Fuzzy on the outside, this guy's on the inside

CorrespondentMay 31, 2012 

Sesame Street Live “Elmo’s Super Heroes” comes to the PNC Arena, June 1-3.

2012 SESAME WORKSHOP — Courtesy of VEE Corporation

  • More information What: “Elmo’s Super Heroes,” a Sesame Street Live production When: Friday,10:30 a.m. & 7 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Where: PNC Arena, 1400 Edwards Mill Rd., Raleigh Cost: $12, $17 and $22. Opening night, all seats are $12. Special $50 Sunny Seat packages are available at all shows. Sunny Seats feature front-row seats and a pre-show Meet & Greet with two Sesame Street Live friends. Details: 800-745-3000; www.ticketmaster.com; www.sesamestreetlive.com

It’s hard not to love “Sesame Street,” the educational TV show that has been entertaining kids and their parents for more than 40 years. This weekend is your chance to see the characters in person, as Sesame Street Live comes to Raleigh’s PNC Arena.

There are two shows Friday, three on Saturday and one on Sunday of “Elmo’s Super Heroes,” in which Elmo, Abby Cadabby and other well-known characters sing and dance in a Broadway-style show, teaching kids about exercise, nutrition, sleep and hygiene.

Thousands will see the show, but as the kids delight in seeing their favorite TV characters, many will probably forget that there are real people under those outsized fleece and fur costumes.

There is often little recognition for the performers who tour the country, playing more than 300 shows and traveling nearly 20,000 miles each year. The cast and crew of about three dozen live out of hotels 10 or 11 months a year.

We spent a bit of time this week talking with Jason Matney, a 34-year-old dancer who plays Purple Honker in the show.

His fuzzy purple character has horn bells for ears and communicates by honking his orange nose. (If you’re not familiar with Sesame Street’s Honkers, check out the “Honker Duckee Dinger Jamboree” video on YouTube.)

Q: Did you watch Sesame Street as a child? Was this job a childhood dream for you?

A: It’s extremely nostalgic for me. Most of my life I had a Sesame Street experience of some sort, either watching it as a kid or watching younger members of my family enjoy it. It’s a rewarding experience to be able to pass down that entertainment education I grew up with as a child. I didn’t imagine having this job, but I was quite a character as a child, so it’s not far-fetched to perform in a show like this.

Q: How did you get this job? What training and experience led you to becoming Purple Honker?

A: It is a dance company, so I’ve had dance training. I’ve been performing since I was in high school. I was a performer at Disneyland California. I danced in their parades from 1997 to 2000, and from there I fell into this job.

Q: What’s it like inside that costume? How do you dance in it?

A: (Matney wears a large fur suit that allows him to see out through the mouth. He is entirely encased in the costume, and must dance in the character’s oversized feet.) The costumes are large and they can be a bit cumbersome, but once you train in it it becomes like a second skin. You do sort of have to readapt on how to move extra weight on your body that’s not your own... It can get pretty warm in there, but they try to make sure the temperature is down low enough for us, and there are always fans running behind the stage, so there’s a constant flow of cool air.

Q: The schedule sounds grueling. Traveling 20,000 miles and performing 300 shows a year. Is being Purple Honker a more difficult job than your fans might imagine?

A: It’s an acquired lifestyle. I don’t seem to have any difficulty doing it. I’ve been doing it for 10 years now. I love to travel. I love to see new scenery, new faces every week. If I’m home too long during a break, I get stir crazy.

Q: Have you had any interesting fan experiences at your shows?

A: This kind of show is almost like a rock concert for kids. Once the characters come out, the kids are so excited. We encourage the parents and kids to get out of their seats. We ask the kids to get up and dance. Every once in a while, a kid takes it as an invitation to come on down to the stage.

Q: What’s your favorite part of your job?

A: The most rewarding thing for me is seeing the reactions of the children. I love children. I love that I can make them smile with my performance. There’s nothing more genuine than a child’s response. When you see them cheer or see them laugh, that’s the most genuine response you can get as a performer.

Q: What’s your least favorite part?

A: Every so often, I do miss home. I get homesick and I miss my family and friends. But the best part of this tour is you’re with the same people, 34 people or so, so they become a second family.

Q: What’s your advice for kids who want to be Purple Honker when they grow up?

A: I would say, fine tune your craft. Become the best performer you can be... (And don’t be in it for the glory.) I don’t even take credit after the show. The children and families see me, but they don’t even know it’s me.

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