How the Grinch Stole Christmas Television

I’m honored to have written the cover story for the upcoming Holiday issue (November/December) of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, bringing you the story of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering it took for animator Chuck Jones to convince Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel, Class of 1925) to adapt How the Grinch Stole Christmas! for television in 1966. (Hint: it wasn’t easy!)

You can read the entire piece right here. Go ahead — don’t be a greasy black banana peel!

Dr. Seuss is Longlisted

Wow. I’m beyond thrilled that Becoming Dr. Seuss was selected for the longlist of 25 nominees for the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. I know it sounds like a cliche, but given the caliber of all the great writers on the list, I’m humbled to even be included among them–and I’m grateful to the Carnegie Corporation and the American Library Association for the honor of being there.

Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now!

Not to scale.

Okay, so don’t look — the drawing of me from the Boston Globe doesn’t look exactly like me — but I’m still thrilled to see the Globe run a fun piece on me and Becoming Dr. Seuss as a lead-up to my appearance at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Wanna see me talk about all things Dr. Seuss? I’ll be there on Thursday night, starting at 6 p.m. It’s a paid event, but you’ll get a copy of Becoming Dr. Seuss as part of the cost of admission–and you can bet I’ll wait around as long as it takes for me to make sure I sign it for you. So come say hey! For more information, click here.

But that’s not all! On Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m., I’ll be presenting on Dr. Seuss in one of the opening sessions for the History Book Festival in Lewes, Delaware. More information is here — and this is a free event, so come on out! It’ll be good! I promise.

Origins of The Dark Crystal

With the well-deserved success of the Henson Company’s Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance on Netflix, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of Jim Henson and his work. Fans are watching, and loving, the Netflix series, and the Hensons have also very smartly produced a making of documentary called The Crystal Calls, giving fans the kind of behind-the-scenes footage we crave. Jim Henson loved creating those “How’d they do that?” moments — and The Dark Crystal was not only a favorite project of his, but it was also his first real opportunity to stretch his storytelling beyond the realm of the Muppets.

It took a long time for him to get there–and I thought it might be fun to give you a look behind-the-scenes look at what it took for Jim Henson to bring the original Dark Crystal to the screen in 1982. (Note: this is based on a long Twitter thread I posted the other day. You can follow me on Twitter here, if you’d like.)

I’m going to take you WAY back to the beginning of the creative process, before Jim shot even an inch of film (though I’ll talk a bit about that, too). Meanwhile, for a deep dive on the actual filming of The Dark Crystal, I refer you to my pal Caseen Gaines’s definitive book on it, The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History, which is chock full of lots of great information and photos.

The roots of The Dark Crystal can be traced back to 1975, when Jim Henson paged through an illustrated edition of Lewis Carroll’s “The Pig-Tale” with lavish drawings by Leonard Lubin. (If you’re one of those completists who collects All Things Dark Crystal, this belongs in your collection. Track this one down and impress your friends!)

Inside that book is a drawing of two crocodiles lounging in a sumptuous, vaguely Victorian setting. Jim was fascinated. “It was the juxtaposition of this reptilian thing in this fine atmosphere that intrigued me,” he said. That’s the moment The Dark Crystal first sparked to life — in its nascent form, at least — in Jim’s imagination.

Inspired, Jim began writing a treatment for a film called Mithra. There are a few plot elements that will look familiar to fans of The Dark Crystal; Jim knew, for example, that he wanted warring factions to have split from a single species, though he wasn’t sure of how that happened. “Perhaps a lodestone,” he wrote in his notes.

Jim Henson with Brian Froud.

But in 1977, Jim met the brilliant artist Brian Froud, whose work enchanted Jim. “I saw Brian Froud’s work in a couple of books, and I loved what he did,” Jim said later. “The thought of being able to take [his] designs and convert them into three dimensions was really exciting.”

