In honor of Bill Diamonds’s recent Emmy Award for Set Design, we wanted to publish his story from 2014. It was an honor and a privilege to meet such a talented, American puppeteer.
By Brian P.J. Cronin (Recycled from October/November 2014, Edition 8)
Photographed by Karen Pearson
Your first impression of Frankenstein’s Castle is that it’s been there forever. The walls seem impossibly thick and impenetrable, the wrought iron portcullis strong enough to withstand the blows of a thousand angry mobs, the stone towers soaring to the full moon and beyond…
“Yeah it’s all foam,” says Bill Diamond, touching one of the tower tips with his fingers. “Foam and wood. The whole miniature is on wheels so that we can rotate it and have bats fly around it. Come on, I’ll show you around.”
And with that he turns away from the model to face an imposing black metal door, twenty feet tall and wide as a car. He pulls back the latch with a resounding clang that echoes throughout the cavernous space. The door creaks as it slowly swings open. Shadowy shapes of creatures not from this world can be seen looming within the darkness, watching you with frozen eyes.
WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF BILL DIAMOND
You may not know Bill Diamond’s name, but if you grew up in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s; if you’ve attended a regional theater production of Little Shop of Horrors; if you’re a fan of the macabre, the dark, the mysterious—or if you’ve ever watched the Yankees’ cable channel—you’ve seen his work.
“My love was always televison,” says Diamond. “Television and art.” As a kid he was drawn to the work of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen. As a teenager he made his own stop-motion films, posing each shot, frame by frame by frame. There was one problem.
“It just went so slow for me,” he says of the painfully meticulous process. Then one night he turned on the TV and saw The Muppet Show. Everything changed.
“I thought that was a great idea for television, so I started building my own puppets. Of course, I never knew that I’d actually get to work with Jim.”
Jim, of course, being Jim Henson: creator of The Muppets, of Sesame Street’s most iconic characters, of Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and the memories of an entire generation of young television viewers. Diamond had gotten some attention for his stop-motion animation work, so he was able to get a job working on Sesame Street at a young age. Through Sesame Street, he met Jim’s son John Henson, who remained a close friend until his death last winter. Through John, he met Jim.
“Jim liked TV,” Diamond said. “And so did I.”
Diamond was soon working out of the Henson Offices in New York City. He was practically still a teenager, without any formal schooling in puppetry, television or film. Instead of going to college, he worked for Jim Henson.
Diamond is quick to downplay the significance of his contributions during his time there. “Remember, I was pretty young—19, 20, 21. I was just documenting what the puppeteers were doing so Jim could study them, see how they moved on camera. I learned a lot from him, and it’s nice to know that I was part of that history, watching Jim and his talented staff. But I had my own stories to tell, and I wanted to do my own thing. Jim was very supportive.”
Diamond struck out on his own, ready to make a name for himself. And yet one of the first things he became known for wasn’t his own original creation, but something for which he would be forever linked.
“Here she is,” Diamond says, standing in front of Audrey 2, the gigantic, carnivorous singing plant from Little Shop of Horrors. “I first operated it in 1984. I didn’t know that thirty years later I’d still be climbing into the plant.”
Audrey 2 was created by Marty Robinson, a puppeteer with Sesame Street, for the original off-Broadway production. The show became an unlikely hit and soon everyone wanted to produce the play.
“Everyone wanted to do the show, but nobody had the plant,” Diamond said. And while Audrey 2 may be terrifying within the world of the play, the plant was even more terrifying for the prop and scenic crews at regional theaters who were suddenly tasked with trying to figure out how the hell to build and operate one.
Westchester Broadway Theatre did one of the first revivals of the show, and they got in touch with Diamond about building—and operating—an Audrey 2 for their production. It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but the revival was a success. Everyone wanted the plant. Everyone wanted Bill Diamond.
“If there was an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for ‘Most Performances of Little Shop of Horrors,’ it would be me,” he said laughing. Anyone who requests the rights to do a production of Little Shop is now given the contact information for Bill Diamond Productions, making his Audrey 2 the Audrey 2. He still operates it, but now he has some help. “My son Richard just started running it, so the next generation of Diamonds is already crawling into that plant.”
