Canton puppeteer loves bringing creations to life


Chase Woolner spent time as Kermit the Frog’s right-hand man.


Woolner, a 2008 Canton High School graduate who is building an impressive resume as a puppeteer, just made an appearance on The show tonight with Jimmy Fallon earlier this year. The world’s most famous frog was on the show to sing his iconic anthem, It’s not easy being greenand his trainers needed someone to work on the frog’s right hand.

Considering it’s not a one-man job to work with the Muppet, Woolner was more than happy to take the lead. After all, for a budding puppeteer to work with Jim Henson’s most famous creation is from the top of the mountain.

“It was amazing,” Woolner said of his Tonight’s show appearance. “Jim Henson revolutionized puppets. It was because of him that puppets came to the 20th century.”

The show tonight The appearance was not the first time Woolner, who received her bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts, has helped out the Muppets. He appeared in two of their films, including Most Wanted Muppetscredited as an “additional Muppet performer”, and he served as the main puppeteer in three other films.

Career moves

It’s probably not a surprising career trajectory for a kid who grew up in Chicago and then the Detroit area, where puppetry is – if you will allow me the expression – an art form.

“Chicago has a strong puppeteering history and the Puppeteers of America started in Detroit,” said Woolner, a 24-year-old Canton resident. “The Detroit Institute of Arts has the largest collection of puppets this side of the Mississippi.”

Influenced by his exposure to puppets – a ton of puppets on TV and the Marshall Fields Christmas Show also used them – Woolner started at a young age.

“There were a lot of puppets on TV and it caught my eye,” Woolner said. “I started playing when I was about 5 years old.”

He worked as an apprentice for other puppeteers and, at age 8, became the youngest member of the San Francisco Puppeteer Guild, a group founded by the parents of Frank Oz, the puppeteer who created and voiced Muppets like Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy.

creative mold

This experience helped shape Woolner’s career, as even at such a young age it made him realize that he could earn a living.

“It was a great place for me, as an 8-year-old, to meet adults,” Woolner said. “From an early age, I knew that (the puppet) could be a job.”

It honestly comes from the creative urge, since both parents were graphic designers in Chicago. He always played with puppets at home and even took them to school, where he overcame his introverted side by playing for his classmates.

“It’s an easier form of communication for someone who is socially challenged,” Woolner said. “I think I was in my own world. I was playing for them. My friends and classmates were always very supportive. I was entertaining them.”

His classmates were supportive enough that Woolner even started a puppet club when he arrived at Canton High School. He said the club attracted about 20 interested students every year and continued for a few years even after graduation.

class alone

English teacher Leola Gee, who also runs the student newspaper Perspectivewas the faculty sponsor for the club and Woolner said she was very supportive.

Gee said she was pretty sure Woolner had an interest in puppetry when she met him in ninth grade. He wore a Jim Henson jacket, had unfinished puppet sketches, and gave class presentations involving custom puppets.

When he approached her about the puppet club, she agreed, on the condition that Woolner do all the work, including finding sponsors and doing the fundraising. Woolner agreed.

“When he showed up one day with a list of corporate sponsors and a bank account with paperwork detailing their donations, I wanted to put him in charge of my 401(k),” Gee said. “As a ninth grader, he was more mature, more driven, and more capable than many accomplished adults. He was certainly the driving force behind what became an exemplary high school puppet program.”

He would, of course, like to do bigger and better things. Like the minor leaguer trying to make it to the big leagues, Woolner would love to have a character on a TV show of his own — “I’ve cast a few TV pilots,” he said — but he understands that will take time.

Gee said she had no doubts he would pull through.

“I have no doubt he’s one of the best at his craft, but more importantly, he’s one of the best people I know,” Gee said. “Sometimes an extremely talented person focuses their attention on that talent for their own satisfaction and benefit. Chase has developed his artistic gift, no doubt, but his greatest gift is his understanding that treating people with honor and respect is more important than the artistic product.”


In the meantime, Woolner is supplementing her film appearances by teaching. He’s doing Puppetry 101 at Wayne State, and he’s in the Bright Futures program at Eastern Michigan University. He also teaches a variety of classes at the Plymouth Community Arts Center, where his filmmaking class this summer attracted 18 students aged 8 to 16.

“Teaching and playing are the same for me,” Woolner said. “The script is the program and there is always an audience. You try to captivate the audience. Teaching and acting are the same for me. I live in the moment. In no other field have I found that.”

He also found joy in what he thinks is the best thing about being a puppeteer: creating life.

“You can bring anything you want to life,” Woolner said. “As a (puppet) actor, you can be anything from an 8-foot-tall yellow bird to a little green frog. Your range is endless.”

Even at the still tender age of 24, Woolner did much of what he set out to do in the puppet realm. He designs his own puppets, he was educated, and he even worked with the most famous puppets of all time, Jim Henson’s Muppets.

But he wants to do more.

“I did all of that. I achieved my (original) goals,” Woolner said. “I try not to let that be the top. I’m rewriting my goals.”

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Twitter: @bkadrich

Chase Woolner shows puppets that contain a metal frame that allows the limbs and body to bend.  These are used in stop action movies.
Puppeteer Chase Woolner (left) and Observer editor Brad Kadrich donned hand puppets.  The interview then continued through the puppets.

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