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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 17, 2005

The gang's all here

Sesame Workshop photos

The touring characters of Sesame Street Live are the production of show creator Vincent E. Egan and his VEE Corp., celebrating its 25th year.

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

"Elmo's Coloring Book," featuring Sesame Street characters, continues at the Blaisdell Concert Hall through June 26.


A Sesame Street Live production

Opened last night; continues at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. today; 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. next Thursday; 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. June 24; 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. June 25-26

Blaisdell Concert Hall

$11, $15; some $19 premium seats available

(877) 750-4400, ticketmaster.com

Big Bird is a towering 8-foot-2, from feathery head to foam foot.

Les Bowen inhabits the fluffy yellow costume with orange stilt legs, and because of his 6-foot-1 frame, he makes a big impression.

"You do have to be tall," said Bowen, 26, about playing Big Bird. He was speaking from San Diego last week, where Sesame Street Live's latest touring show, "Elmo's Coloring Book," was in residence before heading for Honolulu this week. The show, marking its 25th season, opened a 15-performance run last night at Blaisdell Concert Hall.

"Yellow is not my favorite color," Bowen admitted. "But fortunately, I'm not allergic to feathers."

With this year's tour ending in Honolulu, Bowen is completing his second season with Sesame Street Live, which has been crisscrossing the country for 11 months. He is one of 17 troupers who portray 21 critters of every color on the crayon palette.

"I was in Hawai'i three years ago when we did 'Dragon Tales,' " he said of another child-friendly production.

So happens that the producer and creator of both family-targeted shows is Vincent E. Egan, founder, president and CEO of VEE Corp., one of the world's top family entertainment companies, founded in 1980.

That was when Egan, who put a second mortgage on his farm near Minneapolis, launched the production that placed actors and dancers in life-sized puppet costumes in a musical spectacle based on the "Sesame Street" TV characters created by the late Jim Henson for the Children's Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop).

"I believed that there was a need for more entertainment, more affordable entertainment, that families as a group could go to," said Egan, 62, who has no children but remains "a kid at heart." Speaking from his Minneapolis headquarters, Egan said he has had a mixed bag of jobs, starting out at General Motors but evolving into shows on ice, including the Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice.

"In those early days, there were only ice shows and circuses for families," he said. "I knew, from the TV success, that the Muppets that were created by Jim Henson were very popular. I felt there was a tremendous need to bring the 'Sesame Street' Muppets out of TV and into the realm of the Broadway musical."

After Jim Henson Productions licensed him to do the live show, he premiered his first Sesame Street Live endeavor on Sept. 17, 1980, at the Met Center in Minneapolis, which now is gone.

He has fond memories of that launch. "In seven shows, we drew 25,000," said Egan. "I was thrilled, and I was right — families needed a show like that."

But the subsequent 10 cities didn't respond.

"I died," said Egan. "Chicago ... Ames ... Grand Rapids," he rattled off the cities that didn't draw folks to the show, dampening his spirit but not his determination.

He had a friend who believed in his vision — Al Grant, many years gone now, who held four weeks of a run at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"We went to New York in December-January — over Christmas — and played to 100,000 people in 1980. When you do that, the rest of the world watches. With that, we earned credibility and integrity, and we got better dates with more people coming. Now they were starting to know it was a live show, not a movie, not a puppet show."

Twenty-five years and 80 million people later, Sesame Street Live is bigger and still growing.

Adults portraying the costumed critters enjoy the professionalism of the show — but particularly the joys expressed by the crowd.

"It's so much fun — and so challenging," Bowen said of playing Big Bird. "The kids are amazing; when the curtain goes up, you realize why you're there. They just love the characters."

Bowen said the costume occasionally gets hot, but that it's built well, with air-quality considerations in place. And the costume "wears" well, without being too heavy to cause imbalance.

It takes 4,000 large turkey feathers, dyed yellow, to create the Big Bird costume, said Jim Waters, VEE Corp. senior vice president and producer, who oversees all production duties.

Big Bird's is the largest costume in the production, assembled at a cost of about $45,000, said Waters. "It's very labor intensive."

Sesame Street Live boasts four companies, with three normally touring North America, said Egan. "We hit 225 markets every year; and keep one company active internationally," he said.

