Category Archives: appearances

Places To Go, Things to Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Guy? No, TAVIS Smiley.

File this under the Had Enough of Me Yet? Department: I’ll be on The Tavis Smily Show on PBS this Friday, October 18.  Check your local listings for the time and channel — out here in Maryland, for example, it’s actually on at midnight, which technically makes it the morning of October 19.  But that’s nitpicking, innit?

I taped the interview early last week — and when you finish, they give you a cool framed photo of yourself on set, gabbing with the man himself.  Like so:

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That’s me, talking with my hands as usual, and doing what appears to be my best Walter White impression.

Click here for more information on The Tavis Smiley Show. And naturally, I’ll link to my appearance, once it’s online.

A Today Show Update

UnknownOkay, I have it on good authority that the Today show segment will air tomorrow — Tuesday, October 15 — during the eight o’clock hour.

And while I haven’t seen the segment — and won’t until everyone else does — I can tell you that you’ll see Frank Oz in it.  So that should be enough, really, for you to wanna tune in.

Set  your DVRs now. Or not. I’m not the boss of you.

 

Your Moment of Zen

DailyShowOnly a little more than two weeks ago, I received word from the publicity team at Random House that it was “extremely likely” that I would be booked for an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk about Jim Henson. My chin hit the floor as David Moench, the publicist assigned to me at Random House, told me the news. I think I responded with something clever like, “Gwah?” “Congratulations,” David told me, “but don’t get too excited yet. Until we get official confirmation, things could change.”

Well sure. After the constant scheduling and rescheduling of the Today show, I wasn’t going to get my hopes up and get stung again (though I should add that the Today show will, indeed, now happen). But there was another problem, too: the date The Daily Show was setting aside was Thursday, October 10 — the same day I was scheduled to appear at the New York Society Library. That event was scheduled to get underway at 7 p.m. — and if things went as planned, I wouldn’t be getting out of The Daily Show until that same time. We went to the NYSL, hat in hand, to see if we could get the start time pushed back even 30 minutes, though the mechanics of getting me across town at that time of night were going to mean cutting things very, very close. Unfortunately, none of us could figure out how to get it to work, and Mark Bartlett and his staff at the NYSL were incredibly generous — and very understanding — and graciously offered to reschedule the NYSL event for another time.

On October 1, then, came the word we (meaning me and David and the publicity team at Random House) were waiting for: I had been officially confirmed. The seventy-five minutes between 5:45 and 7:00 p.m. were blocked off on my schedule on Thursday, October 10. And while it was still nine days away, that was nine days I had to be an anxious mess. And man, was I nervous.

On the afternoon of the 10th, then — a somewhat cool and overcast Thursday — my wife (Barb, thank goodness, came along as moral support) and I sat in the lobby of our New York hotel, while I nursed a beer and nervously bounced my knee up and down. The Daily Show takes good care of you from moment one, and a car came by the hotel to pick us up and whisk us away to their studios—one of those experiences where you’re excited at the idea of riding in an Actual Private Car — with a driver barking his estimated arrival time into a walkie talkie the entire way — but still vaguely embarassed that someone is holding a door open for you.

We were brought up to the back door — a blank door in a blank wall with no sign whatsoever of what was behind it — and met by Hillary, the producer for my segment, who escorted us down a little jog of a hall to an open door with a sign next to it that read BRIAN JAY JONES.  Nice.

Next to the sign was the Green Room — which is actually not green at all, but rather a cozy, living room-like space with stuffed chairs and a comfy sofa where guests wait until needed — and here I was met by my editor Ryan Doherty, and the ever-patient, ever-present David Moench. Barb and I sank onto the couch in front of a large, hi-def television on which The Daily Show logo was visible. I bounced my knee again as I sat down, though a bit slower now, and we all chatted about what a surreal experience this was until I was taken away for a bit to go to makeup (mostly to reduce the glare off my bald head) and fitted with a remote microphone.

And suddenly, poking his head into the Green Room, was Jon Stewart.

My wife — a big fan — pointed and gasped. “No WAY!” she finally said, and Stewart laughed that quick high-pitched giggle of his and said, “YES WAY!”  We all shook hands and he stood with his arms folded as we chatted briefly for a few minutes — he was particularly fascinated by Jim’s memorial service, which he had recently viewed on YouTube. Then he disappeared to get to work.

We all watched the show on the hi-def TV in the Green Room. There was no noise, no sounds, no indication that a TV show was being taped anywhere in the building; we could almost have been sitting in our own living room.