Bill Diamond Productions was originally in Peekskill, and they kept busy. Diamond created Stuffy the Dragon, star of his own regional television show here in the Hudson Valley. He also created the shows Dr. Rock’s Dinosaur Adventures and Land of the Moonshins, the latter of which was based on a comic strip he created. He designed playrooms for children’s hospitals and then created mascots for them. He curated puppet festivals. His puppets toured the country, they were on television, they did appearances with then-governor George Pataki. They were right in downtown Peekskill and everyone got to see their creations coming and going from the studio. It was a good time.
THEN CAME THE FIRE
In 2001, the studio was wiped out in a massive blaze. Over two hundred of Diamond’s original creations, anything that wasn’t out on tour, were destroyed. There’s a hallway in the current incarnation of Bill Diamond Productions that Diamond refers to as “Memory Lane,” featuring pictures and press clippings from the era before the fire. It’s simultaneously a testament to the power of Diamond’s work—the pictures are filled with smiling children and laughing celebrities posing with dozens of different puppets—but also a solemn memorial. “He’s gone,” says Diamond pointing to one of the puppets. “And that’s Reach. We built him for the Children’s Hospital. He’s gone.”
Bill Diamond Productions rose from the ashes, moved to an old warehouse on Mill Street in Cornwall, and began again. So did the fires. A few years ago, another massive blaze took out much of the Mill Street complex. This time, he was lucky. “It got close though,” he said. “It took out all the lower sections and then came right up to this building.”
It was an eerie coincidence, but Diamond spends too much time creating work inspired by the supernatural and the fantastical to believe in such a thing as an eerie coincidence. “Honestly? Sometimes it feels like it’s following me. I kind of always felt like it was going to come here too, so I wasn’t surprised. I’m always fighting fire.” He paused and looked up at the ceiling forlornly. “Fire and water.”
Constant water damage has forced Diamond to continuously reshuffle the space. The tour of Bill Diamond Productions involves not only seeing where things are but where they used to be, and which parts of the facility have been surrendered to the elements. Diamond doesn’t own the space, so instead of renovations he and his team are forced to hold the fort and run triage. It is not a sustainable situation, but Diamond has a plan. He’s got a lot of plans. The fires may have slowed him down, but he’s kept very, very busy doing a dizzying array of things.
Dozens of puppets stand stacked in laundry carts and bins, in various stages of production. “The first thing people are shocked by when they see these is how big they are,” he says. Most of them are human-sized or larger. Some of them take two puppeteers to operate.
Diamond begins with foam, a solid block of foam. Then, like a marble sculptor, he takes the block down to one solid form based on his drawings. One solid piece, no seams, so they look good on camera. From there costumes and embellishments are added, sculpted, sewn and hot knifed. “They used to be one-of-a-kind, but now…” Diamond’s voice trails off, lost in a memory. “Now we make some duplicates.”
Today the majority of Diamond’s puppetry efforts are based on Gorgo, a wise-cracking gargoyle who has quickly become a fan favorite (“He makes more public appearances than I do”) and the project known as Monster TV. Monster TV is how Diamond and his team pay homage to the classics of horror cinema, with puppets based on such legends as Vincent Price, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and others. Diamond has the full blessing and cooperation of the families and estates of these screen icons who are thrilled to see the legacy of their loved ones being kept alive. No one is more thrilled about this than Diamond and his team.
“These are movies most of us grew up with,” says Glen Baisley, the head of Light and Dark Productions and a member of the loose-knit team that Diamond has assembled to work with him. “A lot of the younger generation don’t know the past, so this connects them to the history. I grew up sitting on my dad’s knee by the fireplace in the winter and watching things like Chiller Theatre on WPIX. And now we get to work on things that involve the classic creatures with the classic creature’s families. They’re all supportive of what he’s doing. We think there’s too many remakes out there. We like just keeping the original thing alive instead.” As Victoria Price, daughter of Vincent Price, recently told Diamond, “I’m actually not a fan of horror, but I’m a fan of horror fans.”
