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A Zelicious talk: My interview with Ed Christie


Jun 4, 2017
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Since October 9th to today, I was lucky enough to talk to none other than Mr. Christie himself. The one who gave my beloved blue furry spirit, as well as a big part of the other Muppets, their amazing and unique look.
Without further ado, here it is.

Q: Hello Mr. Christie! First off, I'd love to thank you (and Ms. Moyes, post mortem) for bringing Kubik, Businka and especially Zeliboba to life. To be brief: I love this Dvorovoi, and now am going around social media thanking everyone who worked on him. I was lucky enough to interview Zeli's senior performer Stanislav Klimushkin back in 2018 and would like to ask you a couple questions on how Zeli's overall look and character were created.

A: Hello Julia! I would be happy to speak to you about Zeli.

Q: First thing first: character concept! It's an honor (not even "kinda", a real honor) that, out of all international versions, only our "Sesame" got a spirit as a main character. Was the idea about it yours, or offered by Vladimir Grammatikov's team?

A: I would like to take credit for Zeli being a spirit. Specifically a Spirit of the Forest. But I don't think the Russian production team will agree. They may insist that it was their idea.
I remember in our discussions that the Russian team wanted something very different than what we had provided other international productions. So the Dvorovoi was the way to go because it is such an abstract concept. It was really fun to make variations of a sprit because no one would be able to say , "Oh... that's not what a spirit looks like..." It was very open-ended, conceptually.

Q: Speaking of spirits per se: if Zeliboba is a Dvorovoi, a spirit of the courtyard/playground, then Businka and Kubik each could possibly be a Domovoi ("hobgoblin"? - not sure what's the exact word for these small house sprites in English) and not just "ordinary" muppet monster?

A: The points you bring up about Businka and Kubik being hobgoblins or sprites were not part of my discussions during the design process. To me, they were just adorable monsters - like the other Sesame Street monsters.

Q: Do you remember who came up with the very name "Zeliboba"? Stanislav told me he "sadly doesn't know its etymology" and that the name was picked by children from a large list of names.

A: I don't know who thought of his name. That would've come from the producers.

Q: What do you, Zeliboba's human godparent, like about him the most? Both interviews the Muppet Wiki article linked to mentioned he's your favorite, but we're yet to know why.

A: He is my favorite design of all the International characters - although I do love others as well. Again, it's the fact that I was able to introduce this "abstraction" into the world of Sesame Street. Usually the other productions were insistent on a specific animal or human for their cast. Zeli was my "break away from the usual" character. And luckily, the producers saw a way to allow this creature to exist in their world. I found the group very open-minded, which was refreshing and exciting.

Q: An interview of Grammatikov's mentioned that Zeliboba's look and personality were inspired by animals that children in focus groups picked as their favorite - dog, cat and horse. He in fact ended up pretty similar to all three (especially canine features wise, but I can suppose he's got a few feline ones and eats almost like a horse, haha). How long did it take to come up with Zeli's final look? Maybe there are concept sketches you wouldn't mind to share?

A: When I designed him, I presented many designs. I'm not so comfortable with sharing those. They're mine. But I did do many color variations. Since I was designing him as a walking pile of leaves, I was presenting him in greens and autumn colors - very organic. But someone suggested that the color blue was a very uplifting "spiritual" color in Russian folklore or custom. So I figured that although blues aren't usually associated with the forest foliage I had intended, that the blues would fit into the "abstraction" I was going for in the design. There are many shades of blue in his "fur". And the looseness (the organza fabric) of his skin has a wonderful fluffy and unpredictable movement - unlike his fur legs, which in my mind keep him "grounded".
Zeli was my abstraction of what the Spirit of the forest looked like. I cannot attest to the way he looks like a dog, or a cat, or whatever animal the Russian kids wanted or suggested. To me, he came from a pile of leaves and branches in the forest. His face and other choices were designed around the idea to make him as friendly as possible. So I guess that he may look like a domestic pet or based on one, but that was not my intention. His ears are really skinny - not like a dog at all.

Q: ...I don't know. Think Disney's Goofy: ears almost just as skinny, yet he's still considered to be a dog. I guess it was the Russian team who came up with the idea of Zeli having an incredibly keen sense of smell (as in, not just different smells, but even mood, weather, or music?), yet another canine quality. And in one episode, where all the characters were celebrating the Loud Noises Day, he was actually barking and howling among the whole choir!

