Category Archives: works in progress

What’s So Amazing That Keeps Us Stargazing?

In honor of the official opening of The Muppets — and I’m thrilled to see it’s already getting rave reviews — I thought it might be appropriate to put up a little something to help remember what got them (and us) here.

Here’s the opening three and a half minutes of 1979’s The Muppet Movie. And I gotta admit, it chokes me up every time.

In Media Res

It’s probably due to the upcoming premiere of the brand spanking new movie The Muppets (coming to a theater near you on November 23), but over the past few days I’ve been asked more and more, “How’s  the book coming?”

The short answer: really well.  I recently finished writing extensively about The Muppet Show, which puts me about two-thirds of the way through.  But there’s still a lot more to go — that Jim Henson was a busy and productive guy — and as I make the turn into the final third of the book, my desk is officially a mess. And to respond to some of the other questions I’ve received, here’s what my workspace  presently looks like:

Whatta mess.

It’s a bit blurry — I took it with my phone — so let me guide you around.  On the wall behind my chair is the gigantic white board I use to draw up the timeline for the chapter I’m working on, along with any random notes (at the moment, there’s a scribbled address for the long-gone Muppet Stuff store in New York City).

On top of the desk (which is actually just two old tables pushed together, with a filing cabinet shoved into the open corner) is an assortment of black binders (filled with transcripts of interviews, notes, and newspaper articles) along with several journals and scattered Post-It notes. You might also see the corner of Christopher Finch’s fantastic Jim Henson: The Works peeking out, as well as Caroll Spinney’s The Wisdom of Big Bird. And that piece of red striped paper is actually part of my Bible for this project: a well-thumbed and marked-up photocopy of Jim’s Red Book, generously provided by the Henson family.

What else? On top of the filing cabinet in the lower left hand corner are all four volumes of an 1862 edition of The Life and Letters of Washington Irving—still a fellow close to my heart—and because I believe you should always have your subject looking over your shoulder as you write, the mantlepiece behind me (yeah, it’s a real working fireplace) sports a framed photo of Jim Henson lounging across a set of theater seats with his arm draped around Kermit.*

What’s next? During the last week of November, I’ll be interviewing not one, not two, not even four, but five more Really Neat People, and I’m producing chapters regularly, which keeps my editor happy.  And while I try to spend most of my days sitting right there in that leather chair you see above, I have to admit I’ll be spending several hours out of it next Wednesday.  I’ll be at The Muppets, you know.

Thanks, everyone, for their questions and enthusiasm!

* Just for fun, see if you can also spot a 1960s-era Batmobile and the Mach 5 among the mess, as well as a Jim Henson action figure, strumming a banjo.

Celebrate 75 Years of Making The World “A Bit Better For Having Been Here”

Happy 75th Birthday, Jim Henson.

Gonzo Scheduling

The Great Gonzo.

When I left for Los Angeles two weeks ago, my original schedule—as I think I reported in these pages a few entries back —was going to be a bit of a whirlwind: I would be arriving at LAX at 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, which gave me just enough time to rent a car, check into my hotel and grab a bite to eat before I headed over to the Jim Henson Company to meet with Lisa Henson in the afternoon. Early Wednesday morning, I was going to drive to Burbank to meet with Muppet performer Dave Goelz, who had been scheduled to work all Tuesday evening on a Muppet-related project, but had graciously offered to give me a few hours the next morning before he caught an early flight back home. I would then drive back to LAX, return my rental car, and catch my 3 p.m. flight back to Baltimore. That was the way it was supposed to work, at least.

That didn’t happen.  And yet, things couldn’t have gone any better.

The even greater Dave Goelz.

