Category Archives: Jim Henson

Love the Turtle!

I had a fantastic time at the University of Maryland last night: an enthusiastic crowd who laughed (and cried) in all the right places, great questions, and one of the best setups I’ve seen for a smaller setting, with the podium set up between two huge hi-def TV screens so there wasn’t a bad seat in the house.  Well done. UMD, and well done all who came. You were a lot of fun.

Incidentally, I had two people raise their hands at the same time to ask, “When will they be releasing The Muppet Show seasons 4 and 5 on DVD?”  Good question, and one I’d love for Disney to answer. The rumor I’ve heard (and keep in mind I don’t actually know anything) is that the biggest obstacle to their release is the tracking down and clearing of all the rights to the music used in the last two seasons. I’d think this would be a drop in the bucket for the Disney conglomerate– but, again, what the heck do know? Discuss amongst yuhselves.

And much, I’m certain, to my father’s disappointment (he reads this blog, then texts me Statler and Waldorf-like comments), I did not get a picture of me with the statue of Jim and Kermit. I arrived with only enough time to run through the A/V check before things started . . . and then afterwards it was dark.

Ya wanna see something else, though? All over the university, you’ll find statues of their mascot, the turtle Testudo, which get painted and repainted to look like this . . .

images

or this . . .

f1b8408d0e02badba44e4b10568257cb

or this.

20969b0383bfa0261b6b1056b1d87e4f

Just inside the Stamp Student Union Building, however, there’s a turtle who’s been painted — and slightly modified — to look like this:

Kertle

Have a good weekend!

Fear the Turtle! (But Come Anyway!)

Just a quick reminder: I’ll be speaking at the University of Maryland–Jim Henson’s alma mater–this Friday at 6:00 p.m. at the Stamp Student Union Bookstore. It’s all part of the University’s parents’ weekend events, but whether you’re a UMD parent or UMD student or not, you’re welcome to come join the fun.  And did I tell you it’s free? Well, it is.

Which building is Stamp Student Union, you ask? It’s the one with this statue in front:

Statue.hensonumd

More Comings and Goings

Urgh, I continue to be the worst. Blogger. Ever.

Hi, everyone.  How ya doin’?

Since I last saw you, I’ve come back from a wonderful trip to Kinderhook, New York, where I had been invited to come talk on Washington Irving.  Kinderhook is particularly important in Irving’s story, because it’s where he wrote his first book, A History of New York, in the summer of 1809, while recovering from the death of his 17-year-old fiancee. While I was there, I toured Martin Van Buren’s home, Lindenwald (which is THE ACTUAL HOUSE where Irving wrote his History of New York, though it was still owned by the Van Ness family at that time), and had the great pleasure of staying in this house right here:

kinderhook georgianThis is a local landmark, the Burgoyne House, where British general John Burgoyne was held after his capture by Benedict Arnold.  Arnold, however, had to stay at a very nice, but much smaller, house just down the street.  Which probably explains a lot about what happened later.

I spoke that afternoon at the Reformed Dutch Church, where I talked about Irving’s version of the Dutch history of New York. Afterwards, I was asked several really good questions, and only slightly disappointed the home town crowd when I informed them that Kinderhook was probably not the Sleepy Hollow of Irving’s famous tale (Had I been a bit faster on my feet, I’d have said that every place is Sleepy Hollow.  But it was hot.) Afterwards, we retreated to a reception at the old Jesse Merwin house, which at one time belonged to the historic figure who actually was the inspiration for Ichabod Crane. All in all, a lovely weekend — and I even got to bring Barb with me.

I’ve got several events coming up in the next few months, which I’ll post under the News tab as well.  

First, I’ll be speaking at the University of Maryland — Jim Henson’s alma mater, for those of you playing at home — on Friday, September 12, as part of the university’s parent’s weekend.  I’ll be at the University Book Center at Stamp Union, starting at 6:30 p.m.

In October, I’ll be attending the James River Writers Conference down in Richmond, Virginia, for three days (October 17-19), and I’ll be giving my hour long Jim Henson show on Friday night, October 17, as part of the many kick-off events. If you’re anywhere near Richmond that weekend and love books . . . well, it’s something you’d probably wanna do.

In November, I’ll be back at the University of Maryland (in association with the Prince George’s County Historical Society) to talk Jim Henson on Sunday, November 2, from 2:30 to 4, at the Hornbake Library.

Finally, on Wednesday, November 5, I’ll be making my long-overdue appearance at the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan Library, at 6:30 p.m. I’m very excited about this one, especially as the library and I went back and forth for a long time trying to find a date that worked.

This and That

It’s a gorgeous early summer day here in Maryland and I’ve been outside mowing and working in the yard–but I’ve got a few noteworthy things to, uh, note for you.

