The Million Puppet March: Fighting for public broadcasting, with felt and fur

November 3, 2012

It might have been the friendliest rally to ever come to the Mall — especially three days before the election. Puppets and toddlers danced. Grown-ups in furry costumes sang. A girl dressed as Cookie Monster handed out Chips Ahoy to passersby. There was even a puppet-themed wedding.

The Million Puppet March — a political rally against Mitt Romney’s debate remarks about Big Bird and cutting funding to public television — may not have actually been a million puppets strong, but furry monsters came from far and near in a post-Halloween parade of support for PBS on Saturday.

The march to the Capitol set off from Lincoln Park shortly after 11 a.m., with the participants singing the “Sesame Street” theme song, and the Muppets’ “Mahna Mahna.” They were asked to keep to the sidewalk, but the hundreds of marchers soon spilled into the street, requiring a police escort. They chanted:

“Power to the puppets! We can save the Muppets!”

“Whose street? Sesame Street!”

“What do we want? Cookies! When do we want them? Now!”

“EL-MO! We won’t go!”

“I am the way I am — I’m an artist — because of ‘Sesame Street’ and PBS,” said Michael Montgomery, who came up from Orlando with puppet Eddie. “To even think that that could go away is sad, and I want to raise my support for it in any way that I can.”

“I used to work for Sesame Street, and not only did it change my life as a kid, it changed my life as an adult,” said Michael Schupbach, who came in from New York City with his puppet Malcolm. “I can speak for the people who work there, everyone there knows how important their job is, they know they’re reaching 17 million kids every day.”

Malcolm described himself as a distant cousin of Oscar the Grouch. “We’re friends on Facebook,” the furry green puppet said. “I believe we’ve endorsed each other on LinkedIn.”

Schupbach also brought an “Oven Mitt Romney” puppet — a green oven mitt with stern-looking eyes. “It’s not a political rally, so he’s staying quiet.”

“More than you can say for the real one,” quipped Montgomery.

“We’ve been telling everybody: This isn’t a march, it’s a support group,” said Montgomery, or maybe his puppet, Eddie — both of their mouths were moving. “Look at this — it’s all the same weirdos.”

Nearby, Ronny Wasserstrom of Playdate Puppets in New York was showing off his papier-mache Humpty Dumpty marionette to a group of children.

“He never listens to me!” said Wasserstrom to a little boy dressed as Elmo. “You know who he listens to? Kids.”

The kids helped Wasserstrom help his Humpty Dumpty puppet balance an egg on the puppet’s head.

“Does that look balanced? As balanced as the budget,” he said. “How are we gonna help this budget out? How about we fire Big Bird? No.”

Of Humpty Dumpty, he said, “we’re putting him back together again, we’re hoping to put the country back together again. PBS is our past but we also want it to be our future. I think we support PBS not only as a leg up on the future, but an egg up on the future.”

’It’s been an intense political season’

The rally was founded by Michael Bellavia, a Los Angeles animation executive, and Chris Mecham, an Idaho student, who came up with the same idea separately, and joined forces after meeting online. The event was unaffiliated with PBS.

“I’ve never been political. I didn’t intend for this,” Mecham said. “I just feel passionately about this one thing. It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Democrats have been criticized for focusing on Romney’s remarks about Big Bird, saying it’s a distraction from more serious issues in the election. Mecham agrees — and he says that’s what the rally (which was supposed to be nonpartisan but skewed liberal) is all about.

“There are issues that are really are important, and public broadcasting shouldn’t be among them. It shouldn’t even be on the table. I can’t believe that anyone would even question value of it,” he said. It’s about “saying it shouldn’t be a partisan issue, so go pay attention to the things that are important. . . . Lighten up and have fun for a minute. It’s been an intense political season.”

As Mecham stood on the sidewalk of North Capitol Street, taking video of the marchers as they passed, he estimated a crowd of more than 600 people — way more than the 300 they had anticipated in their permit.

“I’m overwhelmed with joy, I’m so happy,” Mecham said. “Ooh look, Sweetums, my favorite!”

Mecham also hadn’t anticipated that his rally would become the setting for a wedding. Charlie Anderson and Lisa, who declined to give her last name, met on Match.com five years ago and came from North Kingstown, R.I., to get married in Lincoln Park before the rally. The groom dressed as Big Bird in a yellow tuxedo. The bride, in a green gown, dressed as Kermit.

“We’re not young. We were looking for something a little different. We heard about this, and my wife said, let’s get married there,” Anderson said. “She’s got this wonderful wacky side, that’s why I love her.”

Other fans and puppeteers, from Vermont’s professional Bread and Puppet Theater to amateur PBS enthusiasts with sock puppets, came from afar — even braving transportation obstacles caused by the hurricane. James Britt escaped Superstorm Sandy-drenched Long Island with his wife, Gwendolynn Massie, and kids, Antonette, 9, and Michael, 7.

“It’s an interesting freedom-of-speech lesson for them,” he said. The family carried professional-looking puppets that Britt said were created for a children’s show he tried to launch, called “Channel Z,” about an alien invasion. Michael’s puppet worked at SETI, the institute that researches extraterrestrial life, while Antonette’s character, Commander Pan, was a frozen space monkey. Britt and his wife operated Agent X and Agent Y, two “Men in Black”-style agents who had to investigate the alien invasion.

“We’re going to need a copy of this transcript,” Agent X said to this reporter, after she finished interviewing the family.

Dana Cook brought her daughter, Emma, from Wilmington, N.C., for the rally, along with their puppets: Frederick, a sheepdog, and a penguin named Lucy. “I just made that up,” said Emma, who agreed that her mom was probably the coolest ever for letting her miss school Friday to travel to D.C. to play with puppets.

“It’s the perfect protest to teach my daughter about protests,” said Dana, who is a fan of NPR. “There wouldn’t be angry people — there would be puppets.”

A love song to public broadcasting

When the march stopped in front of the Capitol, Mecham and Bellavia led the crowd in a pep rally for PBS and other public broadcasting, including NPR. They played original songs that had been sent to them by fans, including an electronic love song to “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, by Casual Young Italians. Sample lyrics: “Terry, you’re a breath of ‘Fresh Air.’ ”

While Baltimore’s Beale Street Puppets put on a children’s show on the stage, other puppeteers took the chance to create a show to the tune of Beale Street’s music. A crowd gathered around Scott Land, who made his toddler-size Mitt Romney and Barack Obama marionettes dance.

Children were encouraged to come up to the stage to share their favorite “Sesame Street” characters with the crowd.

“My name is Marina and my favorite character is Animal, because he reminds me of myself,” said a girl, to cheers from the crowd. “And my mom has an addiction to ‘Masterpiece Theater.’ ”

Another girl spoke up for Animal. A shy boy said he liked Elmo. Then, a young boy named Lucian took the microphone.

Who is his favorite PBS character? “Yoda.”

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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