St. Ambrose Alum Wins Third Daytime Emmy for “Sesame Street”
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Though he’s been unemployed for months, like millions of Americans, due to Covid-19, St. Ambrose University alum Brian Hemesath got good news late last month. For the third time out of eight nominations, the 48-year-old Iowa native won a Daytime Emmy Award for his costume design work on “Sesame Street.”
Hemesath – who earned his bachelor’s in theater and art in 1994 from SAU – was among a team of 21 designers to tie for the July 26 Emmy with the Amazon show “Dino Dana,” about a nine-year-girl who loves dinosaurs. He designs the clothes for the human cast of “Sesame Street,” and the award is shared with staff of the Jim Henson Company, which handles the puppets.
“It makes for a long nomination listing,” Hemesath said this week. “All of those people bring a design eye to what happens with the puppets and the overall look of the show. We really value all of their skills and their design eye as well.”
Also winning the Daytime Emmy in 2011 and 2015, the native of rural Calmar, Iowa (in the northeast corner of the state) finished filming his 11th season of the beloved children’s educational series, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019.
“We were very lucky; we just finished filming March 6,” Hemesath said, noting Covid shut down most TV and film production by mid-March. “It was very good timing…It’s just as magical 10, 11 years in as it was the very first day.”
“I’m waiting to hear when we will go back for season 52, and how we’ll go back,” he said. “There’s no set rules that have been established between all of the different unions. There’s the design union, the actors union, the directors union, there’s the stagehands union, and they all have to sort of agree on what they think are the safest practices for everybody. I know everybody’s been working really hard on that, because we all want to go back to work.
“There hasn’t been any filming truly started back up in New York, with the exception of very small, one-person or two people filming projects, and of course news broadcasts,” Hemesath said.
Among those thrilled with his latest in a long list of laurels is Kim Kurtenbach Furness, a Q-C actress, coach and casting director who did theater with him at Ambrose.
“I have been blessed to call Brian Hemesath my best friend since our collegiate years at SAU. It is funny to think that just 27 years ago we were forging a friendship performing together on the SAU stage and now he is a respected and award-winning costume designer,” she said by e-mail recently.
“I can tell you that he is as amazing a human being on a personal level as he is on a professional one. What I most admire about him is his humility,” she said. “I am constantly bragging him up because he is not one to brag about himself. He is one of the hardest workers I know. His parents clearly brought him up to know the value of hard work and being a GOOD human being.
“He has always been available as a friend even when he is hard at work on a Broadway show, or a Spielberg film or ‘Sesame Street,’” Furness said, noting she persuaded Hemesath to do costume design on her latest project, a TV pilot “Complete Bull,” filmed this summer in rural northeast Iowa, which she cast.
“Having the chance to work with him on our pilot episode of ‘Complete Bull’ was such a bucket list opportunity for me because I learned so much watching him put the same kind of passion, hard word work and detail into our ‘local’ project as he does his higher-profile endeavors,” she said.
“He is my best friend, a creative partner, a confidant, a mentor and a ‘big brother,’ even though he is a year younger than me and loves to remind me of that,” Furness said.
Back down on the farm
Hemesath – who comes back home from New York to see his parents twice a year – also reveled in the chance to be in similar country to the dairy farm where he was raised.
“I’m happy it happened at all. The restrictions in Iowa were very different than restrictions in New York,” he said, noting most filming was done outdoors. “Certainly, it’s a more rural setting than urban New York City. There’s a lot more space for people to social distance and be safe. It was a great project.”
Hemesath stayed with his parents in Decorah (about an hour drive), and did some virtual fittings beforehand, sent clothing to actors, and was here about a month during shooting.
“We all are learning new ways to work. I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had at ‘Saturday Night Live’ and other places where it’s always been something that has to happen in a short amount of time. You have to just go with your instincts,” he said.
