Behind The Scenes: The Prologue

One of the sections of Jim Henson that readers seem to enjoy the most — at least as far as I can determine from my very unscientific assessment of things — is the book’s prologue. Under the chapter title “Blue Sky,” it’s a behind-the-scenes look at this classic moment from Sesame Street, when a little girl named Joey sings the ABCs with Kermit the Frog:

love that people love this prologue — and it might surprise you to know that the very first thing you read in the book is actually one of the very last things I wrote for it.  I wrote the current prologue so late in the process, in fact, that if you were one of those readers who received an Advance Review Copy (ARC), you actually got a book that had a different prologue in it.

My editor Ryan and I knew we wanted to open the book in media res – the moment you started reading, we wanted you to see Jim already successful and working and being creative, and doing all those things that made him Jim Henson. We talked about some places in the manuscript where a quick story or vignette might be fleshed out into a slightly longer opening piece, and I made a long list of several good moments in the book where, while writing the manuscript, I wished I’d had just a little more time and space to give to a particular story. After much consideration, we decided to go with a slightly-less known moment–at least for casual fans–from the 1960s, when Jim and the Muppet team decided to paint the pipes in his dressing room at NBC while waiting to appear with Jack Paar. You can see Frank Oz talking all about those pipes–now preserved and built into the NBC Studio tour– fifty years later, in this clip:

Oz used the term “affectionate anarchy,” and I loved the phrase so much–it’s such a perfect way to sum up the Muppet mentality–that I put it at the top of the opening chapter. And that was how the ARCs went out in early 2013 — with a prologue about the Muppet pipes called “Affectionate Anarchy.” And it stayed that way for quite a while.

Then, in the late Spring, Ryan called to go over some final edits and review photo credits—and while we were talking, he brought up the prologue. “Everyone here loves the book,” he said in his usual diplomatic manner, “but a few people have mentioned they’d like to see Muppets in the prologue. While I still think what we have is great, do you wanna take a stab at another one and we can see what we think?”

That actually sounded fine to me.  Two years earlier, even before I had written a single word of Jim Henson, I had always pictured his biography opening with him working on the labor-intensive opening scene of The Muppet Movie, sinking himself in a makeshift bathysphere to perform Kermit from underwater. I had even tried writing just such an opening, but hadn’t been happy with the first few drafts.  This seemed like a good opportunity to go back and work on it again.

I wrote and rewrote for a week, but after several more drafts, it still wasn’t coming together. It was too big and ambitious and technical; I needed something warmer and more intimate. So I decided to start over, looking down my list of Muppet moments, and decided to expand on one that I particularly loved–the ABC Cookie Monster bit–which took up only about a page in the ARC.

The chapter’s title actually came right away, courtesy of a story told to me by Sesame Street performer Fran Brill who, during one of our phone interviews, told me of director Jon Stone and others calling out “blue sky!” when a child was on the set, reminding staff to watch their mouths. I loved that; it was such a warm image for Sesame Street — after all, wouldn’t one of Sesame Street‘s famous “sunny days” have a blue sky?–and it seemed a perfect way to begin.

I wrote the prologue over two days—a slow pace to be sure.  I sent it off to Ryan, who smartly excised one line near the end, then sent me one of his typically concise e-mails: “This is perfect.” I don’t know about that, but I do like it.

Henson-pipesOne last thing: with the new prologue in place, I now had to find a new photo to use at the top of the chapter. In the original ARC, I had planned on using a photo of the Muppet pipes — probably something like the photo at right — but with the new prologue, I would have to look for something new.  There were no photos of Jim performing the ABC sketch with Joey; about the best I could do was a screen grab. Without that, then, what I really wanted was a photo of Jim getting ready to perform—preparing to bring a character to life simply by putting it on the end of his arm, which is one of the themes of the prologue.

JimandKermitonLapInitially, I wanted to go with the photo at the left — it’s Jim with Kermit draped across his lap, miked up and waiting to perform, probably not on Sesame Street, but it makes the point.  When it came time to clear the image, however, Disney wouldn’t allow its use, informing me that they didn’t permit photos of “dead” Muppets.  I argued that that was precisely my point — that Kermit is dead until Jim puts him on–but despite the help of a sympathetic archivist at The Walt Disney Company, I had to scuttle this particular image and look for another. If you’ve got the book, you can see the image I eventually chose (you actually don’t have to look much further than the top of this blog, where you’ll see Jim squatting with Kermit on his arm).

So there you have it.  If you’re one of those readers who has an ARC of Jim Henson: The Biography, and are wondering if there’s anything significantly different between the ARC and the final product, you’ll find it in the first few pages.

You Can Talk All You Wanna…

As you can imagine, I love talking about Jim Henson — so much so, that it’s sometimes difficult for me to keep things short.  That’s why I love doing online interviews and podcasts, where you’ve got the time to stretch out, tell longer stories, and/or go on at length, as needed.  And sometimes even when not needed.

