Latest Desk Update

IMG_1373Yup, it’s still a mess.

Hey Froggy Baybeeeee!

I don’t know who actually posted his — someone calling him/herself “Henson Rarities” — but whoever they are, they’ve posted on YouTube one of my all-time favorite Muppet variety show appearances. It’s Kermit and Grover performing “What Kind of Fool Am I?” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1970, and it’s a thing of beauty, even with the terrible condition of the video. (Nerd note: Unofficial Official Muppet Historian Craig Shemin actually found a much higher-quality, full color version of this that he unveiled in New York a few years ago, and lemme tell ya, it is a beaut.)

Just One Person: An Excerpt from JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY

jim-henson-muppets-1980
A NOTE FROM BRIAN:
I usually prefer to celebrate a subject’s date of birth rather than observe the day he died. But it’s worth noting that twenty-five years ago today — May 16, 1990 — Jim Henson passed away at 1:21 a.m. in New York.

Readers of Jim Henson: The Biography often tell me that they find the chapter on Jim’s death to be both sad and fascinating, especially as the circumstances of Jim’s death have, for the last two-and-a-half decades, been misinterpreted, misreported, or just plain misunderstood. I appreciate hearing that readers find this portion of the book as gratifying as they do heartbreaking. You can thank the Henson family for their openness in discussing Jim’s death, and for providing me with the honor — and responsibility — of reading Jim’s medical records from that day in May 1990.

As we remember Jim on the occasion of his passing, then, I thought I’d do something a bit different. I’m posting below — perhaps for only a limited time — an excerpt from the chapter “Just One Person,” from Jim Henson: The Biography, on the days leading up to and including Jim’s death. We’ll begin on Saturday, May 12, 1990, with Jim and his daughter Cheryl flying to North Carolina to visit his father Paul and stepmother Bobby.

* * * * *

On the morning of Saturday, May 12, after two days of seemingly nonstop meetings at One Seventeen, Jim and Cheryl boarded a USAir flight at LaGuardia Airport, and touched down in Norfolk, Virginia, a little after 10:00 a.m. Jim wasn’t feeling well again; while he didn’t have a fever, his throat was still sore, his nose was running, and he had picked up a slight cough. “It seemed like a cold or flu,” said Cheryl. But he felt well enough to carry his own bags and drove their rental car the seventy miles south from Norfolk to rural Ahoskie, North Carolina, where they checked into a motel near Paul and Bobby’s home.

Jim and Cheryl spent the rest of Saturday with Paul and Bobby, playing croquet on the lawn, sipping tea with lots of ice, and chatting casually in the kitchen. “This was a place where Jim was always at home, embraced with love and easy companionship,” said Cheryl. After dinner, Jim—along with an assortment of cousins and extended family—retired to the Hensons’ screened-in “secret porch,” watching the sun go down as they swapped stories and swayed silently in gliders or creaked in rocking chairs. “We just laughed and had a wonderful time,” said Bobby. Jim was “a little sniffily,” she recalled, but would never say he was sick. Rather, he said he “just didn’t feel good”—which was more than anyone had ever heard him complain about his health.

Sunday morning, however, Jim said he felt worse, and went back to bed in his motel room, sleeping in until nearly lunchtime. Around noon, his cousin Stan Jenkins came to pick up Jim and Cheryl to drive them back out to Paul and Bobby’s for lunch. Jim mentioned during the short car ride that he still wasn’t feeling well and had taken Advil—and Stan, a physician, advised Jim to see a doctor the moment he was back in New York (it would later be incorrectly and unfairly reported that Stan had examined Jim and missed the warning signs of pneumonia, an accusation that haunted Stan for years). Jim tried to eat, but had little appetite. His cough had worsened, sometimes rasping so violently that he coughed blood—something he disclosed to no one at the time, preferring not to worry his family. By late afternoon, Jim shakily mentioned that he might try to catch an earlier flight back to New York. There were other factors to consider, too; beginning at ten the next morning he was scheduled to spend all day in a recording session for a Disney show, and wanted to make sure he, and his voice, were rested enough. Bobby, who thought Jim “looked kind of bad,” told him to go. “Nobody knew that Jim was that ill,” Bobby said. “I knew he’d been tired. I chalked it up to that.” Continue reading

Thank the Maker! (Or at Least Wish Him Happy Birthday!)

