from Chapter One: Jersey Boy
MAKING A CAREER
“When I was about 16 I realized I could make ten bucks by taking a couple of puppets and making up a story at a birthday party,” said Hunt. One routine embodied Hunt’s zany irreverence and entertained the kids no end. Two performers play one person: “There’s a guy in front and his hands are the shoes, and then someone reaches underneath and becomes the guy’s arms,” says Jon Nettinga, his assistant in the sketch. Nettinga thought Hunt should be in front, doing the talking, but Hunt insisted on being the arms – making Nettinga the straight man, dully narrating a lesson in how to bake a pie, when suddenly the arms begin to rebel as if they have a mind of their own. “He starts feeding me. I’m getting plastered by all the food. I had food in my hair, food in my face. I was getting punched by spoons and pies and whipped cream and whatever else.” He realized, “It didn’t matter what I did – because the kids were hysterical.”
But by Richard Hunt’s junior year at Northern Valley Regional High School, he was ready to move beyond birthday parties. He dreamed about working as a performer in New York City. Hunt and his friends frequently took the bus into Manhattan, fueling his aspirations. They hung around the multi-theater culture mecca of Lincoln Center: going to shows, harmonizing together for the crowds by the fountain, holding court at coffee shops. They’d see new exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, Bergman or Truffaut movies at the art-house theater. But the best times were open-ended. “We spent a lot of time just wandering around,” says friend Dale Pfeiffer. “Teenagers with no place to go but having a great time.”
Hunt approached his New York aspirations in his junior year musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Students danced Broadway-caliber choreography with the return of Buddy Teijelo, and wore costumes from the recently-shuttered Broadway run, miraculously wangled by director Gail Poch, who reports proudly: “I don’t mind saying it was the best show we had ever done.”
Rumors circulated that agents and producers from New York were in the audience to see Hunt. Poch had chosen Succeed with him specifically in mind: “I wanted to pick a show that he could do the lead in, and I pictured him as J. Pierrepont Finch,” the everyman, rags-to-riches main character. Yet Hunt as usual landed the second male lead, the scheming antagonist Bud Frump. But he knew well how to command the audience’s attention. “If he couldn’t get the lead, he made the side the lead,” says Sackson. “He made it hysterical.” Classmate Terry Minogue agrees: “When he was in the show, he stole the show.”
One night a lackluster number – set in a men’s washroom – was losing its audience. “Richard, to make up for that, was doing some very funny things,” recalls Minogue. “He turned around and pretended to use the urinal on the back wall. He did shaving, he was doing his armpits, he was plucking his eyebrows – whatever it took to get a laugh.” Yet Hunt minded the accusation that he was trying to upstage the scene’s main actor. “He would say, ‘I wasn’t trying to upstage him, the scene just wasn’t working.’”
Though he could be counted on for spontaneous antics and a playful attitude, Hunt took performing very seriously. “Other kids may have been doing the school show; he had a vision for himself,” says friend Geni Sackson. “He was making a career.”
“When I was about 16”: Richard Hunt archival interview, Jim Henson Company Archives.
Interviews with the author, 2009-2014: Terry Minogue, Jon Nettinga, Dale Pfeiffer, Gail Poch, Geni Sackson.
Yearbook photo courtesy of Jon Nettinga.