Jitka Exler was born in Karlovy Vary, in western Bohemia, in 1959. She grew up with her parents, Václav and Věra, and her older sister, Blanka, in the nearby town of Ostrov nad Ohří, which Jitka describes as a ‘showcase communist town.’ Although Jitka’s father was a foreman at the Skoda factory in Ostrov, Jitka says that he was called ‘the man with the golden hands’ because he could make or fix anything, and he was often busy working on cars. Jitka’s mother was an expert knitter who sold her work to a shop in Karlovy Vary. Jitka herself grew up playing sports and also made her own equipment. She was very interested in art, and even enrolled herself in art and drama classes at the age of six.
After high school, Jitka moved to Prague and studied at Vyšší odborná škola grafická [School of Graphic Arts]. After completing her arts program, Jitka found a job at an animation studio. She was then encouraged to apply for a job at the Bratři v triku animation studio at the Barrandov complex. During her time in Prague and through her husband, Leoš Exler, Jitka came to know many dissidents and people in the underground scene, and the pair signed Charter 77. Jitka says that the two were followed by secret police for a while, and they eventually decided to leave Czechoslovakia. Although they had trouble getting visas and exit permits, Jitka and Leoš left the country in 1980. They escaped through Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Italy, and crossed the border into Austria. Because of their background as Charter 77 signatories, they were able to live in an apartment instead of a refugee camp while waiting for their paperwork to clear. In January 1981, Jitka arrived in New York City.
Jitka’s sponsoring organization helped her find a job as a seamstress. She also got involved making puppets for a black light theatre company started by a fellow Czechoslovak émigré. In the early-1980s, Jitka called Jim Henson’s company and asked for an interview. She was accepted to Muppet University where she was tasked with designing and making a Muppet. After working as a freelance puppet maker, Jitka joined the staff at Sesame Street. Of her time with Jim Henson and his company, Jitka says that she felt like she was contributing to something bigger. After eight years with Sesame Street, Jitka began working for a toy company, designing toys and overseeing production. When her younger son was born (with her second husband), Jitka became a freelance toy designer, a job she continues to this day.
Jitka first returned to the Czech Republic only a few months after the Velvet Revolution, and she attempts to visit her home country every year. Her sons speak Czech and enjoy her Czech cooking. In addition to designing toys, Jitka is an avid painted. Today, she lives in Larchmont, New York.
“They actually called my father ‘man with the golden hands,’ which was very funny because he had like nine professions. My father didn’t have a college education but he had nine professions. He was very good with his hands so, no matter what he touched, blossomed. At home, nothing was a problem; when my mother wanted something he made it for. So everything was on a daily basis: ‘Oh, you need this? Oh, I’ll do it.’
“I remember my mother saw somewhere in Prague this copper art, and she was amazed how beautiful it was and I volunteered. I said ‘Maybe I can do that for you,’ because I was ambitious to do stuff with my hands as a kid; maybe I was nine at that time, and I had no clue how you work with metal, but I kind of thought by seeing in a gallery – I went to a gallery to see similar kind of art. And then I told my dad what kind of tools I needed and he made them for me. He made the tools and then I did this big piece of art and my parents put it over the fireplace.”
“Her mom painted and her grandma painted. And because we were best friends at that age, I was going to her house and I admired all those beautiful, beautiful pictures. They were large pictures of nature, but very abstract. She painted big flowers, or a wildflower. She loved wildflowers; nothing too perfect, always a little bit messy. When we were going to school, to first grade, her mom wanted to enroll her in lidová škola umění for the art classes, so I wanted to do that too, and my parents had no clue about any art classes, so I followed Hanka and I enrolled myself for drama classes and for art classes, which was ceramics and all the hands-on kind of art. And it was every Wednesday for two hours the drama class and for two hours was the art class, but then it came to the point that drama and art were at the same time, and I had to choose which one I will go to. I had to choose, and because I was a little bit shy to exposure, speaking and singing and all of that, I have chosen to hide behind art.”
Leaving the Country
“I got another contact for somebody in the bank because that’s where you were getting the doložka, the special permit. So I called the person and I was instructed ‘Talk to this person and you will tell him where you work, because he likes art. So you tell him you work in the studio at Barrandov and that you have pictures for him.’ I’m like ‘What kind of pictures? What am I supposed to do?’ So I called him and he goes ‘Oh, that sounds interesting that you’re working over there.’ I go ‘Yeah, I have pictures for you.’ He goes ‘Okay. Why don’t you stop by and we’ll see.’ So I called him again, I gave him all the information and everything, I went there to give him those papers, and I was working on the pictures. And what my friend told me to do was the classic cartoon from Czechoslovakia we were working on. So I took the cells which were already not in use and I made a background for it and I put it in a frame. And I had a folder of maybe 15 of those.
“So when he told me that the paperwork was ready, I took my folder with all these pictures. I was scared. Oh my God, I was so scared. And he goes ‘Give me the pictures.’ And I’m holding the folder and I go ‘Well, can I have the permit first?’ He calls his secretary, his secretary brought an envelope, and we literally exchanged these two things like this. And I ran from that place, and we left that night. We left that night.”
Finding a Job
“I was here for one week. I didn’t speak a word of English. They asked me [and I said] ‘German , Russian. No English.’ I was going to the fashion district to interview for this job. Basically Leo encouraged me because the woman at the Charita asked ‘What else can you do besides what you were doing before in Czechoslovakia? Can you sew?’ Leo kicked me under the table like, ‘Yes, you can sew.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I can sew.’ So I went to this fashion studio, and Petr Kratochvil told me ‘Don’t worry that you don’t speak any English. Whatever they ask, you say yes.’ Very positive. I was 22 years old. There was a Russian manager, and this woman was originally from Germany but she spoke English. She showed me a lot of beautiful clothes and she was asking me if I can make it, and I thought she’s asking me if I like it. So I nod yes. Then she gave me one original and then she gave me one cut-out and she goes ‘Go and do it.’ Again, this came in very handy. Once I can examine how it’s done, then I’m fine. And then she hired me.”
“I was part of Muppet University where, after reviewing portfolios, they invited people. So before [I went] I had to submit my portfolio which I did quickly. I got a few pictures, a few photographs from the black light theatre, and they invited me for this. They were teaching us how to make a puppet; we had to design a puppet and make it. And everyone was oohing and aahing how similar style I had, that it was almost Jim Henson-like. All that I needed was to look at that Muppet inside out and I could figure out how to do it. That’s all I needed.
“I remember I drew a character with a zigzag mouth and the guy who was in charge of the Muppet University came to me and said ‘No, no. You can’t do that. Muppets have straight mouths.’ And I was like ‘Uh oh,’ and my English wasn’t good enough to explain ‘Please let me do it.’ I kept saying ‘Please let me do it. I know how to do it.’ He goes ‘No. No. No.’ And then we went to the art director, who was Caroly Wilcox working for Sesame Street and she looked at it, she looked at me, and she goes ‘Where are you from?’ I said ‘Czechoslovakia,’ and she started to laugh. She said ‘You know what? I was in 1968 in Prague in Jiří Trnka’s studio. Let her do it. And that was it. I was happy. I did it.”