In France, the show is dubbed "Les Amis de Sesame." In Spain, it's "Barrio Sesamo." In China, it's "Zhima Jie." Even the characters take on the names of the cultures on tour. In Norway, the Cookie Monster is Kakemonsteret, and in Turkey, he's Kurabite Canavari. Big Bird is replaced by 7-foot-tall parrot Aberlardo Montoya in Mexico, where the show is called "Plaza Sesamo."

Waters said the Sesame Workshop, which helps shape the touring show, continually takes new directions that ultimately play out on the stage.

"Our touring show next year, 'Super Grover Ready for Action,' will take on the initiative about health consciousness, the need to combine food choices to augment exercise," said Waters. The PBS TV series earlier this year made its muppets more involved in guiding children to make choices for a healthier lifestyle.

"So next year, we'll have dancing full-sized food, both fruits and veggies, along with the 'Sesame Street' characters," said Waters.

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8055, or fax 525-8055.

• • •

Who's who?

Think you know your major "Sesame Street" characters?

Big Bird

  • Birthday: March 20.
  • Personality: 6-year-old child in 8-foot-2 frame; curious, makes friends easily; shares nest with Radar, his teddy; has been a guest at the White House, has been a Time magazine cover bird; has conducted an orchestra; visited China twice.
  • Favorite things: Figuring things out; being part of everything; roller-skating; poetry-writing; drawing pictures.
  • Loves: Birdseed milk shakes.
  • Inspiration to kids: Helps children understand and identify with his excitement over new things; willingness to try again, to correct his mistakes; persists in problem-solving.


  • Birthday: Feb. 3.
  • Personality: Tag-along 3-year-old; lovable, imaginative, energetic; always trying to keep up with big kids; constantly curious.
  • Favorite things: Do anything and everything, especially whatever Bert and Ernie can do.
  • Loves: The words who, what, when, where and why.
  • Inspiration to kids: Versatility and adaptive behavior helps tots understand the importance of learning to cooperate and compromise; helps kids understand it's OK to be the youngest, the smallest, or the one sometimes left behind.


  • Birthday: July 26.
  • Personality: A guy with one eyebrow and a funny laugh; long-suffering sidekick to Ernie; considers himself the voice of reason.
  • Favorite things: Plays tuba; loves Bernice, his pet pigeon; watching TV weather reports; eating oatmeal.
  • Loves: Collecting bottle caps and paper clips; argyle socks.
  • Inspiration to kids: Teaches importance of forgiveness, by always forgiving sidekick Ernie; believes "everyone's different," enabling kids to accept the physical, cultural and emotional characteristic of others.


  • Birthday: Jan. 28.
  • Personality: Free-spirited, outgoing foil to the more serious and responsible Bert; has talent for explaining things; too smart for own good; constantly getting himself into trouble; very affectionate.
  • Favorite things: Imagining, thinking, playing word games, tricking Bert.
  • Loves: His Rubber Duckie.
  • Inspiration to kids: Teases out of affection, never means to hurt anyone; teaches children to cooperate to resolve differences.


  • Birthday: June 1.
  • Personality: Grumpy and grouchy on the surface but otherwise a nice guy; a valued friend.
  • Favorite things: Rainy days, standing in line, collecting trash.
  • Loves: Anchovy milk shakes.
  • Inspiration to kids: Helps children learn respect and tolerance; that the world includes views and lifestyles that are different.


  • Birthday: Oct. 14.
  • Personality: Excitable, caring, compulsive; experiences the world from the viewpoint of a 4-year-old; rushes into situations without analyzing consequences.
  • Favorite things: Righting wrongs, soaring high into the air as Super Grover.
  • Loves: Wearing his Super Grover costume.
  • Inspiration to kids: Helps children identify with his difficulties when being helpful and his bewilderment with adult logic.

Cookie Monster

  • Birthday: Nov. 2.
  • Personality: A lovable, silly monster lives behind that gruff voice; has an appetite for everything in sight.
  • Favorite things: Four food groups; creative problem-solving through munching.
  • Loves: Apples and zucchini and healthy options in between.
  • Inspiration to kids: Speaks in "monster language," helps youngsters master words and phrases.


  • Birthday: Sept. 30.
  • Personality: 3-year-old girl monster; gets so excited about everything that she can't get out her words fast enough; has a distinctive giggle; more energy than her best buddy Elmo.
  • Favorite things: Playing with her dolly, Mimi; hanging out with Elmo.
  • Loves: Collecting necklaces, bracelets and barrettes.
  • Inspiration to kids: Makes learning fun with her infectious giggle.