March 14, 2012

Len Levitt, a Jewish puppeteer who has personally met Miss Piggy, made Aliya two months ago, and settled in my hometown, Ra’anana.

In the past 35 years, Levitt wrote scripts and plays, taught puppet workshops, activated some of the most famous puppets in the States, and touched the lives of many children. He performed in films, educational programs, television shows, commercials, and even performed live in synagogues and community centers.

Levitt operated puppets on the sets of The Muppet Show (television series, the Disneyworld ride and even their latest movie), Team America, Sesame Street, Men in Black, Scary Movie, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Levitt and his puppets became famous figures in many Jewish communities. As a private producer, he works under the name of The Levity Puppets.

When I got the chance to interview the man behind my childhood heroes, I didn’t think twice, and had the instant need to share:

What brought you to the world of puppetry?

“I got into puppetry at age of 12, when I volunteered to do a puppet show for Purim, at my synagogue. A friend of mine from school, who was also into puppetry, joined me. We watched a ‘make it yourself’ guide by Jim Henson and made our own puppets. We wrote an original script and the show was a success. Later, we did another show at school. Later, we were invited to perform at children’s birthday parties.”

When did you realize that puppetry is your calling in life?

“Puppetry was a very big hobby of mine as a kid. When I enrolled in college, I realized that I probably won’t be able to make a living out of it, and majored in political economy. After I graduated, I decided to give puppetry a chance after all, and see if I could make it as a puppeteer. I knew that if I will never give this a chance, I would regret it for the rest of my life.  I was lucky to succeed at a very early stage, and got my masters degree in puppetry.”

What draws you to work with puppets?

“I have a childhood experience that I remember very vividly: I grew up in a suburb of New York, in a small town. Every summer, the circus came to town, just like in the old movies. I watched the performances and I remember the rush I felt through my bones. I remember how happy I was, watching the clowns, the performers, the animals. I carry that joy with me every day, and that is the feeling I love giving to other people. I love to watch children laugh and just have fun. I love to give children that thrill of excitement. When I see children smiling, shouting and clapping, I feel satisfied. Thant is when I know they had a good time they won’t forget in a long time. Over the years, I got to work for some famous directors, such as Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg. I got to be a part of several blockbusters, and this was also a very meaningful experience for me. It’s always nice to make money. Sometimes earn money and sometimes I don’t, but I always make children happy.”

Two months ago, Levitt made Aliyah, and settled in Ra’anana with his wife and two children (4 and 8). “Growing up, I was a member of a Zionist youth movement, and I was always attracted to Israel. I got to visit several times, and had always been interested in the adventure of the Jewish land. Since college I’ve been making promises to move here, but my Hollywood career stopped me from actually going through with this decision. What finally brought us here were our children. We wanted to raise our kids here, and have them learning Hebrew and have a strong relationship with Israel. So we packed our bags and moved here, and now we will try and raise our family here. After 30 years of wanting to move here, I’ve decided that nothing will stop me and my family”.

You have operated puppets on the set of The Muppets, as well as on the set of Team America, which is meant for an older crowd and have a completely different content. What type of puppets do you prefer working with?

“Shows like The Muppets and Sesame Street were the reason I fell inlove with puppetry. They were my heroes growing up. I remember seeing Cookie Monster for the first time. I was amazed and thrilled by this amazing character. I was always amazed by how fun and light characters can be. While I enjoyed working on Team America, working for The Muppets is a dream comes true.”

In the age of 3-D and computer animation, is there still a room for puppets?

“While computer animation is quite thrilling, and there has been quite a few 3-D movies lately, I believe there’s nothing like the thrill of the “real thing”. We are aware of computer manipulations and abilities, and we do enjoy them. But when you see a puppet flying across the room, doing a back-flip and landing on its feet, you get a much greater experience. You know it is a puppet, but you can’t stop thinking: ‘how did they do that?’. The “Wow” effect of watching a stunt performed by a puppet is greater than any big explosion seen in 3-D.”

As someone who had the honor to meet the Muppets in person- do Kermit and Miss Piggy get along in real life?

(laughs) “In real life, Kermit and Miss Piggy get along just fine. Better than fine. The arguments and disputes are for the camera only. They love appearing on tabloids covers, and they’ll do whatever it takes. It’s all for the publicity.”

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