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The cramped and creative world of the puppeteer

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At 33, McKilligan never thought she’d be wearing a Cookie Monster scarf. She is one of four professional puppeteers working in the stage production of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a musical originally written for television by the late puppet pioneer and Muppet icon Jim Henson. McKilligan never intended to be a puppeteer. Then again, neither did Henson. He came to puppeteering accidentally, in 1956, as a way to break into television.

McKilligan wanted to be an actress and studied acting and design at New York University. After college, she grew discouraged trying to break into theater. Puppetry helped her get work. McKilligan excelled as a character actor, but she was too young to get cast in roles that inspired her. “When you’re a puppeteer, you can be an old lady when you’re 30 and nobody knows the difference,” she says.

McKilligan worked first as a puppet wrangler (a puppet caretaker) for stage productions. She then became a freelance builder and puppeteer for the Henson Company. Her office was in the Henson Workshop in Manhattan, which houses many of the characters used on Sesame Street. She loved the materials available to her in the shop – yards of puppet fur, a drawer filled with eyeballs, spools of brightly colored fabrics.

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