And so, Jim scratched Mithra in favor of working with Froud on — as Jim wrote in his diary — what he was sure would be a “GREAT FILM” they would build from the ground up. Typically, Jim wanted to get all the world building in place “before tying things down with a script.” Froud set to work drawing and designing in his usual shimmering style. Jim was immediately excited. “It’s such a wonderful challenge to try to design an entire world . . . like no one has ever seen before.”

Some of Froud’s character designs for The Dark Crystal.

The script would begin to come together in early 1978, when Jim found himself and his 16-year-old daughter Cheryl stranded at a Howard Johnson’s hotel during a snowstorm. It was here the two of them worked together to develop the basic story—a 16-page treatment they called The Crystal. “I had a delightful time working on the concept and talking it over with Cheryl,” Jim wrote, “and it all jelled during that time, so that I’m quite happy with what’s taking shape. . . All kinds of things came together.”

Jim with daughter Cheryl, who helped shape the basic story of Dark Crystal.

In the summer of 1979, riding the success of The Muppet Movie and with The Crystal beginning to take shape, Jim went to see Lord Lew Grade—his UK producer who had seen the potential in The Muppet Show when no American studio had—and pitched The Crystal as his next film. Grade was supportive of a non-Muppet feature, but both Grade and Jim’s right-hand man at Henson Associates, David Lazer, encouraged Jim to strike while the iron was hot by moving right into a Muppet sequel. And so, The Great Muppet Caper went into pre-production — but Grade promised Jim $14M for The Crystal, and agreed that he could begin work on his non-Muppet project immediately after delivering Caper.

Lord Lew Grade negotiating with Fozzie Bear.

Jim was disappointed, but did as Grade and Lazer asked, bumping production on The Crystal until after completing The Great Muppet Caper. But the delay would prove to be a blessing as it gave Jim, Froud, and the Muppet team the time they needed to refine the way they designed and built increasingly complicated creatures for what was already an increasingly complicated film.

Most importantly, it also gave Jim a unique opportunity to do a little “tech transfer” with a fellow gadget-loving filmmaker who had been working across the street from him at Elstree Studios in London, where Jim was filming The Muppet Show.

That filmmaker’s name?

George Lucas.

Come on, you know who this is.

Lucas had asked for Jim’s help developing a new character for the Star Wars sequel he had in development — a small but wizened Jedi master. After considering and scrapping numerous approaches–including a monkey in a costume — Lucas had decided his Jedi master should be an expressive puppet. Lucas and Lucasfilm called on Jim and Henson Associates for help–and so the two companies began working together to design and develop the technology needed to bring such a character to life.

Yup. Yoda is a dry run for The Dark Crystal.

Lucasfilm builder Stuart Freeborn consults with Frank Oz and Jim Henson on a model for Yoda.

Yoda was a lot of work; it took three puppeteers to operate him–in addition to Oz, Yoda was operated by Kathy Mullen and Wendy Midener. “I could see that it would take an awful lot of technical know-how to make it work,” Jim said. The work paid off — just look at Mark Hamill, who believed in the character absolutely.

Yoda taught the Henson crew what did and didn’t work. “It was just the sort of thing that needed a lot of research, a lot of time, and experimentation,” said Jim. As the Henson team continued building creatures for Dark Crystal, it was clear more money was needed. Jim and David Lazer went to Cannes, where Lazer managed to sweet-talk Lew Grade, eventually prying away $25M—“the money that saved the film,” said Frank Oz.

The hard-working David Lazer, who saved The Dark Crystal.

Jim would regularly remind his designers that it was the puppeteer, not the puppet, that made the performance. “You have all these techniques, but at the heart of all the mechanics is an actor performing a role, trying to get the subtlety of movement. That’s the key thing.”

Jim’s ideal process, then, was to build the puppets around the puppeteer, using light-weight materials — Oz often complained that Yoda had been “really fuckin’ heavy” — and carefully hiding operating cables in a way that they didn’t tangle up the performer. Jim would watch the performances over and over again, and would “rip the whole thing apart, re-sculpt it, rebuild all the parts, and build it again” until he was happy with it.

Jim — along with Brian Froud (far left) and creative director Mike Frith (center) — carefully watches a puppeteer performing a still-unfinished Mystic interacting with a Gelfling.