Keeping the horror legacy alive is part of the project’s appeal, but Baisley thinks it all boils down to one thing. “You don’t have to be a horror fan to enjoy Monster TV,” he said. “It’s just fun.”
One look at the puppet Diamond created to represent Lon Chaney as his role in the silent movie adaptation of Phantom of the Opera and you realize what Baisley means. On one hand, the puppet accurately depicts the haunted, twisted visage of a madman driven to insanity out of love and capable of committing the most vile acts of murder. On the other hand, it’s kind of adorable. Moviegoers famously screamed and fainted when Chaney’s deformed face was revealed on screen for the first time. This Phantom begs to be hugged.
The puppet isn’t Diamond’s first foray into the legacy of The Phantom of the Opera. He also recently produced a documentary The Phantom of the Opera: Unmasking the Masterpiece that examines the legacy of the various adaptations of the tale. It’s one of the many documentaries Diamond has made in conjunction with The Witch’s Dungeon, the classic-movie museum in Connecticut.
Everywhere you look throughout Bill Diamond Productions, the classics are being honored. The 60th anniversary of The Creature of the Black Lagoon is coming up, and Diamond and his team are building a puppet based on the title character. They regularly shoot shows with John Zacherle, “The Cool Ghoul,” the first horror TV host in the country. Zacherle is 95 years old. It hasn’t slowed him down.
“You think that’s something, we just shot footage with Carla Laemmle, who was in the original Phantom with Chaney and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula,” Diamond said. “And she’s 104!”
Diamond’s own work shares space throughout the warehouse with memorabilia he and his team have collected. Fraggles, Animal from The Muppet Show, Cookie Monster, a flux capacitor that Diamond built as part of the Back to the Future ride for Universal Studios Florida. If the shark you see sticking out of the darkness when you round the corner past the conference room looks familiar, it’s because yes, it’s that shark. “We have the largest collection of Jaws memorabilia around,” he says. “We take it on tour as a museum. We’ve got stuff from Raiders of the Lost Ark here too, uh, somewhere.” Considering the famous last shot of Raiders, in which the biblical Ark of the Covenant is hidden forever by the United States government by being clearly labeled and put into an endless government warehouse, the irony is striking.
Still, as Diamond says, “It all comes back to monsters. Everybody always needs big monsters to be built. Well, monsters and sports.”
“I’ve worked on about seventeen sports shows, but you’ll find maybe like two baseballs in this whole space,” Diamond says with a laugh. Sports may not be his first love; but the Yankees’ YES Network is in nearby Connecticut, and one of the many members of the Bill Diamond Productions family needed help one day with lighting, and, well, if you need help with lighting you can call Bill Diamond. It soon becomes clear walking throughout Bill Diamond Productions that you can call on Bill Diamond if you need help with anything.
“We can weld, we do steel, we build dinosaurs. We’re a universal shop.”
We are now standing in the massive scene shop. The soft tools of the puppetry studio have been replaced with giant blades and saws. “We build stuff for the Yankees’ network all the time here, we build sets for the Nets, we build sets for World Wrestling, for Caterpillar, for many shows outside of ourselves.”
It’s a lot. It doesn’t even scratch the surface. The tour continues through the TV studios, the recording studio, the make-up room, the editing room, the mixing consoles. Bill Diamond knows how to do it all. Everything here—the walls, the consoles, even the doors—were built by Richard Diamond and his team to their specifications. They record bands here, mix albums, shoot their own TV shows and other people’s. The gothic interior of Frankenstein’s Castle sits ten feet away from the set for the After Hours Talk Show with plush leather couches and a Manhattan skyline. It’s across the hall from the make-up room, with dozens of grotesque masks hanging from the walls. “We have really neat Halloween parties here,” he deadpans.