After checking into my hotel, I did what most of us do the moment we settle into the room: I plugged in the laptop, grumbled a bit about having to pay for wireless service, then logged in to check my e-mail.  There I found waiting for me a message Dave Goelz had sent while I was still on the plane that morning, apologizing that he had run into an unexpected schedule change. “Tuesday we expect to shoot until about 2 a.m.,” he wrote, and explained that he was concerned he would be too sleep-deprived to participate in a worthwhile interview the next morning.  However, he continued, “I’d love it if you could come to the studio to do the interview. We’re shooting a music video with OK Go…” Attached at the bottom of the message was a map to Delfino Studios in Sylmar.  “Hope you can make it.” Dave said.

Make it? Are you kidding?

As it turns out, the band OK Go had recorded a version of the theme from The Muppet Show for The Green Album, a new collection of Muppet-related covers—and the Muppets, naturally, would be a major part of their music video. The Muppets and the video-savvy OK Go together? There was no way it couldn’t be a lot of fun.  Knowing he was already at the studio working and therefore unable to check e-mail, I tapped out a text message to Dave telling him that I would love the chance to watch him work, and asked if I could meet him at 7 p.m., after I finished my meeting over at Henson Studios. Dave responded almost immediately: “Xlent.”

I kept my appointment with Lisa Henson—who was as warm and gracious and thoughtful as always—then as the clock neared 6 p.m., I pointed my Kia Soul (what the heck?) in the direction of Burbank. A little after 7 p.m., I pulled up at Delfino Studios, a compound of several connected warehouses just outside of the city.  I managed to luck into finding a producer on a break out in the parking lot, who kindly steered me through a maze of outer rooms and into one of Delfino’s dark, cavernous main studios.  There, in the middle of the room, under an enormous glare of lights, the members of the band OK Go were patiently resting their heads on the top of a long board, waiting for the music to begin as the crew buzzed around them.

Trying to stay out of the way as much as possible, I climbed into a canvas chair in a cozy seating area that had been set up off to one side, an assortment of chairs and sofas arranged around several flatscreen monitors where we could easily see exactly what the cameras were filming. As playback began over the studio speakers, the band began to lipsynch to themselves singing The Muppet Show theme—and as they finished the verse, up popped Marvin Suggs to pound on their heads with his Muppaphone mallets.  My mouth hung open. “OMG,” I texted to my wife, “I JUST SAW MARVIN SUGGS!” (Her response: “MODULATE!” I do love having a pop culture-savvy spouse…)

After another hour of filming—where I watched lead singer Damian Kulash repeatedly smash into, then peel his face off of, a piece of plexiglass as he and the Muppet performers attempted to get the timing just right on a series of quick head turns—Dave Goelz climbed off a ladder where he had been performing Gonzo and we were finally able to grab some time to speak in a quiet side office.

An hour later, a technician came in to call Dave back to the set. Dave cheerily pointed a finger at me. “Let’s keep talking!” he said. “Don’t go anywhere!” Believe me, there was no chance that was happening.  For another hour I stood to one side as Dave laid on a rolling cart with Gonzo, reacting goofily as a Muppaphone mallet was thrown into a pyramid of inverted trash cans, sending a bucket swinging toward the camera.  As it struck a Muppet chicken, a blast of compressed air blew a handful of feathers skyward.  (“Whoopeee!!” cheered Gonzo in several takes.) The director finally decided everyone had nailed it, and back Dave and I went to talking, taking a slight break to eat dinner on the set around 11 p.m.

The genuinely nice Steve Whitmire.

At one point, Steve Whitmire—who’s performed Kermit the Frog since 1990, and who I had the pleasure of speaking with in Atlanta earlier this year—circled around us several times, then came over, smiling, to shake my hand. “I thought I recognized you!” he said as he clapped me on the shoulder.  Man, the Muppet performers are all such genuinely nice people.

Well into the early hours of Wednesday morning, Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire sat just out of the camera’s eye, performing Statler and Waldorf, first with Kulash, and then by themselves. They worked without a script, preferring to ad lib their dialogue, cracking each other up, and laughing in character. After one particular take, director Kirk Thatcher laughed out loud. “That was great!” he called out, “Let’s cut!”

“No, it wasn’t great,” Whitmire said.  “We need something else.”