Jim and his co-director Frank Oz began shooting The Dark Crystal on April 15, 1981. It was Oz’s first experience behind the camera for a major film. “Jim, God bless him, just supported me,” said Oz. “He was always patient. I’m sure I drove him crazy during that time, but we loved each other.”

Jim had also tapped Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz for the film, who served as lead director for the 2nd unit. In the days before CGI, everything was hand built precisely to Jim’s specifications. “He saw the movie in his head,” said Oz, still amazed three decades later. “He had that all in his head.”

Gary Kurtz, Jim Henson, and Frank Oz on one of The Dark Crystal’s sprawling sets.

And the rumors are true: Jim DID envision creating a new language for both the Mystics and the Skeksis, which they would speak the entire film without subtitles (“like an opera,” explained Lisa Henson). Here’s a cut of the film with the foreign dialogue still intact, to give you some idea of how it sounded in first cut:

Creative director Mike Frith watched as the Skekses growled and hissed at each other — and told Jim he thought he had a problem. “I have no idea what that scene was about,” Frith told him flatly.

After the March 19, 1982 sneak preview in Washington, DC, Jim knew Frith was right. The ‘foreign language’ approach wasn’t going to work. “Not great,” he wrote glumly in his journal after the preview, and dispatched screenwriter David Odell to go back and write English dialogue corresponding to mouth movements of the characters, to be dubbed in before the next showing of the film in Detroit. “A bit better,” Jim wrote afterwards, only slightly relieved.

Robert Holmes-a-Court, a rare nemesis for Jim Henson.

Adding to his agitation, he had to deal with Australian jillionaire businessman Robert Holmes-a-Court, who had recently acquired Lew Grade’s company. That meant that Holmes-a-Court—who disliked Jim, and the feeling was mutual—now owned The Dark Crystal (and The Muppet Show, but that’s another story…). And Holmes-a-Court didn’t much like what he’d seen of Crystal, either.

Holmes-a-Court even had his lawyers and bankers telling Jim how to “fix” his film, recommending he spend less time on the Mystics and more of the Skeksis. “I can’t work like this,” Jim finally said, “I’ve got to get these guys out of here.”

Bernie Brillstein and client.

Jim’s solution? Buy The Dark Crystal from Holmes-a-Court outright. “I don’t like what they’re doing with it,” Jim told agent Bernie Brillstein, and reminded his long-time friend that he had encouraged him to invest in his own independence. “He nailed me,” laughed Brillstein.

Jim risked nearly all his capital to buy back The Dark Crystal from Holmes a Court. “When he made up his mind,” Lazer said later, “there was no deterring him. And most of the time, he was right.” In less than a month, Jim owned his movie. “It was a huge gamble,” remembered Cheryl Henson. But Jim was unflappable. “It was a good deal,” he told Oz matter-of-factly.

The Dark Crystal premiered in New York on December 13, 1982. “It was a huge undertaking–a vision I had,” Jim explained later, “and one which ultimately has helped to carry our art form to a more sophisticated and technically advanced state. The most important thing, however, is to love what you’re doing and to go after those visions, no matter where they lead.”

Frank Oz and Jim Henson at the New York premiere of The Dark Crystal, December 1982.


Dr. Seuss writ large

My editor was kind enough to send a few of copies of the large print edition of Becoming Dr. Seuss my way. It’s got a cover layout and design that’s completely different than the trade edition, but it’s a really beautiful book, don’t you think?

The Reviews Are In

As of today, Becoming Dr. Seuss has been out for exactly eight weeks — and I couldn’t be happier with its reception. The reviews have been good — some of the best I’ve ever received, in fact — feedback from readers has been kind, and I’ve had the opportunity to talk about the life and work of Dr. Seuss on television, radio, and countless podcasts.

Here’s but a few:

First, here’s my appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. I taped this as a live remote from the WRC-TV studios in Washington, DC — the very same studios a University of Maryland student named Jim Henson would drive to every weeknight in the late 1950s to perform Sam and Friends before the cameras.

