Mark Saltzman retains a modest home. Tucked within the foothills of Los Angeles, the comfortable cottage doesn’t betray the pedigree of its proprietor…apart from perhaps the seven Emmy Awards tucked excessive on a shelf within the nook.
Saltzman exhibits me to his front room, the place a pair of leather-based couches await our presence. I’ve come to talk with him about his profession. His work has encompassed every part from stage musicals like Tin Pan Alley, to telefilms like Mrs. Santa Claus to household options like The Adventures of Milo & Otis. I had in thoughts a particular emphasis on the supply of his seven Emmys: a 15-year tenure with The Muppets, together with writing scripts and songs for Sesame Road.
So how did you come to land on Sesame Road?
That was fascinating. So I wound up being one of many writers on a revue referred to as A, My Identify Is Alice. The idea of it was that it was going to be a musical theatre assessment and an all-women forged, and all-women writers. However as they have been engaged on it—I don’t assume they thought it by means of that if it meant all ladies, it meant no homosexual males. And also you’re going to do a musical? [Laughs]
So I feel they realized that alongside the best way, and that all-women writers needed to go. It’s musical theatre, it’s a revue. So when the doorways opened, I auditioned. And that was type of my getting over the wall. The present was a hit; it nonetheless performs. However most importantly, a lady within the forged was Alaina Reed [later billed as Alaina Reed Hall]. She was the unique Olivia on Sesame Road. I actually related together with her. I’m actually grateful to her for my profession.
So what yr was that?
So by that time Sesame Road was already legendary. So have been you out by the point you joined the employees ?
Properly, it’s extra ranges. I already had my life companion, the love of my life. We weren’t dwelling collectively. All our buddies knew, however I don’t assume I used to be professionally out.
[Saltzman pauses in thought. I don’t have to ask why. The “love of his life” was acclaimed editor Arnold Glassman, who edited movies like Frailty and The Celluloid Closet. The 2 have been collectively greater than 20 years earlier than Glassman’s dying in 2003.]
I feel I used to be cautiously out. I keep in mind not inviting Arnie to the primary Christmas events, you recognize. However then I have reminiscences of bringing him to seashore home events with everyone. I feel throughout Sesame Road was once I got here utterly out. By ’86 we had an house collectively. My father knew. There was no hiding it.
So have been there different out writers at that time? Performers?
There was Richard Hunt (the Muppet performer of Scooter, Janice, Beaker and extra). Oh, and Judy Freudberg (famous author of An American Tail and The Land Earlier than Time). I feel as I received out-ier I used to be the one male author who was out. I feel even being out, I used to be type of…the straight guys, you realize, are kind of non-inclusive. Even when everyone is aware of, it’s not a informal dialogue discussing my boyfriend with the blokes. You additionally have to recollect, all our pals have been dying.
That is the mid-80s…
That was the worst of it. I met Arnie just like the day earlier than the primary case…October 31, 1979. So I feel the New York Occasions story was…
July three, 1981. That’s fairly shut. You’re speaking about a yr…
Oh yeah, yeah! It was a miracle we discovered one another then. We hadn’t been uncovered. And everyone homosexual that was alive then remembers that article. As a result of we knew nothing. There’s a most cancers that’s catching? Every little thing was so mystifying and within the meantime, there’s one other funeral subsequent week. Eager about being out at the moment, it’s onerous to extricate that from dwelling in the midst of an epidemic.
Positive. And that was a huge a part of your social life then?
Yeah. You sort of went from one to the subsequent. Individuals simply vanished, and everybody was in some sort of panic.
All this—once I speak about that period of my life, it’s all beneath that shadow. It was good being there with the Muppets. And till Richard Hunt, I don’t assume there was an AIDS demise. (Hunt died of AIDS in 1992, age 40).
What was the angle like among the many forged, the crew? When one thing like that is occurring, is there dialogue about how the present ought to tackle it? Was there homophobia you encountered?
It didn’t look like something we might contact on the air. There’s a curriculum firstly of each season, and a lot of lobbying from the surface to get on that curriculum. I imply, what are you able to inform a preschooler about AIDS? Apply protected intercourse?
