Tag Archives: Muppets

Remembering John Henson

GTY_sweetums_john_henson_split_ss_jt_140216_2x1_992I was shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of Jim Henson’s son John Paul Henson this past Valentine’s Day at the age of 48 — too damn young, too damn soon. Apparently he’d been out in the snow near his home in Saugerties, New York, building an igloo with his daughter when he suffered a massive heart attack. My heart goes out to his wife Gyongyi, his daughters Katrina and Sydney, and the entire Henson family–as well as to the Jim Henson organization, where they really do still think of each other as family.

I had the great pleasure of getting to know John, at least a little bit, while I was researching Jim Henson: The Biography, and found him to be a really beautiful guy. I traveled up to visit him at his home in Saugerties, where he met me at the train station in his pickup truck. He was listening to Sirius radio–and though he had the volume all the way down as we talked, I could see the channel display read HOWARD 100 — the Howard Stern channel. John saw me noticing, reddened for a moment, and started to change the station. I laughed and said, “Hey, I’m a fan, too.” It was a good start.

While John was an experienced puppeteer, he was actually a different kind of artist, and whatever he touched — he was a metalworker, carpenter, electrician, pipe fitter — he made that medium sing. As a younger man, he had built the elaborate Muppet mobile “The Great Hot Air Balloon Circus,” which gleamed and twirled in the four-story atrium wrapped by the spiral staircase in the Muppet headquarters at One Seventeen.

And he loved renovating, restoring, and redesigning buildings. He was especially proud of all the properties in Saugerties that he had either renovated or was in the process of restoring, and we spent much of the afternoon driving around town to look at them, tromping around in rooms with no roof or kitchens with no appliances–everything was a work in progress.  He took a special delight in the HVAC work he had done in an old hospital he had purchased overlooking the river: every pipe was perfectly aligned with the next, snaking tightly from the walls and ceiling into the central box in a geometric pattern. I can’t exactly explain why it was beautiful; it just was. He had the same design sense as his father; everything had to be interesting, and finished, and fun to look at.

He proudly gave me a tour of his home–a renovated early 1900s schoolhouse, complete with a ringing bell in the cupola on the roof. He had purchased the place  in 1981 or so, and had only just completed the renovations. “A project thirty years in the making!” he told me, laughing.  And it showed. Again, everything was interesting to look at, and not a spare square foot had been wasted; John snuck secret corridors between rooms, snaked rope lights into sculpture under the eaves, and navigated much of the house by catwalk. It was whimsical and wonderful, and very much John’s own unique sense of space and design.

I had dinner that evening with him and his family–and they were all as charming and delightful as you might expect–then John and I retired to his enormous workshop at one end of the house, so I could interview him (with its gigantic and loud ventilation fan, the workshop, John explained somewhat sheepishly, was the only room in the house where he could smoke!) As the fan whirred like a jet engine — and as I hoped against hope that one of the two digital recorders I had placed near John would pick up his voice over the clatter of the fan* — we talked long into the evening. John was deliberate and thoughtful, tilting his head slightly to one side as he considered his answers.

He was also a very spiritual, almost ethereal, gentleman. He genuinely believed in guardian angels; he would never have survived his high-speed automobile crash in his twenties without one, he said. His absolute faith in the belief that there was someone, something, out there watching over us was one of his most endearing qualities. He was sure his dad was there waiting for him–for everyone–wherever he might be.

Jim Henson’s biography was that much better–dare I say that much more beautiful–for having had John’s unique voice in it. I’m glad I got to know him, even just a little.

__________

* Thankfully, one of them did.

Behind The Scenes: The Prologue

One of the sections of Jim Henson that readers seem to enjoy the most — at least as far as I can determine from my very unscientific assessment of things — is the book’s prologue. Under the chapter title “Blue Sky,” it’s a behind-the-scenes look at this classic moment from Sesame Street, when a little girl named Joey sings the ABCs with Kermit the Frog:

love that people love this prologue — and it might surprise you to know that the very first thing you read in the book is actually one of the very last things I wrote for it.  I wrote the current prologue so late in the process, in fact, that if you were one of those readers who received an Advance Review Copy (ARC), you actually got a book that had a different prologue in it.

