Tag Archives: Jim Henson

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.

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.

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.


Remembering Dot Turk, My Charming Guide to Leland, Mississippi


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91gmc-pdU2LI was sad to learn of the passing of Dorothy Love Turk, who died earlier this month at the age of 88.  Dorothy — or “Dot” as she insisted I and everyone else call her — was one of the very first people I contacted when I began my research on Jim Henson back in 2010.  As a guide at the Jim Henson Boyhood Museum in Leland, she was great at helping me track down All Things Jim Henson in their little town–and as a lifelong resident of Leland, she was also the expert on the history of Leland. Heck, she even wrote a terrific history of the place, charmingly called Leland, Mississippi: From Hell Hole to Beauty Spot.  That was her kind of title.

IMG_6089.jpgHer book on the history of Leland, in fact, was also one of the first I bought when I started researching–I had to grab it from a used book store–and she was genuinely touched that I had purchased it, read it, and even brought it with me for her to sign. When I handed the book over for her sign, she turned to the blank front page, and wrote simply, “to Brian, Dorothy Love Turk.”  When I returned to Leland a year or so later for a Henson-related event, she ran up to me somewhat flustered and apologized for “signing [my] book so badly!”  She said she was so rattled by the idea that anyone would ask her to sign her book that she didn’t know what to write.  That sort of adorable humility was very much part of her charm.

Dot served as my eager tour guide during my time in Leland, introducing me around–having her vouch for me went a long way with the locals–helping me get in touch with some of Jim’s childhood friends, and regaling me with the gossip and town legends that made Leland such a magical place for Jim Henson to spend his early years. They take pretty good care of Jim Henson down there, and it’s thanks in no small part to people like Dot.  She took good care of me, too, and I’ll miss her.

Go Watch Muppet Guys Talking

Muppet-Guys-Talking-the-Muppet-GuysIf you’re a Muppet fan, chances are you’re already anxiously awaiting the release of Muppet Guys Talking, Frank Oz’s documentary of . . . well, Muppet guys talking about life, art, and working with Jim Henson.  And who are the Muppet Guys? They’re Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta. More information — including how you can watch the documentary when it’s released later this week — is available over on muppetguystalking.com.  Go.

While you wait, you might also wanna check out this really wonderful interview with Frank Oz, conducted by those savvy fellas over at Tough Pigs. And I’ve gotta admit: I’m thrilled to be on the receiving end of some first-rate Frank Oz ballbreaking:

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NOTE: I actually love Paul McCartney.

It’s Jim Henson Day!

Okay, maybe it’s really not Jim Henson Day — but it’s Jim’s 81st birthday, so over on Twitter I suggested we make #JimHensonDay a thing.  And really, when the President of the United States is tweeting like a lunatic, all but taunting another country into nuclear war, I figure now is as good a day as any to remind ourselves that there are still a lot of good people and good things going on in the universe — and that Jim, his life, and work remain an inspiration for fun, creativity, and basic decency.

Here’s the string of Twitter posts I put up this morning.  Feel free to comment on what Jim and his work mean to you in the comments — or join the conversation on Twitter on the hashtag #JimHensonDay.

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Go out and do something silly today.  Jim would approve.  Heck, he’d encourage it.

“Too Many Notes”: An Interview, Part I

Back in December, I sat down for an extended interview with a Polish journalist to discuss George Lucas: A Life — but we also talked quite a bit about biography, fandom, choosing subjects for books, and the writing process. The original interview is somewhere on the Interwebz, translated into Polish, so I’m posting it here in three parts, and in English (and if my original interviewer wants me to take it down, please shoot me an e-mail).

Here’s part 1.  I’ll post the next part shortly.

When I went to see your official website I’ve notice these words: Many Bothans Died To Bring You This Website. I immediately thought: he must be a Star Wars fan so George Lucas’s biography is really in good hands. Am I right? Are you a Star Wars fan?