The Green Room at WRC-TV (NBC) in Washington, DC.

I was taken from the Green Room to a darkened studio where an earpiece was put in my right ear and I was asked to look into a camera, directly above a point where someone had helpfully stuck a Post-It note with an arrow drawn on it. I could hear the show live in my ear — and while there was a monitor on the floor to my left, I couldn’t watch unless I wanted to be seen on-camera looking down at the monitor. So I could hear the show without actually seeing anyone, which was a bit disorienting. But it was a good segment, with questions from everyone on the panel.

In radio, here are interviews I did with WMAL in Washington, DC, WNYC in New York, KPBS in San Diego, KSCJ in Iowa, KJZZ in Phoenix, and WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, as well as extended interviews with the Innovation Hub and with Connecticut Public Radio, where I talked about Dr. Seuss’s New England roots.

In print, the book has been reviewed at NPR, in the Christian Science Monitor, the A.V. Club, the New York Post, and — a thrill for me — The New Yorker.

Tuesday Morning Joe

If all goes well, you should be seeing me talking Dr. Seuss on Morning Joe tomorrow morning (that’s Tuesday, May 28) around 8:30 a.m. ET. This isn’t our first try; I was supposed to be on last week, but was bumped by Bill de Blasio, who was announcing he’s running for . . . some sort of elected position.

Anyway, hope to see you tomorrow on MSNBC!

Triple Crown

There are three major newspapers in which we tellers of tales and spinners of yarns–whether those yarns or tales are fiction or non-fiction–love to see our work reviewed: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. What makes these three the trifecta? Mostly its because they each have large circulations that extend well-beyond their home markets–they end up in front of lots of readers, reading the papers in hotels and airports or on iPhones and laptops. They’re also papers with different audiences and different, often distinctive, points of view.

I’m thrilled, then, that Becoming Dr. Seuss has run the Triple Crown–and seems to have emerged out the other side in good shape. If you’re so inclined, you can click here to read the review in The Wall Street Journal (under the headline, “‘Becoming Dr. Seuss’: Who Killed Dick and Jane?”, which I think Dr. Seuss would have loved). Because WSJ is behind a subscription paywall–and therefore you may not be able to read the entire thing–here’s a quick peek:

“A fluid and enjoyable new biography . . . Brian Jay Jones takes a long appraising view of the life, career and creative evolution of Theodor Seuss Geisel . . . In this lively chronicle, Mr. Jones tackles the controversial elements of the Seussian oeuvre in a forthright way, setting them in the context of both the times and his subject’s own life.”

Next, here’s the review from the Washington Post, “a look at the prankster workaholic behind the iconic characters.”

And here in the New York Times is what might be one of my favorite reviews of anything I’ve written ever, “‘The Cat in the Hat’ and the Man Who Made That,” written by the brilliant author and essayist Adam Gopnick.

Finally, I want to thank all of you, who have been so enthusiastic about Becoming Dr. Seuss. I appreciate all of you.

Behind the Cat in the Hat (and even the Grinch!)

If you can’t wait until Tuesday to get your hands on Becoming Dr. Seuss, Entertainment Weekly is running an exclusive excerpt, covering the agony and the ecstasy of writing The Cat in the Hat. And there’s even a cameo appearance by everyone’s favorite Grinch. Click here to read it.

Becoming Dr. Seuss in New York, Boston

We’re nearly a week away from the publication of Becoming Dr. Seuss–and I continue to be thrilled with the various places I’m seeing it mentioned. Several days ago, it showed up in Boston Magazine as one of Seven Can’t-Miss Events in Boston in May 2019. Given that Dr. Seuss is a Massachusetts native, I’m pretty pleased to get a shout-out from his home state. Thanks, guys

Over the weekend, the New York Post ran a long piece on Dr. Seuss himself, called “How Dr. Seuss Found the Juice for His Most Beloved Stories,” in which they were kind enough to call the book “wonderful.” Again, thanks, folks.