May 31, 2013
Conference Report and More Jim Henson
…and hello again.
I’ve had a wonderfully busy couple of weeks. In mid-May, I spent several days in New York City attending BIO’s Fourth Annual Compleat Biographers Conference, though attending seems a bit too weak of a word to describe what a terrific time I had. Here are a few highlights of my long weekend:
(1) Watching Janet Reid, Sarah Weinman, and Jennifer Richards enthrall a packed room with advice and tales of successfully (and unsuccessfully!) using social media — and gamely carrying on as if nothing had happened when the lights suddenly went out over their heads.
(2) Sitting on a panel with the remarkable Amanda Foreman, who was shot right out of a cannon and had the audience eating out of her hand with one funny story after another — and I had to follow her. Yikes.
(3) Listening to Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow speak at lunch about the importance of listening to the silences in your subject’s story. Your role as a biographer, he said, “is not to see what’s there . . . but what’s missing.” Beautifully put.
(4) Moderating a lively panel on the the future of biography and publishing, with two crack agents and two crack editors — including my own agent and editor –participating enthusiastically and knocking it out of the park. Despite everything you might hear, print isn’t dead, or even dying — but it’s got to willingly share its space.
(5) Introducing BIO’s first ever Plutarch Award, given to the year’s best biography, as chosen by biographers. I’m really proud of this one — I sat ex officio on the committee that chose the ten nominees that would be sent to BIO members for their vote, and had the pleasure of coordinating the awards ceremony for the Saturday evening reception. The winner of the first Plutarch — as selected by BIO’s members — was the fourth volume in Robert Caro’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power.
While Caro couldn’t be there himself — he was off doing the research for the next volume in his series (which he joked was “volume five in a four volume series”) — his longtime editor at Knopf, Katherine Hourigan, accepted on his behalf.
(6) Meeting the incredibly modest and friendly Tom Reiss, whose The Black Count won the 2013 Pulitzer for biography. Tom was probably one of the most photographed people at the conference (heck, I have a photo with him, and I hate having my picture taken!) and he was always patient, generous, and genuinely interested in talking with everyone. A class act all around.
All in all, a successful weekend — and we’re already in the early planning stages for next year.
When I returned from New York, I had a week left to finish going through the galleys for Jim Henson. Fittingly, perhaps, I made my changes and notes in Kermit-green ink, and shipped everything back three days early. As a result, yesterday I got in the mail from Random House a heavy box full of these:
These are the advance uncorrected proofs that will go out for review. There’s still no cover for it, and the photo insert is being finished off as well. But as my editor wrote in his cover note, “It’s nearly a book.” And it is indeed.
May 8, 2013
A Blurb That’s Legen . . . wait for it . . .
Blurbs for Jim Henson are beginning to roll into the offices of the good people at Random House — including this wonderful one from one of the world’s most devoted Jim Henson fans:
“I’m a rabid Jim Henson fan—his brilliant ideas spawned shows that entertained and educated millions, myself included. Jim Henson vibrantly delves into the magnificent man and his Muppet methods. It’s an absolute must read!”—Neil Patrick Harris
Thank you, Neil. Sincerely.
May 7, 2013
Our little town in Maryland straddles several major state highways–descendants, I’m sure, of old cow and cart paths that were eventually hacked and paved into the hillsides and given official state designations. That means that most of us who live on the older, main thoroughfares around here have our houses facing two-lane state highway. It’s not as bad as it sounds; this isn’t the two-lane highway on which speeding trucks thundered dangerously by in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Instead, it’s wooded, somewhat meandering blacktop that curves through the surrounding farms and dairies and only gets really busy on Sundays when they’re plugged with church traffic.
Anyway, one of the quirks that’s evolved around here over the last half-century or so is that because so many of us face two-lane blacktop, no one uses their front doors. Instead, driveways stretch to the back of each house, and when you step out of the car, you take a quick trip up the back steps or through a patio or up across a raised deck and you knock at the back door. When we expect company, we turn on the back porch lights. Our mailbox sits at the back gate, too. Life revolves around the back door.
But when packages get delivered by UPS or FedEx . . . well, for some reason both deliverymen tend to back up their trucks off the state highway, leave the engine running, sprint from the truck across the rock path leading to the front porch, drop their packages at the front door—usually in the space between the storm door and the big wooden main door–then dash back to the delivery truck and escape without us ever knowing they were there. Sometimes a package has even been known to sit a day or two before one of us finally opened the front door and stumbled upon it.
That didn’t happen today, but only because this morning, my editor sent me a cryptic e-mail reading, “Says it’s delivered and at front door. It arrive?” I opened the heavy front door, and sure enough there was a package. And inside that package? The galley proofs for Jim Henson, suitable for proofreading and final copyediting:
As it’s been typeset and laid out, it now runs just a hair over 570 pages–and I’ve got a little more than twenty days (fewer than that, actually, since I’ll be at the BIO conference for four of them) to re-read, review, edit and proof all of them.
Off I go, then — and we’re still on track for you to have it in your hands on September 24, Jim’s 77th birthday.