“I got it! I got it!” said Goelz, and as cameras rolled again, the two of them worked their way through several more jokes until both were happy with it.

As I watched these two old friends work together—two men who had known each other for nearly thirty-five years, and who knew each other’s rhythms so well they could hit all the beats of an ad-libbed routine perfectly— I was struck by just how fortunate I am to be a part of their world, if only for a moment.  To call it awe inspiring doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

I closed my night–or morning, rather, for at this point, it was approaching 3 a.m.—listening to Dave speak fondly of friends and coworkers, many of whom are long since gone. After we finished, as I got up to go, he took my hand in both of his and shook it warmly. “Thank you for letting me talk about Jim,” he said. “It’s been a real privilege.” That choked me up; as I said earlier, the Muppet performers are all such warm and generous people. It was all I could do to stammer that the privilege was all mine.

And it truly was.

And now, here’s the video I had the thrill of watching Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, OK Go, and the rest of the talented Muppet performers make in that warehouse studio in Burbank:

(My thanks to Dave Goelz for inviting me to the set — and to the members of OK Go who graciously permitted me to stay there.)

Westward Ho!

I know, I know . . . long time, no see, right? My philosophy at the moment is that if I have time to write a blog, it’s probably time I could spend working on the book — hence, I’ve not updated in a while.  That will likely continue, though I’ll still let you know when anything exciting or newsworthy pops up.

Take now, for instance.  I’m leaving tomorrow to head back out to Los Angeles to have two conversations with some more Amazing People. It’ll be a very quick there-and-back kinda thing — but it ‘s also an opportunity to say a quick hello to some folks at Jim Henson Studios, which is always a good thing.

More later.

Take The A Train . . . Provided It’s Going The Right Way, Of Course.

I hopped the 6:21 a.m. Acela train to New York yesterday, on my way up to have my second extended sit-down session with An Amazing (and Important) Person. It was my first time on the Acela — normally I’m a Northeast Regional kinda guy, but I couldn’t make the generally skittish NER work, as one arrived waaay too early, while the other pulled into Penn Station much too close to my meeting time. And given that the NER is famously delayed on its arrival in New York, I didn’t want to risk missing one moment of the three hours my subject had generously set aside for our conversation.

After riding the NER almost monthly for the last year or so, being on board the Acela seems like stepping onto the set for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Everything seems vaguely futuristic: doors open between cars at a touch (and without the rattle of the NER), the seats look like command chairs, and the cafe car features a streamlined bar area where diners sit on stools, rather than at the cramped booths of the NER. There’s even wi-fi humming throughout the train, allegedly for the courtesy of business passengers who need it for work, but I notice that most passengers — including yours truly — are using it to check Facebook or update their Twitter feeds.

On my arrival in Penn Station, I decide to see if I can navigate the underground tunnels that will take me to the Red 1 subway line I need to get to my destination (usually I exit Penn Station then walk outside for the two blocks or so it takes to get to the station at 34th Street). I’ve tried to do this before, but ended up either dead-ended or completely turned around, and thus simply headed for the closest EXIT sign, which, more often than not, seemed to eject me into the middle of a shopping mall.

This time, however, I manage to successfully weave my way to the subway station, follow the arrows for the 1 and board the train marked 242nd Street.  For a moment, I’m very pleased with myself for my successful navigation of a system that your average New Yorker can navigate drunk—then immediately realize, as I watch the street numbers at the subway stations go down instead of up, that I’m headed the wrong way.

Unlike the Metro in Washington — where you can exit any train boarded in error, cross over to the other platform and board the correct train without ever exiting the Metro — most stops in New York require that you exit the station, cross the street, and re-enter the station (and pay again) for the train going the other direction.  I had learned this lesson months earlier when I boarded the wrong train from Long Island to Brooklyn, but that apparently didn’t stop me from boarding the wrong train at 34th Street.  Rats.

