Category Archives: Muppets

In Which I Am On CNN, Go To Boston, and Get Back In The Chair

Good grief, it’s really been over a month since I last checked in here? I’m never gonna get a John Scalzi-type following at this rate…

First thing’s first–and because everyone asked me about it at the time–the CNN piece on the Muppets finally aired in late May. The CNN crew had come to my house here in Maryland ages ago to film me in my basement office, and then I never heard anything more about it. I had assumed it had turned into vapor trails, until a sharp-eyed fan on Twitter alerted me to it: a half-hour special called CNN Spotlight: The Muppets, with a brief look at Jim Henson about a third of the way through it.

In case you missed it (and even if you didn’t), here’s the piece in its entirety:

 

I also had the great pleasure of speaking in mid-April at the newly-opened Gaithersburg Library here in my neck of the words, with the added bonus that C-SPAN was in attendance to record my hour-long talk in its entirety for BookTV.  No word yet on when, or even if, it’ll air, but I’ll let you know what I hear. More than likely, some eagle-eyed Muppet fan will spot it before I do and let me know about it.

In mid-May, I headed for Boston to attend Biographers International Organization’s annual conference. It was my privilege to be elected the organization’s president in early spring, but that meant that in addition to the two panels I was on and the one panel I was moderating, I also had to act as emcee for much of the conference–which also meant I didn’t have as much time to spend catching up with everyone as I would have liked. One of the founding principles of BIO is to address with what we informally call “the loneliness quotient,” so the opportunity to mingle and trade stories with other biographers is one of the genuine pleasures of attending the BIO conference. It’s also perhaps the only place on the planet where you can grouse about having to assemble the index for your book (“And that index?!? AMIRIGHT?”) and have everyone in the room nodding sympathetically.

At the final reception, we announced the finalists and winner of the Plutarch Award, presented to the best biography of the year, as chosen by biographers.  I was pleased and honored that Jim Henson was among the finalists (along with Ray Monk’s Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center and Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin), with the well-deserved winner being Linda Leavell’s Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne MooreIf you haven’t read any of these fine biographies, do yourself a favor and grab any one of them. Better yet, grab ’em all.

And, oh yeah . . . I’m at work again. On Something Cool. That means I’ll be back at the desk regularly again –which I’m also hoping means I can get back here more often. Bear with me.

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.

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.

 

The Book Trailer for Jim Henson: The Biography

A great job by the fine folks at Random House. My thanks also to the Jim Henson Legacy for the great behind-the-scenes footage, and to Sesame Workshop and Puppeteers of America for the assist.

UPDATE: The video is down for a moment for a technical fix. It’ll be back shortly.

UPDATE (3:30 p.m.) Okay, it’s back up, at a slightly new URL. Click on the image above for the new one.

Jim Henson (and Rachel Syme and Me) at the 92Y

On Biography with Rachel Syme

Mark your calendars now for what’s certain to be a fun event — provided you’re in the New York area, and I hope you will be, because this is a good one.

Unknown On Tuesday, October 2, at 7 p.m., I’ll be sitting with Rachel Syme for her On Biography program at the 92Y. We’ll be talking Jim and the Muppets, as well as the craft of biography — and Rachel already promised on Twitter to dress as Miss Piggy, so there’s that, too.*

This is a ticketed event, so if you’re interested in going, head on over to their website and click away now.

This is one of the most prestigious venues in New York — take a quick peek at their website and try to keep your mouth from hanging open as you look at all the cool people participating in various events and functions  — and I’m beyond honored to have been asked to participate.

See you October 2!

* We won’t actually hold her to that.

Truro Daydreams

Jerry Nelson with Count Von Count.

Jerry Nelson with Count Von Count.

It was a year ago this week that we lost the wonderful Jerry Nelson — and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a little something about him before the week was through.

I interviewed Jerry Nelson–the Muppet performer behind The Count, Gobo Fraggle, Snuffleupagus, Emmet Otter, and so many others–late in the process for Jim Henson — on February 29, 2012, when I was a little more than  halfway through writing the book. That wasn’t intentional; the two of us had been e-mailing back and forth for nearly a year, but we were just having a really hard time making our schedules match up.  We were finally able to  line up our calendars–in person, no less–at the Jim Henson Legacy’s winter party in December 2011, where Karen Falk grabbed my arm and whispered, “Jerry’s here!” and steered me over to him. We spoke just a little bit at that time, but we both wrote down February 29 on our calendars as the date I would come up to Jerry’s home in Truro, Massachusetts, to interview him.

