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.
Posted onApril 4, 2020|Comments Off on 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…)
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
On this date in 1977, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas debuted on the Canadian TV channel CDC (it would make its US debut in December 1978 on a small cable channel called HBO).
For Emmet’s birthday, then, here are nearly six minutes of outtakes, featuring the brilliant team of Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson as Ma and Emmet, respectively, in a scene directed by the very patient (and persistent) Jim Henson.
The name of the game here was the get the drum to roll out the door, hit a milk can, then rattle and spin like a coin before coming to a stop. After the first, untaped rehearsal — where it worked perfectly — it never happened that way again.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
I was sad to learn of the passing of Dorothy Love Turk, who died earlier this month at the age of 88. Dorothy — or “Dot” as she insisted I and everyone else call her — was one of the very first people I contacted when I began my research on Jim Henson back in 2010. As a guide at the Jim Henson Boyhood Museum in Leland, she was great at helping me track down All Things Jim Henson in their little town–and as a lifelong resident of Leland, she was also the expert on the history of Leland. Heck, she even wrote a terrific history of the place, charmingly called Leland, Mississippi: From Hell Hole to Beauty Spot. That was her kind of title.
Her book on the history of Leland, in fact, was also one of the first I bought when I started researching–I had to grab it from a used book store–and she was genuinely touched that I had purchased it, read it, and even brought it with me for her to sign. When I handed the book over for her sign, she turned to the blank front page, and wrote simply, “to Brian, Dorothy Love Turk.” When I returned to Leland a year or so later for a Henson-related event, she ran up to me somewhat flustered and apologized for “signing [my] book so badly!” She said she was so rattled by the idea that anyone would ask her to sign her book that she didn’t know what to write. That sort of adorable humility was very much part of her charm.
Dot served as my eager tour guide during my time in Leland, introducing me around–having her vouch for me went a long way with the locals–helping me get in touch with some of Jim’s childhood friends, and regaling me with the gossip and town legends that made Leland such a magical place for Jim Henson to spend his early years. They take pretty good care of Jim Henson down there, and it’s thanks in no small part to people like Dot. She took good care of me, too, and I’ll miss her.
If you’re a Muppet fan, chances are you’re already anxiously awaiting the release of Muppet Guys Talking, Frank Oz’s documentary of . . . well, Muppet guys talking about life, art, and working with Jim Henson. And who are the Muppet Guys? They’re Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta. More information — including how you can watch the documentary when it’s released later this week — is available over on muppetguystalking.com. Go.
While you wait, you might also wanna check out this really wonderful interview with Frank Oz, conducted by those savvy fellas over at Tough Pigs. And I’ve gotta admit: I’m thrilled to be on the receiving end of some first-rate Frank Oz ballbreaking:
Okay, maybe it’s really not Jim Henson Day — but it’s Jim’s 81st birthday, so over on Twitter I suggested we make #JimHensonDay a thing. And really, when the President of the United States is tweeting like a lunatic, all but taunting another country into nuclear war, I figure now is as good a day as any to remind ourselves that there are still a lot of good people and good things going on in the universe — and that Jim, his life, and work remain an inspiration for fun, creativity, and basic decency.
Here’s the string of Twitter posts I put up this morning. Feel free to comment on what Jim and his work mean to you in the comments — or join the conversation on Twitter on the hashtag #JimHensonDay.
Go out and do something silly today. Jim would approve. Heck, he’d encourage it.