Humbled, I exit and re-enter and board a train going the right way, and make it to my interview with gobs of time to spare — so much so that I have enough time to sit for a bit in a park overlooking the Hudson, where I watch a young woman get pulled along like a waterskiier behind the five large dogs she was walking at once.

At ten on the dot, I ring the bell at my destination, where I’m greeted like an old friend. While we’ve traded e-mails several times, this was only our second face-to-face — but I’m welcomed enthusiastically and ushered into a cozy living room with comfortable furniture and framed by a large open window overlooking the street. For the next three hours, as a cool breeze and birdsong flutter in through the open window, we have a wonderful conversation, during which I scribble notes frantically on a yellow note pad, trying to get it all down and completely ignoring the lines on the paper as a I scrawl in large cursive with a black felt tip. At one o’clock, we’re done. We shake hands warmly, and my subject makes me promise we’ll get together again soon.  It’s a deal.

Afterwards, I sprint for the subway — and board the correct train this time — then slide into a booth at the TGIFriday’s at Penn Station, fire up the laptop, and start typing my notes as quickly as I can while everything’s still fresh, stopping only a few times to squint at my handwriting to figure out what I’ve written.  By 2:45, I’m only about a third of the way through my notes, but it’s time to catch my train back to Maryland.  This time, I’m on the Northeast Regional, which gets up in my face by pulling into Penn Station right on time.

On the ride home, I grab a seat, as I usually do, in the Quiet Car, where chatter and phone calls are strictly prohibited. I do this even when I don’t have work to do because if I don’t, it seems I always end up with someone in the seat next to me who spends the three-hour train ride back to DC discussing the results of their latest physical, their aunt’s rocky marriage, and the personal lives of everyone in their office.  I drop the tray at my window seat, crank up the laptop again, and return to my task at hand for the next 90 minutes or so.  The seat next to me is eventually occupied by a Richmond-bound passenger in a ballcap and shades, who plays video baseball on his iPhone, and tries briefly to engage me and the woman across the aisle from him in conversation. From our stage-whispered responses, he realizes he’s committing a breach of protocol — but that still doesn’t prevent him from answering a phone call and chatting for several minutes before a conductor stops by and loudly announces that those who wish to talk on the phone must move to another car — “or I will put you out,” he adds matter-of-factly. The phone disappears.

I get off at the BWI stop, pay for my parking (when will the BWI station finally get all their ticket booths working??) and head for home in DC-Baltimore rush hour traffic.  To my surprise, I’m home before 7 p.m, just in time for Barb, Madi and I to take in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which we all thought to be a bit plodding and about 45 minutes too long — but that’s for another time.

A Quick Rundown

Apologies for being away so long — I keep meaning to update here each day, and even get as far as opening up the blogging window and then  . . . well, things seem to get away from me, and I end up closing out the window.  In lieu of a proper post, then, here’s a quick rundown on what I’m up to:

– The BIO conference was a spectacular success, well-attended with truly interesting panels, and an amazing lunchtime keynote address by Robert A. Caro (the speech was filmed, and I’ll put it up here as soon as it’s available).  I participated on one panel, moderated another, and spent a good part of between-panel time buttonholing some terrific writers and begging them to update me on their works in progress. Trust me when I say that there are some great books coming out. In hardback, even.

During the course of the day, I made Kitty Kelley laugh (we were seated next to each other at lunch), got hugged by a Pulitzer winner, and tried really hard — and failed — not to geek out when I spoke briefly to Robert Caro as he signed my hardcover of Master of the Senate. I also had the honor of being elected to the BIO board, and I’m looking forward to the coming year. (Thanks, fellow BIO members, for the vote—and here’s a special shout out to Charles J. Shields for nominating me.)

– I’m making a quick sprint to New York this week for another conversation with An Amazing Person — and then another with a different person the following weekend, when I’ll piggyback a bit of work onto an otherwise family-focused weekend in New York with Barb and Madi.  It’s getting to the point where I can do the Northeast Regional train to New York in my sleep.  And have.

