While visiting local schools, Lyon realized that the puppet could pay the bills, which led to what he said was a difficult choice to stop attending classes at Penn State. Once again, Manfull offered sound advice by introducing him to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, which is dedicated to the development of new works and new voices for the stage.
âSo here I was in State College and my name is a puppeteer, but I had never even met another person who considers himself to be a professional puppeteer and I have no special training in puppetry,â said Lyon. âI was like, ‘I should find out more about this thing that I pretend to do,’ and I took a chance and bet and signed up for the O’Neill puppet program. “
In the spring of 1986, Lyon, for the first time in its life, was surrounded by puppeteers. He immersed himself in the culture and program offered by the O’Neill Center, and it wasn’t long before his gift for art was discovered. Later in the year, Lyon was invited to visit the Muppet workshop. âSesame Streetâ had just finished filming the season and he âmetâ some of the classic puppets from the series, like Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
âI was in sensory overload. Famous puppets were everywhere you looked, âsaid Lyon. “It was overwhelming.”
The workshop manager encouraged him to try a few. He put Grover on and “got him moving a little bit.” The foreman, recognizing his talent, encouraged him to audition for Henson productions.
âOf course I laughed and I was like ‘yes everyone wants to be a puppeteer’,â said Lyon. âBut I did and took this chance of rejection. It seemed like so many other people believed in me, and I thought, âI should too. “
About five months later, he had an interview with Jane Henson, the wife of the famous puppeteer. That conversation ended with an invitation to participate in a two-week audition, but due to Lyon’s performance schedule, he was unable to do so.
âShe asked me when I could come and I said, ‘Well I can come for the last day,’â said Lyon. “I thought she would say, ‘Well, forget that’, but she said, ‘We’ll see you then’.
When he arrived for the last day of the audition, he was unexpectedly interviewed in person by Jim Henson. Later that evening, under the watchful gaze of his childhood icon, Lyon was asked to do something he had never done – puppeteer for a camera. The main difference for television, said Lyon, is that the puppeteer performs in front of the camera and watches his performance on a monitor, which displays an image that is flipped.
âI was there with Jim watching and my right is my left and my left is my right,â said Lyon. “But because I had been so deeply affected by Jim’s style, and had been imitating him since I was 8, what I had in mind was the Muppets’ lip-syncing technique.”
In January 1987, Lyon was offered their first job with Henson, in a public service announcement. The relationship developed and eventually led to him joining the cast of “Sesame Street” in the fall of 1987, where he remained for the next 15 seasons.
As her run with “Sesame Street” drew to a close, Lyon, through industry acquaintances, was asked to help develop the Tony Award winning Broadway hit “Avenue Q”, who combines puppets and human actors to tell the story of a brilliant Princeton, a blue-eyed college graduate, who moves to the big city and, alongside his new friends, fights with them to find jobs, dates and their ever-elusive purpose in life.
As well as creating all the puppets for the show, Lyon was a member of the original cast playing Nicky, Trekkie Monster, and others.
The show took place on and off Broadway for 15 years, and Lyon said they have created more than 300 puppets to meet demands for popularity and performance.
“Avenue Q” closed in 2019 and Lyon continued to freelance, his work appearing on shows such as “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”, where he recently created and operated a pair of talking pants for the opening. Colbert cold from the first studio since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.