Review of Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

Review of Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

This may be the best biography I’ve ever read, well-researched and beautifully written. While under its spell, I felt immersed in creative energy. I experienced being in the zone—felt my synapses firing, my imagination blazing; what I would have thought incomprehensible was suddenly possible. That sensation never left me while reading this book; I was never bored, even though the epic is nearly 600 pages long.

Jones conducted extensive interviews with Henson’s family and colleagues to research Jim Henson: The Biography. He also consulted Henson’s personal journal, and reviewed pertinent documents and footage.

There’s no way to write a short review of this book. Instead, I’ll highlight some of the moments of Henson’s life. I don’t usually post articles this long, and though it looks like a lot of material, I am sharing a small fraction of this fabulous book. It’s well worth your time to acquire a copy and read it yourself. I laughed out loud in its pages; I also wept.

Best of all, as I read, I got to know the real Jim Henson, and he was just as funny, kind, imaginative, intelligent, and crazy as the little glimpses of him that I caught occasionally on television through the years.

My earliest memory of him was a guest appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was a little girl. My mother was familiar with him, having seen him on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show.

When my husband and I became parents, Sesame Street became part of our daily routine (how I miss it!) and later, we enjoyed The Muppet Show and multiple Muppet movies. I didn’t realize Henson’s body of work went much further than that.

Jim Henson was born in 1936. His father, Paul, was a non-practicing Methodist; his mother, Betty, was a Christian Scientist, and raised her sons in her faith.

Jim was always an imaginative child. A photograph captured the little tyke sitting cross-legged on the lawn clothed in a bedsheet, with a homemade turban wrapped around his head, pretending to snake-charm a garden hose. With the help of a clothespin, he invented a gun that shot rubber bands. The climate in Jim’s childhood home was warm, loving, and funny; a favorite family pastime was telling stories and jokes and singing songs around the pump organ. His mother’s mother, known as “Dear,” encouraged his artistic side and was always a willing audience for his little performances.

In 1950, at Jim’s insistent urging, the family bought a television. Instantly, Jim’s ambition was to work in TV. He loved Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle and Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar—and comedy writers Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Ernie Kovacs.

Some early children’s shows featured puppets, like Howdy Doody and Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Jim also saw Bil and Cora Baird’s marionettes on variety shows.

In high school, Jim joined the drama club, because he was interested in designing and building sets and silk-screening posters for productions. Late in his senior year, Jim went to an audition for a student marionettier at local TV station WTOP. Although he was a member of the puppetry club, he was more interested in designing puppets than performing them, but he was willing to try if it would get him a job on TV. He and friend Russell Wall built two puppets and came up with a routine. They got the job, which soon led to another opportunity for Jim at NBC.

Jim attended the University of Maryland, where all the courses he wanted to take—set and scenery design and construction, art, advertising, costume design, interior design, and puppetry—were housed in the home economics department. It was there he met Jane Nebel.

The puppetry class was a brand-new offering, assigned to an inexperienced young instructor. As someone who had performed with puppets on TV for several months, Jim had more credentials than his teacher. He essentially took over teaching the class.

Meanwhile, Jim and Jane landed a job performing puppets on an afternoon TV program. They used the hybrid marionette/puppets Jim designed to lip-synch to songs and novelty recordings, usually involving shaggy wigs, fake explosions, and one monster eating another at the climax of the performance.

Here’s one of their routines, recapped on The Steve Allen Show:

Jim and Jane got another job performing for five minutes at the end of Richard Harkness’ 11:00 PM news broadcast (they performed live every night, just as they performed live every afternoon). Jim called the segment Sam and Friends, and he made all the puppets for it, including Kermit, who was not yet a frog. Jim thought of his creations at that time as abstract creatures.

As he practiced and performed, Jim watched his puppets on a monitor, so he could utilize the space of the TV screen (and box) to maximum advantage. This technique required him to master reverse orientation to make adjustments to the puppets’ positions, since the TV screen did not mirror them. (In other words, he had to move left to make the puppet move to the right on the screen.) Jim and Jane functioned beautifully as a team, intuitively playing off one another. At this point they were business partners only, both engaged to marry other people.

Jim’s puppets’ faces were made of foam rubber covered with fabric or fleece, which gave them remarkable flexibility. Jim paid special attention to the placement of the puppets’ eyes; he wanted them to have focus rather than appearing vacant. He moved puppets’ hands with rods, and later gave some puppets “live” hands, which necessitated more than one performer per puppet. Jim practiced in front of a mirror for hours to perfect nuances of body language and mouth articulation.

