I was out of the country for the Sept. 12 broadcast of one of my favorite shows, “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!”, the syndicated news-quiz show on NPR. But it didn’t take long for a number of my friends to tell me about it as soon as I got home.
The special guest that day was Frank Oz, the movie director and co-founder of the Muppets. Before he faced a battery of questions from radio host Peter Sagal, Frank acknowledged that he had gotten his start as a teenage apprentice at Children’s Fairyland’s puppet theater.
Director/Muppeteer Frank Oz apprenticed at Children’s Fairyland as a teen; shown here with the park’s longtime puppetmaster Lewis Mahlmann at the park’s 20th birthday celebration in 1970.
It’s true: The voice of Bert, Miss Piggy and Yoda (and many other characters) does have a history at our park. And next year we’re presenting one of the shows he wrote as a teen.
In his introduction, Peter Sagal said that when he’s in Bay Area he enjoys running in “this park in Oakland, and passing this little amusement park in Lake Merritt…”
“Children’s Fairyland!” Oz interjected. He went on to say that he worked at Fairyland when he was about 14 years old, apprenticing and doing three shows a day. He created the Muppets with Jim Henson when he was 19.
We know the story well.
Frank was the son of puppeteers Mike and Frances Oznowicz, who married in Belgium and moved to Oakland in 1950. As a young boy, Frank performed shows with his parents at Yosemite National Park and all around the Bay Area. Given Fairyland’s puppet theater’s history as the longest running in America, it was only a matter of time before the Oznowicz family connected with the park.
Fairyland’s master puppeteer and resident historian Randal Metz tells us that Mike and Frances supported the theater on many levels: doing voices, looking over scripts, and -- in Frances’s case -- designing fabulous costumes for the puppets, many of which are still in use.
While he was still enrolled at Oakland Tech, Frank made the acquaintance of Jerry Juhl, who was six years older than he, and together they ran the well-respected Vagabond Puppets. (It operated under the auspices of Oakland’s Park and Rec Department and was based in what is now Studio One.) Jim Henson first saw the two teens perform at a Puppeteers of America meeting in Monterey County. “I want these guys!” said Henson, according to Randal Metz’s account.
Frank’s parents insisted he finish high school, but Jerry joined the Muppets in 1963 as a writer/producer. He played a key role in the success of the Muppets’ television and film projects.
It wasn’t long before Frank followed – shortening his last name to “Oz” along the way -- and the rest is television and film history. But Frank never forgot the little park that gave him his start: he returned in 1970 for Fairyland’s 20th birthday—and he brought Cookie Monster and Bert. Thousands of kids turned out for the reunion.
We haven’t heard from Frank in more than 20 years. We hope he’ll consider visiting next year when we produce a show he wrote way back in his Vagabond Puppet days. It’s the tale of a reluctant dragon, and it’s called “The Dragon Who Wasn’t.” Randal is reworking the script, building the puppets and recording the soundtrack. One thing won’t change: the humor that has always been Frank Oz’s trademark.
We heard some of that wit on the “Wait Wait” broadcast, when Frank recalled being scolded for on Cookie Monster’s syntax—“me do this, me do that.” It could be hurt the kids’ grammar, some people warned.
His response: “You know, I don't think somebody's going to grow up [to become] a lawyer and say, ‘Me want to represent you’.”
I did lift an eyebrow when Frank recalled being “a sick kid ... a puppeteer. I was very weird.”
We won’t repeat that to young Will, an 11-year-old puppeteer-in-training who’s been hanging out with Randal at our theater for a few years now, building puppets and learning other aspects of the craft.
It’s like Yoda said: Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.
Me believe that.
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry. C.J. is former president and current board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J. writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.