Out with their puppets, and into the streets, several hundred demonstrators descended Saturday, Nov. 3, upon Washington D.C. for a Million Puppet March.
Brought together to defend the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS) - and by the fear a Romney administration might defund it - adults, children and those adults still children at heart had an unmistakable message for the Republican presidential candidate: "EL-MO! We won't go!"
Grover, Kermit and other familiar faces from Jim Henson's Muppet clan blended into the crush of traditional marionettes and talking socks marching upon Capitol Hill.
Protestors, and their humans, traveled incredible distances from South Carolina to Texas and Wisconsin too the weekend before Election Day, carrying signs that shared the urgent theme of a country whose future hangs by a thread. Twenty-one thousand public broadcasting jobs, and the $1 billion they are pumping into the national economy, are at risk if Mitt Romney tries pulling the plug on PBS, Million Puppet Marchers alleged in their online petition.
However, those assembled were also not afraid to "raise some goofy hell" either, as demonstrator Mike Quinn declared. Outpourings of support ("Teachers for Creatures") and condemnation ("Flip the GOP the Bird") were met with outright silliness after one demonstrator dressed as Miss Piggy warned Mitt Romney, "Don't mess with a true diva."
Shortly after 10 a.m., protesting puppets streamed out of Lincoln Park, surrounded by police escorts, as they stormed up the length of East Capitol Street toward the Capitol dome proclaiming, "Puppet power" between chants of "Whose street? Sesame Street!"
For small-business owner, and animator, Michael Bellavia of California, what began as a "visceral" reaction to Romney's presidential debate pledge to eliminate public broadcasting quickly morphed into a call to arms. Little did he realize though, after he secured the web address and Twitter handle for the Million Muppet March, that social activist Chris Mecham of Idaho had already laid the initial blueprint for their Million Muppet March with a Facebook fan page. Shortly thereafter, these two, digital strangers teamed up to launch a movement in a matter of several weeks. It was not until Saturday's protest, as the felt began to fly, that both these men met in the flesh for the very first time.
Led by a cadence of "MahNaMahNa's," the marchers eventually reached the Reflecting Pool separating the U.S. Capitol building and National Mall as sympathetic onlookers cheered from their stoops, and flabbergasted commuters fanned out behind them, unsure of what they had exactly witnessed. Whatever confusion though that did linger in the air quickly evaporated after march organizers Bellavia and Mecham introduced their audience to Michael Mangello, a student of Georgetown University, and his emotional defense of Sesame Street as a tenant of his childhood.
"My grandparents didn't arrive to America until their 30's," Mangello said. "Although eager to seize the opportunities promised to them, they still found themselves chained down. Speaking from the perspective of a small boy seated upon his grandfather's lap, Mangello "could hardly believe him when my grandfather told me he watched Sesame Street whenever he could, usually with my father, then but four years old ... PBS lifted my family up into the sphere of possibility the English-speaking world presents me."
Christine Giguere and Crocky, a three-year old, scaly hand puppet of hers, shared Mangello's enthusiasm which, after an eight-hour train ride up from Myrtle Beach, S.C., did not appear to be dampened in the slightest by the day's blustery weather. "I've always loved puppets, always have," Giguere reminisced about the impact Jim Henson's Labyrinth and Dark Crystal films had upon her childhood, as Crocky's googly-eyes swayed to the dulcet tones of "The Rainbow Connection" wafting through the breeze.
Co-creator Adam Jones of the Fuzz and Feathers performing company implored those in attendance to consider that "for so many children who don't have any parents around to tell them that they love them, PBS does." Whereas "other TV networks teach children to destroy," PBS Jones concluded "tells children to create, think, dream and discover."
President and CEO Craig Aaron of Free Press, a nonpartisan group supporting public media, surprised rallygoers with the paltry amount budgeted for public broadcasting, given the raised stakes. Aaron indicated that in the 2011 fiscal year alone, only $430 million of a $3.8 trillion federal budget paid to PBS, National Public Radio (NPR) and other individual programs, or $1.50 per person last year.
Even though federal funds account for approximately 15 percent of the PBS budget, Aaron mentioned that anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of a rural network's budget might be comprised of federal funds. Compared to the Scandinavian governments that spend upwards of $100 per person keeping public broadcasting on-air, couldn't the United States stand to spend a little more than $1.50, Aaron suggested, "So Big Bird doesn't have to wear ads like a NASCAR driver?"
Besides, "Who doesn't love a puppet," march organizer Mecham mused. "We already have a couple as politicians."
But, "Big Bird is a puppet, and not a partisan," Mecham exclaimed to the cheers from a motley mob of monsters, raising goofy hell.
(Million Muppet March images via Russ Voss)