I can keep in mind pitching to the schooling division, the gatekeepers of the curriculum, homosexual content material, simply to get it off my conscience. And I can keep in mind being stonewalled in a means that it made me assume it was a misplaced trigger. My activism isn’t a hit the streets selection, and what Sesame Road was doing racially, you definitely don’t need to denounce it. I might have favored to have been the primary author to do the “two mommy” episode. I don’t know in the event that they’ve ever gotten to it. I’m considering of the Bert & Ernie New Yorker cowl…
Okay, so we have to deal with—that’s the large query, proper? Within the author’s room, you’re all adults. Have been you considering of Bert & Ernie as a homosexual couple? Did that query ever come up?
I keep in mind one time that a column from The San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler within the metropolis turned to mother and requested “are Bert & Ernie lovers?” And that, coming from a preschooler was enjoyable. And that obtained handed round, and everybody had their chuckle and went again to it. And I all the time felt that with out a large agenda, once I was writing Bert & Ernie, they have been. I didn’t have another approach to contextualize them. The opposite factor was, multiple individual referred to Arnie & I as “Bert & Ernie.”
Bert & Ernie
Yeah, I used to be Ernie. I look extra Bert-ish. And Arnie as a movie editor—for those who considered Bert with a job on the planet, wouldn’t that be good? Bert together with his paper clips and group? And I used to be the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and I used to be already with Arnie once I got here to Sesame Road. So I don’t assume I’d understand how else to put in writing them, however as a loving couple. I wrote sketches…Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I used to be. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic.
So that you’re saying that Bert & Ernie turned analogs on your relationship in a lot of the way?
Yeah. As a result of how else? That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship. How might it not permeate? The issues that might tick off Arnie can be the issues that might tick off Bert. How might it not? I’ll say that I might by no means have stated to the top author, “oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.” However these two, Snuffalupagus, as a result of he’s the type of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a homosexual viewers. And Snuffy, this depressed individual no one can see, that’s kind of Kafka! It’s type of homosexual closeted too.
The key pal…as a result of at that time Snuffy was Massive Hen’s secret pal. It was afterward he out and everybody realized he truly existed.
That occurred whereas I used to be there, yeah. However they haven’t…the New Yorker cowl was sort of vindication, however there’s not a Bert & Ernie float within the Satisfaction Parade.
The Chic Miss M
And since it was all the time variety, variety, it’s a disgrace [Sesame Steet] wasn’t main the cost. Right here’s a story about pushing the homosexual envelope of Sesame Road…
Are you going to say the “Sublime Miss M?”
Sure. I created her based mostly on Bette Midler. I imply, what might be gayer? That’s the gayest Sesame Road ever received. I feel that was Fran Brill [performing her]. The one method it will have been gayer is that if it had been Richard Hunt.
So that you’re there, working with a crew and a group of performers for 14, 15 years. Do you have any nice visitor star tales? Fanboy moments?
Right here’s my favourite. I’d written a bit for a trumpet participant, and Sesame Road being Sesame Road, the musician forged was Dizzy Gillespie. I used to be, as normal, tongue tied and star struck in entrance of a legend of this magnitude, however I stayed shut throughout capturing. Principally trimming strains; he was not snug appearing. However when he performed on display for a group of youngsters, they have been mesmerized. The sound! The cheeks! Once we have been achieved, the trumpeter, as trumpeters do, emptied his spit valve. One of many youngsters was fascinated, riveted to the falling thread of drool. She stated with a pre-schooler’s sneer “What’s THAT?” Dizzy stated, “That’s jazz.”
Arnold Glassman (L) and Mark Saltzman (R) with ‘Sesame Street’ visitor Patti Labelle
Wow. And what about Patti Labelle?
Arnie beloved her. I even introduced him to the set that day. This brings again a third-degree reminiscence cringe…this should have brought on by XGFS (Xtreme Homosexual Fanboy Syndome) however that day was the one time in my TV profession that I ran in entrance of a stay digital camera and ruined a take. It was throughout one of many insert segments of “Miss My X” so a minimum of I didn’t do it whereas Patti Labelle was in full throat.
Wait, how did you do this?
