About two dozen grown-ups gathered around the television at ThirdSpace to watch Sesame Street together on Monday morning.
Seated at tables where people typically drink beer and listen to live music on weekends, they had agreed ahead of time to keep perfectly quiet so they could hear their friend Stacey Gordon voice the newest puppet on the long-running PBS show.
The character is a curious, 4-year-old girl named Julia. She has fiery red hair and green eyes and is living with autism.
Some people at the viewing party, like Gordon, have family members affected by autism. Others are fellow artists. And all are watching intently. They let out a big cheer at the end of the episode. It's not just for Gordon, but for the message at the heart of the show: None of us are exactly the same. And that's a good thing.
For a little girl who grew up loving The Muppets, being part of the show that launched in 1969 with so many of Jim Henson's characters is literally a dream come true.
"I've wanted to be on Sesame Street for a long time," Gordon says. "But I never expected it to happen."
Gordon owns Puppet Pie, one of several creative spaces located inside the historic Bragg’s Pie Factory building on Grand Avenue in downtown Phoenix. She’s been building puppets and teaching puppetry workshops there for about two years, but she founded Puppet Pie back in 2006.
Her roots in the Phoenix arts community go back even further. Gordon moved to Phoenix as a newlywed in 2001, and co-founded a puppet improv troupe called Die Puppet Die with Mack Duncan the following year.
She's performed for many years at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater — sometimes in family shows, other times in adult-only puppet slams with just a touch of mischief.
In 2005, Gordon connected with Trunk Space, the iconic DIY arts, music, and experimental performance venue that relocated last year from Grand Avenue to Roosevelt Row. She's exhibited her puppets there many times, says co-owner Steph Carrico.
"Stacey is one of the sweetest, hardest-working people you'll ever know," Carrico says. "She has a childlike curiosity."
For Carrico and other locals who’ve worked with Gordon, the Sesame Street gig comes as no surprise.
“She’s always been really passionate about her puppetry,” says Jose Gonzalez, founder of the Galapagos improv troupe and programming director at Torch Theatre. Gordon has performed plenty of times there as well, he says.
Gonzalez credits Gordon with being “smart, funny, spontaneous, and flexible.” But she’s thoughtful, too, he says. When Gonzalez started Galapagos, Gordon built and gave Gonzalez a tortoise puppet inspired by its name.
She’s also been active on the national puppetry scene, hosting workshops and performing at various puppetry and improv festivals around the country for well over a decade. And she dabbles in photography, often capturing the nuanced expressions of her puppet creations, Gonzalez says.
Despite the resemblance, Sesame Street didn't design Julia to look like Gordon. Julia actually began as an online-only character. She was created as part of the show's autism awareness initiative.
Once they decided to have Julia appear on Sesame Street, they needed a puppeteer.
Gordon landed the Julia role in spring 2016, before Sesame Street announced the character was coming to the show. So she just wrote a general Facebook post, telling people she was doing some puppetry for the show.
Sesame Street officially made the announcement on March 20, 2017, that it was bringing the character to the show. After that, Gordon was free to share the news.
Gordon’s journey from Grand Avenue to Sesame Street began with a text message from Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, who plays Sesame Street’s Abby Cadabby. She’s one of several Sesame Street cast members Gordon met during time spent on the national puppetry circuit.
“I need your contact information, but I can’t tell you why,” Gordon recalls the text reading. Turns out, Carrara-Rudolph passed it on to the people at Sesame Street, which was looking for a puppeteer to play Julia.
An e-mail from Sesame Street brass followed, asking Gordon to send an audition tape. Then, they had her send another. Next came the invitation to audition in New York, where she got to tour the set and go behind-the-scenes of the show she’d always wanted to be part of.
“I was just happy I got to visit the set,” Gordon says. “I assumed that would be my first and last time there.”
But two weeks later, she got the call from Sesame Street puppet captain Matt Vogel.
She was at the Puppet Pie studio, building a puppet, at the time. “I wanted to let you know that the producers decided to go with you,” she remembers him saying. At the time, she says, it seemed like he was talking in slow motion.
Since then, life’s basically been a whirlwind.
Gordon has flown to New York several times for tapings, interviews, and media appearances. She’s visiting Congress with fellow autism advocates in Washington, D.C. And she’s had some surreal experiences, like seeing Julia dolls that share her own blazing red hair. At ThirdSpace Monday morning, Gordon got her first look at an article about Sesame Street and her Julia character in the current issue of Time magazine.
Julia appears in just two episodes of this season of Sesame Street, Gordon says. But she’ll appear more frequently after that, which means more traveling between Phoenix and New York City.
But Gordon says she’s not making any major changes to her life here in Phoenix, where she and her husband Todd live with their 13-year-old son who was diagnosed with autism when he was 7 years old.
Her daily routine still includes getting him to and from school, and working in between in the Puppet Pie studio. Nowadays, she’s frantically making nearly 100 puppets for her exhibitor’s booth at Phoenix Comicon, and managing the uptick in Etsy orders for her puppets since the Julia news broke.
During First Friday on April 7, Gordon was all smiles inside her Puppet Pie studio, talking fur, eyeballs, and feathers with everyone who stopped by for her latest open house. On Saturday, she was back at Great Arizona Puppet Theater, sitting front and center for that night's adult puppet slam.
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Despite Gordon’s recent rise to national prominence on the puppet scene, Gonzalez says it’s important that people remember her local roots, and support the Phoenix arts scene that’s been so integral to her journey.
Gordon’s Sesame Street success is a shining example of what can happen when artists have the affordable studio space and performance venues they need to flourish, Gonzalez says. Carrico sees something else at play: "an arts scene where locals can take risks while honing their craft.”
The "Meet Julia" Sesame Street episode will re-air several times on Arizona PBS. Visit the Arizona PBS website to see "Meet Julia" air times.