George-Lucas-Star-Wars-Happy Birthday to George Lucas, who turns 71 years old today. The Force is strong with this one.

Plutarch Time!

Plutarch2014-494x500One of the best things about being a member of Biographers International Organization (BIO)  is that each year, we get to vote for the recipient of the Plutarch Award, presented to the best biography of the year.* This is the only international literary award given by biographers to biography, which makes it pretty neat.  (It was inspired in part by the Edgar Award, presented each year by the Mystery Writers of America, and the Nebula, given annually by the  Science Fiction Writers of America.)

Here’s how it works: each year, a select committee of biographers puts together a list of ten nominees for the year’s best biography.** This list is presented to BIO members in good standing, who then make their selection by secret ballot. The winner (and three runners-up) will be announced (in suitably dramatic fashion, since I’m the one tasked with putting together the ceremony) at BIO’s Annual Conference, which will be held the first weekend in June at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

I should add for the record that as president of BIO, I don’t sit on the Plutarch Nomination Committee, and have no role in of the selection of the ten nominees; like all BIO members in good standing, my responsibility is to simply vote for the book on the list I think is the best.

And what a list it is this year–an interesting, diverse, even somewhat eclectic group of biographies, any of which would be a worthy winner. Wanna see? I won’t make you wait. Here are the ten books nominated for the 2015 Plutarch, listed alphabetically by author:

  • Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Scribner)
  • John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh ( W. Norton & Company)
  • Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Knopf)
  • Helen Rappaport, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (St. Martin’s)
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (Viking Adult)
  • Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (Random House)
  • Will Swift, Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage (Threshold Editions)
  • Edward White, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press)

I’ll be back here in mid-June to let you know who the winner is. And if you’d like to see a list of previous winners (and nominees), click here.

* In 2015, we vote on biographies published in 2014, which is why the medallion reads “2014”

** As a result of this process, we have NO SAD PUPPIES. (And we send kind thoughts to our friends at the Hugo Awards. Lost? Click here for more information on this year’s Hugo kerfluffle.)

Remembering Stan Freberg

stanMan, this one hurts. The great Stan Freberg has passed away at age 88.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Freberg around 2012 when I was doing research on Jim Henson.  I was very excited to make the phone call, as I was a huge fan of his, and when I mentioned how much I loved his “Banana Boat” parody, Stan immediately dropped into that great voice and did a bit of it on the phone (“I came through the window!”)

So what does Stan have to do with Jim Henson and the Muppets? Glad you asked.

In the early days of the Muppets, when Jim Henson was doing Sam and Friends here in DC on our local NBC station, Jim used to have the Muppets lip-synch to comedy records–which more often than not meant he was gonna use one of Freberg’s. Here are a few of the members of the cast of Sam and Friends (specifically Moldy Hay and Hank and Frank) lip-synching to Freberg’s “C’est Ci Bon,” probably sometime in 1955 or 1956.  Take a look, and I’ll be back with you after the video:

Wasn’t that great? Now, an interesting coda to all this: back in the 1950s, there was never much thought given to clearing records for usage, which likely would have involved paying royalties–an expensive proviso, especially for a college student, which is what Jim still was in 1957. The strategy, then, was to ask forgiveness instead of permission–and when any wounded artist brought their concerns to Jim’s attention, most gave way after meeting Jim and watching the Muppets.

That was true for Freberg as well, who in 1957 learned that his records were being used without attribution (or recompense!) and went storming down to WRC-TV one evening to take up the matter with Jim personally. Once he actually saw Jim (and Jane) performing to his records, he immediately melted. Shortly thereafter, he sent Jim an enthusiastic telegram. “I take it all back,” Freberg wrote. “This is one of the greatest acts I have ever seen [and I] am honored to let you use my records for ever and longer.” And so they did.

Miss ya already, Stan.

Still Great at 232 Years.

WashingtonIrvingSS621a-b

“Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them.” — Washington Irving, “Philip of Pokanoket : An Indian Memoir,” from The Sketch Book (1820)

Happy Birthday to Washington Irving, born on this day in 1783. Celebrate his birthday by reading a great American short story–for he pretty much invented the form, you know.