To that end, I point you toward three extended interviews I’ve done in the past few weeks, some of which you can watch, and a few of which you can even download and listen to later. Because nothing gets you moving quicker on the treadmill than listening to me in your headphones.

First, here’s a nearly hour-long interview I did with Oline Eaton for New Books In Biography.  In the interest of full disclosure, Oline’s a fellow member of BIO and a friend, but all that really means is that when you put the two of us together, we love to talk shop — so this interview spends some time on the process of writing and researching biography.  And you’ll even get a little behind-the-scenes look at the writing of the book’s prologue, which — spoiler alert! — I actually wrote last.

bitofachat-headerNext, here’s A Bit of Chat I did with the smart and cheeky Ken Plume.  If you’re a Muppet fan, you know that Ken knows his stuff — heck, in Jim Henson, I cited a number of interviews he’s conducted over the years with folks like Frank Oz and Steve Whitmire. We had a great time together, and talked for nearly an hour about Jim, the Muppets, mugs on The Daily Show, and the choreography of the unseen (a term I wish I could claim, but it’s Ken’s, not mine, darn it). I could have kept going much longer, but I had to take a phone call for another interview — and you’ll hear me answer the phone and apologetically bring the interview to a rather anticlimactic end.  Hopefully, Ken and I can do it again sometime, since things were really getting good.

Finally, during my trip to New Mexico at the end of October, I sat down for an interview at the local PBS station in Albuquerque to tape New Mexico In Focus. The regular host was out that day, so I got fill-in host Larry Ahrens instead — and I have to tell you, as a New Mexican, there’s actually no other interviewer I’d rather sit with.  Larry’s a New Mexico institution, hosting radio and TV shows for nearly as long as I can remember.  He had also really done his homework, which always makes for a fun interview — and since it was PBS, we talked quite a bit of Sesame Street, of course.

Here’s the New Mexico In Focus piece:

….and we were having so much fun with that, that we taped a Web Extra:

Jim Henson in The New York Times

After teasing us (meaning my editor and me) for the last two months, the Grey Lady is finally reviewing Jim Henson in its pages. We had heard one was coming — back in September, in fact, we kept hearing a review was “imminent,” and then . . . well, it just kept on not showing and not showing, until eventually we began to doubt a review would run at all.  Then suddenly, several weeks ago, they started asking for photos, which made us believe they were up to something.

That something, as it turns out, will appear in this Sunday’s New York Times Sunday Book Review. And you can already read it online by clicking right here. Oh, and HERE BE SPOILERS: It’s a terrific review, really thoughtful and eminently fair — and really, it’s one of my favorite reviews since Will Friedwald’s spectacular piece in the Wall Street Journal last month. It’s considered bad form to reach out to reviewers, so I’ll just say it right here instead: John Swansburg, if you’re reading this, thanks for the review.

And thank you again, everyone, who’s reading and enjoying Jim Henson. I appreciate it.

My Thanks to Outstanding (Good)Readers

GoodreadscoverLike Lord Byron, who woke up one morning and found himself famous, I woke up this morning to countless e-mails and text messages alerting me to the wonderful news that Jim Henson: The Biography had won the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Biography of 2013.

Wow.

It was great to even be nominated — an old saw, but what can I say? It really is true.  And in the category of Biography/History, I was in great company: Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City. Bill Bryson’s One Summer. Reza Aslan’s Zealot – and that’s just for starters. With a fellowship of biographers and historians like that clustered around you, it really is exciting just to be among the  nominees. But what a genuine thrill it is to learn that readers loved it enough to vote for it — and keep voting for it multiple times, since that’s what it takes to make it through each round.

And so: THANK YOU to each and every one of you. And Goodreads aside, thank you all for the warmth and enthusiasm over these past few months. It’s a rare pleasure to get to document someone’s incredible life — and I’m so glad we could enjoy it all together. I appreciate all of you.

My congratulations, too, to the winners in all the other categories.  This marks probably the only time in my life I will likely be on the same list with Stephen King, Khaled Hosseini, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m marking the day with a white stone, as Lewis Carroll once put it.

UP (with People!), Pressing Matters, and Goodreads

I had a terrific time speaking at Jim Henson’s other hometown of University Park (UP), Maryland, last week — where the Hensons moved for good in 1948, where Jim went to high school and college, and where, perhaps most importantly, he discovered his love for television amidst the whopping four television channels available in the Greater Washington, DC Metro area. As in Leland, it was great to meet so many people who love Jim Henson and his work, and to get reacquainted with several people  who helped me in my research on Jim Henson, including former UP Mayor John Brunner (who burrowed deep into public records to locate the various Henson residences) and University of Maryland archivist Anne Turkos.

I also met a childhood friend of Jim’s named Harvey Beavers — which, given the name of a certain character in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, made me smile (though it’s just one of those happy coincidences, since the character appears in the source material…) — as well as the current owner of the Henson family’s former house on Beechwood in University Park, a very kind and quiet woman who says that, so far, no one has banged on her door and asked to look around.  Well done, everyone.

