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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.

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.

Tuesday Morning Joe

If all goes well, you should be seeing me talking Dr. Seuss on Morning Joe tomorrow morning (that’s Tuesday, May 28) around 8:30 a.m. ET. This isn’t our first try; I was supposed to be on last week, but was bumped by Bill de Blasio, who was announcing he’s running for . . . some sort of elected position.

Anyway, hope to see you tomorrow on MSNBC!

Triple Crown

There are three major newspapers in which we tellers of tales and spinners of yarns–whether those yarns or tales are fiction or non-fiction–love to see our work reviewed: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. What makes these three the trifecta? Mostly its because they each have large circulations that extend well-beyond their home markets–they end up in front of lots of readers, reading the papers in hotels and airports or on iPhones and laptops. They’re also papers with different audiences and different, often distinctive, points of view.

I’m thrilled, then, that Becoming Dr. Seuss has run the Triple Crown–and seems to have emerged out the other side in good shape. If you’re so inclined, you can click here to read the review in The Wall Street Journal (under the headline, “‘Becoming Dr. Seuss’: Who Killed Dick and Jane?”, which I think Dr. Seuss would have loved). Because WSJ is behind a subscription paywall–and therefore you may not be able to read the entire thing–here’s a quick peek:

“A fluid and enjoyable new biography . . . Brian Jay Jones takes a long appraising view of the life, career and creative evolution of Theodor Seuss Geisel . . . In this lively chronicle, Mr. Jones tackles the controversial elements of the Seussian oeuvre in a forthright way, setting them in the context of both the times and his subject’s own life.”

Next, here’s the review from the Washington Post, “a look at the prankster workaholic behind the iconic characters.”

And here in the New York Times is what might be one of my favorite reviews of anything I’ve written ever, “‘The Cat in the Hat’ and the Man Who Made That,” written by the brilliant author and essayist Adam Gopnick.

Finally, I want to thank all of you, who have been so enthusiastic about Becoming Dr. Seuss. I appreciate all of you.

Becoming Dr. Seuss in New York, Boston

We’re nearly a week away from the publication of Becoming Dr. Seuss–and I continue to be thrilled with the various places I’m seeing it mentioned. Several days ago, it showed up in Boston Magazine as one of Seven Can’t-Miss Events in Boston in May 2019. Given that Dr. Seuss is a Massachusetts native, I’m pretty pleased to get a shout-out from his home state. Thanks, guys

Over the weekend, the New York Post ran a long piece on Dr. Seuss himself, called “How Dr. Seuss Found the Juice for His Most Beloved Stories,” in which they were kind enough to call the book “wonderful.” Again, thanks, folks.

Oh, the Places I’ll Go!

The fine folks at Dutton books are very kindly sending me on a short book tour the week Becoming Dr. Seuss is published — and they’ve also just as kindly put all the information right here in this colorful card. Are you nearby on any of these dates? If so, swing by, hear me talk a bit about Dr. Seuss, and say hey!

It’s Nearly a Book

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These arrived on my doorstep yesterday: advance reader copies (ARCs) of Becoming Dr. Seuss.  ARCs are usually sent around to reviewers, but they’re by no means the final version of the book.  (Heck, if you’ve got an ARC of Jim Henson: The Biography, you’ve got a version of the book with a completely different prologue than what appeared in the final.) While I don’t anticipate any changes in the text of Dr. Seuss as significant as that, the ARC still doesn’t have the photo insert, nor does it yet have the index.  But this gives you a good idea of what the final version will look like; it’s reeeeally close to becoming a real book. The next time I see it, it’ll be a real hardcover.

I See You Shiver With Antici…

This week, Publishers Weekly published its list of the Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2019–and I was thrilled to see Becoming Dr. Seuss among the list of eagerly anticipated upcoming biographies, criticism, and literary essays. Here’s its listing on the PW website:

My thanks to PW, and to all of you currently anticipating Becoming Dr. Seuss. I appreciate it. It’s right on schedule to be in your hands in May.

How can I say that? I finished up the final manuscript–meaning I incorporated all of my editor’s comments, as well as copyedits and my own rewrites–on Monday afternoon. At 4:21 p.m., I turned over the very last page of the manuscript.

That’s a wrap.

Now it’s in the hands of the production department at Dutton Books. In a week or so, I’ll receive a nicely-printed version of the final manuscript to make what we call “first pass” (which is actually my final pass), where I can make sure everything looks right.

Nearly There

This weekend, I’m making the final edits on Becoming Dr. Seuss, and then it’s off to production on Tuesday. That means I’m making all the changes suggested by and discussed with my editor, and well as the copyedits, fact checking, and legal read. I also have to go through every endnote to make sure they’re accurate, as well as structured correctly (meaning they’re all in the proper citation format that used to make us all crazy in high school).

I also do quite a bit of spot-checking as I go, ensuring I’ve quoted things correctly–and that involves a lot of back-and-forthing between books and articles. There’s a lot of heavy detail work that goes into biography (and history and other non-fiction) — and it always seems to take much more time I ever think it will.

It also means making a HUGE mess in the office, with piles on the desk, and on the floor.

Mess on the desk….
….and mess on the floor.

The production folks at Dutton are waiting to get their hands on this thing, so they can start doing all the work necessary to have Becoming Dr. Seuss in your hands by May. They’ve already done some really fun work in both their title page design and font selection. Take a peek:

If you’re interested in pre-ordering, there are brand new links to your favorite booksellers right here. And thanks for your interest! I appreciate you.

I’ve also been asked if there will be any appearances and signings. I don’t have any information yet, but as soon as I do, you’ll see it here. And here’s hoping I’ll have the chance to see a lot of you lovely people beginning in May.

The Home Stretch

I’m back on the corner of the couch in my office, going through my editor’s notes and copyedits–all of which need to be completed by January 15.  See ya in a week!

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