Though “Complete Bull” is about beef cattle (and not dairy), “There are similarities between the two operations,” Hemesath said. “It brought back a lot of great memories – it was fantastic to get to talk to the owners of the farms, in addition to having some first-hand knowledge of what these people were actually doing and why. The importance of artificial insemination of cattle and why that is an important thing for farmers to get the most out of their cattle.”
“It’s an interesting concept; nobody really talks about it,” Hemesath said, noting the show “is as much about human interaction as that. It just happens to be the backdrop and it’s a pretty interesting one.”
“It’s really lovely to shine the light on family farms, that are not necessarily as prevalent as they used to be,” he said of the show.
Affection for his alma mater
Hemesath came back to SAU twice in 2019, first to help costume design a production of “Tartuffe” in April, and then in October, when theater professor Cory Johnson nominated him for a Distinguished Alumni Award, which he received.
“Brian’s work ethic and his kindness are off the charts,” she said Friday. “He is incredibly talented and wonderful to work with. A lot of people have talent, but don’t have the personality and the drive. He has all three in incredible measure. People seek him out, they like being in the room with him. He has a great artistic eye, and he gets everything done on time, which was not an attribute he always had in college.”
Johnson, chair of St. Ambrose’s theater department, first introduced Hemesath to costume design when he was a theater and art double major.
“He took my costume design class. With his innate ability in art, it was a great combination,” she said in 2014. “He’s got an incredible work ethic and boundless energy.”
“With costume design, he saw his two of his loves come together,” Johnson said Friday of art and theater. “He saw, oh this is something I could do for a living. It was so exciting to see his first show on Broadway, ‘Honeymoon in Vegas.’ The costumes were great; the show was lively and light, very pleasant.”
In 2011, Hemesath and his PBS team won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design/Styling for “Sesame Street,” the first time an SAU grad won TV’s highest honor.
“I can honestly say that I couldn’t have gotten where I am without the education I received at St. Ambrose and the support of some very dedicated professors and staff members who always encouraged me to do my best,” he said in an SAU article soon after the Emmy win.
“Cory Johnson, Kris Eitrheim, Mike Kennedy and Kristin Quinn changed my world in many ways and helped me to find a career that is not only financially successful, but personally fulfilling as well,” he said. “Plus, they were a lot of fun to be around.”
When Hemesath was back on campus last fall for his award, he said: “In costume designing, there’s a new challenge every day. Part of what makes costume designing so fun is that it is always different. You have to be able to think on your feet.”
Hemesath – who earned his master of fine arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University — told students the importance of being open-minded and taking on new, challenging opportunities.
“In the world of theater, there are a thousand ways to get to the same destination,” he said then. “I came to college thinking I would become an actor. However, at SAU, I was able to try my hand at other opportunities, such as directing and costume designing. So while my path to New York was not what I had originally thought it would be, my experiences have taught me that if people keep an open-mind, they’ll realize they may end up liking new opportunities better.”
Johnson directed both versions of Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” in 1999 and 2019, in which Hemesath was involved. That strong alumni link to SAU is not unusual.
“I think we are terribly fortunate at St. Ambrose, we have a longstanding connection with the theater alumni,” Johnson said. “Maybe it’s because the department is small but engaged…I would say Brian turned into a good friend long ago, and I’m more proud of our friendship than any academic relationship we had.”
Juggling ‘SNL’ and ‘Sesame Street’
In New York, he had the twin satisfactions of being able to work in costume design initially for both “Saturday Night Live” and “Sesame Street.” Hemesath started “SNL” in 2008 and worked there eight years, with credits including 100 “digital shorts” for the Lonely Island boys with memorable favorites “Dick in a Box,” “Motherlover,” “The Golden Rule,” “Boombox,” “Like a Boss,” and “Laser Cats.”
“Brian is a creative force,” said Andy Samberg, a former “SNL” cast member, on brianhemesath.com. “We threw, basically, the impossible at him every week with our schedule and insane requests, and he always showed up with ideas that were better than what we’d asked for.”
