[How To] - Build The Muppet Theatre, Part 1

Hi Ho!

Before I begin, I need to make a special mention to two people. First and foremost, to Lance Cardinal. He was 100% the inspiration for the project. A chance Google search resulted in me finding his jaw dropping original, which is obviously the product of time, effort, and talent. I saw what he had done, and was immediately floored by the quality. So, of course, I thought, I can't do that. But if I try very hard, I might be able to make something a fraction as impressive.

I cut corners. A lot of corners. Cardinal did not. Cardinal added corners to work around. I spent hours in preparation for this project spilling over the pictures on his site, trying to figure out A) how he had done things, and 2) how I could do it with a fraction of the talent and a portion of the effort. An excellent example is his brick work, which is mortared cement. Mine is a stick-on picture. It's like looking at an actor in person, and comparing it to the wax figure of them at Madame Tussauds. Whenever I had doubt or a question, or worked myself into a corner, I'd rush over to his example and work it out from there. I highly recommend and insist, after looking at what I have done, you head over to his site and see how it should have been done.

Second, I'd like to thank the owner and staff at The Little Dollhouse Company, in Toronto. Luckily most of the Palisades Muppets stuff is at standard dollhouse size, and they are the only such speciality store in southern Ontario. They were kind and helpful, and gave great suggestions for possible work arounds for many of my issues (see my comments above, about me being something of an artistic fraud). Their products are quality, and I would highly recommend them for all your dollhouse and obscure action figure playset construction needs.

So, as I discussed last week, in the early days of the millennium, Palisades made one of the greatest toy lines ever, commemorating the Muppets. They then suffered a slight set back, in that they went bankrupt and the line came to an abrupt and painfully premature end. Aside from the loss of any future figures, and the promise of a similar quality Sesame Street line, one of the biggest losses was the lack of a Muppet Theatre playset, which was rumoured to be in production when they went bankrupt. Having now went through the exercise of building one, and finding a place for the beast in my home, I can only assume this thing would have been produced in severely limited quantities. It apparently would have been big enough to house any of the playsets, and sink up with the Bank Stage set (evidence of this exists in the presence of linking pips all down the side of the Back Stage set, which now sadly link to nothing).

If you are lucky enough to have a collection of Palisades figures, and any of the playsets (or, like myself, the vast majority of both), the lack of a theatre is painfully obvious at times. The individual sets can only accommodate so many figures. And even then, just from an aesthetic, presentation point of view, you feel that the figures would be best displayed in their natural habitat. So, early last year, during a particularly stubborn bout of writer's block, I went to my local hardware store and bought an assortment of lumber, in an attempt to sate my creative drive. What began on really nothing more then a whim evolved into a seven month, part time on-going project, put on hold at various points due to conflicts in real life and that writer's block finally sorting itself out (and then returning with friends).

In the early fall, I finished. There are few things in my life I'm proud of, that I can look at and say that was time well spent. I'm still not sure if this is one of those things. I'll leave that for you to judge.

Hit the jump to get things started.

For anyone interested in following in my foot steps, I offer these words of advice: stop. Really think about it. It seems like a good idea right now, but let me tell you, aside from probably wanting to take a hammer to the thing a dozen times during the construction, once you're done you've got to live with it. And even though you can design and measure and conceptualise all you want right now, once it's done, it will be bigger then you realised, and you'll have to find a place for it. And probably move it, a couple times.

If you still want to move on, good for you. Because if someone had told me all that before I started, I would have said "toss this" and went and played Batman: Arkham Asylum for a few weeks until I got my writer's mojo back. In an effort to make your life easier then mine, I have included materials used, various measurements and other helpful descriptions that will take some of the guesswork out of the project. Please note I said some. There will be guesswork. You're on your own for that.

The overall dimensions of the theatre have to accommodate the largest of the playsets in terms of both height (the Swedish Chef Kitchen) and width (Swine Trek) on the stage, as well as be high enough to sit comfortably and flush with the Back Stage set. I failed in that last regard, being off by an eighth of an inch, resulting in a small step between the two.

My theatre measures 25 inches wide by 161/2 high, by 133/4 deep. Above are the 21/2 inch wide (1/2 inch thick) boards I used to form the (hollow) base, and the 3/4 inch square dowels I used as the frame, which will support the facade, the back and side boards, and the curtain rods.

Obviously, take into account the width of the boards when cutting the base to size. For the 25 inch length, the front and back base boards will need to be 231/2 inches, because of the dowels at the corners.

This is all three of the large boards you'll need, for the back, the one side, and the stage floor. The material is 1/8 inch thick hardboard (and yes, for those paying attention, that is where I made my folly with the Back Stage) with a white finished side and a smooth wood side. This, I felt would be important. I wanted the smooth side for better adhesion with the glue for the eventual pattern sheets, and the white would be easy to paint for the exterior.

The back piece should cover the entire theatre, 25 inches wide by 161/2 high. The side piece, for the stage left side (stage right connects to the Back Office) should be 161/2 high by 133/4 wide. The stage floor will then be 25 by 133/4 wide, with 3/4 inch corners cut out of the stage piece to accommodate the frame. 

The stage takes an early shape. The corner frame pieces will be connected to each other with cross bars. The side piece on stage right will be attached by hinges, so it can swing open and allow the sets to be placed inside.

The cross beams have grooves bevelled into them to hold the round dowels that will eventually hold the curtain and backdrops.

