Becoming Dr. Seuss in the NYT

Becoming Dr. Seuss arrives in stores in paperback on Tuesday, May 26, and I was thrilled to see it get a shout-out in the highly-coveted “Paperback Row” section of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. You can see it in the image below, just beneath the list of hardcover bestsellers (and I know the graphic can be hard to read, so you can read it online here).

If you’d like a signed copy of Becoming Dr. Seuss delivered right to your door, you can order one — or signed copies of any of my other books — from the fine folks at Bookworks by clicking here. And we both thank you.

Happy Birthday Kermit! (And Sam! And Lisa!)

May 9 is the birthday of Kermit the Frog — a date that was chosen mainly because it was the date that Sam & Friends debuted on WRC-TV in Washington, DC (Kermit, was there, though he wasn’t yet a frog, and was relegated mostly to supporting cast member). So, happy 65th to Sam and Friends–and to Kermit.

But in the happiest of coincidences, May 9 is also the actual birthday of Jim Henson’s oldest child, Lisa Henson, who turns 60 today. So the happiest of birthdays to Lisa as well.

Take a (Virtual) Walk with Me Through the Jim Henson Exhibition

Having the City of Albuqerque, the State of New Mexico, and pretty much the entire planet on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the traveling Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited—currently in residence here at the Albuquerque Museum—would be pretty much impossible to see for the remaining weeks and months of its time here in the Duke City. Fortunately, the Museum is making a virtual narrative tour available to view online—and they asked a certain local biographer to serve as your host and tour guide.

A bit of a peek behind the scenes: I was absolutely thrilled to be asked by the Museum to lend a hand with the virtual tour. With everything still on lockdown, I spent about an hour one afternoon making a quick walk through the exhibit with Denise Crouse, the museum’s communications manager, to get a good handle on the featured pieces, and to figure out where to stand for each segment. We were also curious whether the sound could be turned off—there are countless videos playing in the exhibit, which meant I couldn’t stand in certain places without sound ‘bleeding in’ from video screens around the room. (Fortunately, on the day the cameras rolled, all audio tracks were muted.)

On the day of filming, the cameraman showed up masked so he could mic me, then—keeping a responsible 6 to 8 feet apart at all times—we shot these segments on the fly, using no notes—and, with one exception, doing it all in one take (the one exception was the segment on television and Sam & Friends, which I had talked through MUCH too rapidly the first time). The goal was to get it done as quickly and as well as we could, then get out—and we definitely did that, finishing everything up in about 75 minutes.

Despite a few ‘uhs’ and some garbled phrases (‘Sesame Street’ came out particularly messy at one point), I’m happy with the final result—and truly proud to have been asked to do it.

Cabin Fever? Catch Me Talking Jim Henson with Tough Pigs

Stuck inside and looking for a break from your latest binge watch? The fine folks at Tough Pigs have got you covered with their new twice-a-week series “Cabin Fever,” where they interview folks from all over the Jim Henson/Muppet world. I was pretty thrilled to be asked to serve as one of their first guests — so here I am, with Joe and Ryan from Tough Pigs, coming to you live from my office in New Mexico. (Don’t be too impressed with my attire–I had on shorts with it…)

In Search of the Muppets

Why isn’t there more Muppet stuff on the new Disney+? Where is The Muppet Show? What about The Muppets at Walt Disney World? Is it the cost of music clearances? A lack of interest from the top? I talked about it with Drew Taylor from Vanity Fair, and our answer is . . . uh, we don’t really know.

But join us as we speculate all about it anyway! Just click right here.

Looking for a Signed Copy of Becoming Dr. Seuss?

The paperback of Becoming Dr. Seuss comes out on May 26. I know that seems like a loooong time from now — and who knows what shape the world will be in by then? — but if you’d like to pre-order an autographed copy, I’m working with Bookworks, an independent bookstore here in New Mexico, to get a copy in your hands.

You can pre-order the book by clicking here. And once their doors are open again, you can order signed copies of any of my other biographies as well.

Until then, take care of yourselves, and each other.

Coronavirus and the Wisdom of Ernie and Bert

Worried about coronavirus? Me too. Be careful out there — and in the meantime, take some advice from Ernie and Bert:

EVERYBODY WASH!

The Meticulous Whimsey of Dr. Seuss


“The fact that [Dr. Seuss] took writing so seriously, even before he knew what he was doing, speaks volumes to just how intuitively good he was and how much he valued the reader. His sense of his books was, ‘I don’t do this just for children; I write for people.'”

Yup, that’s me on Dr. Seuss — all this and more in a quick-hit Q&A I did with the folks over at Capital Group (!), where they take books seriously.

You can read the rest of it here. And my thanks to Joe Simmons for the conversation.

Remembering Terry Jones, Jim Henson, and Labyrinth

I was sad to hear of the passing of the great Terry Jones who died on January 21 at the age of 77. Jones was the Iron Man of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, who could play anything and everything brilliantly, be it straight or silly. The New York Times has a nice obituary on Jones, but makes no mention of a non-Python project that I know means a lot to people.

It was his 1986 collaboration with Jim Henson, George Lucas, and David Bowie.  

