,” he says. The puppet doesn’t have that ability.

3. Not all Sesame Street puppets can perform the same tasks.

Sesame Street utilizes three major varieties of character. There’s the full-body puppet, like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus; “bag” puppets with two articulated hands, like Cookie Monster; and hand-and-rod puppets that have arms controlled by thin rods. “Elmo is a hand-and-rod puppet,” Dillon says. “[The difference means] some puppets can do things others can’t. Cookie Monster can pick things up. Elmo can, but it takes longer. You need to stop [filming] and attach something to his hands with tape or a pin.”

4. Sesame Street puppeteers rely on a key design element to connect to their audience.

Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo.
Zack Hyman/HBO

It can be difficult to communicate that a puppet is able to focus a pair of fixed eyes on something, whether it’s another character, an object, or the audience. But Linz says that the Sesame Street crew and the rest of the Muppets were designed by Henson with that in mind. “The eyes are just two black dots against a white background,” he says. “But all the characters are ever so slightly cross-eyed. There’s a triangle between the eyes and nose and a point where it looks like they’re looking right into the camera.” It’s a sensitive illusion. Turning the puppet even slightly, he says, and they will wind up looking at something else.

5. Sesame Street puppeteers can spend their entire day crouched on the floor.

Being a Sesame Street puppeteer requires more than just having performing chops. On set, characters that may be at waist level with their human co-stars are operated by performers crouched below frame, often on wheeled boards called rollies. “The first day or two, your back and everything else is sore,” Dillon says. “It engages your whole body. Your arm is up in the air performing.” Some actors, Dillon says, have developed knee issues as a result of a career bent over. Fortunately, not every scene requires contortions. Some sets are built raised so performers can stand up straight. Other times, they’ll have to situate themselves horizontally. Scenes set on a stoop usually mean the performer is lying down behind the steps.

6. Sesame Street puppeteers have input into character design.

Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita (L-R) pose with fans of 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita pose with fans.
Zack Hyman/HBO

Lurking in the offices of Sesame Workshop is a puppet factory that, according to Dillon, houses a number of "Anything Muppets"—blank designs that may one day be used as the template for a brand-new character. In 1991, performer Carmen Osbahr got an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of conceptualizing a character when she helped originate Rosita (top right), the first regular bilingual Muppet on the series. “They had a meeting and asked what I had in mind,” Osbahr tells Mental Floss. “I was able to tell them I wanted a monster and I wanted live hands because I wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. I wanted her to be active and colorful. I didn’t want a petite, tiny little monster.” Both Osahr and Rosita have been a presence on the show ever since.

7. Sesame Street puppeteers have material for a blooper reel, but you’ll probably never see it.

Puppet manipulation takes concentration and effort. Occasionally, the cast of Sesame Street can find themselves flubbing a take. According to Osbahr, that’s often due to trying to coordinate left and right hands. “The main thing is props,” she says. “Grabbing stuff is easy, but if you want to pour something into a cup or write a letter, that’s hard. You think you’ll have a glass but just miss it.” Performers can also fall off their rollies, sending their counterparts tumbling out of the frame.

8. Each Sesame Street character has a dedicated puppeteer—with a couple of exceptions.

Actress Amanda Seyfried (L) appears on 'Sesame Street' with Abby Cadabby
Actress Amanda Seyfried with Abby Cadabby.
Richard Termine/HBO

When it comes to Sesame Street characters, there is one sacrosanct rule—aside from right handing, no puppet will have more than one puppeteer. “We feel strongly each Muppet has a dedicated performer,” Dillon says. “If there were two or three Elmos, you would see a copy of a copy.” However, illnesses or personal appearances can make that rule difficult to follow every time. If Dillon can’t make a shoot, a performer will step in to operate the puppet, with Dillon going in to provide the voice later.

The cast can also cover for one another if a scene requires two characters who are normally operated by the same actor. Both Bert and Grover, for example, are played by actor Eric Jacobson. If the two share screen time, Dillon might step in to perform one of them, with Jacobson recording his lines later.