April 3, 2013
Sensational, Inspirational: Jane Henson (1934-2013)
Over the past five years, I had the great privilege of getting to know Jane Henson — at least a little. She was brassy, brilliant, outspoken, and opinionated — and, frankly, the first time I met her, she intimidated the hell out of me. But the more I got to know her, the more I came to find that she was also incredibly warm and sweet, and completely and utterly devoted to her family and friends. She was also just as funny as you might imagine, edgy with a slight whiff of mischief. (And yeah, she was a terrific puppeteer, too — there’s a reason young Jim Henson asked her to be his first performing partner back in 1954: Jim knew sheer talentwhen he saw it.)
For the five years I knew her, Jane was fighting cancer. And yet, she was always generous with her time, giving me several hours (on several occasions!) in New York, and a few more when she happened to be in Washington, DC. I never called our sessions together “interviews”; instead, I called them conversations – because I think that’s how we both came to regard them. There were times I was worried I might be tiring her out — one session ran nearly five hours — but Jane seemed to have a nearly endless enthusiasm; the one time I suggested that we start wrapping things up because she might be tired, she simply looked at her watch, raised an eyebrow at me, and shrugged, “If you say so.”
Yeah, I came to adore her.
The last time I saw her was late summer 2012. She was a bit tired, but still as punchy as ever and we talked for several hours in the conference room of the Jim Henson Legacy, an organization she founded in 1993 to preserve and perpetuate Jim’s life and work. When I got up to leave that afternoon, I took her right hand in mine and shook it. “Thank you for sharing Jim with me,” I told her, “and thanks for sharing you.” She patted the back of my hand warmly with her left hand and smiled.
Jane Henson died Tuesday morning at the age of 78. And I’ll miss her.
January 25, 2013
We have a title. It’s Jim Henson: The Biography. Dignified and straight to the point. But I’ve got another announcement for you, too.
Jim Henson: The Biography is now available for pre-order. There’s no cover for it yet — everyone’s still working on that part — but the listing is up on various bookseller websites, as well as on Goodreads. You can pre-order it from your favorite bookseller right here, and see it on Goodreads here.
January 25, 2013
On Your Mark . . .
There’s a nasty cold snap churning its way across the Midwest and eastern Atlantic, plunging temperatures into the teens and low 20s. We’ve had just a bit of snow here in our neck of the woods in Maryland — it’s falling even as I write this — but I’m inside, hard at work on all the little things that need to be done as we move Jim Henson’s biography into production. As of today, we’re just shy of eight months until publication. That seems like it’s a long way away — but it’s really not. Particularly from where I sit.
I went up to New York for a few days last week to sit in on a few discussions about marketing and promotion — and while I can’t tell you just yet what the crack team at Random House has in mind, I can say I’m very excited about pretty much all of it. I also had the chance to hold in my hands a bound version of the manuscript, complete with a mock-up title page (and yeah, it looks like we’ve arrived at an Official Name for it — more on that once it’s Officially Official) that gets circulated in-house and will be going out for blurbs shortly.
I’m still going through photographs and running down clearances — a labor-intensive process which involves putting together long lists of extended quotes, lyrics, quotes from TV shows and movies, and bits of correspondence that I’ll need permission to use. But in the meantime, as vice president of Biographers International Organization, I’m working hard with our president, board, and team of volunteers to put together what looks like a fantastic conference in New York City this coming May. But don’t take my word for it; check out the conference website right here. Better yet, once you’ve checked it out, sign up to attend. This promises to be our largest and most informative — and entertaining — conference yet.
December 4, 2012
Playing Catch Up
It’s a been a lonely year for this blog, I know. Looking back, I see I’ve written exactly five entries since January 2012–an anemic pace, to be sure. I wish I was one of those prolific blogging machines, but the truth is I’m not the multi-tasker I once was — and every time I’ve put butt in chair over the past year, it’s usually been to spend the next twelve hours or so writing about Jim Henson, rather than writing about writing about Jim Henson first and then going on to actually write about Jim Henson. You get the idea.
When I last left you, the first full draft was sitting on my desk in hard copy while an electronic copy had been whisked away over the emailz to my editor. Since that time, it’s been read and re-read and edited and redrafted two more times. As of November 30, it now looks like this (I knew you were coming, so I posed it among a photo montage just for fun):
The first draft came in at about 730 pages; this draft is a bit shorter — around 680 pages — but one of the really great things about working with a really great editor is that things not only get shorter, but they get tighter and better. (Editors are the great unsung heroes of most of the books you’ve read — and if you wanna know what else mine is up to, you can follow him over on Twitter at @RyanDoh). While it needs just a bit of fine tuning, it’s very nearly complete, and should be done before Christmas.
There. That catches you up on that part.
Next up, we’ll start deciding on the photos that’ll be used inside. I’ve already spent days poring over countless images from the Jim Henson Company and Sesame Workshop, trying to decide which ones might make the cut — a tough call, given that nearly every image is a keeper, and I haven’t even started going through the collection of images now owned by Disney. That should happen sometime in January — and we’re still right on track to have Jim’s story in your hands on his 77th birthday: September 24, 2013.
June 28, 2012
The first draft of Jim Henson sits in all its 700-page glory, to the likely approval of the Jim Henson action figure (as well as the photobombing Jim and Kermit bookmark).
I delivered the first draft of Jim Henson (as I’m currently calling it) to my editor earlier this week. (Actually, I delivered an electronic version to him — this 700-page monster is the one that gets filed away, with all the other first drafts.)
