Don Sahlin (pronounced "Sa-lean") (June 19th, 1928 - February 19th, 1978) was JIM HENSON’s main designer & puppet builder in the 1960s & '70s, & a key influence on the overall aesthetic of the Muppets.
Don Sahlin’s work in puppetry spanned the worlds of TV, film, stage, & even stop-motion animation. Born in Stratford, Connecticut, his interest in puppetry led to a brief tutelage under Rufus Rose, puppeteer & builder for The Howdy Doody Show. Drafted into the army but released in 1953, Sahlin put his puppet experience to work on Michael Myerberg's stop-motion animated version of the operetta Hansel & Gretel. This led to other assignments in Hollywood as a stop-motion or effects animator, notably working with the company Project FX on several of George Pal's films. (Pal was the creator of the Puppetoons, whose influence can be seen in many similar SESAME STREET vignettes, like "King of 8"). Sahlin’s work with Pal included scenes for Tom Thumb (animating various playroom toys) & The Time Machine, for which Sahlin provided effects shots & even appeared on-camera, as the clothing store’s window dresser in a pixillation sequence.
By 1960, Sahlin had moved to New York & was working with puppeteer Burr Tillstrom of Kukla, Fran & Ollie fame, building & re-building Kukla, Colonel Crackie, & Tillstrom’s other characters for a Broadway show. It was around this time that Sahlin 1st met JIM HENSON, at a Detroit puppetry convention.
In 1962, HENSON contacted Sahlin to build a dog character he had sketched for use in commercials, Rowlf. Don Sahlin soon became HENSON’s primary designer & builder, beginning with commercials & early projects such as Tales of the Tinkerdee.  He also provided special effects for Time Piece, & assisted on stop-motion projects, such as the animated ham used in the second Wilson’s Meats Meeting Film (in which Sahlin has a cameo). In The Muppets on Puppets, HENSON introduced Sahlin to the viewers as "doing some of our backstage effects & working some of the puppets" in the 1968 special. In a story-telling skit, he alternated between puppeteering Rowlf’s right hand & operating effects like an "explosion". Don Sahlin went on to create & build Muppets for SESAME STREET, The Muppet Show, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, The Muppet Movie,amongst many others.
Don Sahlin also helped JIM HENSON with 2 of his stop-motion SESAME STREET films , "The King of 8" & "The Queen of 6". In a Closeup Magazine interview from 1976, Don Sahlin said "JIM HENSON supervised the filming, but he gave me all the freedom in the world to do what I wanted."
Sahlin is the designer credited among JIM HENSON staff as the creator of Ernie & Bert, Grover, Cookie Monster & other classic SESAME STREET characters. He is "the inventor" of the Muppet look, from a design point of view. As discussed in the book JIM HENSON’s Designs & Doodles, many of the Muppets began as HENSON’s rough sketches, which Sahlin then built & modified as needed. This often included special mechanisms or effects; for the La Choy Dragon commercials, this meant "devising a system for this early full-body character to actually breathe fire." Sahlin was known to refer to himself as the "guardian of the essence" of the Muppets.
Beyond building specific characters, Sahlin contributed 2 significant concepts to the Muppet aesthetic, "the Magic Triangle" & "the HENSON stitch" The former was a simple but effective approach to positioning eyes, creating a triangle in relation to the nose & mouth. JIM HENSON explained the importance of eye placement: "It would be the last thing [Sahlin] would do, & he always wanted me there, to make sure it was right for both of us -- making sure the eyes had a point of focus, because without that you had no character."
The stitch is a specific method of sewing cloth as tightly as possible so the seams would be "nearly invisible," thus aiding the illusion of stylized "reality" when characters were filmed in close-up. This technique, dubbed the "HENSON stitch" by Sahlin, does not in fact create a truly invisible seam, but worked sufficiently for television purposes (hiding, for example, the seam down the middle of Kermit the Frog’s snout).
Experiments & ExplosionsEdit
In addition to building assorted monsters & other bizarre characters, Sahlin had his own eccentricities & unique sense of humor, which often resembled the antics of the Muppet characters themselves. Indeed, the character of Crazy Harry was originally named Crazy Donald,after Sahlin’s tendency to rig explosions & other intricate devices in people's desks.
At MuppetFest, DAVE GOELZ recalled this side of Sahlin: "He’d run "squibs" -- little remote-control explosions -- all over the office. He’d wire one on your desk, with a wire going down desk legs to a doorbell under Don’s desk. He would wait until you were having your coffee. He would just sit there & choose when you would explode. He would just sit there, talking to you, waiting for the moment -- & then you went."
Another trick, recalled by GOELZ, involved crafting a spring-loaded mouse from gray fabric & yarn wrapped around a bolt, & wound with a reel of rubber band around furniture legs. "He’d just wait until the right moment - wait until everyone was in the right position, & then just pull the ring."
