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Muppet master

A Truro artist breathes life into residents of 'Sesame Street'

Emmy-winning Muppet designer and artist Ed Christie with one of his creations, Kubik, the Muppet who likes science. © 2009 SESAME WORKSHOP Emmy-winning Muppet designer and artist Ed Christie with one of his creations, Kubik, the Muppet who likes science.
© 2009 SESAME WORKSHOP (VINCENT DEWITT for The Boston Globe)
By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / December 12, 2008
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TRURO - Ed Christie sat in his workshop on a recent afternoon preparing his children for a public display.

There was Kubik, an orange Muppet who likes science, and Kubik's pink pal, the flighty Businka. Nearby was a giant photo of Abby Cadabby, a tiny young Muppet who carries a little wand.

Christie, 52, didn't think up these characters - but he did give them life. During his 30 years working for the Jim Henson Company and Sesame Workshop, Christie has taken the ideas of writers and turned them into living Muppets. He's designed more than 50 characters, most of which have appeared on "Sesame Street" and its international spinoffs.

His babies include the aforementioned Abby, a fairy-in-training who is the newest "Sesame Street" regular. She's the first "Sesame Street " cast member to have magic powers.

"You've got to keep things fresh or they'll switch over to Dora," Christie said, joking about a rival show, Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer." "Apparently, girls love fairies."

It's a big month for Christie, who has been a year-rounder in Truro for four years and a part-time resident for a decade. The Provincetown Art Association and Museum, of which Christie is a member, has opened an exhibition dedicated to his career as a puppet maker. Meanwhile, the Alden Gallery - a Commercial Street art space co-owned by Christie's husband, Howard Karren - is showing Christie's fine art. The works are subversive sculptures, which the artist admits are influenced by his day job.

"The materials and skills that I learned at the Henson workshop I now use in my fine art work," he said. "A sense of whimsy - I'd like to think my [sculptures] have that."

Christie, a Long Island native, began working for the Jim Henson Company while he was at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Even though he studied education and was supposed to get a job student teaching, he opted for a Henson internship, which he saw as a way to combine his two real passions - fine art and theater.

"[It] was the bridge," he said, of the Muppet work.

The UMass internship earned Christie a job working with Henson on "The Muppet Movie." After graduation, Christie was hired as a staffer in Henson's New York City Muppet Workshop. That's where he designed his first puppet, a saber-toothed tiger that showed up in a Bert and Ernie skit.

Over the next 25 years, Christie became one of Henson's Muppet masters. He took over supervising "Sesame Street" for the Henson Company in 1990, and within a decade was running the entire Muppet Workshop.

Christie left the post when the Jim Henson Company downsized in the early 2000s, but continued on as a consultant. He has spent the last four years designing specifically for Sesame Workshop, which has had him creat ing every character for the international versions of the show.

Kubik, for instance, is a regular on Russia's "Sesame Street," "Ulitsa Sezam." There's also Zeliboba, the Russian "walk-around," which is the workshop term for roving characters like Big Bird.

"He's the spirit of the forest," Christie said, of Zeliboba. "The Russians are very attached to their mythology."

The quick-witted Christie gets soft-spoken and paternal when he's talking about the evolution of these characters. Once he gets the "Sesame Street" scripts, he takes time to consider each character's Muppet personality and culture, including what certain colors would mean in other countries, and what costumes and looks might appeal to the audience. He comes up with a number of possible designs for each creature, and once a sketch is chosen, puppet makers in New York (most often, workshop artist Rollie Krewson) build the Muppet.

"I usually go down there to give a final stamp of approval," Christie said.

His workshop is cluttered and cozy with seemingly endless stacks of books and movies. He's decorated the space with busts of Muppet characters such as Statler and Waldorf, boxes of sewing materials, and pop-culture trinkets.

Christie's tenure with Henson and Sesame has earned him eight Emmys, but he shows more pride when he talks about making "Sesame Street" history. He designed Kami, a character in the South African version of "Sesame Street," who is HIV positive, and characters for the short-lived Israeli-Palestinian co-production of "Sesame Street." Sadly, the Middle Eastern partnership ended after one season.

"They both liked falafel. They both liked hummus," Christie said, of the characters. "It was a great moment to be able to see those people work together. Then everything fell apart."

As much as he loves his Muppets, Christie says he hopes visitors pay particular attention to puppets in the exhibit that he made when he wasn't working for Sesame Workshop. In 2006, he was asked to design puppets for the Kennedy Center revival of the musical "Carnival!." Christie designed 16 theatrical puppets with heads made of carbon fiber and epoxy resin, which is similar to fiberglass. It was a new challenge for Christie - making expressive characters who aren't soft and cuddly.

The dolls are featured prominently in the Provincetown display.

"They have a certain carved, wooden look - kind of a Charlie McCarthy design sense, and a little bit of Bil Baird," Christie said, referring to McCarthy, the famous 1940s ventriloquist dummy, and Baird, a legendary puppet artist whose works are featured in "The Lonely Goatherd" number in "The Sound of Music."

Overlapping the Art Association show is an Alden Gallery group display, which features four of Christie's fine art works. They include "Rabbit, Rest," which is a pelt of quilted bunny-themed fabrics topped with a rabbit skull that Christie found in his yard. It combines the cute and the morbid.

"There are a lot of ironies in his 'Sesame Street' designs, but this is much more adult-focused," Karren said, of Christie's gallery pieces.

Kevin Clash, "Sesame Street" senior puppet coordinator, said he hopes to visit the Cape to catch the displays. Like Christie, Clash has worked for Henson and Sesame for decades. He says Christie has a knack for turning written characters into iconic Muppet beings, and he would know - Clash's characters include Muppet superstar Elmo.

Clash's favorite Christie design is the Russian character Zeliboba.

"Zeliboba is beautiful - a gorgeous, gorgeous walk-around," he said.

Chris McCarthy, executive director of the Provincetown museum, also has a favorite Christie design. During the setup of the show, she developed a bond with a Muppet hare named Hilda, a character from the Northern Ireland version of "Sesame Street." Hilda runs around the country with a knapsack and a cellphone.

"Sometimes I feel like that," McCarthy said, of the busy rabbit. "It's the cutest thing ever."

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.

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RODS AND MONSTERS: THE PUPPET DESIGNS OF ED CHRISTIE In the Duffy Gallery of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum through Jan. 25. PAAM, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown, 508-487-1750. www.paam.org

Alden Gallery's first anniversary group show, featuring works by 12 artists, including Ed Christie, runs through Jan. 4.

Alden Gallery, 423 Commercial St., Provincetown, 508-487-4230. www.aldengallery.com

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