I’m talking, of course, about Labyrinth, for which Jones wrote the screenplay.

Yup. Here’s how it happened.

The plot to Labyrinth had been sparked by an offhand remark artist Brian Froud made to Jim Henson while talking about what they hoped would be their post-Dark Crystal project. Jim enthused about old mythologies, and Froud casually mentioned that he liked stories about goblins stealing babies. Intrigued, Jim ran with the idea, scribbling out pages and pages of notes, and began looking for an ideal writer for the screenplay based on the idea. 

A page of Jim Henson’s notes on Labyrinth, including several different names for the film.

Jim wanted to give Labyrinth the lighter touch he felt that 1982’s Dark Crystal was missing, and thus wanted to collaborate with a comedian. Jim was a fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus — he would mark the show’s broadcast time on his calendar each week — and especially admired Terry Jones’s children’s book The Saga of Erik the Viking, which he had recently read in advanced copy.

In late 1982, Jim approached Jones about working on Labyrinth, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Python alumnus John Cleese, who had appeared on The Muppet Show, and who called the proposed collaboration “a really marvelous idea.” “Your contributions will surely make the script jump to life,” Jim wrote in a note to Jones—and was thrilled when Jones said yes. 

Terry Jones

Henson handed Jones a story treatment–developed from his own notes by poet and Fraggle Rock lyricist Dennis Lee–and an enormous sheaf of Brian Froud’s art.  Jones was only moderately interested in Lee’s treatment, but he loved Froud’s work, and went to the pages repeatedly for inspiration. “Every time I came to a new scene I looked through Brian’s drawings and found a character who was kind of speaking to me already,” Jones said, “and suddenly there was a scene!”

Jones delivered his treatment for Labyrinth in March 1984. Henson immediately forwarded the script on for revision, passing it off to one writer after another, and sending Jones’s script through 25 rewrites over the next two years.

It was Jones’s first draft, however, that Henson used to land one of his biggest fish, handing it off to singer David Bowie at a backstage meeting and asking, “If you like the script, would you consider being Jareth and singing and writing songs for the film?”

Jones’s script did the trick.  Bowie was in.

Jones’s script for Labyrinth was enough to convince rocker David Bowie not only to play Goblin King Jareth, but also to write and perform songs for the film.

By summer 1984, most of the revisions to Jones’ screenplay had been made largely by Fraggle Rock writer Laura Phillips. But Jones and Phillips had very different approaches to the basic story and relationship between the two main characters, Goblin King Jareth and the young heroine, Sarah, who enters the labyrinth to free her baby brother. Where Jones was episodic and funny — and incorporated many of set pieces Jim loved, such as the Escher Room — Phillips was more character-driven.

“It was about the world,” Jones insisted, “and about people who are more interested in manipulating the world than actually baring themselves at all.” Jones thought it was more important to give the characters something interesting to do and to keep the story moving–and that the actors themselves could make the characters shine. Jim, who liked bits of both scripts, simply encouraged everyone to keep working. 

In the same vein, it was Jones, too, who argued for a strong female leading actress, insisting she could convey her character “in her manner and by the way she talks and walks.” 

In January 1985, after auditioning hundreds of girls and young women — including Helena Bonham Carter and Jane Krasinski — Jim Henson selected 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly as his lead. You can see her audition here:  

Henson would continue tinkering with Jones’s script right up until five days before filming began in April 1985. At that point, he was huddling over the pages with comedian/screenwriter Elaine May. Also involved: Labyrinth producer George Lucas, who helpfully (!) drew concentric circles on the script as he explained the revisions to the plot.) 

It was a lot of talented chefs, but an overcrowded kitchen—though the final film would give screenwriting credit solely to Jones, who still “didn’t feel that it was very much mine. I always felt it fell between two stories. Jim wanted it to be one thing, I wanted it to be something else.” 

Any such complaints aside, Jones’ script is full of remarkable moments—including a “well of hands”—an idea Jones loved, but wasn’t sure how it might be pulled off onscreen.  

Take a look here to see how they did it:

Jones also gamely did promotion for the film — and did anyone ever look like they were having as a good a time in a sea of goblins and creatures? 

So here’s to Terry Jones, who poked us with pillows, exploded in a restaurant, made Karl Marx a lovable game show contestant, played the organ naked, mothered a Messiah, sang about traffic lights — and who made a Goblin King dance and steal our hearts. What an enormous talent. I miss him already.

Remembering Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney (1933-2019)

I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the life and work of the legendary Muppet performer Caroll Spinney, who passed away Sunday at age 85. Best known for performing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch — roles he performed for five decades — I thought it might be fun for readers to know a little bit about the circumstances that brought Big Bird, Oscar, and Caroll Spinney himself to Sesame Street.