First, for those of you in the Norfolk/Newport News region, I’ll be on HearSay on Tuesday, July 1, from noon until 1 p.m. (that’s 89.5 FM on the local dial, but it’ll be streaming shortly afterward).  I’ll be sitting in studio to talk Jim Henson with my pal Liz Humes (who also brings you the Wordy Birds radio show in Richmond every Friday), who’s sitting in for the vacationing Cathy Lewis for the week.

And as I mentioned, even if you’re not in the Virginia region, the show will be available online shortly thereafter over on their website.

Next, an interview I did with Neil Haley during last fall’s Miami Book Fair just went online right here. This one was a lot of fun, since we had thirty uninterrupted minutes — and I think Neil had just completed an interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, so it was a nice change of pace for him as well.

Finally, it’s always lovely to read a thoughtful reader review like this one.

In Which I Am On CNN, Go To Boston, and Get Back In The Chair

Good grief, it’s really been over a month since I last checked in here? I’m never gonna get a John Scalzi-type following at this rate…

First thing’s first–and because everyone asked me about it at the time–the CNN piece on the Muppets finally aired in late May. The CNN crew had come to my house here in Maryland ages ago to film me in my basement office, and then I never heard anything more about it. I had assumed it had turned into vapor trails, until a sharp-eyed fan on Twitter alerted me to it: a half-hour special called CNN Spotlight: The Muppets, with a brief look at Jim Henson about a third of the way through it.

In case you missed it (and even if you didn’t), here’s the piece in its entirety:

 

I also had the great pleasure of speaking in mid-April at the newly-opened Gaithersburg Library here in my neck of the words, with the added bonus that C-SPAN was in attendance to record my hour-long talk in its entirety for BookTV.  No word yet on when, or even if, it’ll air, but I’ll let you know what I hear. More than likely, some eagle-eyed Muppet fan will spot it before I do and let me know about it.

In mid-May, I headed for Boston to attend Biographers International Organization’s annual conference. It was my privilege to be elected the organization’s president in early spring, but that meant that in addition to the two panels I was on and the one panel I was moderating, I also had to act as emcee for much of the conference–which also meant I didn’t have as much time to spend catching up with everyone as I would have liked. One of the founding principles of BIO is to address with what we informally call “the loneliness quotient,” so the opportunity to mingle and trade stories with other biographers is one of the genuine pleasures of attending the BIO conference. It’s also perhaps the only place on the planet where you can grouse about having to assemble the index for your book (“And that index?!? AMIRIGHT?”) and have everyone in the room nodding sympathetically.

At the final reception, we announced the finalists and winner of the Plutarch Award, presented to the best biography of the year, as chosen by biographers.  I was pleased and honored that Jim Henson was among the finalists (along with Ray Monk’s Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center and Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin), with the well-deserved winner being Linda Leavell’s Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne MooreIf you haven’t read any of these fine biographies, do yourself a favor and grab any one of them. Better yet, grab ‘em all.

And, oh yeah . . . I’m at work again. On Something Cool. That means I’ll be back at the desk regularly again –which I’m also hoping means I can get back here more often. Bear with me.

Places To Go, Things to Do

I’m hanging my head in embarrassment that I’ve let the ol’ blog lie fallow for the past few weeks. For shame, Doc, for shame.

First off, I’ve got several folks to publicly thank and acknowledge. I’ve thanked them all privately, but the events were so terrific that they deserve a public mention as well.

In mid-March, I had the great pleasure of being one of the twenty authors invited to the Literary Feast, a three-day fundraiser for literacy programs sponsored by the Broward Public Library Foundation.  Our hosts took great care of us, the company was grand, and the weather . . . well, considering it was 21 degrees when I left Washington for Ft. Lauderdale, the weather just could’t be beat.  In fact, it was while griping about East Coast weather in a shuttle bus that several of us discovered we had come in from the DC region; besides me, there was John Shaw (author of JFK in the Senate) and Andrew Carroll (a multitasking machine who’s latest is Here Is Where), and making their acquaintance was one of the high points of the trip. As an added bonus, I also spent a good part of one reception hanging out with the super cool Rupert Holmes (yes, that Rupert Holmes) and never once made a Pina Colada joke.

The day after I returned, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Arts Club of Washington, one of DC’s really great (and under appreciated!) venues, housed in a 19th century mansion that once served as the home of President James Monroe.  I had to task my host for the evening, the poet Sandra Beasley, with running my slideshow from my laptop from her seat in the center aisle–and with our unspoken language of arched eyebrows and nods and finger waves, things ran smoothly. (In fact, I thought it was one of the best presentations I’ve done in a while.) My thanks, then, to Sandra and the Arts Club for having me. It was a terrific evening — and if you find yourself in DC, locate the club over on I Street and drop in.