9. Sesame Street puppeteers have a specific way of handling their puppets to keep them clean.

Day after day of manipulating puppets can lead to issues with cleanliness. Performer sweat can dampen the foam insides, while body oils and other contaminants can affect their fur coats. To avoid being dirtied, Linz says performers and production members try to pick up the puppets by the scruff of their necks. “We don’t want to put our oily hands on their faces,” Linz says. Puppets are also usually delivered to and from the set by a team of “Muppet wranglers,” and stored in the workshop where they’re built and maintained. To dry out a puppet, they’re sometimes placed on a wooden stand. A hair dryer set on low might also be used to dry a sweaty interior.

10. Sesame Street puppeteers work very, very closely together.

The characters from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
The puppet cast of Sesame Street.
HBO

Owing to the frequent proximity of puppets in frame, Sesame Street puppeteers are usually working near or virtually over other performers. “We try to be very aware and conscious of the people around us,” Dillon says. “Mistakes happen. Elmo has big feet, and Abby Cadabby has big feet, so you’ll often hit the other person with a foot. It doesn’t hurt.”

11. Guest stars will talk directly to Sesame Street characters—not just the puppeteers.

Sesame Street has played host to many guest stars over the decades, from actors to First Lady Michelle Obama. According to Osbahr, their human guests will often address the character even off-camera. “Most everybody who visits us talks to the character like they’re alive,” she says. “The moment we bring a character down [to rest], we have a conversation, but it’s great to have a relationship with a character and a celebrity. They’ll talk to Elmo, Rosita, Cookie Monster, and we’re talking to them right back.”

12. Sesame Street puppeteers can take years to get fully comfortable with a character.

Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster on the set of 'Sesame Street'
Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster.
Zack Hyman/HBO

For many performers, it can take years before they feel like they’re fully inhabiting their character. “You can be so focused on doing something right, you forget to have fun with the character,” Osbahr says. “By the fourth season, that’s when I started letting go, taking risks, having fun. You stop having to think about it.”

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for performers on Sesame Street to spend decades on the show, which means there's plenty of time to adjust. Carol Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, retired in 2018 after 49 years as a cast member. Osbahr says the familial atmosphere encourages longevity. “I’ve been with this group of people for 30 years,” she says. “We’ve shared a lot of incredible memories together.”

13. Sesame Street puppeteers can sometimes mourn a puppet who is declared “toast.”

Made of foam and other delicate materials, Sesame Street puppets have a shelf life. Depending on use, wear, and handling, they might last a few years before needing to be replaced. Linz says two new Ernies have recently been made after one began sloughing off foam inside, a symptom the production calls “toast” because the foam resembles toast crumbs.

Even with replacements, the legacy of characters can still live on. Linz uses an Ernie with the same mouth plate that was used by Jim Henson as far back as 1982.

14. Sesame Street puppeteers have to work backward.

Actor Anthony Mackie appears on 'Sesame Street' with Cookie Monster
Actor Anthony Mackie with Cookie Monster.
Jesse Grant/HBO

The most surprising aspect of working as a Sesame Street puppeteer? According to Linz, it’s the fact that performers often have to essentially work backwards. Because they’re crouched below the camera frame, puppeteers need to watch a monitor placed low to the ground to see what the camera sees. “When you move your arm to the right, the arm on the monitor moves to the left,” he says. “You’re seeing the image the audience sees.”

15. Yes, Sesame Street puppets are technically Muppets.

Sometimes there's confusion over whether the puppets that appear on Sesame Street actually constitute Muppets, or whether that term is reserved for non-Sesame projects like The Muppet Show or other endeavors featuring Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the others. According to Dillon, any Henson-birthed or -inspired puppet is a Muppet. “It’s become a catch-all term for puppets,” he says. “It’s a brand name, like Kleenex. Jim Henson came up with the name. A Muppet is used for characters that he came up with."

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