The puppeteer behind some of your favorite Muppets misfits (Gonzo, anyone?) lives among the redwoods of West Marin.
If not for an unexpected business trip to Pennsylvania, Dave Goelz (pronounced goals) might have spent a quiet life saving his money and squandering a vivid and quirky imagination.
Instead, the young industrial designer was sent by his employer, Hewlett-Packard, back East in September of 1972. As part of the trip, he decided to take a week’s vacation and swing down to New York City to visit Frank Oz, the legendary Muppet performer.
Goelz, a puppetry fan, had met Oz at a festival in Oakland a month earlier, and the two hit it off enough that Goelz asked if he could visit the Children’s Television Workshop, where Sesame Street was produced. Oz said “sure.” But Goelz, who was so frugal he lived on half his HP salary, didn’t even consider spending money on a plane ticket. He didn’t ask Oz for his phone number. When he got to New York, he didn’t think to alert Oz of his arrival.
Instead, he found the puppeteer’s home number in the phone book. “Did I call Frank ahead of time? No. I waited until the Monday after I arrived,” says Goelz, 73, as he sits in the living room of his Craftsman-style home in West Marin. “I was just a complete idiot.”
An idiot, perhaps. But one loaded with talent. After connecting with Oz, Goelz spent the week in New York, hanging around the Children’s Television Workshop and showing people a few puppets he’d made. That led, in 1973, to a six-month stint in the Muppet workshop. In 1974, he was offered a full-time job. After his new employer discovered his knack for entertaining, Goelz quickly became one of the Muppet’s five main performers.
Since then, Goelz has been the talent and voice behind beloved characters such as Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot and (after Muppet co-founder Jim Henson’s death in 1990) Waldorf. But he’s best known for performing the Great Gonzo, a character Goelz describes as having “no real talent, but who performs these outlandish acts and thinks they’re high art.”
Goelz is so private and humble, however, that he’s the Muppeteer you’ve probably never heard of. That’s what he prefers. “He doesn’t really care much to live in a world of celebrity,” says Kevin Lima, a long-time friend and the director of Enchanted.
Instead, Goelz lives on 20-acre property, studded with redwoods, in West Marin, in a home he shares with his wife, Debra Goelz, a fiction writer and the former CFO of Jim Henson Productions. Their two children, now in their 20s, are frequent visitors.
Though Goelz still performs regularly with the Muppets, the only evidence in his home of his career is a Muppet called Dave the Human, which sits on a shelf between his dining and living rooms. The puppet was created for Jim Henson’s Animal Show with Stinky and Jake. Like the real Dave, Dave the Human wears a collared shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, and excels at blending in with the crowd.
If Goelz prefers a life of privacy, it’s probably because he never intended to become an actor. Growing up in Burbank, he loved puppets and was a fan of shows such as Howdy Doody and Time for Beany. But, he says, “I had absolutely no credentials for show business whatsoever, except being a silly person. It was just a fluke that I wound up doing this.”
Goelz got his first shot at performing when he played three parts for The Muppets Valentine Show, which aired in 1974. Because he lacked experience, he says, “I was really insecure.” But he studied the craft and, once he started letting his personality shine through, got laughs from the crew. “I was unstoppable after that,” he says.
When asked which of his characters are most like him, Goelz replies, “Actually, it’s Gonzo, because I can ad-lib the easiest with him. But I don’t know if it’s because he’s most like me. It’s because he’s untethered. There aren’t a lot of rules about Gonzo.”
Fun as the job was, it wasn’t always easy. Over the years, it’s involved a lot of globetrotting to places like New York, London, Toronto, Los Angeles and Germany. It’s slowed down in recent years and has also taken a toll on his body.
When they’re performing, Muppeteers work beneath the puppets, reaching up and using their hands to animate the mouths and hands that viewers see on-screen. Sometimes, a single Muppet requires two performers, one to work each hand. If there’s not a high stage, Muppeteers often lie on their backs, in cramped spaces, to perform.
Due to the work’s acrobatics, Goelz has suffered multiple injuries and undergone nine surgeries. Four were on his shoulder. One was a hip replacement.
But the perks have outweighed the hardships. Goelz has worked with performers such as Willie Nelson, Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Sellers. He’s met the British royal family. Twice. And he got to work with Henson, whom he describes as “just a stunning, stunning human being.” Because of the nature of the job, Goelz was also able to spend a lot of time with his family. He married late, at 46, having children soon after. Once his kids started school, he says, “I went on every single field trip unless I was out of town. I went on probably 85 to 90 percent of the field trips. I drove all the time.”
He was Dave the Human, carting a bunch of screaming kids around. And in a lot of ways, his work is all about being Dave the Human, as he explores the insecurities and foibles of everyday people while hiding behind the guise of a puppet. When he performs, Goelz explains, “I usually start with a flaw within myself. I isolate it and amplify it, and then try to find a way to make it lovable. In away, the work is therapeutic.”
It’s also Goelz’s genius. “He has this wonderful ability to capture kind of the manic misfit,” says Lima, adding, “Dave has this tendency to really invest in sort of wide-eye naivete, I think. And it totally mirrors who he is as a person.”
That would include being a young man so frugal, he nearly missed the career opportunity of a lifetime. As Goelz sits in his home now, he marvels that there were “so many things that were left to chance” in the way his life unfolded. “The whole thing,” he says, laughing, “was just way beyond where I ever had thought of going.”