you’re looking for subtext in this sketch, let’s just say,
you’ll find some.”
Jessica Max Stein, author of the zine The Rainbow Connection:
Richard Hunt, Gay Muppeteer, made this comment more than
once during the course of her nearly two-hour overview of
the life and work of Richard Hunt held at the Capital District
Gay and Lesbian Community Center last Saturday, Jan. 2.
Peppering her talk with clips covering most of Richard’s most
famous characters, including Scooter, Janice, Statler (of
Statler and Waldorf, in the balcony of The Muppet Show),
and Beaker, plus many others (such as Don Music, Gladys the
Cow, and Placido Flamingo), Stein walked her audience through
a portrait of a consummate performer who got his start with
the muppets by cold calling them from a New York pay phone
on a day when they happened to be holding auditions. He was
also outspoken, generous to a fault, always a bit of an outsider,
a party-thrower, and an out gay man in the 1970s. He died
of complications from HIV infection at the age of 40, just
as he had been starting to move into directing roles, and
a year after he gave the eulogy at Jim Henson’s funeral.
Stein, a Capital Region native, is particularly intrigued
by what she calls the “rainbow connection,” saying in her
zine’s introduction that she “smelled a story” when she realized
that a key player in one of the most beloved entertainment
institutions of our time was also part of a sex-positive gay
culture that was not only on the fringes at the time, but
is being abandoned and denigrated today by a marriage- and
assimilation-focused gay movement.
Hearing about the topic of the presentation, one (queer) friend
said skeptically, “So there was a gay muppeteer? I’m shocked.”
Stein says she gets “why does it matter” responses frequently,
versions of liberal professions of “colorblindness” regarding
race. But, she argues, it’s important to understand Hunt’s
sexuality to understand the sensibilities that he brought
to his muppeteering—the celebration of difference and identity,
the exuberance, the sense of humor, the topics he took on.
No way, says Stein, would he have been free and confident
enough to pull all that off so well if he’d been closeted.
How much of what we consider the muppet sensibility was influenced
by the pieces of a very specific culture that Hunt brought
to the table?
And it’s true, even without Stein’s coaching, it was hard
not to see possible subtext in many of the clips she showed,
such as Gladys the Cow’s “Proud to Be a Cow” anthem: “Let
others be a lion or a lamb/I’m proud to be the creature that
I am.” Though we often just enjoyed his great singing, ad
libbing, and talented puppeteering, a quality Stein says she’s
coming to appreciate more and more and she delves deeper into
Hunt’s life and work.
Stein is working on a full-length biography of Hunt. To follow
her progress, get the zine, or read excerpts from an interview
with Hunt’s mother, visit jessica maxstein.com.