No Strings Attached
An Interview with Puppeteer Nina Keogh
What do you call a woman who uses puppets to entertain children? A puppeteer, obviously. But Nina Keogh is so much more than that. Keogh is an artist.
As a young child, I had no idea who Nina even was. Who I did know was Muffy Mouse, the lovable, mischievous blond-haired mouse who lived inside Simpson's department store on the '80s children's television show Today's Special. Muffy, whose most memorable trait was that she spoke in rhyme, had three best friends at the store: Jodie, the display artist; Sam, the night watchman; and Jeff, a mannequin who wore a magic hat which, after someone said the magic words, could bring Jeff to life. It was Muffy herself who popped up from behind the counter at the beginning of each episode and eagerly chanted "Hocus pocus alimagocus," allowing Jeff to come alive.
As a little kid, it never occurred to me that Muffy was a puppet. She was just...Muffy!
Of course as I grew up, I realized that Muffy was, indeed, a puppet - and I also discovered that the person responsible for giving my favorite rhyming rodent her personality was Nina Keogh. After befriending Nina on Facebook, I found that she is a woman of many talents. Sure, puppets seem to occupy her time, but she is also busy with other artistic endeavors. This past week, Nina was kind enough to take the time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about Muffy and Today's Special, as well as other television projects she's done - and what sort of things are keeping her busy in 2010.
Q: What made you decide to become a puppeteer?
A: I was born in Toronto to artist parents, so I was surrounded by hundreds of puppets! In 1958, I apprenticed on the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] TV show The Friendly Giant along with my parents. I was really following in their footsteps - but then, how could I escape it? =)
Q: Do you have children? Are they puppeteers as well?
A: I have a son named Matt. Obviously he also grew up with tons of puppets (that I had made), so his childhood was similar to mine in that way. But [being a puppeteer] wasn't something he wanted to do - although he sure has the talent! He currently writes for The Sports Network (www.tsn.ca) here in Canada.
Q: Do you have a favorite out of all the TV shows you've been involved with?
A: I LOVED doing Today's Special, of course! I got to sing, and I got to work with some great people on the show. After Today's Special I did a series called Bookmice; I created the characters and was also one of them, which was fun too!
Q: Aside from The Friendly Giant, Bookmice, and Today's Special, what other TV work have you done?
A: I did a lot of series, commercials, and feature film, as well as educational and industrial videos. I was an on-camera host and interviewer for a show called Drop In, and from '71-'72 I was the first host on a show for TVOntario called The Polkadot Door. I must say that I really loved the interviewing and hosting!
Now, about Today's Special...
Q: How did Muffy come into existence?
A: Creator Clive Vanderburgh came up with Muffy's character. He hired me because already he knew of my work.
Q: Why was it that Muffy spoke entirely in rhyme?
A: The rhyming thing was just a fun thing, but it was also a teaching element because rhyme requires thought. A lot of kids started writing rhymes as a result! For me speaking in rhyme was okay, but it didn't allow me to ad-lib at all.
Q: What were rehearsals like for episodes of Today's Special?
A: Things sometimes became silly - and R rated! - during rehearsals. Since this was a kids' show, we kept our sanity by allowing rehearsals be more adult in humour. Those were times when Muffy sometimes went off her rhyming. But we did have a code in case any child visitors came into the studio. We'd say "CA! CA!" (child alert). Then we'd calm the language and the naughty action down.
Q: There were 122 episodes of Today's Special during its six-year run. What are some of your favorite episodes?
A: I loved Opera, Jack Frost, and the episode where Muffy dances with Jeff - that was fun to shoot. I also loved doing the location stuff at the store or out in the 'field.'
Q: What were some funnier moments on set?
A: Some funny moments for me were mainly the R rated rehearsals when the four of us [Nerene Virgin, who played Jodie; Jeff Hyslop, who played Jeff; and puppeteer Bob Dermer, who played Sam] just went over the top with the material. It was also funny watching Muffy fall over on her scooter, which I operated by remote control.
Q: How did you feel when Today's Special ended?
A: At one point, we had taken a year's hiatus. The production had spent so much money that I think they had to find some more [laughs]! At the very end, there was a mix of sadness and relief. We had all been working together for months 24/7, and - as always in a 'family' - there were politics, personality clashes, and other challenges.
Q: Do you still keep in touch with the rest of the cast?
A: Yes! We've all moved on to other things, but we stay in touch by e-mail since we're all scattered around Canada. Jeff is a grandfather now!
Q: Fans that watched Today's Special back in its heyday are all grown up now, but they still remember - and love - the show. How does it make you feel to have been part of that?
A: It thrills me to know that our audience is grown up and possibly showing the show to their kids. I was going to Universities in Toronto - with Muffy in tow - and talking about Today's Special and the kids were screaming like she was a rock star! Having that kind of impact on children is a real important responsibility. But I've always felt that the work I've done for TV was of a good quality.
Q: In this age of technology - with the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn - how does it make you feel to be so accessible to your fans?
A: I think with the new technology, it's possible for our fans to see the old shows that they perhaps didn't get on tape back then. The web sites for the show are fun. It's very gratifying to read the love and affection for the show, for the characters, coming out of grown people who are being so nostalgic about their childhoods.
Q: Do you have any advice for kids - or adults - who are interested in becoming a puppeteer?
A: I've met a number of people who are interested in puppets and puppet building as an art form and as entertainment and education. I would just say do research on the internet to find out what's going on, i.e. are there auditions for any theatre or television? Study with a veteran puppet person if possible. Things have changed quite a bit since I was in the business 20 and 30 years ago. But I would say definitely use the 'net'!
Q: What keeps you busy these days? Do you still work with puppets and/or television?
A: These days I live in Newfoundland (Canada's 10th province). I paint and give creative workshops. Last year I taught a group of high school drama students a course in life-sized puppet building for the provincial drama competition. I love teaching in my studio, since it's next to the Atlantic Ocean, though I'm more into doing my own art and exhibiting.
Q: What is your life like in Newfoundland?
A: Living in a small fishing out port in Newfoundland means my life is simpler. My husband and I love movies which we rent, buy and order from zip.ca (Netflix in the States). Can't get enough biographies, foreign films, documentaries! If we want to go to a movie theatre, we must drive over 5 hours to St. John's, the capital city of Newfoundland. We love hiking and photography too - it's a paradise for that. It's hard to feel stressed out here with the Atlantic at your back door and the rocky terrain and cliffs, where whales and icebergs are always floating by. Besides my painting, I love doing stuff to the house - and grooming our two little puppies is very relaxing as well!
Q: So where do you see yourself in twenty years?
A: I love this question because it made me laugh out loud - sorry - because it's something you normally ask someone in their 20s and 30s. I'm now 63 (the whole cast is in our 60s) so either I will be in some big puppet theatre/television studio in the sky or I'll still be boppin' - and hopefully be a grandmother by then! LOL!
Thanks again to Nina Keogh for this interview.
You can learn more about Nina, her puppets, and her painting at www.ninakeogh.com.