KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Generations of children learned their ABC’s and 1-2-3’s on Sesame Street, and have laughed for years watching Kermit the Frog and the Muppets on television.
Big Bird stands above most on Sesame Street, including the Count.
These two mainstays on America's most prominent childrens program have one thing in common — it's Kansas City, Kansas, native Matt Vogel, the man who currently brings them to life.
“[It's] A dream come true, to be able to perform on Sesame Street and with the Muppets," Vogel said.
For the last three years, he's performed as the most famous Muppet — Kermit the Frog.
“[It's] My responsibility to carry on as Kermit the Frog, which I try not to think about so much," Vogel said. "I don't really want to think about the weight, the responsibility of it, because I know that it is great."
He started in puppetry as a child and grew with the craft.
“I did some puppetry with the Paul Mesner Puppets," Vogel said. “The first time I worked with Matt, was on Frankenstein."
Vogel played the titular role in that production, and Mesner instantly saw Vogel's potential.
"He was good. He was excellent, he was focused [and] he was mature," Mesner said.
Vogel then moved to New York, and answered a 1994 puppeteer advertisement.
He learned from Jim Henson’s son and Big Bird’s original performer, Caroll Spinney, and found his professional home. The cameras presented Vogel with a steep learning curve.
“You're watching your own performance and you're able to kind of instantly critique your own performance," Vogel said. "It's a big challenge, it takes a lot of time to figure that out."
We found that out firsthand, with the current Mesner Puppet Theater company.
At the Mesner Puppet Theater now, they're still training and performing the next generation of puppeteers and there is purpose in the work.
“Puppetry is a great tool for that, to help kids with how to deal with their emotions [and] how to deal with big feelings," Mike Horner, the current director of puppetry arts said.
“Teaching kindness and civility and how to be a good human to other little humans," Mesner said.
Vogel continues that mission, as Sesame Street enters its 53rd season.
“[Being] Aware of the impact that we're making on the world, and we all take that very, very, seriously in the fun," Vogel said.
When he’s bringing his characters to life, and when his hometown watches from afar, Vogel's roots are not lost on him or his peers.
“It’s such a cool Kansas City connection that characters that are known globally, have a connection here to Kansas City," Hosner said. "It's great when Kansas City can go on the national stage like that."
Vogel reflected on what Kansas City means to him as he continues his career.
“[I'm] Very proud of being from Kansas City," Vogel said. "Thinking back to my childhood, it feels like a quintessential childhood. I'm hopeful that, even though I don't live there now, I'm hopeful that I can pass some of that feeling that I had along to my children."
He is at the peak of the puppet profession, educating and entertaining a new generation on a famous street, after starting on the streets of Kansas City.
Sesame Street, the Muppets and the Mesner Puppet Theater, have all made pandemic adjustments, launching a series of digital programs.
Vogel and his fellow performers are back in the studio, with strict protocols in place to keep everyone safe, while here at home, classroom programming is now part of the Mesner Puppet Theater curriculum.
All visual materials are courtesy of the Muppets Studio, a division of the Walt Disney Company, and the Sesame Workshop.