Oh it’s straightforward if you’re all enfabulated by a diva. You overlook the place you’re and overlook to examine which digital camera is taping – there have been a number of on the ground. I inform you this as a cautionary story — scoff all you need, however it will occur to you some day. Come on. Who will that diva be? Confess…
I don’t know. Does Invoice Condon rely as a diva? Or has Courtney Love achieved Sesame Road? She ought to.
All proper then. I do know you perceive the syndrome!
Truly, I went again and seemed, and it truly amazed me what number of of these unique forged & crew have been there from the start and stayed till they both dropped lifeless or retired. Individuals like Jim [Henson, creator of the Muppets], Richard Hunt, and Jon Stone, the present’s director. What was it like working with Jim?
I don’t really feel I did [on Sesame Street] as a result of he was solely there a few weeks a yr. I obtained to know him higher on The Jim Henson Hour, however he was onerous to know. Lots of occasions with the puppeteers, they’d found out easy methods to be introverts and on stage. So with a lot of them, the puppet was the communicator. With Jim, his reactions would all the time be “hmm.” They even did a riff on it in The Muppets Take Manhattan. We’d say to him, “did you like it?” And he would say “hmm.” And we’d be like…did it go up on the finish? Did it go down? [Laughs]
Jim Henson with Kermit
The one time I labored aspect by aspect with Jim was recording “Caribbean Amphibian” (considered one of Kermit’s hottest Sesame Road songs, which Saltzman penned). I’d written triplets within the music, which is, you recognize, a little more durable than simply singing it. There was a calypso rhythm. And he wasn’t precisely a calypso man. We tried it as soon as, we tried it twice, and I might see he wasn’t getting it. And he stated “you know, Kermit can sing, but I really can’t.” And I assumed, let’s depart it at that.
I knew I wasn’t particularly indifferent from him; I wasn’t the author he didn’t like. He didn’t really feel that means. He was like that with all of the writers. I feel that with the puppeteers he might be nearer, then the designers, then, I feel the writers.
Associated: The Bert And Ernie Marriage Equality Cake Controversy Plus A Look At The Muppets’ Gayest Moments
You talked about the Muppet performers. Did you get to know them in any respect?
Not that shut. Whereas we have been working, I don’t keep in mind any variations of opinion. I ought to have been pals with Richard Hunt, you recognize… There was one thing homosexual and but not bonding about it. Perhaps Richard needed to be the one homosexual one, however I didn’t really feel that. Definitely not Carroll Spinney [performer of Big Bird]…they have been all pleasant and we had a good working relationship. However I can’t keep in mind going out for a drink with anyone. And this might have been me…this might have been me being timid. They have been precise stars. I’m not that means now, however I couldn’t think about imposing myself and making a date.
Have been you flirty with Richard, if you met?
It was the other. He was flirty. You understand, I put the blame on myself. I don’t assume I knew how to answer homosexual flirting within the office. And I imply wholesome flirting, not #MeToo ass grabbing. My suspicion is Richard might have perceived me as somebody who rebuffed him. At the moment, intercourse was so free and so all over the place that I couldn’t cope with it within the office.
You wrote some characters for Richard. He was Placido Flamingo, who you created. What was he doing to flirt with you?
Properly, we have been in a dressing room, and he was stepping into his costume for [Sweetums, the full body Muppet costume]. And I feel once I realized once I was within the room…and right here I’m, closeted. And no one can freak out about a homosexual cross like a closeted man. Like, a straight man can roll with it, even again then. It’s simply a part of your survival expertise, so that you provide you with variety rebuffs. And I didn’t have a variety rebuff. Like I say, I don’t assume Richard did something improper. He was simply displaying curiosity. And being at work, and right here he’s a star… I used to be incapable of simply common “are you interested” sort of stuff. I used to be too immature, even to seek out a homosexual buddy.
When he died I came upon we have been virtually precisely the identical age, and born inside blocks of one another. And all this…we should always have been nearer.
You didn’t create Bert & Ernie the best way you created Chic Miss M and Placido. Who have been your favourite characters to write down?
