The Bizarre Tale of the Orca II, the Stunt Boat from Jaws

Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by Lynn and Susan Murphy
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by Lynn and Susan Murphy

In nautical circles, building a boat that proceeds to sink an astonishing 24 times would be considered a disaster. For the purposes of the crew tasked with filming 1975’s shark thriller Jaws, it meant they had done their job.

In an era before computer effects, director Steven Spielberg and production designer Joe Alves wanted their adaptation of the Peter Benchley novel—about a shark that terrorizes the tourist hub of Amity Island—to feel authentic. That meant shooting on location at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where they spent five agonizing months putting actors and several malfunctioning mechanical sharks in the water. Often, those scenes would be centered around the Orca, the fictitious shark-hunting boat manned by salty seaman Quint (Robert Shaw). For shots where the 42-foot Orca was assaulted by the atypically aggressive shark, Alves and his team substituted the functioning boat for the Orca II, a near-exact duplicate that had no motor but could sink on command. It’s the Orca II that takes up most of the screen time during the film’s climactic scene, when the shark decides to jump on the stern of the boat to take a bite out of both the vessel and Quint.

But the shark was not the only threat to the Orca II. After being decommissioned and put out of movie service, the replica boat would spend the next several decades being ransacked by Jaws fans and memorabilia collectors despite being located on private land. Frustrated and fed up, its owners would take a chainsaw to its fiberglass hull, leaving little more than a relic that was later visited by an archeologist fascinated with its status as a “fake” artifact.

In being looted by trespassers and ravaged by the sea, had the Orca II transformed into something other than a movie prop? Had it become a cultural touchstone worthy of closer examination, or had the film’s popularity exaggerated its significance? And after nearly 45 years, would there be anything left of the Orca II to even examine?

 

From the beginning, the Orca II may have been the only element of Jaws that worked as expected. The Universal film, which initially had a modest budget of $3.5 million, was directed by Spielberg, who had impressed executives with his television work and a 1974 feature, The Sugarland Express. Spielberg and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb rewrote Peter Benchley’s script, preserving only the bare bones of the story: A shark arrives during tourist season on Amity Island, throwing the town into an uproar. Chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) recruits a marine biologist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and ornery old seaman Quint (Shaw) to protect their shores from the marine terror. Quint’s boat, the Orca, would be their maritime base of operations.

Alves tells Mental Floss that the need for a second stunt boat was obvious from the beginning. “I did 250 storyboards,” he says. “We knew the boat had to sink, and there was no way of sinking the real Orca and bringing it back.”

The working Orca was a 42-foot-long former lobster boat dubbed the Warlock that Alves had found near Marblehead, Massachusetts. The white boat was repainted in burgundy and black and accessorized with a pulpit and oversized windows, the better for a casual audience to identify it as a formidable shark-hunting vessel. It was part of a fleet of 16 ships the production used for filming on water, including multiple barges that towed boats and the mechanical sharks, as well as a catch-all vessel, the SS Garage Sale, that had dressing rooms and a bathroom for cast and crew. Speedboats could transport people or supplies back and forth from shore. Even with these ships, shooting on water was interminable, a fact that’s become part of Jaws lore.

The crew of 1975's 'Jaws' works between the 'Orca' and 'Orca II' boats
The Jaws crew works on a platform between the Orca and Orca II.
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by Charlie Blair

“It’s so difficult,” Alves, who worked on three of the four Jaws films, says. “The water is non-consistent. You had to anchor boats with four anchors to control them.” Once, the Orca took on water and partially sank. It had to be pulled out, dried out, and have wood replaced, all in time to be ready for shooting the following day.

Knowing the actual boat could never withstand such repeated stresses, Alves commissioned the production crew to make a cast out of the Orca and use it to construct a fiberglass replica. On the surface, the Orca II was a mirror image of the Orca; the team ran props back and forth between the boats as needed. But underneath was much different. Without a motor, it had to be towed into place for shots. If it needed to sink, a crew member would use pneumatic tubes to tip the barrels mounted below the hull so they would begin to take on water, and the ship would be pulled into the depths. Once water was siphoned out, the barrels would regain their buoyancy and it would return to the surface. It was so convincing that production painter Ward Welton once jumped on board to try and start it—and got confused when he couldn’t find the motor. He thought it was the actual Orca.