February 29 — a Wednesday — turned out to be one of those bitter cold winter days we do so well here in the Atlantic corridor, and as my plane flew into Boston from Baltimore, I was checking the weather forecast regularly. After arriving in Boston, I’d still have to drive down to the tip of Cape Cod, nearly two hours away, and I didn’t want a snowstorm forcing us to abort our meeting. Still, I had rented a large four-wheel drive SUV in case I needed to navigate snow and ice — if it did snow, I was going to get as close to Truro as I could get.

As it turned out, the weather for the drive down was fine, but it was snowing lightly as I pulled into the long driveway of Jerry’s quaint Cape Cod home a little before noon.  I made my way down the path toward the house, and Jerry welcomed me inside in that warm voice all Muppets fans know so well.

Jerry wasn’t well — when I met him at the Legacy event, he was in a wheelchair, but that was mostly so it was easier to push around the oxygen tank that he needed to make breathing easier as he battled emphysema. Here at home, however, he had attached a long length of breathing tube to the oxygen tank, so he could walk around his home slowly, but freely, dragging sixty feet of tube behind him as he moved from room to room. He was proud of his house–he’d been there a long time–and for a while we swapped stories about the fun and headaches of maintaining old houses.

Eventually, however, we settled in the kitchen, seated on stools and facing each other across the kitchen counter. As Jerry made coffee and toasted bagels, we talked not only about Jim Henson, but Richard Hunt, Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, and so many others  now long gone. He showed me photos of him and Jim at Disneyland, and unrolled a copy of “Floyd’s Lament”, a poem he had written shortly after Jim’s death. He talked openly about his daughter, Christine, who died of complications from cystic fibrosis, and of his own struggles with alcohol–and also, notably, of his pride in his contributions to Sesame Street and in a CD of his own music he had completed in 2009, Truro Daydreams. Through it all, Jerry was forthright and honest, taking his time to consider each question carefully, and answering thoughtfully. It couldn’t have been comfortable for him to talk for the four hours we spoke, and yet he gave me his time freely and without question. When I offered to wrap things up early out of concern he might be getting tired, he waved me off. No, no, he told me. “I want to talk about The Guys.”

As I wrapped things up and prepared to leave around four that afternoon, snow was starting to come down in big, thick flakes. I shook Jerry’s hand, thanked him for his time, and told him how happy I was that the weather hadn’t gotten in our way. He smiled and looked at the snow falling outside the window. “You’ll make it back to Boston okay,” he told me with the sureness of one who knows the local weather. “Thanks for letting me talk about Jim and The Guys.” As I walked back down the front path, he waved from the door. “Let me know when the book comes out,” he said. “I can’t wait to read it.”

We didn’t arrange a time to meet again–for I think Jerry somehow knew that was the last interview he would give. Six months later, Jerry Nelson died at age 78.

IMG_0477Jim Henson’s biography comes out in four weeks. While Jerry never got to read it, it wouldn’t be the book it is without him, and I’m so grateful for the time I had with him. Every morning, when I drink my coffee–out of a mug with The Count on it, no less–I always think of standing in his cozy kitchen, sipping coffee, eating bagels, and listening to Jerry Nelson talk all about The Guys as the snow drifted slowly down outside his Truro window.

Muppet (Mindset)-tational!

Over at The Muppet Mindset, Ryan Dosier has put down some of his first impressions of Jim Henson: The Biography–and I’m delighted with his reaction to the book. I’ll let you read Ryan’s remarks in their entirety over on The Muppet Mindset, but let me just pull out a quick piece right here:

“Jim Henson – The Biography is an astounding piece of writing. What Brian Jay Jones captured in 500 pages is nothing short of the most definitive, most complete, most painstakingly impressive account of Jim Henson’s life that has ever been produced. No stone is left unturned in this beautiful piece of work spanning Jim’s ancestors in Civil War times all the way up to Jim’s memorial service in May, 1990. Seriously, I learned so much and appreciated so much more about every single project that Jim Henson worked on that I was completely stunned by the end of the book. This is no crash course in Muppet history, this is a fully detailed textbook with every piece of information you could want. But unlike a textbook, Jim Henson – The Biography is immensely entertaining, funny, witty, smart, heartwarming and, of course, heart breaking.”

Thanks, Ryan, for the kind–and, as Jim Henson might have said, “lovely”–words.

Photo Opportunity

See that big blank square at the top of the chapter? Yeah, a photo goes there.

See that big blank square at the top of the chapter in this advance copy? Yeah, a photo goes there.

Several readers of advance copies of Jim Henson have asked why the book doesn’t have any photos in it.  Good question.  The ARCs for Jim Henson didn’t include photos because (1) typically, advance copies of books don’t include the photo inserts, and (2) in the case of Jim Henson, it took a long time to clear some of the photos, so we couldn’t have included an insert even if we’d wanted to. In fact, the last of the photos didn’t clear until about three weeks ago, which is actually cutting it pretty close.

