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A Rainbow Culture

If 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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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