Lance Cardinal welcomed Windspeaker into the Aboriginal Gathering Place at Emily Carr University in Vancouver to have a look at his model of the classic Muppet Theatre, complete with Muppet models, a secret door and a red, draping curtain that actually opens with the pull of a golden rope.
Cardinal, 35, is from the Bigstone Cree Nation at the Calling Lake reserve in Alberta. He built the model Muppet Theatre over many weeks, and he became a bit of an Internet sensation when he put pictures of the work online at lancecardinal.blogspot.com
The Muppet Show ran for five seasons, starting in 1976. It featured a vaudevillian-style show with sketches completely acted by Muppets, a puppet creation by the Jim Henson Company.
When he was growing up Cardinal had access to only one channel, CBC. He loyally watched the Muppet Show on CBC every week.
“It was one of the first shows to take me away to a magical place full of wonder and creativity,” Cardinal said, sporting a large Kermit pin on his lapel. “It was an amazing half an hour of my life. There was a sense of whimsy and a sense of playfulness that I didn’t have in my normal life.”
Prominently displayed on his blog’s profile is Cardinal’s heritage. He proudly identifies himself as a full-status Cree, which many people have commented on positively.
“As a First Nations person as well, you come from a small pace and you don’t feel important,” Cardinal said. “You don’t feel like anyone listens to you sometimes when you’re First Nations and they underestimate what First Nations people can do creatively or even understand creatively.”
“Basically I have two sides of my brain—one is this crazy, childlike, playful, totally weird, whimsical person and the other side of me is very political and serious, and very focused on my culture and what that means to me.”
Constructing his very own toy theatre came about when Palisades Toys, which had plans to manufacture the Muppet Theatre models, didn’t end up doing it. Cardinal had been collecting its Muppet action figures, and the theatre’s backstage area, including Kermit’s desk, the back doors and changing rooms.
“I thought, ‘I’ll just build it myself,’ and I started building it,” Cardinal told Windspeaker.
“It was getting done and I thought, ‘Wow, this looks just how I imagined’ and then I had a moment of…I felt like I worked so hard, I wondered if this was worthwhile, I wondered if this magic was still out there. I didn’t see it. I didn’t feel it from people.
“But, I believe this magic still exists and I believe this magic is still out there in people.”
Since posting it online, Cardinal has received tons of emails everyday—including a marriage proposal in exchange for his Muppet Theatre. He’s also had offers to tour the theatre to Comic Con in San Francisco.
“It was absolutely an embracing of this whole world and these characters who have been in our home since ,” he said. “I’ve already had two online interviews, done a couple of articles. I just put it out there.” He was also interviewed for the Daily Planet on April 20.
Cardinal is a second-year Emily Carr University student. He’s working on his fine arts degree and is majoring in sculpture. He’s worked behind the scenes in theatres and used that knowledge to put towards his childhood dream.
“I worked on a lot of theatres and I know what theatres should be like,” he said. “Then I imagined the size of this playset and what Palisades would have done if they had actually built it.”
He got in touch with a dollhouse shop both online and in North Vancouver who did the custom-made trim. Also, Palisades had shared some of their plans for the model theatre with him.
“For me, this particular project, I really wanted to make sure I built it from scratch, with actual wood that I bought with trim,” he said. “I bought MDF [medium-density fiberboard] wood. I used doll house trim.”
The theatre is hand-crafted with a baroque trim, which he made with puffy paint. Each panel is made from scratch with the use of the puffy paint as well and then painted red, and trimmed with gold.
The back wall is made from hand-mixed concrete. By using stickers, he was able to make an effect that made the bricks more realistic. He also added his own pipes made from bamboo skewers. At the back he put up Muppet movie posters that Jim Henson was involved in and made them look older and used.
All of the lights actually light up and were wired by Cardinal, who said that the project was quite expensive.
“A full month, one month,” he added, about how long it took to construct the theatre. “And that was a lot of hours; full days, full nights, just because the more I built it, each phase just got me more excited.”
He also intends to build additional sets, including a balcony for Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy old men Muppets, and a pit for the orchestra performers in front of the theatre. He already has sets from the show, including Pigs in Space. But, he wants to build other ones, such as Veterinarian Hospital.
“I’m just happy that people are feeling so happy about it and remembering all the positive times in their life and the time spent with their kids and their times spent with their family growing up,” he said.
“A lot of people have been talking to me about the emotional connection they had with the Muppets and seeing this fulfilled satisfies the fulfillment they needed to have that experience.”
No matter the time or cost, the experience and results were worth it, according to Cardinal, because it’s in homage to Jim Henson and Palisades.
“We didn’t have much money growing up. I always missed out on having toys and such,” he explained. “So in some ways I sort of build these things to have my own youth and that feeling that was once there.”
At the end of the day, Cardinal is excited to finally live through his imagination and become Kermit (although Fozzie Bear is still his favorite), utilizing his hand-made theatre as a tool to access his childhood.
He said it was an enriching moment to pull that gold string and see the curtain open. “I always wanted to be Kermit. I pulled the curtain and I was like, ‘I have to share this.’ I know there’s other people who want to see that again.”
“As Kermit said, it’s about making millions of people happy.”
The Muppets are experiencing a comeback with a Hollywood feature film simply titled Muppets expected to be released later this year.