You’re right indeed. I’m Star Wars Generation 1.0. I was nine years old when Star Wars premiered in theaters in May 1977. I was George Lucas’s target audience. It was a film aimed right at me, and I even remember seeing the preview and what an impact it made on me. My brother and I had all the Kenner Star Wars toys, we had posters, bedsheets, trading cards . . . you name it, we probably had it. Since then, I’ve seen every film in the theater. Star Wars is part of my pop culture nerd DNA.

Lucas created a unique phenomenon in pop culture. I know that for many people Star Wars is not a movie, but a way of life. What does this creation mean for you?

As I said, it’s sort of in my own pop culture DNA, too. However, I’m not one of those fans who can name every planet or spaceship, and I’m terrible when it comes to what’s known as the “Expanded Universe.” But I can geek out pretty hard on the original three. For me, Star Wars is fun and familiar. It’s a mythology that we all feel we own a piece of, and we can discuss it and debate it endlessly. That’s all part of the fun.

George Lucas is one of the most iconic names in pop culture. Was there a moment in your process when you thought it might be too difficult of a challenge? Millions of fans around the whole world will probably analyze every detail in your book, and they sometimes can be scary . . . 

Well, fortunately, with Jim Henson, I’d already written about another hugely iconic figure with an equally as devoted fan base, so I knew the dangers of jumping into that particular pool. Still, as I did when writing about Jim Henson, when writing the Lucas book, I’d look at my reflection in the mirror each morning and tell myself “Do NOT mess this up.” Lucas and his work are too important to too many people.

Can you describe your writing process?

I hope people aren’t disappointed when they find out I don’t have some high-tech system for all this – because when it comes to writing and research, I’m horribly analog. I do a lot of archival research, and I still like to make hard copies of everything — whether it’s an interview Lucas did with Starlog in 1980, an article about the SIGGRAPH conference in 1985, or even a Kenner Star Wars toy ad. Then I three-hole-punch the papers and file everything in black binders in my office, usually organized chronologically, though sometimes I do it by topic.

While I’m researching, I type my notes on the laptop, but I still write my chapter outlines in longhand. And then, when I finally write that particular chapter, I write the outline up on a gigantic white dry-erase board so I can see the entire thing, move pieces around, or note other areas I want to make sure I cover.

My process hasn’t really changed all that much over the last decade. It’s horribly messy, I know, and many of my fellow biographers swear by electronic organizers or programs, but it all feels like a forced extra step to me. But as I always tell anyone who’ll listen, the right way to organize your research is the way that works best for you.

Did you meet George Lucas in person when you were writing this book? If yes, can you say something about that situation?

No, I’ve never met him. I’d like to.

I know that readers in Poland would like to know this: Is your Lucas biography only for fans of Star Wars and his other movies? Or maybe normal person who know who he is will also have a blast with that book? Or maybe it is a little bit for both?

It’s for more than just fans of Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Readers might know a little about Lucas, but perhaps not much beyond what he’s done beyond those movies. But Lucas is actually a really big story – he’s the story of modern filmmaking. This book for those who want to know more about the trials and tribulations that go with filmmaking, and how Lucas really kicked down the door for creator-driven films.

It’s also for artists who value the creative process and want to learn how Lucas fought, sometimes painfully, to maintain as much control over his own art as he could. Lucas is all about giving artists what they need to realize their own projects, without interference from meddlers – in Lucas’s case, the Hollywood studios — who, he feels, don’t appreciate the artist.

Finally, it’s also a business manual, about running a company absolutely aligned with your own artistic priorities, investing in yourself and your vision, and resisting the constant appeals to compromise that vision in the name of the bottom line.

I know that sometimes biography books can be boring as hell and you can have an impression that you are reading Wikipedia — that a book can be empty facts without a heart, you know? But your book is different because you read it with fascination. What is for you the most important aspect of biography book? What do want to achieve during your process?