When they are in production, Diamond does it all. He’ll be in the director’s chair one minute, then hanging lights, working a puppet, doing a character’s voice. It all comes back to Diamond’s original hero, Ray Harryhausen, creating whole worlds all by himself in his garage. It’s another way Diamond and his team are honoring their forefathers. “We feel that it’s a lost art, doing everything yourself,” he said. He looked around and smiled. “I think if Jim Henson could see this today, he’d be thrilled.”
SO WHICH PART DOES HE LIKE THE MOST?
“I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out because I haven’t grown up yet! I can do it all here, and I like that. I like that I can be a make-up artist one day and a scenic designer the next day. I wanted a shop that was well-rounded. But I guess I love most bringing it all together, being a producer.”
It runs in the family. “My son, Richard, is an incredible craftsman. He’s great at getting people together. My son, Mark, is a fantastic editor but doesn’t work for us anymore. Richard works for us and works for another company. My wife, Ruth, and my daughter-in-law gets involved, and now my grandkids are involved.”
Diamond isn’t surprised that his sons now work or have worked with him. “Well, remember, they grew up around the Muppets! They were around this all their lives.”
Diamond has made a career out of honoring other people’s legacies. Now he’s ready to honor his own.
He looks around the warehouse and he’s tired. Tired of constantly battling the elements. Tired of having to reshuffle the space to avoid the water that pours in from the roof. Tired of not having a facility that allows him to give tours to groups of children, or take on more apprentices the way that Jim Henson once took him on.
“I really think we’ve lost something by not having apprentices,” he said. “Kids don’t have that hands-on experience anymore because they’re so computer savvy. People don’t apprentice anymore and learn a craft. We need to re-learn those crafts and use the computers to support those crafts instead of depending on them. It’s okay to use them as a tool—and we certainly do here—but you don’t want to lose that tangible nature.” Tangibility is what separates puppetry from digital animation, which these days is more like digital puppetry. Flat animation has evolved into three-dimensional models acting in accordance with preprogrammed scientific laws, so they behave like the real thing. But what if you never learned in the first place how the real thing behaves, how its weight affects its mobility?
“The computer won’t teach you that,” says Diamond. “Look at GPS. It’s great, but can you read a map? Do you know where north and south are? It’s fine to use it, but you need to learn how to not rely on it so that one day when it doesn’t work you still know how to get out of Brooklyn.”
To this end and more, Diamond is working to create a new company called The Dream Factory and build a world-class studio complex here. Not “New York City” here, but here in the Hudson Valley. He points out George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, a self-contained movie studio that’s nowhere near Los Angeles. He knows the talent is here and that it would be a boon to the Valley’s economy. He knows that the momentum is building. The industry is coming.
“Some guys that work for us were going to go out to L.A. and work in the effects industry,” he recalled. “And everybody out there told them to stay where they are, because this is where the work is going to be.” Diamond is ready. He’s ready to teach the next generation about what happened before and how they can shape what happens next.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to redo the classics, so I hope we keep making new stuff. We’re trying to show people where this is all going, where it came from, so that people can expand on it and come up with new ideas on their own.”
Maybe not everyone shares his vision, but then again not everyone looks at a solid block of foam and sees Boris Karloff’s head. Following his own vision has got Bill Diamond this far, despite fire and flood. It would be foolish to think after all this that he can’t throw the switch in Frankenstein’s Castle one more time to bring another unlikely project to life.
For more information, follow Bill on Facebook at Bill Diamond Productions. █
In 2015, Diamond won his first Emmy Award for his work on the YES Network’s Yankees Post Game Show — Mo’s Last Home Game as the lighting director.
In 2017, he won his second Emmy for set design on the YES Network for Brooklyn Nets Specialty Set Design, and was nominated for another for lighting director for YES’s Brooklyn Nets Specialty Look.
In 2019, Diamond’s company, Bill Diamond Productions, was one of the Telly Award’s Silver Winners for the Entertainment General – Online category. The company received the award for their production, Gorgo’s Christmas Carol Narrated by Vincent Price.
In 2020, Diamond won his third Emmy Award. This time for set design for the YES Network’s Yankees Buzz in the Bronx.