The facade is made of a single piece of white matboard, which will attach to the front of the theatre like a picture frame, with a wrap around on the stage left edge to close any additional distance between it and the Back Stage. It will also have two fold-ins, one each side of the stage interior. The design of the facade was traced directly from the Back Stage playset, and transferred to the matboard with pencil. The centre pieces are flower shaped spacer beads. Rather then deal with seams, the entire frame is one piece, with the centre hole cut out, and any folds taken into account.

After the design of the facade has been traced on, to give it dimension, it needs to be gone over in Puffy Paint. This speciality paint will dry solid as it has been laid (in this case, as piped through the nozzle), and will rise further if cooked, which this was not. This is slow, tedious, intricate work that needs a steady hand. I recommend taking many breaks, as the eye will cross and the hand will shake otherwise.

For paint, I used simple all-purpose acrylic paint, colour matched as best I could. Despite my best efforts, the colours ended up just slightly off those on the Back Stage set, which is only really noticeable when they are side by side (which would require an empty space more then 40 inches long; a space of this side does not exist in my home). By itself, it looks more then good enough.

Everything from the stage up will be painted a dirty green, while everything below and the facade will be a deep nearly crimson. The majority of the painted surfaces got a gloss varnish after three coats (with a base) of paint, but the frame pieces got a matte finish after two coats and no base, to give them a look of unkept disrepair, such as the Muppet Theatre has.

Here the facade has been painted. The entire piece was painted with the crimson, to give the beads and the Puffy paint a base coat. The Puffy lines and beads then needs to be painted with a fine tipped brush. To be clear: by the end of this, you will have drawn this design at least five times. Once in pencil, once in Puffy Paint, and three times in gold paint to get it to "pop" the right way. By the end, you will hate this design more then anything else in life, and wonder why in the hell you thought it was a necessary for the facade to match the Back Stage, and this was obviously why the company went out of business and I don't care it theirs were made of plastic and robots, and not hand painted. Damned gold paint.

Assembly begins. My bad, I thought of every stage but this one. The sensible way would be right angle brackets at the corners of the frame. Except that would leave gaps once the stage was attached (afterwards I realised I should have receded the brackets into the wood, but then again I have never been given an award for woodworking). Nails straight through the frames risk splitting the wood. Glue, I worried about it not holding as tightly. I ended up using an L bracket on the under side of the frame, attaching to the frame piece, and both base pieces. When the cross beams are attached, the whole thing becomes as stable as a rock.

You can also see a cross bar piece in the middle, added for additional strength, and to prevent the stage from bowing under the weight of the playsets (which are heavy for a toy).

I understand that you can purchase printed doll house patterns, but I opted to design and print my own. Using various doll house resources on the web (which I've since lost the address of), I was able to generate the brick design that best matched the footage from the Muppet Show, and a less polished looking floor board design. I had it printed on matte adhesive paper, and cut and applied the pieces. You'll note that I, once again, miscalculated the size of the brick sheets, which left gaps at the edge. This didn't end up being that big a problem, as the back board will be completely covered by the base, and the side piece will be covered by the frame.

The cross bars are attached and the stage floor installed. Put the floor in first, and attach with fine finishing nails along the edges and on the centre stabiliser. The cross beams are attacked with right angle brackets, which are then painted to match. Once the facade is attached, they'll largely disappear.

The back and sides are attached. At the last minute, I realised I hadn't left a way for the swinging side piece to remain shut, and had to install a magnet system. A hole was drilled into the frame piece, and a round magnet glued in place, while a plate piece was attached to the wall. In the months since I finished the project, this swinging side board has warped slightly, resulting in the magnets not being as effective. I would champion either: thicker board, or some sort of latch system (which I'm currently investigating myself).

The side piece swings open. Dowels are cut to length for the curtains. These dowels will eventually be painted to match the green of everything else.

At this point, I forgot to take pictures as I was in the process of putting the finishing touches on the back and side wall, and as I attached the front facade.

Inside the stage area, I used Muppet Show posters that were included in the Back Stage playset (Palisades really made it easy to accessorise). Hooks were made from bit of 1/8 dowels, to hang the various props from, and a ladder to nowhere was made out of the same, based entirely on Cardinal's design, because it looked cool. Electrical wires and switches were made from necklace cord and dowel ends.

Here you can see the facade fully attached, with the wrap around on stage left. The "No Smoking" was taken directly from the show, specifically, the Steve Martin episode from season two, which gives viewers the best look of the stage without set dressings on it. It was painted on with undiluted water colour paint, which gave it a blotchy, faded look. The stage rope is twine, glued in place (once work most to the small details, I used a lot of super glue. This set has quite a bit of my skin attached to it, and thanks to this set my right hand pinky now has no finger print). The flood lights are charm bracelet pieces, because I didn't want to pay the price for the fully functional ones. Frustratingly, the store I bought them from would only order and stock three at a time, even after I had requested a larger number. So, that was a (prolonged) pain in the ass.

The fringe at the top of the stage went through various evolutions before settling on the simple drape. Originally they were meant to billow, but at such a small scale billowing was too hard to get to work. I would at this time thank my mother for doing all the sewing on the curtains and fringe, as I have zero talent with those demon machines, and she has a life time of experience saying "yes dear" when I explain my "crazy projects." So, thanks mom (there, are you happy now? I mentioned you on the internet). 

Next week check back for the finished product, in use with the playsets and the figures. Yes, I'm dragging this out. But it's my site, and it's my prerogative (plus, I'm low on ideas right now). You don't like it, then start your own popular culture website and build your own playset for an extinct toy line, and display it however you like.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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