Miss Piggy helps bring home the baconBonnie Erickson knows that if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.
By: Jo Colvin, Alexandria Echo Press
Bonnie Erickson knows that if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.
So she added false eyelashes, pearls, gloves, long blonde tresses and an evening gown. She threw in a little precocious sassiness and, voila! She created one of the most famous pigs of all time –Miss Piggy – swine femme fatale, puppet prima donna, and pork egotist extraordinaire.
Miss Piggy is one of the original Muppets that appeared on Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show in the 1970s. And she’s just one of assorted puppets, Muppets, mascots and other characters created over the last four decades by Erickson, a woman who calls Alexandria her second home. Erickson is the daughter of Arnold and Ruth Erickson, residents of Alexandria since 1968.
After attending the University of Minnesota for two years, in 1961 Erickson took off for New York City to complete her education in theater and art.
Preferring the action behind the scenes, she spent several years as a costume designer, eventually working for productions on Broadway and at Lincoln Center. In 1970 a chance job interview earned her a shot at the big time.
It was with Jim Henson – one of the most widely known puppeteers in American television history and a leading force behind the characters on Sesame Street.
Henson hired her as a freelance costume designer for a production called The Frog Prince, one of several TV shows he created. When he discovered that Erickson was also a sculptor, he had her experiment making puppets out of carved foam. It wasn’t long until Henson asked her to be a permanent member of his staff to create characters for his TV specials.
“You really have to be in the right place at the right time,” Erickson said of her dream job. “If you are prepared and if you are lucky, that’s how these things happen. I was fortunate. It was the perfect job.”
And it only got better. In 1976, Henson had an idea for a new series called The Muppet Show, and he wanted Erickson on board. Unable to sell the idea to American networks, Henson took his idea, along with his crew, to London, England.
Erickson worked for the show for a year, creating such characters as Statler and Waldorf, two stuffy old curmudgeons who heckled the cast from their balcony seats; and fabricating Fozzie Bear, the world’s worst joke teller.
“It was truly a magical time,” Erickson said of her year with the show. “If anyone had fun watching the show, they can’t have had nearly the amount of fun we had doing it.”
The Muppet Show became a huge hit and it made Miss Piggy a star. But that’s not where the glamorous porker got her start.
Miss Piggy began as a plain old pig in 1974. Erickson had designed her for a show called Sex and Violence with the Muppets (a parody of sex and violence TV shows). That pig was part of a group that later became Pigs in Space.
“Initially Piggy was a sweet little pig with little button eyes,” Erickson explained.
On a spur-of-the-moment request, Erickson was called upon to design a “sexy female” puppet to appear in a Herb Alpert special. With time of the essence, Erickson opted to make the best of what she had. She took the innocent little pig, adorned her with a slinky dress, big eyes, eyelashes, pearls and gloves.
And Miss Piggy made her debut.
“I made the gloves because her original hands were hooves,” Erickson said with a laugh. “Hooves aren’t very sexy.”
Erickson named her Miss Piggy Lee, after Peggy Lee, a jazz singer she had always admired. But as the pig became more famous, her moniker was shortened to Miss Piggy, so as not to offend anyone.
Erickson insists it was the expert puppeteering of her “brilliant” coworker, Frank Oz, that truly made Miss Piggy a star.
“He put her on and all of a sudden she sprang to life,” Erickson said. “I recognized her as the true Piggy when he did that. She was mouthy from the beginning and always had sort of a brassy personality. The reputation grew and grew because of the performance Frank gave her. She’s a riot. She’s just silly!”
Despite Erickson’s success and the wonderful time she had with The Muppet Show, she had always wanted to start her own business. In 1977, after one year of working on the show, and after seven years with Henson, she and her husband, Wayde Harrison, started Harrison/Erickson Inc., a creative design and marketing company.
Together the couple creates characters, cartoons, Web animation and puppets for the commercial world. One of their first successes was Phillie Phanatic, the mascot for the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team.
Some of the company’s other well-known achievements include the first talking Happy Meal for McDonald’s, a series of commercials for Budweiser only shown on Saturday Night Live, costume design for Bette Midler, and several sports mascot campaigns.
Under a separate branch of their business called Acme Mascots Inc. they created Youppi! for the Montreal Expos, Stuffs the Magic Dragon for the Orlando Magic, and 12 other sports mascots.
While it was difficult to leave her job with Henson, he encouraged her new venture. And he even became one of her clients. Erickson continued to do consultant work for him, overseeing the building of characters for Fraggle Rock and other television projects. She was also the creative director for the Sesame Street Product Division for 13 years.
“I was still part of Jim’s family,” she said gratefully. “I went back many times to be a part of Jim’s productions.”
When Henson died unexpectedly in 1990, Erickson lost a dear friend and mentor.
“It was horrible,” she said. “He was someone I admired. He was wonderful to work for. It’s hard to explain how much fun Jim was. He was an incredible person, a generous person, a confident person.”
Erickson is keeping his legacy alive through her role as president of the board of the Jim Henson Legacy, which is responsible for maintaining an extensive collection of his work. Some of the collection is currently part of the traveling exhibit, “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” put together by the legacy and The Smithsonian and now touring the country.
Some of Erickson’s own creations for the Muppets can be seen in an exhibition at The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia through 2010 and in the video and movie festival, Muppets, Music, and Magic: Jim Henson’s Legacy, being shown in theaters and museums across America.
Four decades after her debut, sassy Miss Piggy is still a force to be reckoned with. And so is her creator.
“I am going to continue to do what I do,” Erickson concluded. “I think if you can enjoy what you are doing and keep in mind what’s happening with the rest of the world, you are very lucky.”