I’m taking a bit of a break for a moment — I’m headed to New York later this afternoon, in fact, to talk about Washington Irving — and then the next round of fun begins. Stay tuned.
January 19, 2012
Five Months and Counting
Hello there, and Happy 2012! Sorry to be away so long — I hate when this thing sits idle, but it’s been a busy couple of weeks.
I’m still due to deliver the first draft manuscript of Jim Henson to my editor in May (which I choose to define as “by close of business on May 31″) — and looking at my outline, that means five chapters in five months. Even I can do the math on that one. At the moment, I’m deep into Mystics, Muppet water ballet sequences, and Fraggles — so if you’re a Muppet fan, you can guess how far along that makes me.
I spent the first week in January, in fact, back at the Henson Archives in New York, where archivist Karen Falk once again took extraordinarily good care of me, patiently helping me locate and carry one box after another to the office they’d set aside for my use. (If you’re interested, here’s an interview with Karen Falk, where she talks about the the actual layout and look of the Henson Archives—which does not resemble the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
We also had the opportunity to oooh and ahhh over her advance copy of the new Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand graphic novel, which is every bit as terrific as it sounds (and I just received an e-mail earlier this week informing me that the copy I had ordered from amazon back in June(!) should be arriving this week).
Jim and his long-time writing partner Jerry Juhl began writing Tale of Sand in the mid-1960s, during an incredibly experimental time in Jim’s career. They continued to tinker with the script on into the early 1970s before finally setting it aside in the midst of Sesame Street fever and the countless other balls Jim was juggling at once. It’s very different from most of the Jim Henson projects you’re familiar with — and yet, it’s also “very Jim,” especially the Jim at that time. Be sure to check it out—it’s not only an intriguing story, but the book itself is also a really nice piece of work.Let’s see, what else? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be up and down the Eastern Seaboard to take care of some more interviews, each of which should be a lot of fun. I also get to work my way through films like The Great Muppet Caper and call it work.
Finally, I can’t resist passing onto you some New Year’s Words of Wisdom from the Always Remarkable Neil Gaiman — who really hopes you will make mistakes this year. Click here and read on.
Happy New Year. Make mistakes.
November 17, 2011
In Media Res
It’s probably due to the upcoming premiere of the brand spanking new movie The Muppets (coming to a theater near you on November 23), but over the past few days I’ve been asked more and more, “How’s the book coming?”
The short answer: really well. I recently finished writing extensively about The Muppet Show, which puts me about two-thirds of the way through. But there’s still a lot more to go — that Jim Henson was a busy and productive guy — and as I make the turn into the final third of the book, my desk is officially a mess. And to respond to some of the other questions I’ve received, here’s what my workspace presently looks like:
It’s a bit blurry — I took it with my phone — so let me guide you around. On the wall behind my chair is the gigantic white board I use to draw up the timeline for the chapter I’m working on, along with any random notes (at the moment, there’s a scribbled address for the long-gone Muppet Stuff store in New York City).
On top of the desk (which is actually just two old tables pushed together, with a filing cabinet shoved into the open corner) is an assortment of black binders (filled with transcripts of interviews, notes, and newspaper articles) along with several journals and scattered Post-It notes. You might also see the corner of a copy of Christopher Finch’s fantastic Jim Henson: The Works peeking out, as well as Caroll Spinney’s The Wisdom of Big Bird. And that piece of red striped paper is actually part of my Bible for this project: a well-thumbed and marked-up photocopy of Jim’s Red Book, generously provided by the Henson family.
What else? On top of the filing cabinet in the lower left hand corner are all four volumes of an 1862 edition of The Life and Letters of Washington Irving—still a fellow close to my heart—and because I believe you should always have your subject looking over your shoulder as you write, the mantlepiece behind me (yeah, it’s a real working fireplace) sports a framed photo of Jim Henson lounging across a set of theater seats with his arm draped around Kermit.*
What’s next? During the last week of November, I’ll be interviewing not one, not two, not even four, but five more Really Neat People, and I’m producing chapters regularly, which keeps my editor happy. And while I try to spend most of my days sitting right there in that leather chair you see above, I have to admit I’ll be spending several hours out of it next Wednesday. I’ll be at The Muppets, you know.
Thanks, everyone, for their questions and enthusiasm!
* Just for fun, see if you can also spot a 1960s-era Batmobile and the Mach 5 among the mess, as well as a Jim Henson action figure, strumming a banjo.
August 23, 2011
When I left for Los Angeles two weeks ago, my original schedule—as I think I reported in these pages a few entries back —was going to be a bit of a whirlwind: I would be arriving at LAX at 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, which gave me just enough time to rent a car, check into my hotel and grab a bite to eat before I headed over to the Jim Henson Company to meet with Lisa Henson in the afternoon. Early Wednesday morning, I was going to drive to Burbank to meet with Muppet performer Dave Goelz, who had been scheduled to work all Tuesday evening on a Muppet-related project, but had graciously offered to give me a few hours the next morning before he caught an early flight back home. I would then drive back to LAX, return my rental car, and catch my 3 p.m. flight back to Baltimore. That was the way it was supposed to work, at least.
That didn’t happen. And yet, things couldn’t have gone any better.