Biography, even more than history and other non-fiction, really needs a great narrative. That often demands great organization of your materials. I often tell aspiring biographers that it’s not just what materials you use, but how you use them. Can you present them in an interesting or dramatic fashion? You don’t want your book to be a textbook or a recitation of facts – that’s a user’s manual, not a biography. What’s the drama in your subject’s life? The humor? The compassion? What did you learn, and how much of yourself will you inject into the narrative? These are all the questions we deal with as we wrestle with telling someone else’s story.

Still, it does amuse me when reviewers and readers complain that a biography or history has “too many facts in it.” That’s almost like the moment in Amadeus when the Emperor complains that an opera has “too many notes.” Just as musical notes are the foundation of opera, facts are the building blocks of biography and non-fiction. I think my job as a biographer is to take those facts and put them in context with each other, see how they relate to the overall story and life we’re telling.

We tend to think of Lucas in silos – “he did Star Wars and then he did Empire Strikes Back and then he did Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but real life is never actually that neat. Lucas was juggling lots of projects all at once all of the time. He was building a company and producing one movie and developing another one, all at the same time. The man is constantly in motion, and I wanted readers to see Lucas in that light.

Up next: The Empire Strikes Back! (yay!) The Star Wars Holiday Special! (yay?)

Buried Treasure

At the beginning of December, after spending nearly fifteen years living in a little town in Maryland — we had taken care of our main task, namely ensuring that our daughter got out into the world safely and successfully — Barb and I sold our old farmhouse in Damascus and moved about 80 miles south to Fredericksburg, Virginia. As you can imagine, packing up fifteen years worth of stuff required digging through every nook and cranny and drawer and box.  Lots of stuff got thrown out — user manuals, old atlases, plenty of random cables that didn’t connect to anything any more — as we made our best effort to simplify and downsize.

That can be tough work for me — I’m notoriously sentimental about things, and I’ve been known to hold onto receipts, guidebooks or business cards for decades. But I vowed to try my best to carefully sort through the countless boxes, bins and files in my office and throw out anything I thought might be considered clutter. And I did pretty well, too — or so I thought.  Imagine my surprise, then, when my wife — who is famously non-sentimental about things — looked at my pile of stuff to go into the trash and said, “Don’t you think you might want to keep that?”

She reached into the pile and pulled out this:

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It was the pile of assorted drafts for Jim Henson: The Biography, going all the way back to my first handwritten notes and outlines from early 2010. It wasn’t everything, but it was some of the earlier versions I’d written, printed out, proofed, then filed away as I moved on to the next draft. I was trying hard to be remarkably stoic about them, but when Barb pulled them out of my pile, I have to admit it I very eagerly put them into a banker’s box, on the side of which I scrawled JIM HENSON in fat black Sharpie.

As a bookend to the story, while unpacking in Fredericksburg, I opened a small wooden box — one I hadn’t actually looked in while packing, and had instead just thrown it into a larger box with some other stuff — and discovered another little bit of buried treasure:

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Much of this predates those early drafts shown above, as this is actually the proposal for the Jim Henson biography, which I was calling at that time, Ridiculous Optimism: The Life of Jim Henson (a title I still like a lot, but I totally understand the need to give it the shorter, clearer title under which it was eventually published). You can see at the top corner I’ve written “March 2010 — Proposal and Chapters Pitched.” The sample chapters, in case you’re interested, were eventually massaged into the much more greatly expanded first two chapters of Jim Henson.

Now flash forward three years or so, and you’ll arrive at the roughly bound book sitting on top of the proposal: the first reading copy of Jim Henson, containing the first round of edits from Ryan Doherty, my editor at Ballantine. This version still had to go through another round of editing and a legal read, and there’s not a single photograph — we were still working through photo clearances with Disney. All of this, too, went into that same banker’s box with the early drafts, with Belloq’s admonition from Raiders of the Lost Ark ringing in my ears: “Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.”

Eighty.

“When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who makes a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave this world a little bit better for my being here.” — Jim Henson

Happy Birthday to Jim Henson, who would have been 80 years old today. Celebrate his life by doing something silly, just because you can. Jim would approve.