A: All I can tell you is that I did not design him with dog features - including his ears. Whatever they decided to do with Zeli in the show was up to them. I would have no control over that. Once he left the NYC Muppet Workshop, they could write whatever they needed for "Ulitsa" - I really didn't care. My job was done. I had no control once we shipped the character to your country so I don't know how Zeliboba progressed.

Q: That trademark, gorgeous blue coat. Or should I say, a mantle? :smile: It does look like one, and thank you for choosing blue color. It's in fact very HIS, reminds of blue sky and sea, and of how much he reaches for that sky, both literally and figuratively.

A: I designed his blue skin with leaves and branches built in to look like a pile of mulch. I purposefully made his head and overcoat to look all part of the same anatomy.
His coat was never conceived as a mantle. It was an overcoat - like you would wear in cold weather. Like, this guy arose out of the earth as a triangle... at least in my conception. His sneakers were just for fun, and his tie was designed specifically so that the performer can occasionally look through a hole in his chest and through the screen-like tie.

Q: Speaking of his tie - from what I read, no one even thought of making a hole in the costume. It remained hermetic and, though the performer would stay in it only for about two minutes, he pulled it off perfectly!
Is the coat actually supposed to be removable? There was an episode where Zeliboba wore pyjamas right over it (which surprised me - it didn't look bad, just kind of strange). Then I bought a plush Zeli by GUND, which featured a removable coat (and a blue "vest" plus ochre "sleeves" and "pants" under it), and since then, I still wonder whether it is really canon.

A: There are some animals that have an ambiguity about the function of their anatomy. A kangaroo has the pouch for her baby (as do other marsupials). It is in that mindset that Zeli has pockets which are actually part of his anatomy. The overcoat is not a coat that gets removed. It is part of his anatomy. To take his coat off is like skinning a live seal. His coat transitions up to his head which is the abstraction I was going for. But then I wanted to continue the ambiguity with the brown legs and arms. And the blue sleeves of the coat are solidly part of his anatomy - although I admit it confused many people during my presentation.
Since I haven't seen many of the taped shows, I don't know how they treated him in the scripts. Did they respect that concept? Or did they just say it's his coat - and did they ever remove it? I hope not.

Q: They didn't EVER remove Zeliboba's coat in the show, not in a single episode. What they did remove for just one episode were his sneakers - as in, he accidentally stepped into a rain puddle and was drying them in the sun - while he himself just peeked out of the window to talk to neighbors. That and in the fourth season, they changed his ears from fully-floppy lavender/greyish to perkier tan ones. But nothing else.
So Zeli really DID have pockets? His performers (neither senior nor junior one) apparently had no idea about that. But the idea sounds neat!

A: He was designed with a pocket near his left thigh. It might have been removed, but he left NYC with one.

(Side note from Stas Klimushkin: "This variant could've possibly been suggested at first, but there was definitely no pocket in the scenes. Though it'd be interesting to have him carry stuff in it, like a packrat.")

Q: Were the sneakers (a tad too urban on a spirit born in a forest) also always on him, or there are paws in them? And the tie, too?

A: Both the tie and the sneakers were there from the very start. No paws.

Q: In one episode, Zeliboba dreamed of how he'd give concerts "in his homeland and around the world". Which made me wonder what his homeland would exactly be like. I for some reason imagine it to be a mountain valley - one similar to, say, national parks in the States, with waterfalls and giant trees. He doesn't seem to be afraid of heights, and a valley like this seems like a perfect place for his kin, guardian spirits not-yet-assigned-to-a-place-to-guard, to live in.

A: I knew nothing about here Zeli might live other than in a forest. In fact, I wasn't aware at the time that he would live inside a tree. I figured he just was in a forest.
By the way, did you make the Zeli on your FB page? He needs a coat! *laughs*

Q: I WISH I could make a plushie of my own, but sadly, all I can is paint, care and love. I commissioned him to a girl who lives in Ukraine and already tried building him several times (albeit not quite show-accurate).
And since the "Sesame" episodes and a GUND Zeli was all I had to refer to, we decided to stick to GUND's version (with a removable coat, blue "vest” on his body and all).

A: He had no vest in my design. His coat was one big piece with attached arms. If that changed since I saw him last in the 90s, I have no knowledge of it. I really do not like seeing him stripped down without his coat. To me that is like ripping the skin off of an animal. The only piece of clothing on my Zeliboba was his shoes and his tie.

Q: I see and understand, but that was all we had to refer to, sadly.