Shortly after the second segment concluded, Hillary stood in the doorway and said, “Ready to go?” Acting much less nervous than I actually was, I followed her through a maze of corridors, each one darker than the next, until I was  standing with a dark curtain to my right and looking at Jon Stewart at his desk about ten feet in front of me. The desk was on a platform about a foot off the ground, and I was  considering the various ways I could miss that step and face plant on national television when Hillary jolted me back to the present. “He’s getting ready to introduce you,” she said matter-of-factly, like you hear Jon Stewart say your name every day. “When I say, ‘Go!’ you go — and have fun out there.”

Suddenly, I heard Jon Stewart — Jon freaking Stewart! — saying my name, Hillary said, ‘Go!’ and out I went. The music played, the audience applauded, and I didn’t miss the step. Then I shook Jon Stewart’s hand and sat down. And just like that, I was on The Daily Show.  No rehearsals, no walk-throughs; it’s a finely-tuned, well-oiled machine, and you’re doing it in real time, one take. Wow.

It took me just a split second to get going — the best advice Hillary had given me in our pre-interview conversation was, “Don’t be afraid to talk, and don’t worry about stepping on Jon while he’s talking. He loves guests who talk.”  — and it took me just a moment to realize why Stewart is a great interviewer: he doesn’t really ask questions. Instead, he throws out comments or a bit of a conversation starter, and then lets you take things where you will.

Somehow, once we started talking, I wasn’t nervous — and it was over almost before I knew it.  And have you seen that moment just after the  interview where Stewart puts his head down near the desk and he and the guest have a brief bit of a conversation? It’s actually a very clever way of ensuring the guest doesn’t start to bail out of their seat before the camera cuts away. Instead, Jon Stewart leans in and stage whispers, “That was great, thanks so much — you did a great job” –and you lean in to listen, straining to hear, which keeps you in the chair until the fade out.  Very smart.

After shaking his hand again, I stood up, and was steered back to the Green Room by Hillary, where we all watched the final piece, a nod to a departing long-time producer. Then we all said our goodbyes, and went back to the waiting car to be whisked away again.  All told, it took about 75 minutes, just as promised. They’re really, really good at this, and I had a really, really good time.

And now, here I am on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I’ll never forget.

Willie, Washington, and Jon

So, remember that Today show appearance that was on the schedule, then off, then on, then off again? Well, it’s back on — but I won’t be live in studio.  Instead, I spent most of the day yesterday working with a crew from NBC, being interviewed on camera by Willie Geist for a longer feature they’ll be doing on Jim — and his biography — for Today. I was also very fortunate to have Frank Oz with me — and while we won’t be sitting on the couch together, he very graciously sat for a 40 minute interview, and said lots of wonderful things.

Afterwards, we spent the rest of the afternoon over at The Jim Henson Company workshop and archives, where Karen Falk and I talked about some of the countless terrific items Jim kept and filed away, which were invaluable for my research.

It should be a fun piece — Willie Geist is a big fan of Jim’s — and I’ll let you know when it’s going to run.  Right not, they’re aiming for October 15, but that could change, depending on how fast they can edit everything together.

That was yesterday. Then this morning I was up early to head over to a nearby studio to chat remotely with an NPR station in Boston to talk  about . . . (wait for it) . . . Washington Irving. The new Sleepy Hollow TV series (which I dig) has sparked something of an Irving revival — and is apparently driving lots of gawkers toward the little town on New York’s Highway 9 — so we spent the morning comparing Irving’s tale with the the TV show, and speculating on whether Irving would enjoy it (as a great nicker of other people’s tales, I think Irving would get a kick out of it, actually).

The real question, however, is this: is the Sleepy Hollow TV series taking place in some alternate universe where Irving never existed or even wrote the original tale? I mean really, when Crane introduces himself to someone in the show, no one ever goes, “Ichabod Crane? Yeah, right.” (On another tangent, I keep hoping we’ll find out Irving himself is part of the underground movement to protect the world from the forces of evil, and wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” either as a way of debunking one of the four horsemen, or perhaps sending some sort of coded message to future generations of protectors on how to fight the horsemen . . . Fox producers: Call me!)

I’m not at all surprised by the revived interest.  One of the leading search terms driving people to my website — after “Jim Henson,” of course — is “Is Legend of Sleepy Hollow real?” (which keeps sending people here).

Finally, in just a few hours I leave for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Holy cow.

West Bound and Down (If Only For a Moment…)*

…and hello again. I’m coming to you from San Francisco Airport, where I’m waiting to make my connecting flight to Los Angeles, where I’ll be taping an appearance on The Tavis Smiley Show tomorrow afternoon.  The moment I finish there, I go whizzing back to the airport and return to the East Coast so I can make another mad dash to New York.