My editor Ryan and I knew we wanted to open the book in media res — the moment you started reading, we wanted you to see Jim already successful and working and being creative, and doing all those things that made him Jim Henson. We talked about some places in the manuscript where a quick story or vignette might be fleshed out into a slightly longer opening piece, and I made a long list of several good moments in the book where, while writing the manuscript, I wished I’d had just a little more time and space to give to a particular story. After much consideration, we decided to go with a slightly-less known moment–at least for casual fans–from the 1960s, when Jim and the Muppet team decided to paint the pipes in his dressing room at NBC while waiting to appear with Jack Paar. You can see Frank Oz talking all about those pipes–now preserved and built into the NBC Studio tour– fifty years later, in this clip:

Oz used the term “affectionate anarchy,” and I loved the phrase so much–it’s such a perfect way to sum up the Muppet mentality–that I put it at the top of the opening chapter. And that was how the ARCs went out in early 2013 — with a prologue about the Muppet pipes called “Affectionate Anarchy.” And it stayed that way for quite a while.

Then, in the late Spring, Ryan called to go over some final edits and review photo credits—and while we were talking, he brought up the prologue. “Everyone here loves the book,” he said in his usual diplomatic manner, “but a few people have mentioned they’d like to see Muppets in the prologue. While I still think what we have is great, do you wanna take a stab at another one and we can see what we think?”

That actually sounded fine to me.  Two years earlier, even before I had written a single word of Jim Henson, I had always pictured his biography opening with him working on the labor-intensive opening scene of The Muppet Movie, sinking himself in a makeshift bathysphere to perform Kermit from underwater. I had even tried writing just such an opening, but hadn’t been happy with the first few drafts.  This seemed like a good opportunity to go back and work on it again.

I wrote and rewrote for a week, but after several more drafts, it still wasn’t coming together. It was too big and ambitious and technical; I needed something warmer and more intimate. So I decided to start over, looking down my list of Muppet moments, and decided to expand on one that I particularly loved–the ABC Cookie Monster bit–which took up only about a page in the ARC.

The chapter’s title actually came right away, courtesy of a story told to me by Sesame Street performer Fran Brill who, during one of our phone interviews, told me of director Jon Stone and others calling out “blue sky!” when a child was on the set, reminding staff to watch their mouths. I loved that; it was such a warm image for Sesame Street — after all, wouldn’t one of Sesame Street‘s famous “sunny days” have a blue sky?–and it seemed a perfect way to begin.

I wrote the prologue over two days—a slow pace to be sure.  I sent it off to Ryan, who smartly excised one line near the end, then sent me one of his typically concise e-mails: “This is perfect.” I don’t know about that, but I do like it.

Henson-pipesOne last thing: with the new prologue in place, I now had to find a new photo to use at the top of the chapter. In the original ARC, I had planned on using a photo of the Muppet pipes — probably something like the photo at right — but with the new prologue, I would have to look for something new.  There were no photos of Jim performing the ABC sketch with Joey; about the best I could do was a screen grab. Without that, then, what I really wanted was a photo of Jim getting ready to perform—preparing to bring a character to life simply by putting it on the end of his arm, which is one of the themes of the prologue.

JimandKermitonLapInitially, I wanted to go with the photo at the left — it’s Jim with Kermit draped across his lap, miked up and waiting to perform, probably not on Sesame Street, but it makes the point.  When it came time to clear the image, however, Disney wouldn’t allow its use, informing me that they didn’t permit photos of “dead” Muppets.  I argued that that was precisely my point — that Kermit is dead until Jim puts him on–but despite the help of a sympathetic archivist at The Walt Disney Company, I had to scuttle this particular image and look for another. If you’ve got the book, you can see the image I eventually chose (you actually don’t have to look much further than the top of this blog, where you’ll see Jim squatting with Kermit on his arm).

So there you have it.  If you’re one of those readers who has an ARC of Jim Henson: The Biography, and are wondering if there’s anything significantly different between the ARC and the final product, you’ll find it in the first few pages.

A Today Show Update

UnknownOkay, I have it on good authority that the Today show segment will air tomorrow — Tuesday, October 15 — during the eight o’clock hour.