What Alves needed in addition to the Orca II and the other boats were experienced boat operators. He found a local named Lynn Murphy while supervising the construction of Quint’s home in nearby Menemsha. “I hired him,” Alves says. “He had a little shack there where he kept his boat. He was yelling and screaming. I asked if he was a boat guy because we needed some.” Lynn and his wife, Susan, both came on the production to captain the boats and oversee their use. “Lynn knew a lot about boats. He got there and corrected some things. We started using him to tow the shark.”

That Alves witnessed Lynn yelling was not an unusual occurrence. The former auto mechanic, who operated Menemsha Marine Repair, was infamous in the area for his fiery temper. Following some kind of verbal dispute with harbor master Phil Le Vasseur in 1969, Lynn ended the argument by tossing the man into the harbor.

“He was a rough kind of sea guy,” Alves says. As the story goes, Spielberg was so enamored with Lynn’s persona that he directed Shaw to channel him for Quint. That makes sense to Alves, who says Shaw took inspiration from Lynn and that the two often went out for drinks after filming for the day.

(Tempestuous as he may have been, Lynn was also known for his selflessness. He was once commended by then-Senator John F. Kennedy for his bravery in securing boats and providing assistance during two major hurricanes in 1954.)

As difficult as filming was, it might have been impossible if not for the efforts of Lynn, Susan, and the other locals. Filming that was supposed to end in July dragged on through August and into September. Shots that would have been simple to do on land were at the mercy of unpredictable waters and unforeseen circumstances. Once, the Orca II sank a little too well, taking with it two Panavision cameras that cost Universal $24,000 a week to rent. Both cameras were full of film. In a panic, a crew member stuffed the film into a bucket of freshwater to try and prevent the saltwater from ruining the celluloid. He then jumped on a plane to New York in the hopes that Kodak could develop it in time. The footage was saved, but the fate of the cameras is unknown.

Crew members from 'Jaws' look on as the 'Orca II' sinks
Joe Alves (L) and another crew member look on as the Orca II sinks on command.
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by Edith Blake

Near the end of shooting, the Orca II was positioned for its biggest moment. In the final face-off between man and shark, the mechanical predator (nicknamed “Bruce” after Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer) was to “jump” on the stern, destroying it and gobbling up Quint in the process. Alves had made several breakaway sterns for the Orca II out of balsa wood. “We had three sterns,” he says. “I wish we had four. I’m not that happy with how the shark landed. There’s not a lot of balsa wood in Martha’s Vineyard. We shipped it in from Los Angeles.”

In September, Spielberg finished principal photography. Alves and others stayed behind for pick-up shots, including one last sinking of the Orca II. Once the film was finally done, the crew hurried off. Virtually no thought was given to the movie even being any good, let alone concern for the props or production elements involved.

“The studio didn’t give a damn,” Alves says. The Orca was shipped to Hollywood, where it was sold to a special effects technician who wanted to use it for sword fishing. He paid $13,000. The Orca II was left behind.

 

Lynn Murphy saw a purpose for the Orca II, but not as a piece of memorabilia. As the owner of a salvage operation, his property on the shoreline of Menemsha Creek across from the small fishing village of Menemsha had several scrap boats and vehicles, including the SS Garage Sale and three barges used for the film. He paid Universal a nominal amount of $1 to buy the Orca II, intending to use the fiberglass to build a shed on his property. It really had no other purpose because it was not actually a boat.

“It was simply a prop,” Lynn’s wife, Susan, tells Mental Floss. “It had no bottom. There was nothing that could make it float. It was not seaworthy. The only thing that made it seaworthy was the tanks that were filled to keep it floating. That’s how it could sink on cue. The only reason he got it is because they practically gave it to him.”

The 'Orca II' is pictured sitting on the shore
The Orca II sits on the private property of Lynn and Susan Murphy. The Murphys took possession of the boat just after filming was completed in fall 1974.
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by the Hazen Family

Lynn towed the Orca II to his private shoreline but quickly ran into a snag. The shed he intended to build was not approved by local building authorities. With little use for the replica boat, he decided to let it sit idle on shore. The Orca II was visible across the water to anyone walking near the shoreline on Menemsha. For the rest of 1974 and for part of 1975, that was not a remarkable fact. But when Jaws opened in June 1975, everything changed.

The film became Hollywood’s first real summer blockbuster, devouring box office records and sitting atop the list of the highest-grossing films of all time before Star Wars arrived two years later. Suddenly, Martha’s Vineyard was no longer just a spot for vacationers but a place to make a pilgrimage to Amity Island. Lynn Murphy’s boat was no longer a discarded hunk of fiberglass but the Orca II, sticking its mast out for all to see. People just assumed it was there for their enjoyment.