After checking into my hotel, I did what most of us do the moment we settle into the room: I plugged in the laptop, grumbled a bit about having to pay for wireless service, then logged in to check my e-mail. There I found waiting for me a message Dave Goelz had sent while I was still on the plane that morning, apologizing that he had run into an unexpected schedule change. “Tuesday we expect to shoot until about 2 a.m.,” he wrote, and explained that he was concerned he would be too sleep-deprived to participate in a worthwhile interview the next morning. However, he continued, “I’d love it if you could come to the studio to do the interview. We’re shooting a music video with OK Go…” Attached at the bottom of the message was a map to Delfino Studios in Sylmar. ”Hope you can make it.” Dave said.
Make it? Are you kidding?
As it turns out, the band OK Go had recorded a version of the theme from The Muppet Show for The Green Album, a new collection of Muppet-related covers—and the Muppets, naturally, would be a major part of their music video. The Muppets and the video-savvy OK Go together? There was no way it couldn’t be a lot of fun. Knowing he was already at the studio working and therefore unable to check e-mail, I tapped out a text message to Dave telling him that I would love the chance to watch him work, and asked if I could meet him at 7 p.m., after I finished my meeting over at Henson Studios. Dave responded almost immediately: “Xlent.”
I kept my appointment with Lisa Henson—who was as warm and gracious and thoughtful as always—then as the clock neared 6 p.m., I pointed my Kia Soul (what the heck?) in the direction of Burbank. A little after 7 p.m., I pulled up at Delfino Studios, a compound of several connected warehouses just outside of the city. I managed to luck into finding a producer on a break out in the parking lot, who kindly steered me through a maze of outer rooms and into one of Delfino’s dark, cavernous main studios. There, in the middle of the room, under an enormous glare of lights, the members of the band OK Go were patiently resting their heads on the top of a long board, waiting for the music to begin as the crew buzzed around them.
Trying to stay out of the way as much as possible, I climbed into a canvas chair in a cozy seating area that had been set up off to one side, an assortment of chairs and sofas arranged around several flatscreen monitors where we could easily see exactly what the cameras were filming. As playback began over the studio speakers, the band began to lipsynch to themselves singing The Muppet Showtheme—and as they finished the verse, up popped Marvin Suggs to pound on their heads with his Muppaphone mallets. My mouth hung open. “OMG,” I texted to my wife, “I JUST SAW MARVIN SUGGS!” (Her response: “MODULATE!” I do love having a pop culture-savvy spouse…)
After another hour of filming—where I watched lead singer Damian Kulash repeatedly smash into, then peel his face off of, a piece of plexiglass as he and the Muppet performers attempted to get the timing just right on a series of quick head turns—Dave Goelz climbed off a ladder where he had been performing Gonzo and we were finally able to grab some time to speak in a quiet side office.
An hour later, a technician came in to call Dave back to the set. Dave cheerily pointed a finger at me. “Let’s keep talking!” he said. “Don’t go anywhere!” Believe me, there was no chance that was happening. For another hour I stood to one side as Dave laid on a rolling cart with Gonzo, reacting goofily as a Muppaphone mallet was thrown into a pyramid of inverted trash cans, sending a bucket swinging toward the camera. As it struck a Muppet chicken, a blast of compressed air blew a handful of feathers skyward. (“Whoopeee!!” cheered Gonzo in several takes.) The director finally decided everyone had nailed it, and back Dave and I went to talking, taking a slight break to eat dinner on the set around 11 p.m.
At one point, Steve Whitmire—who’s performed Kermit the Frog since 1990, and who I had the pleasure of speaking with in Atlanta earlier this year—circled around us several times, then came over, smiling, to shake my hand. “I thought I recognized you!” he said as he clapped me on the shoulder. Man, the Muppet performers are all such genuinely nice people.
Well into the early hours of Wednesday morning, Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire sat just out of the camera’s eye, performing Statler and Waldorf, first with Kulash, and then by themselves. They worked without a script, preferring to ad lib their dialogue, cracking each other up, and laughing in character. After one particular take, director Kirk Thatcher laughed out loud. “That was great!” he called out, “Let’s cut!”
“No, it wasn’t great,” Whitmire said. ”We need something else.”
“I got it! I got it!” said Goelz, and as cameras rolled again, the two of them worked their way through several more jokes until both were happy with it.
As I watched these two old friends work together—two men who had known each other for nearly thirty-five years, and who knew each other’s rhythms so well they could hit all the beats of an ad-libbed routine perfectly— I was struck by just how fortunate I am to be a part of their world, if only for a moment. To call itawe inspiring doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
I closed my night–or morning, rather, for at this point, it was approaching 3 a.m.—listening to Dave speak fondly of friends and coworkers, many of whom are long since gone. After we finished, as I got up to go, he took my hand in both of his and shook it warmly. “Thank you for letting me talk about Jim,” he said. “It’s been a real privilege.” That choked me up; as I said earlier, the Muppet performers are all such warm and generous people. It was all I could do to stammer that the privilege was all mine.
And it truly was.
And now, here’s the video I had the thrill of watching Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, OK Go, and the rest of the talented Muppet performers make in that warehouse studio in Burbank.
