In the 2011 film The Muppets, character Walter muses whether he’s a man or a Muppet…
Billy Barretta, the voice and puppeteer behind several Muppets' characters, is both. Billy and his brother, children's author and illustrator, Gene Barretta talked to NBC10 about how their Philly roots influenced their work with the Jim Henson company.
Question: What were you like as kids growing up in the Philadelphia area?
Gene: We were born in New Jersey but then we moved and were raised in Yardley. We were always involved in the arts in some way. As the older one, I always dragged him along to whatever I was doing. We would make Super 8 movies a lot. I know that sounds ancient and antique.
Billy: He (Gene) would orchestrate what we were going to do. He had the creative brains in that sense. "Okay we’re going to make home movies now." He’d get a camera and figure out how to make a movie. I was cast in all these movies.
Q: Is movie making what led you to discover the Muppets?
Gene: My cousin Gary and I first discovered Sesame Street in 1969 or 70, around the time that it first started airing. We were just really captivated by the Muppets and wanted to try to make our own versions of them. We would go to the foam and fabric store and do whatever we could to improvise and figure out how they were done. I decided, I'm going to write Jim Henson a letter and ask him how to make Muppets.
Billy: Gene just figured he was sitting around at his house making puppets or something. But Jim wrote back with detailed instructions.
Gene: I was really pleasantly surprised.
Billy: I did some of the puppeteering but not much. I really thought I was just going to be an actor. And now I get to be an actor through these characters.
Q: How did you start working with the Jim Henson Company and become involved with The Muppets movies?
Billy: One summer Gene and I both worked at Sesame Place. It used to be all man-powered rides. There was nothing mechanical and anything you did there you had to use your body to do it. We helped the kids get on and off the rides.
Gene: We cleaned, swept up cigarette butts. We were right there at the beginning. It was a much different park then. And then one summer Brian Henson, Jim's son came to work there as an employee which was a real surprise. We never expected to meet one of Jim's kids. He came over to the house and helped me make these clay figures for stop motion animation and brought back one of Jim's own cameras for me to film it. It was something holy.
Billy: We all got along and we stayed in touch over the years. The first time Brian and I ever worked together after Sesame was right after his father passed away and they were going to do the show Dinosaurs. I was living in California at the time and Brian was running the company at 28 years old. So I auditioned and ended up getting it and we started working together.
Later Brian and I would do pairs of characters together. And within Henson there was a lot of that too like Jim Henson and Frank Oz (Kermit and Miss Piggy), Steve Whitmire and Dave Goelz (Rizzo and Gonzo). So with my Johnny Fiama he’s Sal the Monkey who’s my right-hand man and body guard. Back when we did Muppets tonight I was Pepe the King Prawn and he was this big elephant named Seymour.
Gene: I was part of the Sesame Street family for a while doing some animated films for them. Then I moved on to work on Between the Lions. I did some books for them and I did some behind the scenes illustration work for them. Some of the same Henson puppeteers worked on that show as well. At first I wanted to be a film director but it was the animation stuff and the children's shows that kind of transitioned me over into doing the picture book work and having this career now. It was all based around story-telling in the end really.
Q: What was the inspiration for some of the Muppets you created? Was the city of Philadelphia an influence in any way?
Billy: The character Johnny Fiama came from our father and grandfather. Guys from Philly and Camden.
Gene: We had a big Italian family. Lots of cousins and uncles and aunts who lived nearby and everyone was pretty much a ham.
Billy: Johnny Fiama is Italian- bad Italian humor. He definitely has that Philly draw. "He kinda talks like this. Ya know he's a Philly guy."
Gene: Back then family get-togethers always meant that there was gonna be a show and the kids would arrange some kind of after-dinner entertainment- anything from lip-syncing songs to improvising skits. There was a time when I was doing a puppet show and my uncle decided to put an ice cream cone in the mouth of my muppet. It didn't go over really well with me.
Q: You've been in Muppets from Space, Muppet Treasure Island, 2011's The Muppets and now Muppets Most Wanted which hit theaters March 21. What's your role in that film?
Billy: I'm a co-producer of the movie and what they call the puppet captain. My job as a producer is to oversee the creative sides of the Muppets and how they're integrated into the movie and help them find that balance. As a puppet captain I have to figure out logistically how this all going to work, where the actors are in relation to the Muppets. I'm basically next to the camera all the time.
Q: Tina Fey who plays Nadya in the movie is from the Philadelphia area as well- did you two talk about that at all?
Billy: I got to work with her a lot. She and I realized that we were both from the Philly area and we would have fun with the accent. She'd be walking by and I'd say "Hey, how ya doin hun?" And she'd say "Oh, I'm going to my camper." Then I’d go, "Alright I'll call ya I'll check ya out later." Then I’d say, "Oh what ya doin for lunch?" She goes, "Uh, I don't know, maybe a hoagie."
Gene: We (my wife, my son and I) went out the night it opened and saw the movie. We really enjoyed it a lot. It's always extra fun to see those films because of just knowing all the puppeteers and having heard things behind the scenes or listening and picking out my brother's voice maybe in doing back vocals of the songs all that stuff. It gets much more personal.
Q: Living in Los Angeles is a lot different from living in Philly- is there anything you miss?
Billy: I miss not having to be in a car all the time. In Los Angeles you need a car, it's spread out up here. Where I grew up you could just walk to your friend's house. Walk to or ride your bike to the shopping center and I miss the seasons too. People say oh you wouldn't like this winter that we've had and I probably wouldn't, but I miss that change of season. I miss Family. I don't get to see my brother a lot or my aunts and uncles.
Gene: It's much more email and phone calls. We see each other once or twice a year. That's the unfortunate thing our two sons are only 4 months apart but they don't get to see each other as much as we'd like.
Billy: My son reminds me a lot of my brother actually. It's kind of like growing up with my brother again. I just sit there and I remember watching my brother draw all day long and I would look over his shoulder and watch him create these characters. My son can take a puppet and make it talk. He just has a knack for it.
The brothers also stay close by putting each other in their work. Gene Barretta uses Billy as a background character in his books and next time you see you that big orange behemoth Muppet you’ll know where Billy got the idea to nickname him "Gene."