– Finally, to answer what’s continuing to be the number one question I receive each day (namely, How’s the book going?): I’m pleased to say it’s going well — and so far, it looks like I’m on target to ensure a Christmas 2012 release.  But that’s still a long way away, and there’s a long way to go, so stay tuned.

Box Tops

As expected, four o’clock in the morning arrived WAY too early this morning. Still, that was what time I had to get up to catch the 5:58 a.m. train from Baltimore to New York, where I’m spending another week doing research in the Jim Henson archives at the the company’s headquarters out on Long Island.

As usual, crack archivist Karen Falk (and her assistant, Madalyn) are taking good care of me, bringing me armloads of materials stored neatly in dark green boxes. Today, I spent the entire day sorting through newspaper clippings, press releases, and interviews. And how cool is it when the boxes that get plunked down on your desk have this sticker on top of them?

I’ll be here the rest of the week, continuing to do research—even though it’s so much fun it hardly seems fair to call it “research.”

Pull the String!

I’m back from Atlanta, where I spent two days talking with lots of Interesting and Wonderful People — including Vince Anthony and his crack staff at the Center for Puppetry Arts, where I had an opportunity to tour the museum (including its collection of Henson-related materials), learn a bit more about the history of the art form, and scour their video archives.  I also had a chance to watch a performance of “The Dragon King” — performed by the Tanglewood Marionettes of Ware, Massachusetts — right along with 200 enthusiastic elementary school students who squealed with delight in all the right places. Here’s a look:

For more information on the Center for Puppetry Arts, click here.

Life’s Like A Movie…

Last Friday, I spent the morning at the Jim Henson Company and studios in Hollywood, where I took some time to poke around, then had yet another fascinating conversation with An Amazing Person.  Following that, I returned to my hotel, e-mailed the digital files of my conversations off to be transcribed, then collapsed with probably the worst case of jet lag I have ever had in my life.  And that’s only a three hour time change.  Whatta wimp.

The Jim Henson Company works out of a really neat, and important, piece of Hollywood history.  Back in 1999, the Henson family purchased the old Charlie Chaplin studios, which Chaplin built in 1917 and opened in 1918. Here’s the plaque mounted to the wall just outside the front entrance:

This is the studio where Chaplin filmed classics like The Gold RushModern Times and The Great Dictator, which makes it officially the stuff of Hollywood legend.  What makes the studio really interesting, though, is that Chaplin, like Jim Henson, couldn’t do anything in an ordinary way.  His studio, then, pulled off a bit of theatrical sleight of hand: from the street, it looked like a very proper English Tudor village, straight out of the 18th century — or, at least, a stage set built to look like one.  Once you were through the gates, however, everything was purely state of the art — a tradition that continues to this day.

The Hensons extensively renovated and refurbished the old studios (after leaving Chaplin’s hands, it belonged to CBS then A&M records) and in 2000, made it the new headquarters for The Jim Henson Company.  As Brian Henson said back in 2000:

“When we heard that the Chaplin lot was for sale, we had to have it. It’s the perfect home for the Muppets and our particular brand of classy, but eccentric entertainment. When people walk onto our lot, they fall in love with Hollywood again.”

Mission accomplished, I’d say; it’s a wonderful place.  Here’s the view of the exterior of the building, as you approach it from the south on La Brea Avenue:

As you can see, as a tribute to Chaplin, there’s a statue of Kermit in Chaplin’s trademark derby and baggy pants just beside the entrance.  Here’s a somewhat better picture, taken from just outside the front gate:

Just for a bit of historical perspective, here’s a view of the studio during Chaplin’s day . . .

…and now:

There’s one more tribute to Chaplin as you stroll past.  Just below Kermit is an arch-topped wooden door — you can see it in the photo above — which has now been affectionately painted to allow Chaplin to make a cameo appearance at his old studio:

Neat, huh?  Finally, just for fun, here’s a brief clip from The Chaplin Revue — narrated by Chaplin himself — with a bit of information about the studio, including a time-lapse film of it being built.