(My thanks to Dave Goelz for inviting me to the set — and to the members of OK Go who graciously permitted me to stay there.)
August 22, 2011
Trip Report? Well . . . okay. Go.
I haven’t posted anything about my trip out to Los Angeles back on August 9 — but that was because I got to see something really extraordinary that I couldn’t talk about until things were officially Official.
They’re official now, and they have to do with this:
Click here for the video (I’d embed it, only WordPress Hates Vevo). More later.
July 21, 2011
“Henson & Oz” and the Museum of the Moving Image
The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York — a stone throw from the Kaufman Astoria studios where Sesame Street is taped — is presently hosting the exhibit Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, a marvelous show covering the entire span of Jim Henson’s creative career. As the program for the show says:
Fifteen iconic puppets, including Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Rowlf, and Bert and Ernie, are on view, along with photographs of Henson and his collaborators at work and excerpts from his early projects and experimental films. The exhibition spans Henson’s entire career, with drawings, cartoons, and posters produced during his college years in the late 1950s and objects related to the inspired imaginary world of his popular 1982 fantasy film, The Dark Crystal. The exhibition features artifacts from Henson’s best-known projects, The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie and its sequels,Fraggle Rock, and Sesame Street, in addition to materials from Sam and Friends, an early show he created in the 1950s, and his pioneering television commercial work in the 1960s.
I had the opportunity to see the exhibit when it was at the Smithsonian in 2008, and it’s a lot of fun. And while there are plenty of familiar faces on display, you’ll also have the chance to take a peek at some hidden treasures, including some projects that never materialized.
Jim Henson’s Fantastic World runs through January 2012. You can find more information right here.
Meanwhile, the Museum of the Moving Image has put up on its website a terrific short film Henson & Oz, a affectionate look at the on- and off-screen relationship of Jim Henson and Frank Oz, and the characters they performed. And it’s very funny stuff indeed. Have a look.
June 3, 2011
Take The A Train . . . Provided It’s Going the Right Way, Of Course.
I hopped the 6:21 a.m. Acela train to New York yesterday, on my way up to have my second extended sit-down session with An Amazing (and Important) Person. It was my first time on the Acela — normally I’m a Northeast Regional kinda guy, but I couldn’t make the generally skittish NER work, as one arrived waaay too early, while the other pulled into Penn Station much too close to my meeting time. And given that the NER is famously delayed on its arrival in New York, I didn’t want to risk missing one moment of the three hours my subject had generously set aside for our conversation.
After riding the NER almost monthly for the last year or so, being on board the Acela seems like stepping onto the set for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everything seems vaguely futuristic: doors open between cars at a touch (and without the rattle of the NER), the seats look like command chairs, and the cafe car features a streamlined bar area where diners sit on stools, rather than at the cramped booths of the NER. There’s even wi-fi humming throughout the train, allegedly for the courtesy of business passengers who need it for work, but I notice that most passengers — including yours truly — are using it to check Facebook or update their Twitter feeds.
On my arrival in Penn Station, I decide to see if I can navigate the underground tunnels that will take me to the Red 1 subway line I need to get to my destination (usually I exit Penn Station then walk outside for the two blocks or so it takes to get to the station at 34th Street). I’ve tried to do this before, but ended up either dead-ended or completely turned around, and thus simply headed for the closest EXIT sign, which, more often than not, seemed to eject me into the middle of a shopping mall.
This time, however, I manage to successfully weave my way to the subway station, follow the arrows for the 1 and board the train marked 242nd Street. For a moment, I’m very pleased with myself for my successful navigation of a system that your average New Yorker can navigate drunk—then immediately realize, as I watch the street numbers at the subway stations go down instead of up, that I’m headed the wrong way.
Unlike the Metro in Washington — where you can exit any train boarded in error, cross over to the other platform and board the correct train without ever exiting the Metro — most stops in New York require that you exit the station, cross the street, and re-enter the station (and pay again) for the train going the other direction. I had learned this lesson months earlier when I boarded the wrong train from Long Island to Brooklyn, but that apparently didn’t stop me from boarding the wrong train at 34th Street. Rats.
Humbled, I exit and re-enter and board a train going the right way, and make it to my interview with gobs of time to spare — so much so that I have enough time to sit for a bit in a park overlooking the Hudson, where I watch a young woman get pulled along like a waterskiier behind the five large dogs she was walking at once.
At ten on the dot, I ring the bell at my destination, where I’m greeted like an old friend. While we’ve traded e-mails several times, this was only our second face-to-face — but I’m welcomed enthusiastically and ushered into a cozy living room with comfortable furniture and framed by a large open window overlooking the street. For the next three hours, as a cool breeze and birdsong flutter in through the open window, we have a wonderful conversation, during which I scribble notes frantically on a yellow note pad, trying to get it all down and completely ignoring the lines on the paper as a I scrawl in large cursive with a black felt tip. At one o’clock, we’re done. We shake hands warmly, and my subject makes me promise we’ll get together again soon. It’s a deal.
Afterwards, I sprint for the subway — and board the correct train this time — then slide into a booth at the TGIFriday’s at Penn Station, fire up the laptop, and start typing my notes as quickly as I can while everything’s still fresh, stopping only a few times to squint at my handwriting to figure out what I’ve written. By 2:45, I’m only about a third of the way through my notes, but it’s time to catch my train back to Maryland. This time, I’m on the Northeast Regional, which gets up in my face by pulling into Penn Station right on time.
