“I like puppets a lot. I call myself puppet crazy.” So wrote a goofball by the name of Joe D’Agnese, back when he was in elementary school. I can’t actually remember how long that particular obsession lasted, but I know that for a while there every birthday or Christmas meant the addition of a new puppet to my collection—hand puppets and marionettes mostly, culminating with a ventriloquist dummy. (I still have the marionettes. The dummy was probably buried in the Meadowlands by one of my brothers because it kept him awake at night.)
I know I’ve lost most of you but I hasten to point out that puppetry is an ancient performance art that is a honest-to-god career path for many people, even to this day. I learned that to my delight when I was only in second grade, thanks to a man who is no longer with us.
His name was Richard Hunt, and he would have been only about 20 years old when he first visited our classroom in the 1970s to introduce us to his puppets and tell us about his cool new job working for Muppets creator Jim Henson. I can’t recall how Hunt transported his puppets to our school in New Jersey, but I can still picture him sitting on a table against the front windows of our classroom. His hands disappeared for a second into a bag, carrying case, or trunk, and when they emerged they had been transformed into a living breathing character with a personality. We were enthralled.
To us Hunt was a genuine local hero. Unless I’ve got the facts of his background wrong, he’d grown up largely in our hometown. He’d gone to our very own school. He was friends with our teacher, Mrs. Stampa, and I still wonder if she’d been one of his teachers when he was growing up. All of this added up a potent role model. Richard Hunt was a hometown kid like us. He loved puppets! And he had the coolest job ever!
I have racked my brains over the years trying to recall exactly which puppets he brought to our class. I feel like one was called Hairy or Harry, but I can’t know for sure. (I do know that it was a Muppet. The character had that cuddly fabric look all us kids knew from watching Sesame Street in the early ‘70s.) What is less hazy in my memory is how Hunt made each of those characters come to life with a few simple gestures—head shakes, hand movements, a certain twist of the mouth, and Hunt’s own voice. It was magic of the highest order.
The next time I met Hunt he was performing at a friend’s birthday party in our town. Apparently he’d earned money for years doing kid’s parties. And then, one day, while on a visit to New York City, he phoned Henson’s office from a payphone and asked if they could use a puppeteer. As luck would have it, auditions had just opened. One visit to the studio and he was in.
I remember how excited I was to watch The Frog Prince when it aired on TV. It was Hunt’s second Muppet special. Shortly after, he performed in another special, The Muppet Musicians of Bremen. Mrs. Stampa told us all to watch, and we did.
For decades, long after my puppet obsession waned, whenever I watched a Muppet movie or TV show, I’d always scan the credits, waiting for the name of “our” Muppeteer—Richard Hunt, the local boy made good—to appear on screen. I was never disappointed. Hunt’s career with the Muppets was lustrous; he breathed life in so many of the characters we all know and love, like Scooter, Janice, Beaker, Statler, Sweetums, and many others.
And then one day his name disappeared from those credits. Richard Hunt died in 1992 at age 40 from complications related to the HIV/AIDS virus. I don’t think I learned of his passing until many years later, when I saw his name mentioned in a playbill by TOSOS, New York City’s oldest LBGTQ+ theater company. Someone had mounted a tribute to Hunt, who was openly gay.
I had to basically wait until the Internet was a thing before I could easily learn more about his life and career. Only then did I learn that Hunt had more than 60 credits to his name on IMDB. And that his memory was being kept alive by legions of puppetry and Muppet fans in articles such as the ones found here, here and here. By far the richest vein on Hunt’s work comes from the pen of Jessica Max Stein, who is currently at work on a Hunt biography. She’s posted excerpts of the work in progress on her website, and shared interviews with Richard’s Mom, and posted other pieces here and here. I also found a sweet remembrance by Hunt’s work colleague, Kermit the Frog, that brought a smile to my face.
That’s the beautiful thing about puppets, Muppets in particular. They are eternal. They enter our lives when we're young and impressionable, and never quite leave, though the people who brought them to life—Henson, Hunt, among so many others—may have left us. Until Hunt's biography is published, I’ll content myself with stories like these, and the memories of the day I learned it was okay to be puppet crazy.
Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thanks — Joseph D’Agnese