Oscar. Snuffy. Bert & Ernie. Prarie Daybreak…that’s an oddball selection, however there was one thing once I wrote her…I’d be considering of Jack Benny. She was reactive; the smart human in a world of chaos. There was sufficient authority or one thing, however I look again now, and a few of my favourite issues I look again on now have been for her. I liked the pageants [Prairie’s frequent Muppet talent shows]. That’s the place you would put Bert in a gown. He simply would have to return out within the Queen Elizabeth costume, or no matter Prairie put him in and recite his strains
Did you write Elmo sketches?
I did, however he was by no means one in every of my favorites.
Kevin Conflict & Elmo
So did you get to know Kevin Conflict? [The famed Muppet performer of Clifford and Elmo, who was outed and charged with sex with a minor in 2012.]
I did. I acquired to know him on Jim Henson Hour. I appreciated him. He wasn’t…no matter that factor was, the place I obtained star struck…I didn’t have that with Kevin.
He was approachable?
So right here’s the opposite query…was Kevin out?
No. I used to be completely flabbergasted once I heard. You realize, my gaydar isn’t distinctive, it’s not positive tuned. I used to be undoubtedly fooled. There was simply a lot about Kevin—he had a actual artist type of approach into the entire thing. He’d have frustrations about not improvising, however I feel a part of that was perfectionism. He didn’t appear to be as unfastened and playful like Richard. He was extra internalized, which now, wanting again, may have been closeted. With Kevin, he had so many sides; he wasn’t a easy individual. He had a spouse, and that appeared to be the top of it. At that time, it’d have been someone I might have helped alongside. I used to be definitely already cohabitating with Arnie, which, to me, was like the most important marker in my rising life. Richard didn’t want any assist, however because it turned out, Kevin did.
It upsets me a lot that guys felt they needed to keep within the closet for therefore lengthy.
I can solely think about this was hellish; to kind of be dwelling the life, however as a black man commuting to the Higher West Aspect, he needed to get stopped on a regular basis. It’s simply this backyard selection racism getting via the day. You already know, it’s the YouTube of the black lady in a swimming pool. You simply get stopped. How might he not? We have been in an Embassy neighborhood. The Muppet Mansion was a former Embassy. White privilege, you possibly can stroll up and ring the bell. Kevin, I might think about, or another black individual, is given the aspect eye.
So all of this with Kevin—it’s unhappy, as a result of I did like him. I appreciated working with him. And I’d say, of that crew, I had probably the most reference to Kevin. I can’t say I knew him, as a result of it turned out, I didn’t.
There’s a merciless irony in that. For the document, three courts cleared him of any wrongdoing after these fees emerged.
Oh, that’s good. I didn’t know that.
Which is gloomy…he misplaced a lot when that occurred. It’s fascinating that each one that occurred a yr after that documentary Being Elmo, the place all of a sudden, his face is plastered up there, type of like that is the man who’s Elmo. There’s been hypothesis that that’s when he turned a bonafide superstar, and in order that’s when individuals have been going to reap the benefits of him.
I’m glad to listen to this. He appeared like a individual you’d need good issues to occur to.
So what are you engaged on now?
A Sundown Blvd. undertaking.
That is your musical biopic of Gloria Swanson?
That one, and I have a play about George Bernard Shaw visiting MGM that acquired optioned. It’s such a Hollywood story. And I have one other stage musical opening in September, One other Roll of the Cube. In order that retains me busy.
[Saltzman shakes his head, as if trying to wrap his own mind around the memories he’s just shared.]
It’s fascinating. That was a number of the happiest time of my life, besides everyone stored dying.
[We both sigh, contemplative.]
It’s not straightforward being inexperienced…
[That song] is nearly like a jazz improv. What’s it doing on a youngsters’s present and never in some smoky dive with Billie Holliday? Nevertheless it’s nice American songwriting. And Ray Charles sang it on Sesame Road, and I keep in mind sobbing within the management room. You couldn’t bear it. Ray Charles had so many obstacles, and he’s singing about being inexperienced?
That’s the facility of the music—it’s not about actually being inexperienced. It’s about being totally different, and the way you need to be one thing else a lot of the time, even when it makes you particular. And that’s a lot of the Muppet philosophy. I feel everyone knows what that’s like.
Take heed to Mark’s music for Kermit, “Caribbean Amphibian:”