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From 'Firebird' to Big Bird, Kermit Love Proves His Muppet Magic

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Kermit helped concoct the Cookie Monster but, oddly, not the Frog

You know, illusion is reality to me,” Kermit Love insists, but that may be only a half-truth. He himself may be an illusion; at the very least, he is highly improbable. For Love is not only the creator and designer of two of the best-loved Sesame Street Muppets—Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupegus—but he is also the person who depicts Willy the Hot Dog Man. Yet Love has also designed for such ballet eminences as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp—and that’s only the start. He has been a movie producer, and put Anne Jackson and Rita Moreno in their first films. He palled around with Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. Way back when, he designed Carmen Miranda’s famous platform shoes. Now TV viewers will get to see what may be Love’s most ingenious work: On Monday, May 25, PBS will present his Muppetesque creatures in The Spellbound Child, the first original TV work choreographed by George Balanchine.

At 68, the New Jersey-born Love, who somehow speaks with an English accent, is still exuberant and puckish. “The master of abstract ballet takes the leap into choreography for puppets!” he says rapturously of his collaborator. Balanchine, 77, is equally enthusiastic. “Of the things I love in America,” the Russian maestro says, “Number One is the Muppets. Besides, dancers are so temperamental these days it’s easier to work with puppets.”

Love’s life has been unusual from the start. His shy father was an architectural sculptor; his mother died when he was 3, and he was raised by a grandmother and great-grandmother. He first saw puppets at 7 in a Punch-and-Judy show. “The idea stuck with me for years,” he says. “But what inspired me even more was the shadow play. The very next night I can remember rigging a lantern and casting shadows on the wall.” Then at 12, he broke both legs when he was thrown by a horse and developed osteomyelitis. For the next three years he listened to the radio and drew pictures of what he thought the characters looked like, using tissue paper saved from Christmas wrappings. “One could not only draw on it but see through it,” he explains, “dissolving one image into another.”

Gradually Love moved from radio folk to “unlikely beasts,” and in 1935 got a job making puppets for a federal Work Projects Administration theater. His first Broadway creation was a two-man horse he helped design for the Lunts in The Taming of the Shrew, and soon he was dreaming up costumes for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and the Ballet Russe. When he did Agnes de Mille’s now classic Rodeo in 1942, he put jeans on the Metropolitan Opera stage for the first time—and even put his initials on the hip pocket.

By the ’50s Love had swerved from designing because “I was being employed to repeat myself,” and he spent eight years producing movies in the U.S. and London. In 1967 he joined Muppets creator Jim Henson, who wanted ideas for “a really big puppet,” and—Shazam!—Big Bird was born. Love, who also helped concoct Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster, still favors Big Bird, and, protectively, always travels with him. Last month they rode the Metroliner (Bird travels club car) from Manhattan to Washington for the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. “The grass stained his feet,” Love complains. “He had to have his soles replaced.”

Love’s collaborations with Balanchine go back to Don Quixote in 1965. “But,” says Love, “we’ve always kept talking about The Spellbound Child. It was almost as if we were predestined to do it.” The ballet, adapted from a poem by Colette, with music by Maurice Ravel, tells of a boy who trashes his house in a tantrum and then is haunted by the broken objects and their animal friends.

Never married, Love shares a small house in New York’s Ulster County with 12 cats and the longtime colleague who helped him build Big Bird. He gets up at 5:15, takes a 1½-hour bus ride to Manhattan, reads the Sesame Street script—he’s reviewed every one since the show started—stops in at Muppet headquarters with his comments, and by 10 a.m. arrives at his workshop-studio.

Sad to say, the Sesame Street puppets are in a snit at being left out of his TV ballet, or so Love professes to have overheard. “He said there were no flying creatures in it,” grouses Big Bird, “but it’s full of butterflies and bats.” Growls Oscar the Grouch, also left on the sidelines: “May he never come back!”