Next up for me: the 36th Annual Book Fair and Authors’ Night at the National Press Club here in Washington, DC.  I’m delighted to have been invited, and the reader and book fan in me is eager to attend as well, as I’m looking forward to meeting several of the writers in attendance — including Larry Kane, whose book on the Beatles, When They Were Boys, was a heckuva lotta fun, and Dan Balz, who penned the dynamite Collision 2012, all about the last election.

Finally, I’m thrilled, flattered, and humbled that Jim Henson has not only been nominated for a Goodreads Choice Awards for 2013, but that it’s also made it to the final round.

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Yay! There’s Jim Henson, in the second row, still in the hunt after the first two rounds, thanks to all of you.

Thank you so much, everyone who’s voted to bring Jim Henson into the  final round.  I appreciate it — and if you’re so inclined, vote for it once again in the final round, and let’s see how far it’ll go. Regardless, it really is an honor just to be considered, so thank you, too, for that.

If you’d like vote, go here.

Back in the Delta

I was there less than 24 hours, but the time I spent last week in Leland, Mississippi — Jim’s childhood hometown — was, as usual, one of the best times ever. With their Southern hospitality and gentle charm, the fine folks in Leland just plain take good care of their guests — and they take good care of Jim Henson there, too. They’re rightfully very proud that Jim’s roots run deep into the Delta, and the Jim Henson’s Delta Boyhood Exhibit is one of those not-to-be-missed attractions. It’s intimate and charming, with a peek at Jim’s life in Leland in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as well as some really nice displays featuring Kermit the Frog and — depending on when you might be there — other Muppets.

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The Jim Henson’s Delta Boyhood Exhibit in Leland, Mississippi. All it needs is you.

Ashley Zepponi and her team in Leland took great care of me — I had the pleasure of staying in the Thompson House Bed and Breakfast, one of Leland’s grand old houses — and on Thursday night, they hosted a really wonderful reception and book signing at the headquarters for the Leland Progress (whose ace editor, Stephanie Patton, graciously provided her newspaper’s offices — a sprawling loft-like space with exposed brick walls — and helped put together a terrific event). I had a great time meeting — and in some cases re-meeting — not just Lelanders, but the many Jim Henson and Muppet fans who had come from as far away as Kansas to have a conversation and get their book signed.  It was very flattering — and, as always, very humbling — to meet people with such enthusiasm. Thank you, one and all, for coming out.

I’m back in Maryland again, and later this week, I’ll be speaking over at University Park — Jim’s other hometown, where the Hensons moved for good in 1948.

Playing Catch Up (Again)

Augh! Sorry about the lack of posts here — the last few weeks have been a bit of a blur.

When I last left you — back in mid-October — I was giving you a heads up about the interview I taped with the super cool Tavis Smiley.  The interview did indeed run on October 18/19 — and if you missed it, you can see it right here.

I had a great time at Tavis Smiley, and it’s another one of those shows that runs like a well-oiled machine: quick, easy, and over much too fast. When I was finished, he very sweetly asked if I would sign his copy of Jim’s biography — and when I asked who I should make it out to (left to my own devices, I would’ve probably written “To Mr. Smiley”), he said gently, “Why, to Tavis — who else?” Awesome.

RipleyThe next week, I had the great privilege of speaking to a sold out crowd at the Smithsonian, where they know a thing or two about the importance of the Muppets to American History.  I spoke at the S. Dillon Ripley Center (the entrance to which you can see there at right — the gigantic facility itself is underground), which — perhaps appropriately — is where I saw the Jim Henson’s Fantastic World exhibit back in 2008, and met several of the Hensons for the first time.  My talk was called “More Than Muppets,” which let me cover a lot of Jim’s early TV commercial work and experimental projects like Cyclia, Time Piece, Youth 68, The Cube, as well as later projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. All in all, it was a lot of fun, with a lot of good questions and conversation afterwards.

The morning after my Smithsonian talk, I got a plane and headed for Albuquerque, New Mexico, to do a quick Home Town Tour, which — thanks to the Herculean skills of my pal Marron — involved me making lots of TV and radio appearances, speaking at several bookstores (including Page One and Bookworks) and giving presentations at a number of schools, including my high school (Go Eagles!) and college (Go Lobos!) alma maters.  In another fitting bit of full circle serendipity, my talk at the University of New Mexico made the front page of the Daily Lobo, the college newspaper where I spent every night of my college career serving as Night Editor:

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No, that’s not a photo of me on the front of the Daily Lobo — though my wife pointed out that I DO slightly resemble the puppet. (Bonus points if you applauded the photo bomb by the Frontier soda cup….)

I also had the pleasure of spending my last evening in the state in Santa Fe, speaking at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse, followed by an outstanding dinner party hosted by my friend and BIO colleague (and crack biographer of Pulitzer, to name but a few) James McGrath Morris.

I’m now back in the chair at my desk in Maryland, though only for a moment — now that I’ve done my home town, I’m spending the next week doing Jim’s, heading first for Leland, Mississippi and then over to University Park, Maryland.