“What was helpful, Sesame’s schedule is regular and SNL’s schedule is all over the place,” Hemesath said recently, noting SNL doesn’t choose what they’re going to film until Wednesday night, and he was in charge of the pre-taped segments which happened at end of the week. “It wasn’t terrible to juggle the two of them,” he said, adding the pre-tapes often started filming at 6 a.m.
Many SNL actors guested on “Sesame Street,” including Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Kate McKinnon, as well as guest hosts Melissa McCarthy and Taylor Swift, he said.
“They’re both things people have very fond feelings for, whether it’s from their childhood or adolescence,” Hemesath said. “People get very excited about both the shows.” Comic celebrities have had great success on “Sesame Street.”
“The puppeteers are amazing at improvising, not necessarily the dialogue, but the non-verbal parts of the show,” he said. “I think there’s a joy that comes from comedians that resonates with the puppeteers that makes it a really great match. They tend to do really well. Broadway
performers also do really well in both those shows, because I think SNL, because it takes place in real time, it’s an element of live theater, combined with film.
“There’s a little bit of that while the puppeteering is happening. You’re interacting with a puppet, so I think it takes a special person to really make that believable,” Hemesath said.
Moving from PBS to HBO
Since 2015, new episodes of “Sesame Street” have appeared first on HBO and the premium cable channel’s streaming platforms. PBS has remained the free, over-the-air outlet for “Sesame Street,” with new episodes appearing roughly nine months after they premiere on HBO Max.
Hemesath said the 51st season of about 25 episodes started filming in January.
“For those of us who worked on the show, it was a relief to know it would continue as something that is an educational tool for kids,” he said. “The deal they made with HBO was HBO would get it first, but it would continue to air on PBS, which was their mission statement when they created the show in 1969. I feel like that was a beautiful way to hold on to the reason they created the show – the fact that it’s entertaining and it’s beloved by all of us who work on it, but the whole reason for it was to give children who didn’t necessarily have access to as many outlets for education, the chance to learn and learn in an entertaining environment.”
“Sesame Street” also launched a new series for HBO Max this spring, 12 episodes filmed last fall, “The Not-Too-Late Show,” a talk show hosted by Elmo. “It was a great half-hour show where Elmo generally interviewed one celebrity actor or personality, and there was a musical guest who ended the show,” Hemesath said.
“It was just lots of fun,” he said. “It was really lovely; a lot of great musical talent, singing more traditional kids’ songs.”
Hemesath also was honored to be part of the “Sesame” 50th anniversary special, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the host, and included favorite guests like Patti LaBelle and Whoopi Goldberg. He and the show family lamented the death of Caroll Spinney (“Big Bird” and Oscar the Grouch) last December at 85, officially retired since 2018 after having been with the show since the start.
“He was an amazing man. There was not a kinder soul,” Hemesath said. “What an amazing legacy he left.”
Spinney had stopped being in the Big Bird costume while still voicing Big Bird and Oscar for several years, he said. “He passed away the day Sesame received the Kennedy Center Honors. It was pretty magical that was the day that he left us. The fact that it was such a big deal; he was very sad he was not able to physically be there.”
“It was a hard day for everybody, but a great day,” Hemesath said.
Writing a new chapter for ‘West Side Story’
“He’s said in interviews, he loves the original film; he just had imagined it differently when he was a kid and he wanted to bring that to life,” Hemesath said of Spielberg and the 1961 movie musical. “I think people are going to be really excited about the film.”
“It’s a lot more realistic,” he said of the new version, filmed last July through September in New York and New Jersey. Hemesath said the original film seems more like a theatrical production.
“It feels more like you’re watching a stage, and this definitely feels like it’s happening in a real space,” he said. “The performers that they have are unbelievable. The girl who’s playing Maria was 17, and the young lady playing Anita, in addition to being an amazing actress, she was in the original ‘Hamilton’; she was in the Donna Summer musical.”
