In her search for the whereabouts of the iconic puppet from her childhood, Rebecca Blithe instead finds the story of the man who brought Thingee to life.
Thingee was fun, silly, light-hearted. Loveable. But, probably like most kids of my generation who grew up enamoured by this Kiwi icon, I didn’t consider that there was a person behind him, pulling the strings. Of course, there was. His name was Alan Henderson.
Firstly, sadly, when I began my search for Thingee, the top link on Google directed me to an obituary. Alan died of prostate cancer last February, aged 57.
After contacting publicists, media companies and a former colleague, I was put in touch with his wife, Tracy.
Speaking to the Herald from her home in Auckland, where the Thingee puppet now resides, she remembers her husband as a larger-than-life character, a family man and her best friend.
And when it came to Thingee, she says the puppet “really was Alan”.
“[Alan] was definitely the voice and the character was discussed between him and Jason [Gunn]. Andrew Gunn did write scripts. But it was very impromptu,” she says with a laugh.
“It wasn’t anything that was scripted to a great degree. It really was Alan. God yeah. I think back then you could get away with a lot more. It was so off the cuff.”
While Thingee was a household name in the 90s and beyond, finding fame on What Now and The Son of a Gunn Show, Alan’s genius flew under the radar for years.
“That sort of didn’t come out to the wider public,” recalls Tracy of Alan’s little-known claim to fame.
The pair, who first met in 2000, got together in 2008 and were married four years later, worked on TVNZ’s Good Morning show together. Tracy says there were “plenty of people there that had no idea”.
“That was 2005, 2006 I think. It was slowly coming out that that was who he was. Other than the crew, and everyone that worked around the crew, they were the only ones who had any sort of great idea.”
But when people did learn that the cameraman and later sports producer was in fact the man behind the iconic puppet, they were always thrilled.
“Oh, they were so surprised,” says Tracy. “And so happy to have met him.”
For those in the know, special requests were made for celebratory occasions.
“Quite often, a friend would ring, and they were at a party or it was someone’s birthday, and they’d say: ‘Can you do the Thingee voice?’ And so he’d sing happy birthday to them over the phone.”
Alan, a proud Cantabrian and Crusaders supporter, moved to Wellington from Christchurch where his family still live. In 2013 he and Tracy, his second wife, made the move to Auckland where Alan began working at Sky Sports.
Delightfully, Thingee appeared on that network too. “He popped up in all sorts of places,” says Tracy. “He did a behind-the-scenes tour of Sky Sports. He did a couple of appearances on the Good Morning show.”
Asked why she thinks Thingee was such a hit with the New Zealand audience, Tracy puts it down to Alan’s sense of humour.
“He had a loveable humour to him, I guess. He said things sometimes that you wanted to say. Alan got away with things you wouldn’t normally say. He just had a fun personality.”
Watching old footage, she says she definitely sees her husband’s character shining through.
“When we were sorting things out for the funeral and trying to find clips, oh we just laughed. He had a great, great personality. A great sense of humour, loved to laugh at himself. When he made a mistake, it was hilarious, he just went with it.”
While it has been years since Thingee’s last TV appearance, Tracy reveals there was “talk of bringing Thingee back a few years ago. [Alan] was quite keen to do that. But he was working full time for Sky and then he got sick. So that put an end to that. It’s a bit like the story of Thingee ended. There is no, what are they doing now? which is really sad.”
It’s been almost 18 months since Alan died, and Tracy says that life without him is “pretty tough”. She says they were “a good team” and “had so many good times”.
“He was such a big character and a huge personality. The house is very quiet, there’s not the laughter anymore. He’s very missed. He was very much a family man. Family meant the world to him. He loved his kids, was absolutely so proud of his children,” Tracy says of Alan’s son and daughter from his first marriage and Tracy’s son and daughter too.
“He was one of those kind souls that would text his mum every day. He was very special. You can’t help but be so proud of him. He laughed at himself, he made funny jokes, you couldn’t help but love him for that.”
While in my search for Thingee I learned that what made him so special was the character of the man behind him, Tracy points out that her husband was more than the puppet too.
“Al was more than just Thingee. Although Thingee was a big part of his life, it’s nice to remember that there was a person – a very kind-hearted, beautiful person – under Thingee too.”
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