At the same event, JERRY NELSON recalled that Don Sahlin once rigged up a hose over Jerry Juhl’s desk . He waited until Juhl was inthe office for an hour & a half, then left the room & whispered through the hose: "Jerrrrry... Jerry Juuuuuuuhl..."
GOELZ remarked that these jokes may seem weird, but "it’s a key part of what The Muppet Show was. Don would never be working on what he was supposed to be working on... That spirit permeated everything that he did, & we caught it. It was all about having fun, & it became very passionate."
Sahlin’s creativity was not limited to building puppets or frightening his co-workers. At the New York Muppet Workshop, a group of mice, freed from a hospital, resided in an aquarium in the office. Don Sahlin constructed an elaborate environment for the mice, 1st using a clear plastic sphere & an assortment of lines & pulleys to create an elevator for the mice. Sahlin later created an aerial highway, "like a mouse freeway", by which the rodents could travel independently across cupboards, to chandeliers , & down to the desks, riding in a Slinky vehicle.
Sahlin died on February 18, 1978. In his honor, JIM HENSON had a bench with an inscription placed in Sahlin's favorite spot on Hampstead Heath, the highest point which overlooked the city of London (Following his own death in 1990, the same bench was dedicated to HENSON himself.) The bench was renewed with new wood & engravings in the summer of 2012.
The final episode of Fraggle Rock was also dedicated to Sahlin’s memory. Jocelyn Stevenson recalled that the 2 tributes were not unrelated. The production team had been stumped in trying to find a name for the small, industrious creatures of Fraggle Rock. Walking on the Heath to clear their minds, Stevenson & HENSON stopped to sit on "Don’s bench." "& the minute we both touched wood, we said, out loud simultaneously- Doozers! Perfect name! 'I knew Don would figure out a way to work on this show,' said JIM. So we thanked him & went back to work."  Sahlin also continued to receive posthumous credit for his work in creating the Muppet Movie & SESAME STREET characters, in such productions as The Muppet Movie, BIG BIRD in China & Follow That BIRD.
- Commercials -- Built Rowlf, The Southern Colonel, Sir Linit, Delbert the La Choy Dragon, Baskerville, Mert, others
- The Jimmy Dean Show -- Maintained Rowlf
- Time Piece -- special effects, cameo as nightclub comic
- Tales of the Tinkerdee -- Built Taminella Grinderfall, King Goshposh
- The Ed Sullivan Show -- Built Beautiful Day Monster, Sclrap Flyapp, Mahna Mahna, various
- Hey Cinderella! -- Built Splurge, King Goshposh (with Kermit Love), Featherstone
- SESAME STREET -- Designer &/of builder of Cookie Monster, Grover, BERT, Ernie, BIG BIRD (1st version of HIS HEAD; largely redone by Kermit Love), OSCAR THE GROUCH, The Amazing Mumford
- The Great Santa Claus Switch -- Built Thig, Thog, & various Frackles
- The Muppet Musicians of Bremen -- Built Leroy the Donkey, Rover Joe, Rats, & others
- The FROG Prince -- Built King Rupert the Second (with Kermit Love), Taminella Grinderfall
- The Muppet Show -- Built Lenny the Lizard, Beaker, Jerry, Sam the Eagle, Dr. Teeth & "Special Puppets"
- Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas -- Built Alice Otter, Emmet Otter, & others
- The Muppet Movie -- Muppet Designer
- Hansel & Gretel (1954) -- stop-motion animator
- Tom Thumb (1957) -- stop-motion animator (Devils, Other Toys)
- GI Blues (1960) -- puppeteer
- The Time Machine (1960) -- stop-motion animator, actor (as the window dresser)
- The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) -- stop-motion animator(Elves)
- ↑ Pettigrew, Neil. The Stop Motion Filmography McFarland, 2003.
- ↑ *Inches, Alison. JIM HENSON’s Designs & Doodles. p. 46.
- ↑ Closeup Magazine, No. 2, interview by David Prestone, reprinted here.
- ↑ Inches, Allison. Designs & Doodles. p. 50
- ↑ Finch, Christopher. Of Muppets & Men.
- ↑ Finch, Christopher. JIM HENSON: The Works. p. 27
- ↑ Finch, Christopher. JIM HENSON: The Works. p.202
- ↑ Durrett, Deanne The Importance of JIM HENSON, p. 32
- Don Sahlin - Page from "The Time Machine Project" with biographical details & interview excerpts
- Caskets on Parade - contains birth/death info on Don Sahlin
- Closeup Magazine interview, 1976
- Muppet Eyes
- Muppet Puppeteers
- Don Sahlin on the Muppet Wiki
- Don Sahlin on the Puppet Wiki
- Don Sahlin on the OSCAR THE GROUCH Wiki
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