Category Archives: Muppets

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

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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.

Oz

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Frank Oz

One of the really great thrills of working on this project over the past five years has been meeting, interviewing, and, in many cases, getting to know Jim Henson’s family, friends, collaborators, and colleagues. To a person, they’ve all been generous with their time, warm in their welcomes, and interesting and engaging. I’ve spoken with people in living rooms and kitchens, offices and workshops, on studio sets, on Skype, and yes, even over the old-fashioned telephone.

It became immediately apparent that with a topic like Jim Henson, getting people to talk — and talk excitedly — would never be a problem. As a result, most of my conversations — which I usually tried to keep to an hour  — often sprawled out to two, three, sometimes beyond four hours. And even then, we still found it hard to wrap things up and stop talking.  Jim had, and still has, that effect on people.

There was one person, however, I was incredibly nervous about meeting in person: Frank Oz. My concern was never about him;  instead, I was worried that I would completely geek out and be unable to have a meaningful conversation with him. Not only am I a fan from way back, and not only is he pivotal to Jim’s story, but . . . well, heck, it’s Frank Oz. 

As it turns out, we had a great time and conversation together — so much so, in fact, that we had several more afterward. Oz is an incredibly private guy, so I won’t go into any detail except to say that he’s extremely thoughtful, forthright, introspective, brilliant, and — as you can surely imagine — genuinely entertaining and laugh out loud funny. Jim’s story wouldn’t have been complete without his participation, and I’m grateful — and thrilled — for his involvement and enthusiasm.

It is my great pleasure, then, to have the following blurb appear on Jim Henson’s biography:

I worked with Jim for over thirty years.  He was one of my closest friends. And yet I found out things about him in Jim Henson that were new to me.  Brian Jay Jones has captured the layers of Jim’s genius and humanity as well as the flaws that made Jim, like all of us, so delightfully imperfect. Jim needed this book to be written. I thank Brian for giving Jim life again. This book has captured the spirit of Jim Henson.

— Frank Oz

All I can say is: Thank you, Frank Oz. For everything.

. . . And Now We’re Covered

This went up on the Random House website earlier today, so I figure I can finally officially shine the light of the world on the cover for Jim Henson: The Biography. Ready? Here we go:

JIM HENSON cover
If you travel on over to the Random House site, you’ll also find information on the e-book and the audiobook, which are both scheduled to be released on September 24, 2013. I had the opportunity to listen to the audition tapes for the reader of the audiobook, and I think you’ll be as delighted as I am with the choice of  veteran reader Kirby Heyborne as your guide through Jim’s story.

In other news, we’ve picked up a publisher for the UK edition in Virgin Books, so you English readers should see the hardcover in bookstores on September 25. Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, Publisher’s Lunch has designated Jim Henson one of it’s “Buzz Books” for the fall of 2013.

Jim, Frank, and Merv

On June 26, 1984, Jim Henson and Frank Oz were out promoting The Muppets Take Manhattan and made a memorable appearance as guests on the Merv Griffin Show  (“Frank and I do entire Merv Griffin Show,” Jim wrote in his journal). Jim and Oz performed Kermit, Miss Piggy, Animal and Fozzie before finally heading for the guest sofa.

I love the way Jim looks in this footage. He’s smartly dressed, and while relaxed, he’s still not quite comfortable appearing on camera. But don’t take my word for it; let Jim explain it himself.

Here are a little more than eleven minutes of fun from The Merv Griffin Show (sorry about the aggressive on-screen sales pitch — this is a promo for a Merv Griffin collection). Enjoy.