And while I haven’t seen the segment — and won’t until everyone else does — I can tell you that you’ll see Frank Oz in it.  So that should be enough, really, for you to wanna tune in.

Set  your DVRs now. Or not. I’m not the boss of you.

 

What a Week!

I was up late last night, doing The Jim Bohannon Show live in studio from downtown Washington, DC. I’m a fan from way back — when I was working as the night editor of my college newspaper back in the late 1980s, I would come back to my dorm room in the early morning hours and listen to him when he was sitting in for Larry King — and it was lot of fun to talk Jim Henson with him for a full hour.  If you missed it, the entire show is available right here (you’ll have to forward to the appropriate spot — I don’t come in until after the first hour.) It was such a good time, in fact, that I hardly minded getting snarled in traffic as I made my way out of Georgetown on a Friday night.

That was the exclamation point on a fun and exhausting week.  I spent most of Thursday and Friday on the phone doing interviews for places like Chicago, Wisconsin, Mississippi, and New Mexico — some of which I’ll link to when they’re posted, if you’d like to listen — and so far, I’ve managed to keep my voice and haven’t faded into a Bill Clintonesque rasp.  So far.

As advertised here earlier, I also had the pleasure of taking about Jim on The Diane Rehm Show (also taped right here in DC), with a generous assist from Dave Goelz, who phoned in from California.  To my delight (I’m easily thrilled), I even got to wear headphones while sitting in the studio, and only got a slight stare from guest host Susan Page when I did my Ringo Starr impression and asked it they could “turn  it down in my cans a bit.”

Anyway, if you missed me — and Dave — on Diane Rehm, you can listen to the show right here.

Finally, on Wednesday morning, I was pleased to be included in a piece on CBS This Morning about the Henson family’s donation of 20 Muppets to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  Miss it? Here you go.

All in all, it’s been a terrific week — and the coming week will be even busier (and just as much fun) as I make the trip to New York for talks at the Museum of the Moving Image on October 1, and the 92Y on October 2. If you’re in New York, come on by. It’ll be fun. I promise.

High Society and “Tough” Talk

A couple of events for you to put on your calendar, if you’re in New York the week of October 7 (yes, I know I seem to be in New York a lot — I’ll be posting a few non-Big Apple venues here shortly).

6a00d83453b09469e20133f58e2bf6970b-400wiOn Thursday, October 10, I’ll be speaking at one of my favorite places in New York, the New York Society Library. I had the privilege of talking about Washington Irving here a few years ago (wow, was it really five years ago now?) and it’s a great room in a great building, in an organization that’s got some seriously cool history. I’ll be speaking in the Members Room, starting at 6:30 p.m. This is a ticketed event, open to the public. And it should be fun.

nycc-panel-posterThe next evening, on October 11, I’m delighted to be taking part in a panel at the New York ComiCon, hosted, moderated, and put together by Joe Hennes and Ryan Roe over at ToughPigs. Officially titled “Tough Pigs Presents: Jim Henson: The Biography: The Panel” (yeah, I see what you did there, Joe), we’re bringing along three special guests to sit on a panel with me to discuss Jim’s life and work: Muppet designer Bonnie Erickson, Henson Company archivist Karen Falk, and Sesame Street performer Fran Brill, who I’m thrilled to at last be meeting in person.  This is yet another panel with a really deep bench when it comes to Jim Henson and the Muppets — heck, even the moderators are experts.  So, if you’re at ComiCon and wanna learn more about Jim Henson, the Muppets, the Muppet performers, or any number of his projects, we’ll be in Room 1A01 at the Javits Center, starting at 7:45 p.m.  Join us, won’t you? Thank you.

The Book Trailer for Jim Henson: The Biography

A great job by the fine folks at Random House. My thanks also to the Jim Henson Legacy for the great behind-the-scenes footage, and to Sesame Workshop and Puppeteers of America for the assist.

UPDATE: The video is down for a moment for a technical fix. It’ll be back shortly.

UPDATE (3:30 p.m.) Okay, it’s back up, at a slightly new URL. Click on the image above for the new one.

