The Puppet Master of Paradise
This week’s cover story is brought to you by the letters P and A — which stand for Pam Arciero, a puppeteer from ‘Aina Haina who’s portrayed Oscar the Grouch’s girlfriend, Grundgetta, on Sesame Street for nearly 40 years.
“Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?”
For Pam Arciero of ‘Āina Haina, not only did she find her way to another place with sunny days, but she’s also made the iconic fictional neighborhood her office for nearly four decades. A lifelong puppeteer, she performs Grundgetta, Oscar the Grouch’s girlfriend, along with a variety of background characters on the show.
“It is the happiest street in the world, truly,” says the 1972 graduate of Kalani High School.
So how did this local girl get to be one of those “friendly neighbors” on Sesame Street? It all started when she discovered the world of puppetry at University of Hawai‘i, where she earned a degree in drama and dance.
“I went to the summer course for puppetry and a man named Kermit Love came to teach it,” she explains, noting that she comes back to teach the puppetry course at UH alternate summers. “He built Big Bird and Snuffleupagus, and he made me fall in love with puppetry at that point.”
Then, whether by serendipity or fate — or both — the real-life Big Bird himself, the late Caroll Spinney, flew into her life and pointed her to the right direction.
“Caroll was very fond of Hawai‘i; he had a house in Kona for many years,” shares Arciero. “I met him in college. He came to do concerts at the (Waikīkī) Shell with the symphony. He and his wife, Debi, they encouraged me to follow puppetry and to come to New York and audition, and if I ever got there, they would introduce me to Jim Henson and get me going. I was very excited about that.”
Eventually, Arciero made her way to New York — but it wasn’t easy. First, there was a stop at University of Connecticut, where she graduated with a master’s degree in puppetry and theater arts, followed by the highly competitive auditioning process.
“The first time around, they were looking for someone to do Snuffy, and Marty Robinson got the job, but they said, ‘We’ll call you back when we do the next round,'” she remembers. “They called me back once a week for four months. I went into a workshop, which is really an audition to get the job. They started with about 300 people and ended up with two of us, and at the last one, I was cast as Grundgetta. That was pretty amazing.”
With Spinney as Oscar the Grouch, the two became the famously not-so-happy (and quite crusty) couple on-screen. However, off-screen, Arciero says he was a wonderful man who became a mentor to her.
“We were gonna get married at one point (on the show) and we thought it would make us happy, and then we realized as grouches we don’t like to be happy, so we didn’t get married,” Arciero jokes. “But Grundgetta always likes to say, ‘That was the worst mistake. We would’ve been miserable just like all the other married people.'”
In addition to Grundgetta, Arciero also performs a variety of background characters on Sesame Street — little girls, frogs, dogs, cats, chickens, penguins and more.
“We’re the back-up team, and I also assist a lot because many puppets have two live hands to pick things up and you need a second puppeteer when you do that,” she reveals. “So like Ernie has two live hands. The puppeteer (who does the voice) has his hand in the head of the puppet and the left hand usually, so you come in as what we call the right-hand job and you make it look alive and follow, so I do a lot of that.”
Arciero also has multiple off-screen roles for the company. Among them, she teaches and directs large walk-around shows for Sesame Street throughout the world, as well as smaller shows for Sesame Place theme park, SeaWorld Orlando, and Beaches Resort in Turks and Caicos.
In September, she traveled to South Africa for two weeks to help reboot an updated version of Sesame Street. Outside of Sesame Street, which celebrates its 50th anniversary, she serves as artistic director for the National Puppetry Conference at Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
“I love it because I’m nurturing other puppeteers in the world to move on into all different forms of puppetry, not just the style we do on Sesame Street,” she says. “Puppetry is a very big field. There are many aspects of it. So, every summer there’s a two-week conference that I run, and I bring artists in to teach other forms of puppetry and that’s really one of my great loves.”
Arciero admits she has the best office in the world, and works with a wonderful, hard-working team of people. Her two sons pretty much grew up on set and even made appearances in the background of the show a number of times. She’s also met countless celebrity guest stars along the way, including Sally Field, Tracey Ullman, Beyoncé, Robin Williams and fellow local boy Bruno Mars. But the highlight of her colorful career, she says, is still the first day she walked on to Sesame Street.
“It’s not always easy what we do, but it has been an absolute joy,” she says. “I love what I do so much. It’s so fun, rewarding, silly, difficult and challenging. The highlight really has been getting to do what I love at basically the top level of my field.
“I’m very fortunate and I’m very lucky. I was at the right place at the right time and it’s something I love. I got to do what I love my whole life. It’s really quite phenomenal.”
Arciero lives in Connecticut and works an hour away in New York, but says part of her is always in Hawai‘i. She returns a couple of times a year, which is when you can find her getting her fill of Hawaiian food, including at Kahiau Poke on Smith Street, or enjoying live Hawaiian music, such as Olomana’s Jerry Santos at Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikīkī Beach Resort.
“You can’t get Hawaiian food anywhere but Hawai‘i really, and I miss it a lot when I’m gone,” she says. “I love the beach. I love not wearing shoes. I love to go to the cultural events, and I do love Hawaiian music so much and hula.
“I don’t think you can ever take the Hawai‘i out of a girl. I hope someday that I will retire to Hawai‘i — that is the ultimate goal. My family is still there – brothers, nieces, aunties, uncles and cousins.”
Arciero, who is Hawaiian, Japanese, Italian and a little English, has even added some Hawai‘i influence to the show. For example, in Sesame Beginnings — a video series and line of products that featured baby versions of classic Sesame Street Muppets, along with their caregivers — Arciero played Baby Big Bird’s caretaker Aunty Nani Bird.
“She spoke with a local accent and she would say, ‘Oh Big Bird, come inside now if you done playing, OK?,'” she recalls. “They let me do that, which was wonderful, so I did get to create a Hawaiian character. Big Bird, the character, has relatives in Hawai‘i.
“What I like to think is that all of my characters and everything that I do does kind of carry the aloha spirit. That’s my goal — for people to understand the sense of community and love that Hawai‘i represents. To me, this is who we are. We are caring. We are concerned people and that’s really how I feel, that I share that aloha through my work with puppets, with adults and children. I’d like to think that I have touched many lives in that way.”
Caring For Each Other
In response to the unprecedented uncertainty facing young children and families during the coronavirus pandemic, Sesame Workshop has launched the Caring for Each Other initiative oﬀering a broad variety of free resources.
Visit sesamestreet.org/caring for brand-new content featuring Sesame Street Muppets sharing messages of love and kindness, playful learning activities, and virtual play dates. There also are resources designed to help parents provide comfort and manage anxiety, as well as help with creating routines, fostering playful learning at home, and staying physically and mentally healthy.
Sesame Workshop also will be creating new material on topics like handwashing, how to cough or sneeze properly, and how taking good care of yourself means taking good care of others, to be released in the coming weeks.
Families can also watch Sesame Street episodes on HBO, PBS stations and the PBS KIDS 24/7 channel, with an expanded offering of free on-demand episodes of Sesame Street on PBS KIDS digital platforms.