Jim constantly was offered new gigs, and he built new puppets and sets on his own dime, happy just to be working, even though he never wanted to be a puppeteer—he wanted to work in television: set design, directing, producing, or creating advertising art.

Wilkins Coffee Company hired Jim and Jane to create 15 ten-second commercials with their Muppets. Wilkins’ slogan was “Use Wilkins Coffee—it’s a wonderful way to start the day.” Jim changed it to “Use Wilkins Coffee…or else!” He came up with two characters: Wilkins, who will drink the coffee, and Wontkins, who won’t. Wilkins tries all sorts of violence to make him try it—clubbing, shooting, stomping, or decapitating Wontkins. The ads were incredibly successful, increasing sales by 25%, and winning Jim and Jane local awards for excellence in advertising. They filmed nearly 180 commercials for Wilkins over the next several years.

Jim still wanted to be a painter or a set designer, and Jane still wanted a career in commercial art or fashion. Jim decided to quit Sam and Friends to paint. WRC said he could outsource his puppetry and they’d still pay him, rather than scrap Sam and Friends; so he hired University of Maryland student Bobby Payne to take his place and went to Europe for six weeks to study painting.

Jim discovered that puppet shows were a popular artform in Europe. He marveled at the enthusiastic audience response to Punch and Judy street shows. He interviewed European puppeteers and puppet makers, the first he’d ever met in person. He came home determined to be an even better puppeteer, with renewed creativity and sporting a Van Dyke beard.

As Jane and Jim’s work relationship deepened, they decided they ought to get married. They broke off their engagements and married each other in 1959. Jim graduated in 1960 with a degree in home economics, and their first child, Lisa Marie, was also born that year.

Now committed to the art of puppetry, Jim and Jane attend the Puppeteers of America convention in Detroit. They became friends with puppeteer Burt Tillstrom and his puppet builder, Doh Sahlin, and talent agent Berrnie Brillstein, who helped the Muppets get more variety show bookings.

At a second Puppeteers of America conference, he met a teenaged Frank Oz, who was following in his father’s footsteps, though he didn’t really want to be a puppeteer. He introduced Jim to his collaborator, Jerry Juhl.

The USDA was hosting a U.S. Food Fair in Hamburg, Germany and invited Jim and the Muppets to provide entertainment. He used it as an opportunity to try out some of his innovations, including a live hand puppet who would be the prototype for the Swedish Chef.

In 1962 the Puppeteers of America elected 25-year-old Jim Henson president. He’d only been a member for two years, but he’d become a powerful influencer for the art.

Jim wanted to produce a television special or a weekly show, but TV executives he approached said, “puppets are for kids.” Jim strongly disagreed; he felt he was creating family-friendly adult entertainment.

Purina of Canada requested that Jim make them some dog food commercials. Jim created two dog characters, Rowlf and Baskerville, and made seven commercials. Purina offered Jim $100,000 for the rights to the Rowlf character. Jim declined and instructed Bernie Brillstein, his agent, “Never sell anything I own.”

In 1963 Jim and Jane and their now two daughters (Cheryl was born in 1961) moved to New York City. After his high school graduation, Frank Oz joined him there.

Country music singer (and sausage maker) Jimmy Dean hired Jim to perform on his new variety show. Rowlf became a regular character and sang duets with Jimmy. Sketches were written by Jimmy’s comedy team, and Jim, Frank, and Jimmy rehearsed them until they were flawless. Frank Oz worked Rowlf’s right hand, and Jim operated his mouth. Rowlf received more fan mail than Jimmy Dean—2,000 letters a week.

In November, 1963, third child Brian was born. Having effectively outgrown their New York apartment, the Hensons moved to Greenwich, Connecticut in April. One year later, their fourth child, John Paul, was born.

Jim now wanted to go into movies, without puppets. In May, 1965, Jim’s short experimental film called Timepiece premiered at the Museum of Modern Art. It was an eight-minute abstract/surrealist stream of conscious film about a man’s struggle with time, made of a patchwork of shots each only a few second long. It was distributed to art theaters along with the movie A Man and A Woman.

After working hard on different projects, expanding into film, animation, documentaries, and experimental television, Jim resisted joining the Children’s Television Workshop. He didn’t want to be considered a children’s puppeteer again. But he let himself be persuaded to make the short “commercials” featuring letters or numbers or body parts.