In July 1968, Jim Henson was brought into the creative meetings that spawned the Children’s Television Workshop organization and the show Sesame Street. Jim was pivotal to the development of the series — co-creator Jon Stone advised his fellow CTW members that if they couldn’t get Jim Henson to perform puppets on Sesame Street, then there was no use having puppets on Sesame Street at all — and Jim immediately delivered, creating iconic Muppet characters like Ernie and Bert. Here’s Jim and Frank Oz working with an early version of Bert in a mirror:

As originally envisioned by its team of educators and child experts, Sesame Street was to move from Muppet segments over to “human only” segments, then back to Muppets, with no crossover–that is, while there were Muppets and human beings featured on Sesame Street, never the twain shall meet. The rationale was that preschoolers couldn’t differentiate between fantasy and reality–that blending the fantasy world of the Muppets with Real People would be confusing.

That was all well and good on paper — but there was a problem.

In the first test versions of the show, “people on the street couldn’t compete with the puppets,” said Jon Stone. “We had children watching these shows, and their attention span just went way down when we cut to the street.”

Here’s Stone with Jim Henson and an early version of Ernie:

The solution, then, was obvious. Muppets were needed on the street.

Jim’s original design for Big Bird.

Jim Henson thought about it, and decided they needed “a character that the child could live through . . . we wanted to make this great big silly awkward creature that would make the same kind of dumb mistakes that kids make.” Big Bird, then — all seven feet of him — would represent the perspective of the children in the audience.

Jim and Jon Stone also decided they wanted another character that was Big Bird’s polar opposite of a wide-eyed innocent: a cynical, complaining grouch named Oscar. “We didn’t want to let it get TOO sweet,” said Stone. Originally, too, Jim and Stone had considered having Oscar live in the sewers, but decided that was “too gross.”

The next question was one of personnel—Jim wanted both characters performed by a single puppeteer, available for 130 shows each year. That was too much work for Jim to take on himself — and the versatile Frank Oz had already sworn off walk-around characters after the misery of performing the La Choy Dragon in the La Choy Chinese Food commercials. Take a look at one of these commercials:

That’s Frank Oz in the La Choy Dragon walk-around costume. He hated it.

So in August of 1969, Jim went on a recruiting trip to the Puppeteers of American convention in Salt Lake City. It was here he watched a 35-year-old performer named Caroll Spinney, who advertised his performance as “an experimental production” of puppetry and an animated background.

Caroll Spinney.

But as Spinney began his performance, an errant spotlight shone down on the screen behind him. “I couldn’t see my films to synchronize my movements,” sighed Spinney. “It was an immediate disaster.” But Jim made of point of greeting him backstage, and asked Spinney to meet with him again later.

When Spinney arrived at their meeting, Henson greeted him warmly. “I liked what you were TRYING to do,” he told Spinney, and offered him a job with the Muppets. Spinney eagerly and immediately accepted.

It would take a bit before Spinney “found” Big Bird’s character. Originally something of a bumpkin, Spinney soon began to play him as a four-year-old, and with a bit of redesigning—making his eyes less droopy and adding more feathers to his head–he became a preschooler in plumage. And played with Spinney’s sense of wide-eyed wonder, Big Bird was now truly representative of the audience.

Old with the old . . . in with the new.
Spinney with the original Oscar, 1969.

Spinney was nervous about debuting Oscar — originally an orange shag rug with angry eyebrows and a wide mouth—in front of Henson. Spinney had only decided on the voice to use–based on a gruff Bronx cabdriver that had driven him to the studio–on the morning of the character’s first rehearsal appearance on October 10, 1969. He hadn’t run the voice past Jim first.

Making things even more nerve-wracking, Spinney had another problem in that the set had been constructed in such a way that the right-handed Spinney—once he was wedged behind the scenes and maneuvered himself into place—could only perform Oscar with his left hand. “Left hands are much stupider than your right if you’re right-handed,” he explained. It was a problem it would take a while to fix — note the contorted Oscar shown at right, as seen in Sesame’s first episode.

With Henson watching, Spinney screwed himself in position behind the trash can anyway, and a few moments later, Henson knocked on the can’s lid. Using Oscar’s head, Spinney banged the lid open. “GET AWAY FROM MY TRASH CAN!” he yelled in his Bronx cabdrivers’ voice.

Jim Henson smiled. “That’ll do fine,” he said.

Spinney and Oscar, in conversation with Jim Henson.

Oscar, too, would be quickly redesigned, turning from radioactive orange to mossy green, a look he debuted on The Flip Wilson Show. (A confused CTW exec asked “What the hell is that?” but Oscar would remain green.)

For the rest of his life, Spinney would insist that Oscar was merely misunderstood — that underneath the grouch exterior there was actually a heart a gold. Jon Stone was having none of it. “The guy is a shit, right to the core,” he insisted. But Spinney invested the character with his own humanity–and despite Stone’s insisting otherwise, there burns a warm spot at the very center of the grouch.

Sesame Street would debut on November 10, 1969. Spinney would perform Big Bird and Oscar for the next five decades—truly the Muppets’ Iron Man. Jim Henson would always warmly and proudly refer to Spinney—the only day-to-day Muppet performer on the street–as “Muppets West.”

So here’s to Caroll Spinney, who played an enormous part in my childhood and my life—and probably yours as well. His childlike wonder made a Big Bird fly, and his humanity made Oscar . . . well, a lovably relatable grouch. Not a bad legacy at all.