The final version of Jim Henson will include a photo insert that contains more than 40 photos, plus sixteen more that will appear at the top of each chapter. And even the most rabid Muppet fan will spot a few that have never been seen any time, any where. While this is a biography and not a photo book , I think you’ll find the photos helpful as a kind of score card: they’ll help you keep track of the players (always useful in a biography with lots of names in it), guide you through a number of projects, and, yes, you’ll see a few behind-the-scenes photos of Jim and the Muppet performers at work.*

It was genuinely tough deciding which photos to use.  I spent weeks sitting with, talking with, and e-mailing archivists, scrolling through digital files, turning over page after page in black photo binders, and squinting through an eyepiece at tiny photos on contact sheets. There were just too many great photos to count, and in my first pass, I selected more than a hundred I wanted to use. From there, my editor Ryan Doherty and  I set to work paring them down. With space limited, we wanted to get the most from any picture we might select–and if there were several people in one photo, all the better. Jim directing David Bowie and Jennifer Connolly in Labyrinth? Perfect. Jim performing with Kathy Mullen in The Dark Crystal? You bet. Jim standing by himself in the middle of a sound stage during the making of The Dark Crystal? Alas, not so much — but a tough call.

A no-brainer.

Jim Henson soars in 1965’s Time Piece. A no-brainer.

Some photos, of course, have been seen and used before–but they’re just so good, so iconic, it’s impossible not to use them. The photo still of Jim soaring on his DaVinci wings from Time Piece, for example, is a no-brainer, as is the 1960s-era photo of Jim and nineteen-year-old Frank Oz with Rowlf the Dog. There’s a reason these photos have been used before, and will probably be used again and again: they’re great.

Still, sometimes we ran into problems. There were a few photos, for example, where it was unclear exactly who owned them and how they might be legally cleared for use. Other times, there were photos I loved and wanted to use, but their owner wouldn’t clear them. Those things happen, but it likely means that someone’s favorite photo is bound to be missing.

Ultimately, we tried to pick photos that were not only visually interesting, but by merely flipping though the photo insert, you could get a fairly good idea of the arc of Jim’s life. I’m thrilled with the photos we’re using in this book–and while it wasn’t always easy, I appreciate that we were permitted to use each and every one of them.

* Meanwhile, if you’re looking for books with lots of color photos, you couldn’t do much better than Christopher Finch’s classic Jim Henson: The Works or Karen Falk’s magnificent Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal. If you’re a Muppet fan, you’ve already got both of them.

Good as Goelz

Dave+Goelz+DaveGoelz_2009

Dave Goelz with Gonzo.

Over the past few weeks, advance copies of Jim Henson have made their way out into the world and into the hands of reviewers and other readers. It’s been gratifying to hear the (so far) overwhelmingly positive feedback, but there was one set of readers I was particularly interested in hearing from: Jim Henson’s friends and colleagues.  I made a point, then, of personally sending advance copies to a number of Jim’s collaborators, both as a token of thanks for their help in writing Jim’s story, but also to see if they — like Frank Oz — thought I had captured the Jim Henson they had known in the pages of the book.

You can imagine my delight, then, when I received a note from Muppet performer Dave Goelz (who I talked about earlier right here), who had this to say about Jim Henson:

“I loved it. Brian Jay Jones vividly portrays Jim’s journey, and also the intersecting journeys of his colleagues and friends. In spite of the fact that Jim and I worked together closely for many years, there were compartments of his life that I hadn’t known before. I was completely involved and couldn’t put the book down. A tremendous job.” — Dave Goelz

As I can’t seem to say enough: Thank you, Dave Goelz.

What They’re Saying About Jim Henson

Kirkus — which is famous for its bare-knuckled, nose-bloodying, make-ya-cry book reviews — got its hands on Jim Henson recently . . . and they dug it.  Here’s a bit of what they had to say:

. . . Jones is masterful at explaining how Henson grew up to become a daring puppeteer and scriptwriter, [and] how he managed to attract so much remarkable talent to his side . . .  Jones does not ignore Henson’s separation from his wife/creative partner, nor his extramarital affair with a much younger woman, but the downside of Henson’s personality is not Jones’ primary focus. In an era of pathography, this biography stands out as positive . . .  Jones continually shows that Henson left the world a better place, which serves as the book’s theme. A solid biography that can be enjoyed by readers of more than one generation.

Meanwhile, over at Publisher’s WeeklyJim Henson has been selected as one of their Top Ten books in the Performing Arts for Fall 2013.  Not a bad way to start the week.