The Meticulous Whimsey of Dr. Seuss


“The fact that [Dr. Seuss] took writing so seriously, even before he knew what he was doing, speaks volumes to just how intuitively good he was and how much he valued the reader. His sense of his books was, ‘I don’t do this just for children; I write for people.'”

Yup, that’s me on Dr. Seuss — all this and more in a quick-hit Q&A I did with the folks over at Capital Group (!), where they take books seriously.

You can read the rest of it here. And my thanks to Joe Simmons for the conversation.

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.

Remembering Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney (1933-2019)

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’s original design for Big Bird.

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:

That’s Frank Oz in the La Choy Dragon walk-around costume. He hated it.

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.

Caroll Spinney.

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.

Old with the old . . . in with the new.
Spinney with the original Oscar, 1969.

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.

Spinney and Oscar, in conversation with Jim Henson.

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.

In Which Becoming Dr. Seuss Makes the Kirkus Best Books List of 2019

This morning, Kirkus Books announced its Best Nonfiction Books of 2019 (if you’ve been watching, they’ve been rolling out “Best Books” of different genres for the last month or so) — and I was delighted to find Becoming Dr. Seuss listed among their top nine biographies for the year. Given the caliber of the other winners on the list — Edmund Morris’s Edison, Sidney Blumenthal’s All the Powers of Earth, Leo Damrosch’s The Club–I feel like the nerd who’s crashed the Cool Kids Table. And I’m really excited to be there.

It’s Emmet Otter Day!

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.

Be prepared to laugh uproariously.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas Television

I’m honored to have written the cover story for the upcoming Holiday issue (November/December) of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, bringing you the story of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering it took for animator Chuck Jones to convince Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel, Class of 1925) to adapt How the Grinch Stole Christmas! for television in 1966. (Hint: it wasn’t easy!)

You can read the entire piece right here. Go ahead — don’t be a greasy black banana peel!

Dr. Seuss is Longlisted

Wow. I’m beyond thrilled that Becoming Dr. Seuss was selected for the longlist of 25 nominees for the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. I know it sounds like a cliche, but given the caliber of all the great writers on the list, I’m humbled to even be included among them–and I’m grateful to the Carnegie Corporation and the American Library Association for the honor of being there.

Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now!

Not to scale.

Okay, so don’t look — the drawing of me from the Boston Globe doesn’t look exactly like me — but I’m still thrilled to see the Globe run a fun piece on me and Becoming Dr. Seuss as a lead-up to my appearance at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Wanna see me talk about all things Dr. Seuss? I’ll be there on Thursday night, starting at 6 p.m. It’s a paid event, but you’ll get a copy of Becoming Dr. Seuss as part of the cost of admission–and you can bet I’ll wait around as long as it takes for me to make sure I sign it for you. So come say hey! For more information, click here.

But that’s not all! On Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m., I’ll be presenting on Dr. Seuss in one of the opening sessions for the History Book Festival in Lewes, Delaware. More information is here — and this is a free event, so come on out! It’ll be good! I promise.

Origins of The Dark Crystal

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.

Jim Henson with Brian Froud.

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.”

Some of Froud’s character designs for The Dark Crystal.

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.”

Jim with daughter Cheryl, who helped shape the basic story of Dark Crystal.

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.

Lord Lew Grade negotiating with Fozzie Bear.

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?

George Lucas.

Come on, you know who this is.

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.

Lucasfilm builder Stuart Freeborn consults with Frank Oz and Jim Henson on a model for Yoda.

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.

The hard-working David Lazer, who saved The Dark Crystal.

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 — along with Brian Froud (far left) and creative director Mike Frith (center) — carefully watches a puppeteer performing a still-unfinished Mystic interacting with a Gelfling.

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.”

Gary Kurtz, Jim Henson, and Frank Oz on one of The Dark Crystal’s sprawling sets.

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.

Robert Holmes-a-Court, a rare nemesis for Jim Henson.

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.”

Bernie Brillstein and client.

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.”

Frank Oz and Jim Henson at the New York premiere of The Dark Crystal, December 1982.


Dr. Seuss writ large

My editor was kind enough to send a few of copies of the large print edition of Becoming Dr. Seuss my way. It’s got a cover layout and design that’s completely different than the trade edition, but it’s a really beautiful book, don’t you think?