“It started to be picked to death,” Susan says. Fans of the movie—who were eventually labeled “finatics”—would come over by boat and begin tearing into the Orca II, yanking out nails, planks, and whatever else could be removed by hand. Quickly, the pulpit, mast, and fly bridge went missing. 

“I’ve known people who have gone over there and taken pieces,” Jim Beller, a Jaws historian and collector, tells Mental Floss. “They weren’t sure it was the right thing to do.” Some, Beller says, took a piece and then regretted it later.

“Sometimes we called the police,” Susan says. “They would meet people on the other side of the harbor after they got back on the road with the stuff and arrest them for trespassing and stealing.” Some arrived under cover of night, using flashlights. The Murphys put up “No Trespassing” signs to little avail. A peculiar sense of ownership seemed to empower fans of the movie to chip away at the Orca II, piece by piece. It is something of a wonder that Lynn Murphy, never long on patience, didn’t wind up in a confrontation with one.

The 'Orca II' and SS 'Garage Sale' are pictured
The view of the Murphy property and the Orca II from Menemsha. The SS Garage Sale is on the left.
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by the Hazen Family

“Lynn probably yelled at them to get away from the boat,” Susan says. “Whether he ever threw anyone overboard or got violent, I don’t think so.”

 

This went on for years; the Orca II seemed fated to be ransacked. According to Susan, towing it away was not really an option. It had arrived by water and there was nowhere else to put it. It was too large to drag further inland or display indoors. Partially pulled apart, it was likely of little interest to Universal, who had scrambled to buy back the Orca from the special effects technician after the movie was a hit so it could be put on display at Universal Studios as part of its Jaws ride. He reportedly charged them 10 times what he had paid them for it.

Out of options, the Murphys had little choice but to watch as the Orca II continued to be disassembled, both by fans and by the damaging saltwater washing over it. Souvenir hunters had even taken to yanking parts from the Far Star, a boat unrelated to Jaws that was located near the Orca II, leading to confusion over which was the genuine fake boat. Some posed for pictures, proudly displaying their technically-illegal gains.

“People get into a frenzy,” Susan says. “They think they can take anything they want. They were not really respectful to the movie they seemed to revere.”

The breaking point came in 2005, when the Murphys discovered that Martha’s Vineyard would be hosting Jawsfest, a weekend celebration of all things Jaws. Fans of the film would be coming to the island in greater numbers than ever before, and it was likely they would descend upon what was left of the Orca II like ants on a picnic.

The Murphys had enough. “Once we cut it up,” Susan says, “it was done.”

Taking a chainsaw to what remained of the fiberglass hull, the Murphys expedited the dissolution of the Orca II. They were left with 1000 fiberglass squares that measured 1 foot by 1 foot each. If fans wanted a souvenir, they could buy them in a proper transaction. The pieces did a brisk business, with certificates of authenticity from the Murphys. One piece reportedly sold on eBay for $1850.

The 'Orca II' is pictured
The Orca II is seen out of the water. The barrels used to sink and raise it are visible underneath.
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by the Hazen Family

In 2011, the Murphys entered into an agreement with co-authors Beller and Matt Taylor to contribute smaller pieces to a limited edition of Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard, a book that takes a comprehensive look at the making of the film and highlighted their contributions to the production. “Once the book came out and people found out how big a part in the movie we had, there was a certain element of respect that wasn’t there before,” Susan says. “I’m not one to hold a grudge. I have to let go of what happened to the Orca II and the difficulty we had in protecting it.”

That appeared to be the end of the Orca II, at least as far as its shore presence was concerned. But there was still at least one person curious about what remained.

 

The Jaws phenomenon that gripped the country in 1975 was not lost on P.J. Capelotti. When he was 14 years old, he caught the film seven times in one week when it was playing at the $1 cinema. “It’s one of those movies you could watch endlessly,” Capelotti tells Mental Floss.

Now a professor of anthropology at Penn State Abington, Capelotti was looking for a project that might prove to be slightly less strenuous than some of his archaeological pursuits of the past. In 2015, his daughter showed him an article in the Boston Globe about the 40th anniversary of Jaws. “It had a picture of two different Orcas, one that was actually a real vessel and one that was a mock-up of the real vessel,” he says. “I thought, ‘Cool.’ I’m a Jaws fanatic. I knew where it was.”

