What the Sesame Street in Communities program does in Kansas City
As a 9-year-old, Matt Vogel was building his own puppets with old T-shirts, masking tape and cardboard in Kansas City, Kansas.
Vogel calls those early efforts “horrible, terrible puppets.” He couldn’t have imagined it would come to this.
Some 40 years later, he is the man (and the voice) behind perhaps the world’s most popular puppet — Kermit the Frog — as well as the person inside perhaps the world’s most popular children’s TV character — Big Bird.
“It’s a dream job, really,” Vogel said.
Big Bird will spend this weekend in Kansas City as part of the “Sesame Street” 50th anniversary road trip. And for Vogel, it will be a homecoming. He plans to see his mother, who now lives in Weston, his uncle in Independence and some cousins.
The three-day event presented by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street,” will begin Thursday with stops across Kansas City to tape scenes with children for the 50th season of the show.
On Friday, Big Bird and other characters will join Mayor Sly James at Hallmark Kaleidoscope to highlight Sesame Street in Communities initiative, which launched in Kansas City in 2017. They will be joined by children from The Children’s Place and St. Mark Center Head Start program. A free, ticketed family festival and stage show will take place Saturday at Frank A. Theis Park.
Another of Vogel’s alter egos, Count Von Count, also will be in town for the festivities.
With the road trip to 10 cities and other 50th anniversary activities, this has been a particularly busy year for Vogel, who lives outside New York City. But he said fatigue is not a problem.
“It all melts away when I see kids looking up with awe on their faces when they see the Count or touch Big Bird,” he said.
And to think it almost never happened.
Inspired by “Sesame Street” and fascinated with Jim Henson’s Muppets, a young Vogel and his rudimentary puppets entertained classmates at Oak Grove Elementary school and put on shows for the PTA.
But then came ninth grade at Highland Junior High School, where Vogel gathered some friends to produce a puppet extravaganza for a talent show. They won, but he jokingly called it a “tragic” event.
“When they announced our name, I heard a few people boo,” he said. “I decided maybe puppets weren’t that great. I put my puppets away.”
He turned to acting, attending classes at Kansas City’s Theatre for Young America and then graduating from the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University in St. Louis.
He said he “still pulled the puppets out some,” even performing locally in Paul Mesner Puppets’ “Frankenstein” in 1993. He later moved to New York to look for acting work. When the chance came to try out for Jim Henson Productions, he jumped at it.
He’s been a part of the “Sesame Street” gang ever since.
Vogel took over as Kermit in 2017 and as Big Bird last year, replacing the legendary Caroll Spinney, who had played Big Bird since its inception in 1969. Vogel had been the backup Big Bird for years.
“It can be intimidating to think of the responsibility, but you can’t let that get into your mind when you’re in that Big Bird suit,” Vogel said. “You’ve got to be that open, happy, 6-year-old that Big Bird is.”
Although he’s never fallen as the 8-foot-2 yellow feathered fowl, Vogel was part of a near calamity involving the late actress/director Penny Marshall.
“It was at a fashion show with kids. We were going up on the stage, and Penny lost her footing. She grabbed the nearest thing, and the nearest thing was Big Bird’s right wing. It came off in her hand, so she put it behind her back. I think Big Bird said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll grow back.’”
The children in the audience were spared a traumatic event.
Vogel is married and has five children, so his ability to play characters and do voices has come in handy at home.
“It certainly helps to keep them entertained,” he said. “At least the little ones are still amused.”
Children worldwide are more than amused by Vogel, Big Bird and the rest of the “Sesame Street” crew.
“Matt is an incredible example of what the Muppets are all about,” said Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president for U.S. social impact. “It’s the spirit and enthusiasm in connecting with both adults and children.”
Betancourt noted that “Sesame Street” has now connected with three generations, from today’s children to their grandparents, and that Sesame Workshop’s community outreach programs have reached more than 16,000 children in Kansas City and another 1,000 families in Kansas City, Kansas. Programs include foster care, trauma and school readiness resources.
This weekend’s events will be a celebration of that success.
Vogel said after the “Sesame Street” road trip festival Saturday, he will stick around so Big Bird can make an appearance at the Royals’ game Sunday.
Perhaps a visit to Arrowhead would also be in order. After all, Chiefs players and coaches insist that standout quarterback Patrick Mahomes has a voice identical to a certain Muppet.
The actual source of that voice doesn’t disagree.
“I’ve heard him,” Vogel said. “There’s certainly some Kermit in there. I’d love to meet him.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect school that hosted the talent show Vogel won in ninth grade.
“Sesame Street” Road Trip
Characters from “Sesame Street” will Theis Park on Saturday, July 13. Register for free timed entry tickets at www.sesamestreet.org/anniversary/road-trip-kansascity.