I’m trying to start some regular features on my blog to inspire me to write more frequently. My first regular feature will be “Muppet Mondays.” I am a huge fan of all things Muppets and Jim Henson, and have been for as long as I can remember. Here I am as a wee little tyke with my Kermit Muppet Baby on Christmas Morning, and on my most recent trip to Walt Disney World at the Jim Henson hand prints at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Every Monday I will try to blog about something Muppet or Jim Henson Company related. Today I’m discussing two Muppet books I have in my possession: One for children, one for adults.
I picked up the Children’s book Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets on a whim when I saw it on sale at the gift shop of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History last summer. The book is written by Kathleen Krull, with beautiful illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Francher and is suitable for ages 5+. The very first page features a famous quote from Henson—“When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world”—along with his picture. The book is meant to inspire children to chase their dreams, just as Jim Henson did. Almost half of the 35-page book (which features the standard children’s book setup of one page text/one page illustration) focuses on Jim’s early years. It shows how he turned his dreams of being involved in television into a reality that far surpassed anything he could have imagined. The only mild criticism of the book is that it comes to a sudden ending. After covering most of Jim’s biography at a nice pace, including four pages of text covering Sesame Street, Henson’s other projects only get one page of text before the reader is confronted with Jim Henson’s death. Page 32 ends with “Not everyone loved those serious movies like The Dark Crystal or Labryinth at first, but his experiments seemed endless.”
Page 33 features a lovely illustration of Henson and Frank Oz puppeteering Miss Piggy and Kermit dancing together, seen on the left. Everything is happy-go-lucky until you turn the page and read “It was heartbreaking to everyone who knew him—and to millions who didn’t—when Jim Henson died unexpectedly, after a short illness, at the age of fifty-three.” Henson’s death and memorial service are handled nicely, but it’s just a bit of an abrupt transition for a children’s book. All in all, Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets is a wonderful book, and a great way to introduce children to the world of The Muppets and Jim Henson.
On the other end of the reader demographic spectrum, we have Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. I was very excited to delve into this book, and I finished it in less than a week (I had a lot of time to kill on my flights to and from Walt Disney World in January). Jones definitely takes the great man, myth-building type of approach, which is pretty typical of biographies. Though I am a huge fan of Jim Henson and always name him as one of my heroes, he was, after all, only a man, and certainly had some faults. I couldn’t help but notice that Jones tread very lightly around things that might paint Jim in any kind of negative light. We get many behind the scenes stories about Jim Henson the Entertainer that will delight any Muppet fan, but Jones misses opportunities to probe more deeply into Jim Henson the Man. By most accounts, Jim was a fun, easygoing guy who everyone loved to be around. His biggest flaw was his struggle to outwardly show his emotions. This manifested itself both in his work, with his struggle to give “attaboys” to colleagues who strived to please him, and at home through troubles with his wife, Jane Henson. I admit I had no idea that Jim and Jane grew so far apart over the years– that she allowed him to “go out” on her with other women, and that eventually they became legally separated (but never divorced). Their marriage comes off as more of a savvy business partnership with some benefits rather than a real love story.
Jones gives lots of tidbits about most of Henson’s productions, but seems to spend the most time explaining the thought, time, and effort that went into less successful ventures like The Dark Crystal, Labryinth, and The Jim Henson Hour. Not every single production is covered. Something in particular that stood out to me came up during a section devoted to the various ideas for future projects that Muppeteers would toss around. Jones briefly mentions that Richard Hunt had an idea for a show where the puppets came to life on their own, which immediately made me think of The Christmas Toy; however, there is zero coverage of The Christmas Toy anywhere in the book. This popular 1986 Christmas special featured toys coming to life when children left the room, long pre-dating Toy Story by almost a decade. (Later, a TV Show featuring The Christmas Toy characters called The Secret Life of Toys would run for a season.)
Of particular interest to Disney Park fans is an entire chapter devoted to the original failed Disney deal. Through his thorough research, Jones is able to shed new light on the negotiations. Jones really lets Michael Eisner off the hook and paints Jeffrey Katzenburg as the baddie who tried to short-change Jim and pull the wool over his eyes. One thing that stood out to me the most was that from day one, Jim Henson told the Disney executives that Sesame Street and its characters would never be part of the deal; yet, Disney’s internal memos reveal that the negations were code-named “Project Big Bird.” Ahhh, Disney. Henson was very excited by the notion that Disney would be able to keep his characters alive for generations to come, and loved tossing around ideas for theme park rides. The original Disney deal fell through with Jim’s sudden death in 1990, with Muppet*Vision 3D being it’s only lasting testament. Disney finally did acquire rights to the Muppets in 2004 and was criticized heavily for leaving them in limbo for many years. With the release of The Muppets in 2011 and the upcoming March 21, 2014 release of Muppets Most Wanted, The Disney Company finally seems to be going all-in with the Muppets, giving them the care and attention that they deserve and introducing them to younger generations, just as Jim Henson had once hoped.
One last thing that struck me was how much of a workaholic Jim Henson was. Jones had access to Jim’s journals, so he is able to trace Jim’s travels quite thoroughly. The man was constantly flying across the country and even around the world. One day he’d be overseeing production of The Muppet Show in England; the next he might need to fly to New York City for meetings or to film some bits for Sesame Street; the day after that he’d be off to Vermont for a ski vacation with his family. When he first became ill with the infection that would end up killing him, he didn’t think much of it. He was a man who worked hard and played hard, and in his mind, he simply didn’t have time to get sick. Jim was also on the cutting edge of technology. One can only wonder how much more he would’ve been able to accomplish had he been around to experience the massive technological boom of the 90s.
All in all, a Muppet fan of any degree will certainly want to give this a read. Whether you are simply a casual fan, or an uber fanboy, there will undoubtedly be new stories for you to discover in this almost-500-page book. In the words of Jim Henson, “Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it.” Jim Henson certainly did.
Bonus pictures: From Jim Henson: The Biography, a picture of a young Jim Henson charming a “snake” and the lovely illustration of the same event from Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets. Simply adorable!