Capelotti was not in search of a souvenir but to assess the location itself, which had become the unlikeliest of archaeological sites, for a chapter in his 2018 book, Adventures in Archaeology. “I wanted to see what was left,” he says. By this time in May 2017, Lynn Murphy had passed away; the couple had sold the land to the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, where it eventually wound up in the hands of a Native American tribe. To step foot on the land, visitors need permission from the natural resources department of the federally acknowledged Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). Capelotti reached a friend at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get approval. A 45-minute ferry ride got him to Vineyard Haven, and a 45-minute drive took him to the segment of West Basin Road that looks out opposite Menemsha. After a 45-minute hike across a salt marsh and white dunes, Capelotti finally found it: the final resting place of the Orca II.

The 'Orca II' is seen sinking during the filming of 'Jaws' in 1974
The Orca II sinks on command as the crew looks on during the filming of Jaws.
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard // Photo by the Hazen Family

Above the sand and shallow water, the only thing that remained were six stanchions from the metal framework that was beneath the hull and held the barrels. Together, it measured 18 feet, 6 inches long and 8 feet wide. Some short lengths of the pneumatic tubing to assist in the sinking were also there. Nearby, what was left of the Far Star continued to erode, though it retained a boat-like shape. Some 60 feet away was the SS Garage Sale, the utility vessel from filming. It was all little more than a little bit of rubber, metal, and outlines in the sand. Whatever might be buried farther down went undisturbed. “I didn’t have permission to excavate into the sand,” Capelotti says.

Had it not been for exposure and overzealous fans, it’s likely the Orca II and its fiberglass frame would have outlived the original Orca, which went missing from the Jaws ride in 1996 and was thought to have deteriorated to the point that it sank and subsequently broke in half during an attempt to salvage it.

With the Orca II stripped down to its bones, Capelotti saw more than the vestiges of the prop it once was. It was a lesson in the fragility of cultural artifacts.

“Most sites we work on [in archaeology] have been reduced steadily over time,” he says. “The stone in the Roman Coliseum was looted in the Middle Ages to make homes for people in Rome.”

Susan Murphy continues to sell pieces of the Orca II, which she mounts in a shadowbox for $130 plus shipping. They still move at a steady clip, and Susan says she has enough inventory to keep Jaws fans supplied for the foreseeable future. Purchasing one requires some imagination. Stripped of paint, the fiberglass pieces aren’t easily identifiable as something that was once part of the iconic vessel that helped bring down one of the most terrifying horror villains in movie history.

The 'Orca II' is seen out of the water
The Orca II stands tall during filming.
Courtesy of Jaws: Memories form Martha's Vineyard // Photo by the Hazen Family

“I have a piece of the red part of the Orca II, a big piece, but you wouldn’t know what it was,” Beller says.

If the Orca II had remained intact, Capelotti believes it could have been destined to sell for an incredible sum to a collector. “Dorothy’s ruby slippers [from The Wizard of Oz] are valued at millions of dollars,” he says. “Imagine what something like the Orca II would have been worth.”

Sometimes, Beller says, there are renewed talks of a fan building a full-scale replica. No one has fully committed to such an ambitious and expensive project, though. To date, nothing has surfaced, and the Orca II lives on only on film and in photos. But that doesn't mean it's been entirely forgotten.

Not long ago, Alves was at a convention, Shark Con, when he was approached by a father and daughter who presented him with a small piece of metal. “What’s this?” he said. The two explained they had been to West Basin Road—presumably without tribal permission—and had taken what they believed to be a souvenir of the Orca II. This time, though, things went a little differently.

“They gave it to me,” Alves says.

Additional Source: Adventures in Archaeology.

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."

Hallmark Released Some Adorable Harry Potter Ornaments—Just In Time for Christmas

Amazon
Amazon

Even if you never received your letter of acceptance to Hogwarts on your 11th birthday, you can still add some magic to your Christmas tree this year with some Harry Potter Christmas ornaments from Hallmark. These pieces have more of a minimalist style than Hallmark's other Potter releases, which are modeled to look identical to the characters' movie counterparts. But with that simplicity comes a unique charm that is sure to be popular with Potterheads.

Shoppers can look for seven different ornaments, which include Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger in mid-flight, as well as Hedwig, the Sorting Hat, Dobby, and the Hogwarts Crest. Each one comes with a hanger, so is ready to be put on your Christmas tree as soon as its out of the packaging. You can find each one for $9 on Amazon—though be forewarned that Harry is currently out of stock (but you can find an equally adorable replacement Potter for $8).

If you can’t get enough wizarding gifts this holiday season, then check out our Harry Potter gift guide, which includes everything from magical cookbooks to chess sets.

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