On the ride home, I grab a seat, as I usually do, in the Quiet Car, where chatter and phone calls are strictly prohibited. I do this even when I don’t have work to do because if I don’t, it seems I always end up with someone in the seat next to me who spends the three-hour train ride back to DC discussing the results of their latest physical, their aunt’s rocky marriage, and the personal lives of everyone in their office. I drop the tray at my window seat, crank up the laptop again, and return to my task at hand for the next 90 minutes or so. The seat next to me is eventually occupied by a Richmond-bound passenger in a ballcap and shades, who plays video baseball on his iPhone, and tries briefly to engage me and the woman across the aisle from him in conversation. From our stage-whispered responses, he realizes he’s committing a breach of protocol — but that still doesn’t prevent him from answering a phone call and chatting for several minutes before a conductor stops by and loudly announces that those who wish to talk on the phone must move to another car — “or I will put you out,” he adds matter-of-factly. The phone disappears.
I get off at the BWI stop, pay for my parking (when will the BWI station finally get all their ticket booths working??) and head for home in DC-Baltimore rush hour traffic. To my surprise, I’m home before 7 p.m, just in time for Barb, Madi and I to take in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which we all thought to be a bit plodding and about 45 minutes too long — but that’s for another time.
May 9, 2011
As expected, four o’clock in the morning arrived WAY too early this morning. Still, that was what time I had to get up to catch the 5:58 a.m. train from Baltimore to New York, where I’m spending another week doing research in the Jim Henson archives at the the company’s headquarters out on Long Island.
As usual, crack archivist Karen Falk (and her assistant, Madalyn) are taking good care of me, bringing me armloads of materials stored neatly in dark green boxes. Today, I spent the entire day sorting through newspaper clippings, press releases, and interviews. And how cool is it when the boxes that get plunked down on your desk have this sticker on top of them?
I’ll be here the rest of the week, continuing to do research—even though it’s so much fun it hardly seems fair to call it “research.”
March 21, 2011
Pull the String!
I’m back from Atlanta, where I spent two days talking with lots of Interesting and Wonderful People — including Vince Anthony and his crack staff at the Center for Puppetry Arts, where I had an opportunity to tour the museum (including its collection of Henson-related materials), learn a bit more about the history of the art form, and scour their video archives. I also had a chance to watch a performance of “The Dragon King” — performed by the Tanglewood Marionettes of Ware, Massachusetts — right along with 200 enthusiastic elementary school students who squealed with delight in all the right places. Here’s a look:
For more information on the Center for Puppetry Arts, click here.
March 12, 2011
If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be…Uh…
When I last saw you, I had just returned from Hollywood. Since that time, I’ve been to New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — and now it’s off to Atlanta where, among a few other things, I’ll be paying a visit to the Center for Puppetry Arts. I promise to be back here soon. With pictures, even.
March 1, 2011
Life’s Like A Movie…
Last Friday, I spent the morning at the Jim Henson Company and studios in Hollywood, where I took some time to poke around, then had yet another fascinating conversation with An Amazing Person. Following that, I returned to my hotel, e-mailed the digital files of my conversations off to be transcribed, then collapsed with probably the worst case of jet lag I have ever had in my life. And that’s only a three hour time change. Whatta wimp.
The Jim Henson Company works out of a really neat, and important, piece of Hollywood history. Back in 1999, the Henson family purchased the old Charlie Chaplin studios, which Chaplin built in 1917 and opened in 1918. Here’s the plaque mounted to the wall just outside the front entrance:
This is the studio where Chaplin filmed classics like The Gold Rush, Modern Times and The Great Dictator, which makes it officially the stuff of Hollywood legend. What makes the studio really interesting, though, is that Chaplin, like Jim Henson, couldn’t do anything in an ordinary way. His studio, then, pulled off a bit of theatrical sleight of hand: from the street, it looked like a very proper English Tudor village, straight out of the 18th century — or, at least, a stage set built to look like one. Once you were through the gates, however, everything was purely state of the art — a tradition that continues to this day.
The Hensons extensively renovated and refurbished the old studios (after leaving Chaplin’s hands, it belonged to CBS then A&M records) and in 2000, made it the new headquarters for The Jim Henson Company. As Brian Henson said back in 2000:
“When we heard that the Chaplin lot was for sale, we had to have it. It’s the perfect home for the Muppets and our particular brand of classy, but eccentric entertainment. When people walk onto our lot, they fall in love with Hollywood again.”
Mission accomplished, I’d say; it’s a wonderful place. Here’s the view of the exterior of the building, as you approach it from the south on La Brea Avenue:
As you can see, as a tribute to Chaplin, there’s a statue of Kermit in Chaplin’s trademark derby and baggy pants just beside the entrance. Here’s a somewhat better picture, taken from just outside the front gate:
Just for a bit of historical perspective, here’s a view of the studio during Chaplin’s day . . .