At the 1969 Puppeteers of America convention in Salt Lake City, Jim met puppeteer Carroll Spinney. Spinney performed an experimental production of live puppetry interacting with an animated background, which failed miserably when a light malfunctioned and completely washed out the background. Henson, however, saw enough to convince him that Spinney was very talented and invited him to join the Muppets.

Getting more involved with Children’s Television Network, Jim and crew created a bunch of new puppets for Sesame Street—Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, and Big Bird. Jim valued the views of his children and often sought their opinions of his work, gauging their reactions to performances and asking questions. If the kids liked a piece, it was included.

In 1970, the fifth and final Henson child was born, daughter Heather.

Though Jim and Joan Ganz Cooney resisted commercializing Sesame Street, a record album won a Grammy, and the song Rubber Ducky rose to #16 in September, 1970. In 1971, Muppet merchandise hit the shelves. Jim’s royalties allowed him funding for research and development of electronic enhancements for his creations.

By the early 1970s, Jim and Jane were having differences. Jim was high-energy, Jane was more leisurely. Jim kept his emotions private, Jane expressed her feelings. Communication stalled between them. Jim was so focused on his career that Jane felt abandoned. Jane was fiercely loyal to Jim, but was frustrated with his emotional distance.

In 1973, Jim and Frank Oz went around New York pitching a proposal for a weekly Muppet TV show of family-oriented entertainment. After being turned down everywhere they tried, they finally got approval from Michael Eisner at ABC for a pilot. For the new Muppet Show, Jim designed some new characters: Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and Scooter. He purposely didn’t want to use many of his Sesame Street characters (except Kermit), preferring to keep the two projects separate for ethical reasons. (Bert and Ernie made a guest appearance in episode 2.) Miss Piggy, who was originally intended as a chorus girl, a minor character, became an audience favorite who set her romantic desires on Kermit.

Brian Jay Jones describes life on The Muppet Show set:

While the bulk of the responsibility for keeping things running smoothly fell largely to Jim, he never made it look like work. “Everything was play for him,” said [Jerry] Juhl. “Work was play. That was the thing that we all plainly understood.” Agreed Oz, “Jim wasn’t a workaholic. Our job was playing.” For Jim that meant encouraging the team—from the Muppet performers to the lighting crew—to ad-lib or interject ideas, and maintaining an overall atmosphere of collegiality in which everyone’s performance and opinion was valued. “We know each other so well that we can kind of bounce off each other when we’re working together,” explained Jim. “This working relationship…has a kind of marvelous chemistry to it, and I think it’s terribly important that when we’re working in the studio, we work with this kind of affection and high spirits.”

And spirits were high indeed. The Muppet performers would constantly joke and banter without ever breaking character, their puppets jabbering at each other with eyebrows waggling and arms waving. “Even when they’re not shooting, they keep talking [in character],” said impressionist Rich Little, a second season guest. “It’s incredible…After a few minutes at the studio…the Muppets become real.”

Jim Henson and his crew put together a musical Christmas special based on Russell and Lilian Hoban’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, with music by Paul Williams. Don Sahlin and Faz Fazakas built romote-controlled puppets using NASA technology, like a mechanical Emmet Otter who could row a boat in the water.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas aired on Canadian television in December, 1977; it premiered on U.S. cable TV the following year on HBO.

Meanwhile, The Muppet Show grew in popularity. By season three, it was available on television in 106 countries, to 235 million viewers. Someone called Jim “the new Walt Disney.”

The Muppet Show was filmed in England, and Jim set up house in London. After more than a year living there, Jane missed New York and decided to move back. Jim had been seeing other women surreptitiously, and that increased after Jane left.

In 1978, shooting started on the first Muppet Movie with James Frawley directing. The crew had to invent ways for the Muppets to be filmed outdoors, sometimes digging trenches and tunnels for the performers to hide in and devising rolling chairs or dollies for the puppeteers to scoot on below camera level.

In 1981, Jim said, “I want to do a[n international] children’s television show that will stop war.” He assembled his creative team of Jim Juhl, Michael Frith, and Jocelyn Stevenson in his house, where they brainstormed and fleshed out what would become the Fraggle Rock series by living together and meeting every day. Jones wrote, Jim “had given them the luxury of time—the one thing he never seemed to have—to thoroughly think the project through.”

