A monster of a dad Cookie Monster muppeteer raising his family in Chicago By Mandy Burrell • Photos by Frank Pinc
Thirty-five years ago David Rudman, then 5, knew: Puppets would be his life.
The inspiration was "Sesame Street." The show, which made its debut in 1969, immediately captured the imaginations of American children-including Rudman-with its happy Everytown setting and colorful cast of silly, lovable characters, including a huge, yellow bird; a grouchy green thing that lives in a garbage can; and a big, blue cookie-eating not-very-scary monster.
The Muppet show had all of Rudman's favorite things-art, singing, acting and television. So by the time he was 8, Rudman was regularly tearing apart his house looking for pipe cleaners, pingpong balls and worn-out clothes to turn into his own homemade puppet creations.
By 18, Rudman was an intern at "Sesame Street." Soon after came an audition with the Muppets' beloved creator, Jim Henson. He offered Rudman a job starting the day he graduated from college.
Today, Rudman is a father of four who lives in Highland Park and commutes to work in New York City, where he provides the voices and works the puppets for two residents of "Sesame Street"-Cookie Monster and Baby Bear. For the past 18 years Rudman has been living out his childhood dream. He is up for a Daytime Emmy in the Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series category. Winners will be announced May 21.
"For David [puppeteering] is part of who he is," says wife, Caren, mom and artist. "From the time he was a little boy, it's been a part of him."
The perks are great It's a career path with great perks. After all, most folks don't get to spend the day cracking jokes about the letter Y or hanging out with famous folks such as B.B. King, Beyoncé Knowles and Norah Jones. For the Rudman kids-sons Joey, 11 and Noah, 6, and daughters Marlee, 9, and Phoebe, 3-some of the best perks are the simplest ones. Every couple of years, Rudman takes Cookie Monster and Baby Bear to his children's north suburban school.
"As they've gotten older, they're very proud," says Caren Rudman. "They've gotten more into the fame part of it."
She also takes the kids on reverse field trips to help Dad puppeteer on the set. "They love going to the studio, and they always tell all their friends about it and that their dad is Cookie Monster," she says.
But Caren Rudman thinks the best perk for their kids is they get to witness their parents making a living doing what they love. As her kids develop their own creative outlets, she's glad she and David are fortunate enough to practice what many parents can only preach. "We tell them to find stuff that they love to do and do it, and that will lead them to success," she says.
Dad's support is key Rudman's own father, a financial consultant who raised him after his mother died when Rudman was 11, encouraged him to pursue his dreams. Even as a teenager at Highland Park High School, "when all of my friends planned to become lawyers and businessmen, I knew I wanted to do something different," says Rudman.
His dad supported him the whole way, even calling him out of class the day he landed his internship at "Sesame Street." "He really saw that I had a passion for this, and he was very encouraging," Rudman says.
Caren Rudman says it was David's passion that drew her to him. The pair attended high school together but didn't fall in love until after college, when they bumped into each other during one of Rudman's visits home. By then, he was settled in New York City and already had performed in classics such as "Muppets Take Manhattan" and "Labyrinth." After they married the Rudmans moved into a Manhattan apartment, and Caren attended art school while David did his puppet thing. As newlyweds and artists, they loved New York. That changed after the birth of their second child. "I didn't like New York raising kids," she says. "I liked it as an artist, but once we started a family, I felt so isolated. Then my friends started buying suits for their kids to interview for preschool, and I just couldn't do it anymore."
Making choices Moving back to the Chicago area meant Rudman would have to spend weekdays in the Big Apple three months out of the year. On the plus side, it also meant the kids would grow up near grandparents, aunts and cousins, he says. To the Rudmans, the choice was obvious.
Caren Rudman looks at it this way: In many families, one parent travels 12 months out of the year. And doctors are on call every weekend. But her husband only goes away from the end of October through January. He comes home most weekends and on Jewish holidays.
Still, those three months can wear on the family. "In some ways it's hardest for David because he's lonesome and he misses the kids," says Caren. Then again, sometimes it's hardest on her. "I remember one time very clearly when David had just finished doing a photo shoot with Cindy Crawford and Tyra Banks. He called to tell me this and I said, 'That's nice; I'm standing in a pile of throw-up right now,' " she says. "And I literally was. And we just laughed so hard because it was so opposite."
Having a sense of humor always helps-as does the live-in helper, who shoulders some of the childcare and housework duties for Caren Rudman, who also tends to her own creative urges every week by carving out time for her own artwork or creating photographic portraits of area families.
"I would probably go crazy if I didn't have an outlet," she says.
When Rudman comes home, he can't get enough of his family. "When he's home he's so hands-on and he's so here for them," she says.
"Sesame Street" used to tape 90 new shows a year. That number has dwindled to about 26. So Rudman started his own company, Spiffy Pictures, to give him something to work on in the off-season. He runs the company-which produces animation and live action bits for Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and MTV-from Highland Park. Between "Sesame Street" and Spiffy Pictures, Rudman works about the same amount that he did before. But with Spiffy based in Chicago, he's home more often.
Between fatherly duties, Spiffy projects and the occasional special taping for "Sesame Street," October comes around all too quickly each year. But it's not the worst way to spend three months, he says.
"I love what I do, and I love the people I work with. There aren't ego things going on,'" Rudman says. "And sometimes I'm just sitting in the studio thinking, 'I can't believe I get to do this for a living.'"
Brought to you by the numbers 3 and 5 'Sesame Street' celebrates 35 years of entertaining, educating
For 35 years, the familiar first notes of "Sesame Street's" theme song have sent kids running to grab the best seat in the house, six inches from the tube. So many Americans have grown up "this close" to "Sesame Street" that, whether 40 or 4, most of us can do at least one pretty good Muppet imitation-or at least rattle off the details of a favorite skit.
Although kids of all ages cherish the show's silly story lines and colorful characters, they are only half of what makes Jim Henson's brainchild such genius. In creating "Sesame Street," Henson was a pioneer in quality children's programming. Not content to simply entertain kids, Henson wanted to educate. And he didn't just want to teach ABCs and 123s. He wanted children to learn in the most accessible and imaginative way the skills they would need to know for life. The show remains one of the most forward-thinking children's shows on television.
That's why every episode of "Sesame Street" touches on four aspects of a child's development: cognitive, emotional, social and physical. In one half-hour episode, kids may learn to count with the help of a harmless, middle-aged vampire; to reason as Grover wraps his mind around fuzzy concepts such as near and far; to forgive as Bert and Ernie make up from their latest quarrel; and to give their busy minds and bodies a break as Oscar reads a bedtime story to Slimey.
In the show's 35th season-when life seems more complex than ever-"Sesame Street" remains committed to its dual role as a "silly safe haven" and a learning place where kids come to understand the world around them. For instance, the timely "Global Grover" segments introduced last year will continue in 2004, emphasizing respect, understanding and appreciation for other cultures as everyone's favorite blue dude explores Mexican villages, Israeli kibbutzes and Polish homes.
And don't miss the show's 35th anniversary special, "The Street We Live On," making its debut at 8 p.m. April 4 on WTTW-Channel 11. Grover will take Elmo on a "magical journey" back in time to learn more about the famous street he calls home.
With stops at Mr. Hooper's store, Maria and Luis' wedding and little Miles' homecoming, the show promises to delight all of its fans-young and old.
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