There’s one more tribute to Chaplin as you stroll past. Just below Kermit is an arch-topped wooden door — you can see it in the photo above — which has now been affectionately painted to allow Chaplin to make a cameo appearance at his old studio:
February 24, 2011
The Hills, The Stars, The Stacks of Wax
I’m sitting in front of the window in my fourteenth floor hotel room in Hollywood, overlooking Hollywood Hills, and it’s sunny and very springish outside, which makes me wish that the sudden touch of winter we had in Maryland earlier this week would finally just pack up and leave. While I can’t see the famous HOLLYWOOD sign from my window (thanks to the rest of the hotel looming up to my right) there’s no mistaking where I am.
The Hollywood Bowl is just over that hill, and the famous Magic Castle — official home of the Academy of Magic Arts — is the yellow building visible at center left, with the gray roof and turret. Oh, I also apparently forgot there’s some sort of formal awards ceremony going on this coming Sunday, which explains why the lobby of my hotel is bustling with people wearing name badges proclaiming them as part of an OSCAR SET-UP CREW. Who knew.
I arrived here yesterday with plenty of time to spare before my interview last evening, so I decided to walk over to Roscoe’s on Gower Street, which meant my footsteps took me right along the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame — which, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is both exciting and sort of depressing. It’s fun to pick out the famous names as you stroll the sidewalk, but it’s a bit shocking to see stars for former heavy hitters like Gary Cooper or Katherine Hepburn gracing the pavement in front of a tattoo parlor — and it’s even more heartbreaking to hear someone say “I don’t even know who these people are!” as they step past the star for James Cagney. (Okay, maybe you don’t know George Cukor, but James Cagney? )
Oh, and I did manage to find this one — which, I’m happy to say, was not in front of a tattoo parlor or cigarette shop:
Meanwhile, the Sinatra fan in me couldn’t resist snapping a quick shot of this famous building:
After stuffing myself on chicken and waffles, as promised, I made the much-needed long walk back to my hotel and spent the next few hours preparing for my interview. While it seems that an interview should be easy — especially when you’re the one asking the questions — I like to go in prepared, so I spend time reading over my questions several times, making notes where I may need to clarify something, or making sure I have any materials handy that I might want to have my subject read or look at during our conversation. I also try to make sure the questions are in something that at least looks like a logical order so I don’t disorient them — or me — by jumping from topic to topic, though that’s always bound to happen once you get talking.
Finally, around 6:00 or so, I got into the rental car and drove down Sunset Boulevard, looking very much out of place in my Ford Focus as I headed for Beverly Hills. And I had a fantastic evening, with great conversation and even better company.
Today, it’s back to Jim Henson Studios over on La Brea. Stay tuned.
February 22, 2011
Over and Under and Through
I’m off bright and early tomorrow morning to head to Los Angeles to conduct several interviews — and, if I have time, catch lunch or dinner at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. Next week , it’s interviews in New York and Pittsburgh, and an Irving event in Philadelphia. I’m counting on not knowing what day it is for the next two weeks. But I plan to report back here this week, so keep watching.
November 23, 2010
…and hello again. Sorry to be away so long — in the past week, I’ve been up to New York and back to carry out the first of what I hope are several interviews with Someone Wonderful (or someone “Super Cool,” to quote the adjective I apparently kept using over and over as I spoke with my wife on the phone afterwards) and I’m working now to get my notes organized.
Who was I talking with? While I’m not sworn to secrecy, I’ll just be coy and provide this hint — and add that it was one of the most memorable mornings of my life:
If I don’t see you until then, Happy Thanksgiving.
October 8, 2010
…and hello again. I’m back from a week-long visit to New York *, where I spent several days buried in the archives at the Jim Henson Company — and if you’re at all a fan of Jim Henson or the Muppets, then you can imagine just how much fun that is. (But really, take the amount of fun that you think it is, then multiply it by ten, and you’ve got a much better idea of the Actual Fun Level.)
The archives themselves are physically located in the company’s new digs out on Long Island — needing more space, they moved from Manhattan a while ago. As I was staying in Brooklyn, I had to travel to Long Island City by subway every day — and I’ve gotta tell you, even though I’ve taken the subway in several cities around the world, for some reason, I was terrified of taking the New York subway. I was worried I would have no idea how to purchase tickets or use the system — and meanwhile, in my befuddlement, I would be clogging up the system, blocking the way for New Yorkers trying to commute into the city who would now be late and surely fired because I was costing then two minutes. Yeah, I’m a mess that way.
Fortunately, Agent J was kind enough to lend a hand and show me that it was actually really easy — and it was — and I’m pleased to say I took the subway regularly with no problems at all except for (1) missing my stop one day when I wasn’t paying attention, and (2) burning several dollars when I mistakenly entered on the wrong side of the platform and had to exit and re-enter (and thus pay again) on the other side of the street.
Each day, then, I would take the R train, as it made its hour-long trip from Brooklyn and boomeranged off Manhattan to curve into Queens. Here’s my stop each day — 36th Street, near Northern Boulevard:
After exiting the subway, it’s just a brief walk up the street toward the Jim Henson Company — which is located in this unassuming white building right here:
Now, don’t be fooled by this building’s rather industrial facade. It’s like Clark Kent: behind the plain blue suit and nerdy glasses lies something wonderful. Go through these doors, take the freight elevator up several floors, and when the door comes rumbling open, you’ll see a simple white sign (among a sea of similar square signs) that lets you know you’re in the right place:
The Jim Henson Company takes up a long stretch of space at the end of the fourth floor, wide enough so that both sides of the workshop are lined with windows. There’s a long wooden meeting table just inside the front door — with a Skeksis throne in one corner — and just behind the ornate (and now unoccupied) reception desk (with a Kermit phone sitting on top of it) is a wonderful, life-size photo of Jim, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and Caroll Spinney performing on Sesame Street. Beyond that, the workshop stretches out as far as you can see, weaving its way around large white pillars that march up the center of the space.