Michael Frith said, “We talked about doing a show…demonstrating how, through misconception, we can create problems that not only shouldn’t be there but can be self-destructive—and how, through harmony, we can achieve strength.” (Ha—we could use a show like that for adults.)

The team put together an enormous three-ring binder labeled Things We Know About the Fraggles that detailed the world they were creating.

Bernie Brillstein found a home for Fraggle Rock at HBO, which at that time had only nine million subscribers. (Jim didn’t even have cable in those days.) Working toward expanding its subscriber base, HBO promised creative freedom and a high profile, since Fraggle Rock would be its first original weekly series. They wanted it ready to go by early 1983 and asked for 24 episodes per season. It ran for five years and was broadcast in more than 90 countries, fulfilling Jim’s dream for an international children’s show. Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Show were the first Western television series to air on Soviet television.

Did you know that Henson Associates created Yoda for Star Wars? George Lucas collaborated with Henson on making the movie The Dark Crystal, and Henson came up with ideas for Yoda; Frank Oz performed him.

When Jim auditioned performers for The Dark Crystal, a casting call went out for mimes, acrobats, and dancers, because that’s the skill set Jim felt would be required for the puppeteers for The Dark Crystal. They spent eight months on physical training with mime Jean-Pierre Amiel to determine how the creatures would move and to get them into top physical condition to perform their roles.

For Jim, part of the fun of creating a fantasy world wasn’t just building the creatures, but creating everything else in the world as well, from plants and trees to swords and spoons. If a chair was needed in the background, for instance, the crew couldn’t just grab a chair from the prop department; they had to build a chair that looked as if it belonged in Jim’s fantasy world and had been made from materials round there.

Getting back to the preparations for Fraggle Rock, in early November 1981:

Jim called in all the major Muppet puppeteers and asked them to perform with each Fraggle—and with each other—to see if they could come up with characters. Such free-wheeling play had helped define and hone the characters on The Muppet Show and Jim wanted to see how his performers adlibbed and bounced off one another. Partly, it had to do with finding the right chemistry between the five major characters, consisting of four distinct character types—the athlete, the artist, the worrywart, and the indecisive one—revolving around a steady central character.

Jim directed seven episodes of Fraggle during its first season and occasionally performed several recurring characters—but once the show was up and running, he was content to turn the show almost entirely over to the Fraggle team. . . By letting go, Jim was growing and nurturing the talent within his company—and he was impressed with the work that was being done.

After Dark Crystal was completed, Jim left London and returned to New York, but not to the house he had shared with Jane; he took an apartment in Manhattan. Jim and Jane legally separated. The separation also cut her out of the company she had helped to build.

Jim’s next big movie project was The Labyrinth. His sons, Brian and John, wanted David Bowie to play the character of Jareth. Jim wanted Sting, but agreed to meet Bowie, and liked him so much that he gave Bowie the job and asked him to compose and sing music for the film as well as acting.

The making of the “Shaft of Hands” in The Labyrinth:

Writer Maurice Sendak accused Jim of plagarizing some of his material. He felt Jim’s plot for Labyrinth was very much like Sendak’s Outside Over There. Jim also called some of his creatures “wild things,” which Sendak took as a reference to his Where the Wild Things Are.

Jim and Sendak had been friends for ten years, and Jim had not consciously stolen any ideas from him. Jim renamed his wild things “Fireys” and acknowledged Sendak in the credits.

Next Jim developed a new television series called The Storyteller, which drew on old folk tales. He hired Steve Barron, who directed Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean music video, to be the director. The Storyteller premiered January 31, 1987 on NBC and won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program.

Another of Henson’s movie projects was an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. An inordinate amount of drama swirled around the project behind the scenes.

Wiccans across the country—already smarting over Dahl’s book for what they considered its negative portrayal of witches—admonished Jim in a letter-writing campaign when they learned he was adapting the book for the big screen. Jim tried to appease they concerns, but only got caught up arguing semantics over the terms black magic or evil witch with the head of the Witches’ League for Public Awareness, based in Salem, Massachusetts.

Adding to the problems with the Wiccans, Dahl wanted to be kept in the loop about the script. When screenwriter Allan Scott rewrote the ending of the story, Dahl was furious. When he viewed the finished film, he was appalled at the “vulgarity, the bad taste and the actual terror display in certain parts” of The Witches. He asked for his name to be removed from the credits and refused to endorse the movie.