Up next for me: I’ll be at the newly-renovated Gaithersburg Library on April 16, starting at 7 p.m.  It’s free and open to the public, and it’ll be a lot of fun.  Here’s a bit of video of me (sitting in my basement office) giving a sneak preview of the April 16 event:

And as an added bonus, here I am again, talking about Jim Henson in Maryland:

Finally, on the weekend of May 17-18, I’ll be attending the Biographers International Organization’s annual conference in Boston. I’ll admit to being a bit biased about this one — I’m BIO’s vice president, after all — but BIO’s conferences are always informative and entertaining, with first-rate panelists and moderators. I’ll be sitting on two panels, one on book tours, the other on working with the family of your subject.

Even better, the recipient of this year’s BIO Award — given to individuals who’ve made a significant contribution to the art of biography — is Stacy Schiff, whose Cleopatra: A Life is an art unto itself. Plus, Stacy’s a class act, and a dynamite speaker — and you’ll get to hear her at lunch at the BIO conference.  Really, that should be enough to convince you to attend right there.

Credit Where Credit’s Due: The Audience Is Listening

17288885I have to confess to not being much of an Audiobook Guy. It’s nothing personal; I’m mainly just a Book In The Hand Guy (worse yet, I’m  a Hardcover Book In The Hand Guy), and if I have a choice between listening to a book and reading it, I’d rather just pick it up and read it rather than find my iPod, untangle the headphones, and listen to it.  It’s really just a matter of preference, and your taste is your own.  

All this is just set up to explain to you why it took me so long to listen to the audiobook version of Jim HensonMy first book, Washington Irving, never made it into audiobook format. But with Jim Henson, I was told on day one that the audiobook would be released on the same day as the hardcover.  That sounded pretty good to me–and I said so–then thought no more of it until early June 2013, when the audiobook process kicked in. To my surprise and delight, I was being asked to listen to a short audition tape from a potential audiobook reader — while I had no actual say over who could or couldn’t read the audiobook, it was really, really cool to be looped into the process and asked my opinion.

kh_10202_t

The versatile Kirby Heyborne.

The producer for the audiobook–a talented guy named Aaron Blank–had a reader in mind from the very start: Kirby Heyborne, a versatile voice actor, singer, and comedian who, Aaron assured me, had exactly the sound the book needed. (Hey, wanna see Kirby starring in a recent Best Buy commercial? Here ya go.) I listened to the short digital file Aaron e-mailed me, and I did like it — but the particular sequence he had sent me was all exposition; there was no dialogue, no characters.  I e-mailed Aaron back and asked if it might be possible to hear Kirby reading as Jim, or maybe even a quick Muppet segment. Moments later, there were several digital sound files in my inbox of Kirby reading as Jim and Frank Oz and Kermit–and they were all terrific. I was sold.

I sent Kirby an e-mail saying hello and letting him know how happy I was that he was reading — and Kirby sent a very nice note back, and we dutifully followed each other on Twitter, because that’s what you do, you know — and there was much rejoicing. After that, the only other interaction I had with the audiobook team was a phone call in which we went over various pronunciations, such as “David Lazer” (pronounced like “laser”) or “Wontkins” (pronounced like “WON’T-kins,” and not “want-kins”). Everything was in capable hands.

Flash forward now to the fall of 2013. I received the audiobook along with the hardcover . . . and put it on my bookshelf, where it sat silent and un-listened to. I knew the audiobook was a hit — Frank Oz specifically asked for a copy, while over on Salon, Kyle Minor called it “one of the most pleasurable audiobooks I’ve spent time with this year”–but I still hadn’t found the right time to listen to the thing.

Finally, in January and February of this year, I had to make several lengthy drives into Virginia, and decided to take the audiobook along with me. (Is it considered gauche to listen to your own audiobook? I really don’t know.) From the moment I heard Kirby read the prologue, I was driving with a big smile on my face — Kirby had gotten it down perfectly, even reading some lines with the same beats, the same inflection that I had “heard” as I was writing them. And he does a great job giving every main “character” in the story their own voice, whether it’s the somewhat lyrical tone he uses for Jim Henson, a more cynical, tougher edge for Frank Oz, or his dead-on impression of Muppet performer Jerry Nelson.

There were also times he put on a voice that made me laugh out loud–while driving!–such as the Lorne Michaels impression that sounded like the one Bob Smigel used for his “TV Funhouse” cartoons on SNL (“Come back here with my shoooo!”) or the way he said drawrings (instead of drawings) when doing Labyrinth screenwriter/Monty Pythoner Terry Jones. And his David Bowie? Forget it; he killed. It was a lot of fun, and more than once, I found myself sitting in the car after arriving at my destination, engine off, just listening to the rest of a particular section.

And so: here’s my Official Thank You! to Kirby Heyborne for making me — and Jim, and everyone else — sound so great. Many thanks, Kirby — I truly appreciate it.