Here’s one of my very favorite images of Jim, taken in the late 1980s. This one actually hung in the National Portrait Gallery for a while.

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Have fun today, and think of Jim for a little bit while you do it.

Happy Birthday, Jim. We still miss you.

(d)Evolution of a Workspace

Over the last ten years, I’ve written three books at my desk in my home office in Maryland. Below is the desk where I wrote Washington Irving over the span of just ten months in late 2006- early 2007.

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My office at that time was in a long, narrow upstairs room, just off our bedroom. When we moved into the house, it was an old and unused kitchen (don’t ask). We removed all the old appliances, laid down some vinyl tile, painted the walls blue and brown, pulled some phone line, and moved in a daybed, IKEA bookshelves and an IKEA workbench (with the unfortunate IKEA designation of JERKER). While the room was small, I could keep nearly any reference I needed within arm’s reach on a bookshelf directly behind me (which you can’t see in this photo). as well as on the low shelf just over my computer screen. At that time, I was writing on a Dell desktop, which we bought new just for me to write on, since our main computer was located in a public space in the parlor.

This was a small, cozy set-up, and I actually enjoyed writing here.  Getting Irving done in ten months meant getting up every morning at 5 a.m, writing until about 7:30, then heading for my day job in local government. I’d return here each evening at about 5:30 p.m. and write until 11 — then repeat the next day for the better part of a year. One of the nicest things about this set-up, however, is that from time to time, Madi — who was barely a middle schooler then — would sometimes crawl into the day-bed and fall asleep while I was working in the evenings.

When I began work in earnest on Jim Henson in 2010, it was immediately clear the space in the upstairs office wasn’t large enough to contain all the notebooks, books, and other resources I was using — including a gigantic white board that I was using to map out family trees and outline chapters. So, in the autumn of 2010, I set up an office in our basement, making a desk out of two farm tables pushed into an L-shape in front of the corner fireplace.

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Sorry the photo is blurry–but as you can still see, it got messy in a hurry. Instead of the Dell, I was now working on a desktop Mac, with a gigantic screen that made it easier for me to look at multiple documents on screen at the same time. For 2 1/2 years, all I did was Jim Henson–the elected official I had worked for had opted not to run again in 2010, which permitted me to dedicate myself to Jim full time. As you can imagine, then, this particular corner got messier and messier, and the piles of books and notebooks deeper and deeper.

Forward now to late 2014-early 2016. Initially, I was writing George Lucas in my basement office, sitting at a new, modular L-shaped desk that took up roughly the same footprint as the two farm tables shown above. However, as I began my work on each chapter, I would pull out all the books and notebooks and interviews anything else I needed, and start making piles on my desk–and it was clear that this was book was going to be more than my desk could handle; I simply needed more horizontal surfaces on which to pile and stack and spread out. By mid-2015, I finally took over our dining room table.

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While I’ve got an old MacBook laptop in the middle of things here, I eventually moved my desktop Mac up here as well. And I’ll admit it: while the hardbacked chair is uncomfortable, there are windows on three sides of the room, making this a much warmer and brighter spot in which to write than the basement. It was also much less isolated; while Madi is long gone, the dog would come in and sleep under the table while I worked, and Barb could come in and check on me every now and then.

I was also back at work full time while I wrote this one (working for a different elected official), which could make for some long days. I’m not the early riser I was when I was writing Washington Irving; instead, I would get up around 7 each morning so I could be at work by 9 a.m.–then, once home by 6 p.m., I would immediately sit down to write, stopping for about thirty minutes for dinner with Barb, then write non-stop again until 2:00 a.m. or so . . . then do it all over again the next day.

What I find so interesting about all this is that as the projects got larger and more labor intensive, my workspace seemed to get less and less formal. While I’m one of those writers who likes a dedicated space for writing (like Washington Irving, I love cozy writing rooms), what I found as time went on is that I preferred a less formal, more spacious, and much less secluded writing area.  Not that it made things any less messy.