Jim responded with a letter that said in part, “It’s such a delightful book that you’ve given us to work with. I hope you will forgive us for falling short of your expectations.”

In 1989, Jim offered to sell his company to Disney so he could focus on his creative ideas and have someone else deal with running the business. Michael Eisner, his former ally at ABC who advocated for The Muppet Show, was now head of Disney. He called the collaboration with Henson a match “made in family-entertainment heaven.” The Sesame Street Muppets were not part of the deal.

While waiting for the contract to be finalized, Jim worked on several Disney projects. Some of his old friends commented that they’d never seen him happier in his life.

Later, drawn-out haggling over the details of the contract proved so stressful that Jim contemplated backing out.

On May 4, 1990, Jim and puppeteer Kevin Clash taped an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. Jim had a sore throat and felt a little run down. He wasn’t as fast with his clever retorts and stumbled over words as he voiced Kermit.

Saturday, May 12, Jim and his daughter Cheryl flew to Norfolk, Virginia. He was still sick with the sore throat, and it seemed like he had a cold or mild flu. He drove their rental car 70 miles south to Ahoskie, North Caroline, where they checked into a motel near his father and step-mother’s house. They played croquet, sipped ice tea, enjoyed dinner, sat on the screened-in porch, watched the sunset, told stories and laughed. Jim mentioned he didn’t feel well.

Sunday morning he woke up in the motel room feeling worse, and he went back to sleep. At noon, his cousin, Stan Jenkins, came to drive Jim and Cheryl back to his parents’ house for lunch. Jim mentioned he still didn’t feel well, and Stan, a physician, told him to see a doctor as soon as he got back to New York. Jim had no appetite, but he had a raspy cough. He decided to catch an earlier flight home.

Back in New York, Jim woke up Monday morning feeling worse. He’d lost his voice and had trouble breathing. He called his assistant and asked her to cancel a breakfast meeting and a recording session. This was the first time Jim had ever called in sick.

Alerted by Cheryl, Jane came over in the afternoon with chicken soup and stayed at his bedside while he lay in bed coughing, his heart beating rapidly, breathing with great difficulty, sipping tea. By 2:00 am, Jim’s breathing was even more labored, and it hurt his abdomen to cough. When he coughed up blood, Jane wanted to call a doctor, but Jim refused, pleading, “Just rub my back.”

A couple of hours later, Jim finally agreed to go to the hospital. He was admitted at 4:58 am on Tuesday, May 15. Examination showed an irregular heartbeat and failing kidneys. By 6:30 he was diagnosed with pneumonia and kidney failure and moved to ICU, where he slipped into a coma. He never regained consciousness. Despite heroic measures during the following hours, at 1:21 am on Wednesday, May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died at age 53. Official cause of death was septic shock due to group A streptococcus. That sore throat eight days earlier was caused by a rare strain of strep, which slowly spread throughout Jim’s lungs and organs, infecting everything in its path.

All of Jim’s children were present in the hospital at the time of his passing, as were all his long-time associates and Jane. Everyone was stunned that someone as healthy and vibrant as Jim could be gone so suddenly.

Frank Oz speaking at Jim’s memorial service:

The Disney deal did not close in 1990. Jim’s death triggered staggering estate taxes which put both sides in such a complicated position that no one could figure out a scenario that worked to anyone’s benefit. The tone of the negotiations deteriorated. There was no joy on either side.

The Jim Henson Company continued to produce noteworthy Muppet films and specials, many with the assistance of The Walt Disney Company, but logistics were becoming more difficult for independent movie companies, and in 2000 Henson’s company, including its Sesame Street assets, was sold to EM.TV, a German media group. By 2003, EM.TV’s stock tanked, and the Hensons bought the company back again, except for the Sesame Street Muppets, which EM.TV had sold to Children’s Television Workshop, which Jim would have wanted.

Jim HensonFinally, in February 2004, the Muppets were sold to Disney. The Jim Henson Company held on to the Creature Shop (the workshop where their puppets were designed and built and fitted with technology), the Fraggles, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal.

Jim Henson left behind an incredible legacy, an amazing body of work. But he also generously gave of himself to his family and his colleagues. His positive example continues to be a frame of reference that people who knew him well emulate in their own lives.

There are so many moments of beauty in this book, so many anecdotes, so many belly laughs, and a few tears. Brian Jay Jones devoted five years to researching and writing his biography of Jim Henson, which he calls his “dream project.” He also includes many photographs and meticulous notes.

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