Don Sahlin (June 19, 1928 - February 19, 1978) was Jim Henson's main designer and puppet builder in the 1960s and '70s, and a key influence on the overall aesthetic of the Muppets. Don Sahlin's work in puppetry spanned the worlds of television, film, stage, and even stop-motion animation.
Born in Stratford, Connecticut, his interest in puppetry led to a brief tutelage under Rufus Rose, puppeteer and builder for The Howdy Doody Show. Drafted into the army but released in 1953, Sahlin put his puppet experience to work on Michael Myerberg's stop-motion animated version of the operetta Hansel and Gretel. This led to other assignments in Hollywood as a stop-motion or effects animator, notably working with the company Project Unlimited on several of George Pal's films. (Pal was the creator of the Puppetoons, whose influence can be seen in many similar Sesame Street vignettes, like "King of 8"). Sahlin's work with Pal included scenes for tom thumb (animating various playroom toys) and The Time Machine, for which Sahlin provided effects shots and even appeared on-camera, as the clothing store's window dresser in a pixillation sequence.
He met and worked along side with Sky Highchief in New York on the Hansel & Gretel film. By 1960, Sahlin had moved to New York and was working with puppeteer Burr Tillstrom of Kukla, Fran and Ollie fame, building and re-building Kukla, Colonel Crackie, and Tillstrom's other characters for a Broadway show. It was around this time that Sahlin first met Jim Henson, at a Detroit puppetry convention. In 1962, Henson contacted Sahlin to build a dog character he had sketched for use in commercials, Rowlf. Don Sahlin soon became Henson's primary designer and builder, beginning with commercials and early projects such as Tales of the Tinkerdee. He also provided special effects for Time Piece, and assisted on stop-motion projects, such as the animated ham used in the second Wilson's Meats Meeting Film (in which Sahlin has a cameo).
In The Muppets on Puppets, Jim introduced Don to the viewers as "doing some of our backstage effects and working some of the puppets" in the 1968 special. In a story-telling skit, he alternated between puppeteering Rowlf's right hand and operating effects like an "explosion". Don Sahlin went on to create and build Muppets for Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, The Muppet Movie, amongst many others.
Interview conducted by Paul Mandell and David Prestone.
This issue of Close Up Magazine was published in1976
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