Tazewell was costume designer for the Tony-winning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” among several Broadway shows. “He came into this project and his regular assistant was not available and I was fortunate enough to come in and work on that project,” Hemesath said of the film. “It was an amazing project to be part of – such an iconic film, and the fact that Steven Spielberg wanted to remake that film for a long time.”
Rita Moreno – the 88-year-old EGOT winner who was the original Anita – is in the new cast, and “is unbelievable for her age,” Hemesath said. “She’s also one of the producers on the project – just a force of nature. Her history, willing to share
stories of what happened and how she ended up in some very iconic films. She certainly was groundbreaking in being one of the first Latina actors featured in film and television.”
“It’s an enormous production,” he said of filming last year. “It takes quite a machine to get that all together.”
“West Side Story” is scheduled to premiere in theaters Dec. 18, 2020, if theaters reopen by then.
“I’d be surprised if they decide to open the film without an actual theatrical release,” Hemesath said. “We’ll see; hopefully we’ll be in a better position and people will be back in theaters by then. Whenever they do release it, it’s going to be really special.”
He has been part of a couple small regional productions of “West Side Story,” but not its Broadway revivals. The Spielberg version is set in the ‘50s, “very true to the history of the piece,” Hemesath said.
Among his other film credits are “John Wick 2,” “John Wick 3,” and “Parabellum.”
Still involved in live theater
Hemesath has served as the assistant costume designer for the 2009 Broadway revival of “The Royal Family,” and his Off-Broadway costume design credits include “Unbroken Circle” (2013) and “Disaster! A 70’s Disaster Movie Musical” (2012).
He’s designed costumes and assisted with productions at Paper Mill Playhouse, Skylight Opera Theatre, Madison Repertory Theatre, Judith Anderson Theatre, Rockwell Theater, Galvin Fine Arts Center and the Bronx Opera.
Hemesath made his Broadway debut in 2014 as costume designer for “Honeymoon in Vegas,” a Jason Robert Brown and Andrew Bergman musical, based on the 1992 film. The musical first ran at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, transferred to Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre in November, for previews, with its official run Jan. 15 to April 5, 2015, garnering rave reviews but not enough of an audience.
Later in 2015, Hemesath earned the Theatre Development Fund’s Irene Sharaff Young Master Award.
That honors a designer of distinction early in his or her career, “given in recognition of Irene Sharaff’s wish to see young designers encouraged on their way to fully acknowledged success and excellence in the field,” according to tdf.org.
The honors are named for Sharaff (1910-1993), whose costume designs won five Academy Awards (she was nominated for 15 Oscars) and a Tony (for “The King and I”).
Hemesath has continued in theater, as he designed a new play in March 2020 about Margaret Chase Smith and Joe McCarthy, called “Conscience,” in New Brunswick, N.J. “It was a beautifully written piece that I think we were all sort of hoping a lot of people would get to before the election,” he said.
“There’s certainly a lot of parallels between Joe McCarthy and our current leadership,” Hemesath said. “What was remarkable about that time and what Margaret Chase Smith did, as one of very few women in our legislature and someone in his own party, she had the courage to stand up to him and say ‘what you’re doing is wrong,’ it’s not serving the people you said you would serve.”
“She took a lot of heat for it, but she was willing to stand up for her principles and say what’s happening is not right,” he said. “I hope that we will be able to have more people who are strong enough and dedicated enough to do that.”
“It’s definitely a divided nation and people seem far more interested in solidarity with fear, than standing up for principle,” Hemesath said.
“Waiting to see what will happen”
Like millions who’ve been adversely affected by the July 31 expiration of additional pandemic-related unemployment insurance, he’s hoping for the best and counting his blessings.
“Certainly, we’re all waiting to see what will happen, when we’ll be able to go back to work,” Hemesath said. “This is what we spent our lives training for, and trying to make sure we’re the best at what we do. The way that we work will definitely be affected by keeping people safe. Thankfully, the people we work with generally care whether the people who are working are safe, so I’m grateful for that.”