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Charlottetown woman recalls working with Jim Henson on Fraggle Rock as show gets rebooted online

Charlottetown’s Cheryl Wagner, who spent much of her career as a puppeteer, produced and directed a web series in 2011 called Bunny Bop!, which aired just in time for the Chinese new year of the rabbit.
Charlottetown’s Cheryl Wagner, who spent much of her career as a puppeteer, produced and directed a web series in 2011 called Bunny Bop!, which aired just in time for the Chinese new year of the rabbit. - Contributed
CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. —

The Fraggles are back, and Charlottetown’s Cheryl Wagner couldn’t be happier.

Fraggle Rock, a Canadian, British and American children’s television puppet program, created by the legendary Jim Henson of The Muppets fame, ran from 1982-87.

It has been rebooted as Fraggle Rock: Rock On! in a series of weekly live action shorts, first broadcast on the Apple TV+ streaming service on April 21.

Working alongside the legendary Jim Henson on Fraggle Rock in the 1980s is one of the Cheryl Wagner’s career highlights. - Contributed
Working alongside the legendary Jim Henson on Fraggle Rock in the 1980s is one of the Cheryl Wagner’s career highlights. - Contributed

Wagner worked as a puppeteer on the original show with Henson, serving literally as his right hand. She also worked with Ernie Coombs on Mr. Dressup and created and produced the smash preschool hit series, The Big Comfy Couch, which went on to win a Gemini and an Emmy.

“It was a very visionary show,’’ Wagner said. “The Muppets were about fun and entertainment and joy, and we all love it forever for that, but Fraggle Rock was ahead of its time. It was very environmental. It was about interconnectedness and how we all need each other.’’

In the 1980s, the show centred on interconnected societies of muppet creatures while the reboot currently streaming is very timely with its theme. The Fraggles all live in separate caves during a period of social distancing and interact with each other using a video chat system that was installed by the Doozers. Footage for the short-form episodes is shot using smartphones in the production teams’ and artists’ own homes. Some of the original cast has even returned.

Wagner, 73, hasn’t returned and hasn’t seen the web series yet but is thrilled it’s back, explaining children learn much more by watching puppet shows that focus on important themes rather than animated programming.

“With animation, there is no breadth; no heartbeat.’’

Wagner not only served as a puppeteer on the original series, she was the voice of Ma Gorg during the final three seasons.

She relishes the memory of working with Henson.

“He was very focused; he was quite lovely. He wasn’t interested in the big wide world in terms of news. He wanted your input, I can say that. We talked about what the show was and different aspects of the show. I really appreciated that he was treating me like a colleague even though I was only a puppeteer.’’


Watch the official teaser for Fraggle Rock: Rock on!
 


Her work alongside Henson on Fraggle Rock involved standing up the whole time.

“I wasn’t tall enough, so I had to wear these big platform shoes and I’d have to hold onto him as we ran through the set,’’ she laughed.

In 2011, Wagner produced and directed a preschool webseries called Bunny Bop. She has also served as the president of Periscope Pictures Inc. and is the former executive director of the Charlottetown Film Festival.

“I made lifelong friends (in the business). I feel like I was fated.’’


Following is a brief summary of Cheryl Wagner’s career:

  • Thanks to a federal grant, she toured P.E.I. with a children’s puppet show in the early 1970s.
  • Her Halifax-based touring Merrytime Clown and Puppet Company, in which Wagner worked as a clown and puppeteers from 1977 to 1980, provided a fertile ground for her later work as a producer and writer in children’s entertainment.
  • Worked alongside Jim Henson on Fraggle Rock from 1982 to 1987, also serving as the voice for Ma Gorg from 1984 to 1987.
  • In 1984, Wagner performed as the meddling social worker Miss Finch (body suit) for the film Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird.
  • In 1990, Wagner worked as a puppeteer for the Canadian Sesame Street special Basil Hears a Noise.
  • Other television puppetry work included Annie on Mr. Dressup and the role of Mrs. Pennypacker on TVO’s Today’s Special.
  • Created the children’s television show The Big Comfy Couch in 1992, a Gemini- and Emmy-winning show that ran until 2006.

Watch the opening theme to Fraggle Rock - The Jim Henson Company:


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