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Puppet wrangler Stacey Weingarten is — literally — one of the people behind Elmo and Big Bird, but the pandemic has seen her spread her wings by writing, producing and directing a new family musical about her rescue pup, Rue. Here’s Stacey’s West Side Story.

So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
Born in New Jersey to a family of former New Yorkers… so it was inevitable that I would return!

Stacey Weingarten with her co-workers at Sesame Street.

How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
Moved here as a fresh-faced freshman for college. Went to Fordham at Lincoln Center, but was admitted without housing so I settled in Hell’s Kitchen and never left.

What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
The proximity to everything I love – great theater, great food, and all the subway lines my heart desires.

And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
I can’t stand when folks don’t know what they want while ordering bagels at my favorite place (which appears to have become a tourist hotspot). I’ve got my order down to a science, the least everyone else can do is know what they want by the time they reach the register! (Haha.)

Stacey (and Rue) join the line at her favorite bagel shop. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time? 
I escaped — but not initially because of the pandemic! The week of the shutdown, no joke, I was scheduled for minor surgery on my wrist – the same day that my dog happened to have a partial stroke. We escaped to Princeton so my parents could help us during our recovery. After a month, since all my freelance work was canceled (both Sesame Street and the Jim Henson Shop shut down), I went to LA to be with my partner and his pup.

What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
Pre-COVID, my most common day job was a Puppet Wrangler for Sesame Street and the like (sometimes I puppeteer or build puppets/props, too). So you don’t have to ask — it means I basically make sure that Elmo is ready for his closeup, and that includes everything from rigging props/costumes, repairs, and last-minute “I wish we had a [blank]”. I love MacGyvering of it all — putting pieces together and thinking on your feet — but the pandemic helped me start a career transition to spending more time writing/producing/directing, which I had always done on the side of my puppet wrangling career. I’m currently directing/producing my family musical Rescue Rue (running down at the DR2), and in pre-pro for a new kids’ TV show, and I couldn’t be happier. Sometimes it takes a full-blown pandemic to ask, “what are you waiting for?”.

What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
The ease and importance of adaptability, as demonstrated by my dog Rue. At the very start of the pandemic Rue’s hind right leg just stopped working. The timing could not have been worse between a literal pandemic looming, and my first surgery – it was like she knew the only thing that could make me not scared was, well, what happened. We were both in the hospital at the same time (me, at Columbia, her at the Animal Medical Center). Then as the world shut down, I got to watch Rue recover. It was incredible. She wasn’t fazed by her changed reality – at first she couldn’t even stand on her own – but we did restrengthening exercises, went on walks with her sling, and over the next few months she learned to use her leg again. While her leg will never be 100% (I lovingly call it her Stanky Leg), she’s still 100% my Rue!

Stacey and Rue recovering during the pandemic.

Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
How life goes on. I’ve had a number of friends have babies; I’ve watched as NYC went from full shut-down to opening up again; I’ve been working COVID-safe sets since August 2020. Life just… goes on. People are resilient. And New Yorkers in particular are especially resilient.

What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
There are probably too many to count. I love accidentally running into folks on the street, which happens a fair amount if you work in theater and live in Hell’s Kitchen. Last month, I was literally running back to my place to make a zoom meeting and breezed past two pals from California near Amy’s!

What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
I’ve been lucky in my career to have more than a few brushes – I’ve outright worked with people I would have never imagined possible, from my amazing coworkers at Sesame Street to Crank Yankers to Julie’s Greenroom, just to name a few. But when I wrangled Big Bird for Apple’s Livestream I was steps from Steven Spielberg and Oprah, so that or wrangling at the Kennedy Center Honors probably tops my list of “what is my life?!” moments. But my favorite part? Even in a room of celebrities, the biggest is still Big Bird!

Stacey with Big Bird at Sesame Street.

What’s your superpower?
Problem-solving and staying calm in the face of crazy. Which takes a dash of crazy itself!

What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
Depends on my mood! Right now I’ve got a playlist full of Jukebox the Ghost, and Allen Stone. Ludo is also great for a pick-me-up; sometimes you just need a sci-fi rock opera concept album to belt along to…

Which people inspire you the most?
There are so many, but let’s start by saying my mom is truly incredible. Patient, smart, kind – I get my best qualities from her, which in turn came from my grandparents. I’m also constantly in awe of the folks I’m working with right now on my musical Rescue Rue; the cast and creative team is filled with some of the most compassionate and talented humans I have ever known (not hyperbole), which goes hand-in-hand with the show’s mission of pro-animal rescue and pro-social/emotional lessons for kids.

What’s your favorite quote or saying?
Another thing I just can’t pick one of. “Hope for the best, expect the worst/life is a play, we’re unrehearsed!” (a Mel Brooks’ lyric) is a good one that feels apropos for the day we’re living in. If we’re talking more aspirational, I’m very much an “it’s kind of fun to do the impossible” (Walt Disney) kinda gal.

Stacey is getting ready for Rescue Rue at the Daryl Roth Theatre

Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
It’s a love/hate relationship. I love theater. I hate crowds. But I love that crowds help support theater. Hence… I have to love/hate it.

Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
Honestly, haven’t spent much time there. But I do love that there’s a subway that takes you there… I love the subway so much, and lack of an all-night, all-city subway is one of the biggest things I dislike about spending time anywhere else!

If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
Oh man, can I get a few? The pandemic shuttered many of my favorites — like Uncle Mario’s, Donna Bell’s, Kodama, and the Housing Works. I also wish Sesame still filmed nearby, what a commute that would’ve been!

Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
The musical — Rescue Rue — that I wrote based on my dog’s rescue story is running at the Daryl Roth Theatre (DR2) in Union Square until January 30th! You’ll even catch an ode to Hell’s Kitchen on the set if you know where to look (hint: it’s on the table of contents page, a phrase that makes sense when you see the show). Find more about the show on Instagram at @rescuerue and RescueRue.com, and me at SAWeingarten.com, for more info.

Anything we missed?
I could go on and on about how I love HK (even wrote a comedic historical fiction ghost-story play about the old Hell’s Kitchen and the new), but I’ll leave it there!

Stacey’s Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places

UT47: They’re the best coffee/tea in the area with the loveliest owners and staff (I miss their seating and hope it returns after the pandemic).

Empanada Mama: Some of the best all-night-dining you can ask for — and so fast, especially if you know what to order.

Spoiled Brats: It’s where my pup gets her food and treats, from fellas who always ask how she is.

Gong Cha: It’s my favorite bubble tea chain that finally opened a spot nearby… even if it is in Times Square!

Pick A Bagel, fka Bagel Stix: They’re consistent, yummy, and always well-stocked! 7-Grain Bagel, scooped, with a li’l lox-spread… yes please!

Junior’s: Yeah, I know it’s a tourist stop, but I love their matzah ball soup, sour pickles, and the ability to wash it all down with Diet Dr. Brown’s.

Holey Cream: It’s all about the Outrageous Java Guatemala.

Worldwide Plaza: It’s so lovely to sit and people watch with my pup, maybe enjoy lunch, maybe do some work. The cherry trees around the plaza are gorgeous in the spring!

Stacey and Rue in World Wide Plaza. Photo: Phil O’Brien

New World Stages: Not one but five theaters all in one place — a favorite from before I even lived in the neighborhood. Worked there for the first job I had after college (ImaginOcean), as well as on a show that meant a lot to me (Avenue Q).

Dog & Co (Turnstyle): What a selection! The cutest, softest sweaters, and where I got Rue’s favorite chew toys (pull-apart french fries and taco).

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