Interview: Frank Meschkuleit

Having interviewed so many musicians lately, I was looking forward to a conversation with someone who didn’t want to talk about song writing and life on the road. I was not disappointed when puppeteer Frank Meschkuleit called to promote his upcoming appearance at Showplace. Frank’s career spans over three decades and includes work on some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises including Alien vs Predator, Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, Santa Clause… But where he’s truly left his mark is his work with visionary and puppeteer Jim Henson, which allowed him to work on Muppet films and the children’s classic Fraggle Rock. A bottomless well of stories and insights, Frank continues to live his “life at play” with the premier staging of his creation “My Big Fat German Puppet Show” & “The Left Hand of Frank”. His appearance at Showplace will be the first time the shows will be performed together in a single night. Winner of the prestigious “Just for Laughs Best Comedy Award” and selected as “Best of the Fringe” I caught up with Frank by phone and talked well beyond this interview…

 

Mb: Hello Frank! Right on time.
FM: I’m German.
Mb: (laughs) So you’re always on time?
FM: It’s a funny thing. My wife’s parents are German, so we just came back from Germany and I met this guy there, and we were suppose to go somewhere and I was there exactly to the second and he looked at his watch and his eyebrows went up and he said (with accent) “You really are a German aren’t you!” Well, my parents were. I was born in Canada but there’s always been that dramatic tendency for punctuality and order that…
Mb: You don’t find in the entertainment business too often…. if you’ll allow me to finish that sentence for you!
FM: (laughs) Thank you, that was the perfect button for it. I was looking at my watch thinking “I have 3 minutes, I could do some dishes or put away some laundry… or sit there and think of what to say you idiot!”
Mb: Interesting show you’ve created. I’ve only seen some YouTube bits but it’s hilarious! So let’s start at the beginning. Were you a problem child?
FM: I think I’m growing into becoming a problem child. You know what Michael? I was always the guy who got along with everybody. I got along with the jocks and the nerds and the stoners, and it was all good fun for me. I was funny enough to stay out of trouble and just tall enough that no one wanted to fight with me, though my elbows were the biggest part of my arm for the longest time.
Mb: So is that why you went into puppetry? Strong elbows?
FM: (laughs) No, that’s really a 3 beer story. I finished my grade 12 and was looking for something to do with my life and there was this chasm of bad choices ahead of me. (laughs) I waded through them bravely. I was a waiter, I was a car salesman, I was a stereo salesman. I tried everything and nothing seemed to fit. When I started to reflect on what I’d enjoyed in my brief life, I thought “Well, I really liked drama class” which was a “Mickey Mouse” credit I’d take, but I did have a lot of fun. So, in my late teens I took a two year physical theatre program and stumbled into puppetry, out of the mask work and clown work we’d been studying. I fell into a Muppet audition, did something so weird they hired me, which was a huge surprise to me. And then I saw adults playing for a living. My eyes widened and I thought “This can’t be! These guys are just playing!” Between the two years of theatre school I had to earn some money and a buddy of mine had a motorcycle shop so I was sort of a motorcycle mechanic apprentice. I’d auditioned for the Muppets and my audition was so peculiar I thought I’d never hear from them again. So when they called and asked if I was available to work on this Muppet film, I said “You need a motorcycle mechanic?” They laughed and said “No you came an auditioned as a puppeteer, we’d like you to do that!”
Mb: What did you do that was so odd?
FM: Well, first, I crashed the audition, which I guess was not a common thing to do. I knew it was happening. One of my instructors was working on Fraggle Rock at the time and she said “The Muppets are doing an audition. You should call them up. You should go.” I said “I don’t know anything about puppets.” She said, “You’re funny. You should go.” So I took her advice and I drew this little guy on my hand, a Señor Wences kind of character with a horrible little body with wooden blocks for hands and a coat hanger for an arm-rod. While I was waiting to audition… because I was crashing I had to wait until everyone else had gone, so I was sitting there with my hands in my pockets and when it was my turn I took my hand out of my pocket and I’d sweated all of the paint into this red blur. It looked like a dog had mauled my hand! (laughs) I went in and my thinking was, “Keep them laughing so they don’t throw me out.” In the end, I discovered what Jim Henson was looking for in his puppeteers, was people who didn’t have a sense of what puppetry was suppose to be, so he could instill in them what he wanted it to be. We did a mini-training thing and he saw I caught some of it, but it was more the spirit of the work, it’s play. Whether it’s working for the Muppets or special effect manipulation on a creature film or whether it’s stage work, when you suspend your own disbelief and import your energy into an object that’s not you, you’re playing! The same way a kid would play with a GI Joe or Barbie. It’s always been and continues to be about the play. And that’s where the joy is for me.
Mb: So you’re coming to Showplace with both shows “My Big Fat German Puppet Show” & “The Left Hand of Frank.”
FM: And I’m really stoked to be doing both these shows together.
Mb: Something you’d like to take across the country?
FM: I’d like to! Here’s the thing, I mainly work as a television puppeteer and secondarily as a film special effects manipulator. Fraggle Rock and all the of the Muppet stuff I’ve done, and all the Muppet specials… they used to shoot a lot in Toronto. I worked on Bride of Chuckie, Alien vs Preditor…
Mb: Were you Chuckie?
FM: I think there were 11 puppeteers on that film. So at various times I was various parts. Principally I was Chuckie’s left arm. Every time Chuckie picked up a knife… that seemed to be something I had a real knack for. A little part in a big machine.
Mb: Quiet a claim to fame. The “Left Arm of Chuckie!” You have two shows…
FM: The left arm of Frank, the left arm of Chuckie. (laughs) It’s a very peculiar business. I’ve been swimming with my head above water for 35 years. I’ve puppeteered sugar and cream, and bear skin rugs and chairs, the weirdest stuff. I worked on a video for the Cure. We were asked to puppeteer some stuff and they said “Look it’s going to be a lot of Chromekey work so you’ll have to put these green suits on. So me and my friend Gord who’s puppeteer on this, put on these suits. He’s about 5’2″ and I’m about 6’3” and they had the same sized suit for both of us. He looked very comfortable and I looked like swamp thing because it was so stretched and only one eye-hole made it and I’m standing there looking like an idiot and I think “This is what I do for a living.” Then Robert Smith walks in and he has all the eye make-up and has teased his hair, he’s got lip stick on, a cape and some ski boots and I’m thinking “Thank god I’m not the weirdest looking guy in the room anymore.” And then the director comes over and says “For this, I need you to puppeteer the cream and the sugar!” The zaniest stuff. We had to puppeteer these chairs, so after Robert (Smith) gets up they spin up and then taken away and it really is creepy and cool. I got puppeteer wallpaper and bed sheets… The idea of playing with these things is what makes it work. It all comes down to the sense of play.