It’s been more than a week since I last blogged – and what a week it was.  On Tuesday, October 1, I was delighted – and incredibly flattered – to attend the booklaunch event for Jim Henson at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. I had great fun sitting on a panel with Karen Falk, Bonnie Erickson, Fran Brill, Barbara Miller, and Dwight Bowers. (The expertise on Jim and the Muppets was so deep and wide that I was joking just before we all went on that all I really had to do was sit there and refer all the questions to my fellow panelists….)

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The panel for Jim Henson: The Biography commences (under the watchful eyes of Jim, Kermit and Ernie): From left, Dwight Bowers, Karen Falk, Your Humble Narrator, Craig Shemin, Fran Brill, Bonnie Erickson, and Barbara Miller.

The panel – moderated by Craig Shemin, current President of the Jim Henson Legacy – opened with three really interesting clips of Jim making various talk show appearances, including one that I had never seen before: a bizarre, ill-fated talk show pilot for Orson Welles. Welles appeared to be doing his best parody of himself, and Jim seemed on the edge of cracking up during most of the interview, while Frank Oz looked wryly unamused.

One of the neatest moments on the panel – for me, at least – was when Barbara Miller, one of the MOMI’s curators, pulled out a precious artifact that’ll eventually be on display for the Jim Henson exhibit. “I nearly brought Ernie,” she said, “but decided for something even more intimate.” There was an audible gasp from the crowd as she pulled out of a box – while wearing protective white gloves – Jim’s very own miked headset that he would’ve used while performing on set.  In fact, it appeared to be the very headset in this photo here (another of my very favorite photos of Jim):

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The audience asked great questions, and it was terrific to meet so many of Jim’s fans afterward who told me how much they enjoyed the book.  Thank you, each and every one of you who made the event. And thank you to the Museum of the Moving Image and the Jim Henson Legacy (and, yes, Random House!) for putting together such a great event.  It was a fitting way to kick off Jim’s biography.

I spent the next afternoon doing various radio shows over at SiriusXM – and as a longtime Sirius listener, it was great fun to see the inside of their studios and meet deejays like Frank DeCaro at OutQ, Meredith Ochs and Chris T at Road Dog, and the dynamite Judith Regan (who knows a thing or two about books and publishing).

And yes, just as I did when I appeared on The Diane Rehm Show, I got to wear the headphones. And no, while I kept my eyes peeled, I did not see Baba Booey. Darn it.

I’m getting ready to board now, so I’ll leave you for the moment.  But I’ll be back here shortly with one – no, make that TWO — exciting announcements.  And to say I’m thrilled about both of these would be the ultimate understatement.

See you in a bit.

* No, I’m not down. I was just making the reference work.

What a Week!

I was up late last night, doing The Jim Bohannon Show live in studio from downtown Washington, DC. I’m a fan from way back — when I was working as the night editor of my college newspaper back in the late 1980s, I would come back to my dorm room in the early morning hours and listen to him when he was sitting in for Larry King — and it was lot of fun to talk Jim Henson with him for a full hour.  If you missed it, the entire show is available right here (you’ll have to forward to the appropriate spot — I don’t come in until after the first hour.) It was such a good time, in fact, that I hardly minded getting snarled in traffic as I made my way out of Georgetown on a Friday night.

That was the exclamation point on a fun and exhausting week.  I spent most of Thursday and Friday on the phone doing interviews for places like Chicago, Wisconsin, Mississippi, and New Mexico — some of which I’ll link to when they’re posted, if you’d like to listen — and so far, I’ve managed to keep my voice and haven’t faded into a Bill Clintonesque rasp.  So far.

As advertised here earlier, I also had the pleasure of taking about Jim on The Diane Rehm Show (also taped right here in DC), with a generous assist from Dave Goelz, who phoned in from California.  To my delight (I’m easily thrilled), I even got to wear headphones while sitting in the studio, and only got a slight stare from guest host Susan Page when I did my Ringo Starr impression and asked it they could “turn  it down in my cans a bit.”

Anyway, if you missed me — and Dave — on Diane Rehm, you can listen to the show right here.

Finally, on Wednesday morning, I was pleased to be included in a piece on CBS This Morning about the Henson family’s donation of 20 Muppets to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  Miss it? Here you go.

All in all, it’s been a terrific week — and the coming week will be even busier (and just as much fun) as I make the trip to New York for talks at the Museum of the Moving Image on October 1, and the 92Y on October 2. If you’re in New York, come on by. It’ll be fun. I promise.