A: Like I said, I am totally at peace with Zeli as I designed him and as he left my workshop. No worries. Whatever the production did is their business, not mine.
In my mind, the "stripped down" version makes him approach being human. He's not. If I were to shave him down, his body would be more like a triangle, like his coat... And anyway, he is a spirit. He should have a different body than a human.

Q: Ah. I'm in love with him and would never wish him anything bad. Please don't get me wrong, it was only OUR guess and I'm only sharing. But yes, I fully agree that he's in no way human (though possibly can shapeshift sometimes?).

A: I am not offended. Just expressing what you asked... how I thought of him while designing him. But all I see when I see his coat off is the human performer inside. The whole idea of designing large characters at The Muppets and Sesame Street is to create the illusion that this "costume" is a living and breathing character all on his own. We did not create characters that can be intellectually picked apart to see "how they worked". Although a fan may be curious, it totally destroys the joy of the character - that it is alive and real.

Q: I see. Though if, say, I see a Muppet, big or small, I just see that - a Muppet who's already real and alive - and don't care in the slightest that a performer animates them. Now one more bit about the whole removable coat thing in my case.
I must say, yes, it's really amazing that what seems to be a gorgeous getup is in fact a PART of him. The coat being alive and having the same nerves in it. The sneakers being (possibly) alive. All radiating the same warmth. That's what I love about Zeli the most - his entire being literally FLOODS you with his presence, and by his side, YOU feel more alive than ever.
But as for a smaller - let alone handmade and too big for the washer - plushie... Even all personal fanons aside, I guess a removable coat simply makes it easier to clean and dry. That's what I mainly had in mind before commissioning the master: his durability and ease of care. It's all fine and dandy for the TV Zeliboba to remain "in one piece" if the Muppets have a batch of professional cleaning solutions for their fur - but if I want mine to remain just as handsome and dust-free, I'll have to choose "the lesser evil" - and simply dress him back up after cleaning.
As for the "stripped down" version I used to paint? Thing is, I'm trying to figure out his prehistory, where and how he lived before the Street, and I'd long been thinking he got his coat as a gift of his homeland - just moments before leaving it for the Street. So I thought he might be a very light, lanky and nimble creature with "tuxedo-colored" blue and golden fur and a tail.

A: ...and NO tail!

Q: All right. And that the coat was made of pieces of the sky, the water, forest leaves and feathers - as in, everything adding a piece of itself as a memory to warm him while he's away.

A: I’m happy Zeliboba has played such an important part of your life and he's your hero, I guess. I wish you well with his origin story, although I wish you would consider what I told you about his coat. As far as I'm concerned, he's always had the coat. I never saw him as being younger and given a coat. I can't accept as anything else than a spirit that rose out of the forest floor... or that a gust of wind created him out of the debris that is in the forest. I don't see him getting the coat... he's always had it, like you have always had your skin.
But hey, If you want to create an origin story about him being gifted his coat, I cannot stop you. I have no curiosity about that. I only designed what you saw on TV - further than that, I have no curiosity. I am ONLY a designer, an artist. How Zeli's story evolved doesn't interest me because I was never asked to participate in that party of development.
I am not offended about your point of view of Zeli. I realize now that you grew up with him and I didn't. I had him for a couple of months in my life and moved on to the very next project. You've had a lifetime with him. That is much more important. I often say that my work is only a certain percentage of the character. The writers have developed the character... and the performer completes the image.
And I am totally thrilled that you have such a deep feeling for Zeli. I am flattered to have been part of your joy.

Q: Moreso, I'm ALIVE to this day thanks to Zeli. But that's another story, I'll just say I'd long decided not to pull him down to human level but reach to his myself. Part of it being remaining a child forever, no matter what the passport says.
If you ever happen to stumble upon an older fanart of mine, just know absolutely none of them was made to "strip the spirit down in spite of the designer". It's one big "Maybe", a batch of guesses over the years, and that's it.
The "gust of wind" idea sounds pretty nice.

A: I did what I did and am happy about the result. What is done to Zeli on the show, or in books, or videos, is out of my control, so I don't worry about it.
I wish you well as you develop the origin story. I'm not concerned about your concepts. It's just that I cannot help you with expanding any ideas beyond what I told you. Obviously, you are intelligent and creative, and ambitious. Great qualities to have. Let Zeli guide you to success and happiness.

Q: And he does. Be sure he does!

A: Excellent!

Q: And thanks A TON once more! I'm happy to hear from one more person taking part in creating a spirit loved by both grown-ups and little ones. Not to mention that the more advice and references the better!