And what a space it is. Several Elmos sit on a table for adjustment. Miss Piggy waits patiently on another bench as a number of incredibly talented people sew her new costumes. Snuffleupagus hangs from a rack for repair and restoration. A young woman glues feathers to a Muppet arm. Classic rock vibrates from a boombox on a middle workbench as two craftspeople cut and glue and sew in front of a wall of plastic drawers with labels on them like “Monster Fur” and “Eyes.” The magic you see on the screen of any Jim Henson production is due to the hard work of these master craftsmen, and I’m humbled, and a bit intimidated, at being in their presence. So I try to stay out of their way.
Meanwhile, I’m in good hands as Archivist Karen Falk (and her awesome assistant Crystal) brings me box after box of materials, which I spread out on a desk in the workspace they’ve generously provided for me — a quiet side office, lined with windows overlooking Long Island. Here’s a bit of my mess as I worked one morning, poring over scripts, receipts and correspondence:
By Friday, like a kid in an amusement park, I was wishing I had just one more minute to keep reading before I had to catch my train back to Maryland. It may be too ambitious to try to emulate Neal Gabler — who allegedly read every page contained in the Walt Disney archives for his spectacular Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination – but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna try. I’ll be back soon.
September 24, 2010
Happy Birthday, Jim Henson!
Seventy-four years ago, the world became a sillier, brighter, and better place.
“My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.” – Jim Henson
Happy Birthday, Jim Henson.
September 22, 2010
I’m coming to you today from my hotel room in Greenville, Mississippi, where the view out my window — once you overlook the roof of the casino just below — is of the wonderfully swampy Mississippi delta region. Over the tops of the cypress trees, I can just see the braces of a brand new bridge spanning the Mississippi River. And while it was a seasonably cool 65 degrees when I left Maryland on Monday, it’s still hovering in the mid-90s, making me wish I’d packed something other than long-sleeves.
I’ve spent the past few days visiting the locations where Jim Henson was born, and where he and his family lived, on and off, for the first decade of his life. A sense of place is very important to me in biography, and I wanted to make sure I stood where Jim might have stood as a boy, saw what he might have seen from the front porch of his house, knew where his father worked, and learned how far it was to the local movie theater.
And don’t let anyone tell you that Southern hospitality is a thing of the past. It may be a remnant of a long-gone era, but it’s still very much embedded in the way they do things in the delta region. I met with town historians and longtime residents who showed me newspaper clippings and photos, steered me through the local elementary school, and who willingly piled into their cars and drove me around. And every one of them invited me to dinner (or suppuh, as they so wonderfully say it here), extended an invitation to stay with them, asked me to “sit a spell,” and pressed on me personal possessions they thought might help in my research. All in all, a memorable — and incredibly productive — trip. I’ll be back.
I’m now getting ready to pack up and make the two-hour drive back to Jackson. I love long drives, and I love listening to local radio. To my complete and utter surprise and disappointment, I’ve been unable to locate a blues station anywhere on the radio dial. Incongruously, then, I drove into the delta region listening to Men and Work and Night Ranger on the local 80s channel. But I’ll keep trying.
August 27, 2010
Sam Comes Home
I was hoping to put this up yesterday, but didn’t get the chance — on Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending the signing ceremony in which Jane Henson formally presented a wonderful gift to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History: the entire Muppet cast of Sam and Friends.
Sam and Friends went on the air in the Washington, DC area — on WRC, our local NBC station — in May 1955. It was initially a five-minute performance that aired after the local news, and became so popular that it was eventually given two high-profile spots in the WRC lineup, airing immediately before the highly-ratedHuntley-Brinkley Report, and then several hours later before the rapidly-ascending Tonight Show.
The fact that Sam and Friends was Jim Henson’s springboard onto the national scene already makes it worthy of inclusion in the Smithsonian. But Sam had more going for it than even that – for among its cast members was a milky-green puppet named Kermit. He wasn’t a frog then, and wouldn’t be for several years. But his simple design gave him enormous versatility as a puppet, and he quickly became Henson’s go-to character. Kermit would be revamped and overhauled in the coming years, eventually becoming (in Henson’s words) “frogified,” but the basic design held. Take a look at him here, posing with Harry the Hipster on the left and Sam on the right (I snapped this with my camera phone, and I apologize in advance for its shakiness):
Despite their age — included in the collection is one of Henson’s very first puppets dating back to 1954, a rat named Pierre — the puppets are in beautiful shape, due to some careful restoring and first aid. They’ll be put on display in the American History Museum in November, as part of the revamped (and incredibly popular) exhibit that includes the Ruby Slippers, Fonzie’s jacket, and Archie Bunker’s chair. (Do I have to explain any of those references? I didn’t think so.)
Have a good weekend!