Sesame Street comes to Tulsa Community College

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Asst. prof. Ken Wood (l) and Benjamin Gennetay at the Tuesday afternoon workshop. Photo by Bob Mueller.
Asst. prof. Ken Wood (l) and Benjamin Gennetay at the Tuesday afternoon workshop. Photo by Bob Mueller.

Kip Rathke 
Bob Mueller
Contributing writers

TCC recently played host to an Emmy-winning puppet designer.

How did Kip Rathke, currently the Creative Director at Sesame Workshop, get his start?

By gluing feathers on to Big Bird’s costume, one at a time. “For five dollars an hour,” he points out. “The feathers are cut from a boa by hand, then dyed, steamed, and curled very carefully,” he said, adding that there are about 3,000 feathers per costume.

Rathke was on campus Oct. 25 and 26 for a workshop and presentation at the Center for Creativity as well as sessions with art and design students.

Assistant Professor Ken Wood was on hand Tuesday night for Rathke’s presentation on his creative process. “I wanted to hear about his creative process, and see how analog creations transfer to the digital medium.” Wood and Benjamin Gennetay also attended Rathke’s Tuesday workshop on creating puppets.

Oliver Scott, a 6th-grader who attends Stonebridge Academy in Okmulgee, also attended Tuesday night’s session, bringing two puppets he had made from scratch. “I enjoy making puppets. It keeps me focused,” he said.

His father Jerron says he tries to encourage his son to be creative, saying, “This is a golden time for Oklahoma and the arts. We come from a small community and art advocacy is just taking hold there. I would definitely drive him an hour to see a professional like Kip.”

Rathke had similar support growing up. His father was a mechanical engineer who drew as a hobby, and his mother and grandmother created stuffed crafts as gifts for extended family members. Rathke eventually seized on the craft idea after watching early episodes of “Sesame Street.”

As part of the Henson team, Rathke won a Daytime Emmy for his work on “Elmo Saves Christmas.” “I had to buy my own statue, which I couldn’t afford at the time. I did get a nice certificate though.” He ended up buying his statue years later, after a semi-frantic search for the certificate.

Rathke worked on numerous shows through a variety of companies before landing at Sesame Workshop, where he now oversees the design of all licensed toys and themed entertainment, such as at Sesame Place theme parks.

After 37 years in the puppet industry, one Daytime Emmy win and three other nominations, what does Rathke consider his greatest achievement?

“I was most proud of the freedom we had in designing the heads for the boar characters (in “Muppet Treasure Island”). They turned us loose on that and trusted us to create something great, and I think we did.”

Before handing out souvenir Big Bird feathers, Rathke challenged the crowd of 40 people. “Embrace your obsession, and make it your inspiration. Escape to where life wants to happen.”

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