Part 1 – Part 2
Just a few years ago, a Muppeteer got the opportunity to move from the background to the forefront with Sesame Street‘s newest fairy-in-training phenomenon. Leslie Carrara-Rudolph has had quite a journey, and we recently had the opportunity to sit down with her for a chat about her background and her ambitions.
As you can probably tell from her performance with Abby Cadabby, Leslie has energy and enthusiasm to spare, so you’ll see over the course of this two-part interview how she managed to take our two simple questions and tell us everything we wanted to know. It’s possible she also has some sort of mind-reading superpower.
In addition to her gusto, she also can’t help but slip into characters as she talks. When she slips into another voice, it will be denoted below in italics, so stay on your toes! And now let’s see what Leslie has to say for herself…
ToughPigs: How did you get started in puppetry?
Leslie Carrara-Rudolph: Like any fan, I grew up with the Muppets. The staples for me were Walt Disney, the Muppets, and Monty Python. Those are my heroes, and Martin Luther King. I would make puppets when I was young, and my background was in theater. My dad was an artist and I would cartoon characters and I would (in a surfer dude voice) like, go into them and create voices for ‘em and stuff. I was involved in a theater company for thirteen years that did theater for young audiences, so they would cast me as Pinocchio or the evil girl or a dog, all of these characters that nobody wanted to play, and I was hyper enough that they’d give them all to Leslie. “She’ll wear that reindeer outfit!”
I got most of my character training in theater. I did Sweeney Todd, Little Shop of Horrors, a lot of musical theater. So someone asked me if I’d consider doing an adult-based comedic evening with my characters. So I wrote this show called “Life in Other People’s Shoes”. It’s not the shoe that’s important, it’s the sole. It wasn’t really that deep, but I had shoes all over the stage, and I would draw a character, (in an old lady voice) and then I’d put on a pair of lovely little flip-flops that you’d wear in an aqua aerobics class and I’d go into a character.
I also performed in San Francisco at Beach Blanket Babylon, which is the longest running show in cabaret history, it’s still running. I played Dorothy (in a Judy Garland voice) from The Wizard of Oz and Madonna. Everything I was doing was with a really heavy character background. I also did Search for Signs of Intelligent Life when I was in Florida, and the Kathy and Mo Show with Paula Pell who used to write for Saturday Night Live and now writes for 30 Rock. What happened was, I just became a character person.
I started in California at Disney World, and I met some people who said if I’m ever in California, I should give them a call. So I met with these guys and somehow met someone from HBO who gave me this HBO work space. They have this little theater where they give comedians and writers an opportunity to showcase whatever they’re doing. So I put Life in Other People Shoes up there. At the same time, Muppets Tonight was looking for female comedians who do voices. Someone came and saw my show and then my friend recommended me to her boyfriend who was Kirk Thatcher at the time. And so I was invited to go to this audition, and it was a cattle call.
Here’s the coolest part. When I was moving, I drove across the country and read The Works. When I read that book, I knew I would fit in there, and I wished I could’ve met Jim Henson. So when I got the audition, I was like “My God, somebody read my journal!” It felt like somebody answered my wish.
The audition was two days, and they saw ten people every 15 minutes. You had to sing and do a monologue. At my audition was Bill Barretta, and I did The Wizard of Oz in two minutes, it’s my trick. And I was going to sing, and Bill said “Nope, you don’t need to sing. What is it with you?? Tell me about you.” So from that, I made it to the last twenty people. From there they got it down to two people, me and a girl from the Groundlings. I was just so hyper and physical, just out of sheer strength, these characters came out. Bill Barretta talked to Brian Henson and said, “Look, she’s not a puppeteer, but she’s got characters and I’ve got a feeling about her.” So he talked Brian into hiring me and they took a chance on me on Muppets Tonight. I was terrified, and they said they’d train me, but it never happened! My first day, they handed me Lew Zealand, they handed me boots that said “Prell” on them, Karen Prell’s boots, and go stand next to Animal, Frank Oz. I thought I was going to throw up, have explosive diarrhea, and sweat and implode right there. I was thinking, “Oh god, I’m going to get fired!”
I set up a camera and monitor in my room, Kevin Clash asked Drew Massey to help me out a bit. I figured I was going to be fired at any minute, so I might as well learn as much as I can. (In Spamela Hamderson’s voice) Originally they had me for Spamela Hamderson in “Bay of Pigs Watch” and most of the guys would do a falsetto voice, but nobody had a convincing voice for a bimbo pig with big hooters and no neck. Kevin would puppeteers and I’d stand on the side and do the voice. I think Kevin would watch me go back and forth with the puppets, and about halfway through the season, he handed me the puppet and said, “Let’s see what you can do with Spamela.” I did it, and he said, “Okay, I’m going home.” So then I was in.
I met my husband (Paul Rudolph) on the set of Muppets Tonight. He was the Assistant Musical Director under Richard Gibbs, and Tony Bennett was on, and he was giving out albums. I told him I’m from northern California and my dad’s Italian and he gave me one. Paul and I realized we have that music in common, and after the second season, he put together a band for the wrap party. My husband played vibes while Bill Barretta and I sang, and that kind of music sealed the deal and we’ve been together ever since.
I built my first puppet in the Henson workshop. Heather Henson was having a puppet cabaret and asked me to perform, but I didn’t have a puppet, so she said to just make one. Paul Hartis helped me and I built Madame Velveeta (in a gypsy lady voice) she is a gypsy girl, you would love her, she’s incredible.
After Muppets Tonight, I was bitten. I still wrote shows and did a ton of outreach, and I kept performing and catering and working in schools. Then I got a call about flying out to New York to audition for Dr. Seuss. I figured they’d never hire me, but I’d never been to New York and they were flying me for free! So I went and they ended up hiring me, and I couldn’t believe it.
So I was desperate for work, and when I got hired in New York, I was totally blown away. On Dr. Seuss, I met Tim Lagasse and Marty Robinson and Pam Arciero. I took over for Kathy Mullen for one episode because she wanted to direct, (in Morton’s voice) so I was “Morton the Elephant Bird” and Tim was Junior and we had a sleepover, and the whole day involved Tim Lagasse and I under this bed, and we laughed so hard, it was like we were separated at birth.
Head on back here later this week for part two of our chat with Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, when we find out exactly how she ended up as Sesame Street’s resident fairy-in-training!
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com