Do Not Adjust Your Set…

Here’s the announcement I’ve been waiting to make for a while, but I wanted to wait until it officially showed up in my own TV listings.  Which it finally did last night on my snazzy Verizon FiOs DVR:

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On the same morning Jim Henson is published, I’ll be on The Today Show to talk all about Jim, some time (so I’m told) between 7 and 9 a.m. That’s pretty freaking cool in itself — and I’m both excited and a bit nervous about it — but what this listing doesn’t tell you is who’ll also be sitting with me to talk about Jim Henson . . . someone who knows quite a lot about Jim and the Muppets.

It’s this guy, right here. MV5BMTI1NTM4ODA0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwODMxMjQ0._V1._SY314_CR6,0,214,314_

Yup. It’s FRANK OZ.

If you’re writing it down, it’s The Today Show on NBC on September 24.  Check your local listings for the right time. You won’t want to miss this one because, come on, IT’S FRANK OZ.

Book Launch, Radio, Reviews, and More . . .

I’m a virtual plethora of information today. Ready? Here we go…

MOMI-logo-176x176-72dpiFirst, the official book launch for Jim Henson will be on October 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Working with the Jim Henson Legacy, there’ll be a panel discussion about Jim Henson and his work, featuring me, Muppet performer Fran Brill, Henson Company archivist Karen Falk, Dwight Bowers of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and MOMI curator Barbara Miller.  That’s a deep bench of folks well-versed in Jim and the Muppets, so this should be a lot of fun–especially as the panel is moderated by Craig Shemin, current president of the Jim Henson Legacy (and an ace in Jim’s story as well) who’s bringing rare video, along with a beautiful new print of Jim’s 1965 experimental film Time Piece.

The event starts at 7 p.m., and when that’s done, I’ll be signing books–and, as this is a ticketed event, thanking everyone profusely for coming–until they close the place down.

Why the MOMI? Not only did the museum recently host the exhibition Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, but the Henson family recently donated hundreds of puppets and artifacts, which will serve as a permanent exhibit–housed in their very own gallery, courtesy of the support of  The City of New York–starting in early 2015. It’s sort of Jim’s home away from home.

More information on the museum and the event can be found right here.  And don’t worry, while the launch event is October 1, the book is still coming out on September 24. Promise.

UnknownSecond, on Wednesday, September 25 — the day after the book comes out — I’ll be live in studio to talk Jim with guest host Susan Page on The Diane Rehm Show. And if that weren’t exciting enough, we’ll be joined by Muppet performer Dave Goelz.

Yup.

DAVE.

GOELZ.

So okay, you say — those are two cool events, but neither takes place on September 24, when the book is published.  True enough.  I have something else in store for that day — with another special guest. But more on that as we get closer to Tuesday the 24th.

Third: The fine folks at ToughPigs — who are nearly Kirkus-like  in their take-no-prisoners, call it like they see it assessments of Muppet- and Jim-related products — reviewed Jim Henson: The Biography . . . and liked it. A lot. I’ll let you go read the entire thing yourself, but here’s a taste:

“[T]he sheer amount of information, both new and old, in this book is simply staggering . . .  Jim Henson: The Biography is the most complete record of Jim’s history that I’ve ever seen, which is completely relatable to all sorts of Muppet fans . . . This is a must-buy.”

My thanks to Joe Hennes at ToughPigs for the kind words.

Finally, nods to Jim are showing up on all sorts of wonderful and unexpected places.  There was this nice little piece in Hemispheres–the magazine you find in your seat back on United Airlines flights–as well as this full-pager in Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine. Additionally, look later on this month for Jim Henson to show up in Vanity Fair, Real Simple, and over on Parade.com.

Fourteen Days

We’re now a mere two weeks away from publication day for Jim Henson, so I thought I’d give you a peek at these, which arrived on my doorstep a few days ago:

IMG_0484

It’s a box of books!

That’s the front cover on the right, and on the left, the back cover in its entirety: a full cover shot of Jim amid a sea of Muppets. The photo on the back wraps onto the spine, in fact, so that when you set a few books on end . . . well, here you go:

564411_10201756640979179_1186018738_n

For some reason, I’m particularly delighted that there’s an alarmed T.R. Rooster staring straight out at you.

IMG_0485Finally, to the right, here’s a peek inside at the top of the same chapter I showed you back here. See? I told you there’d be a photo there.  In fact, in addition to the chapter headers, there are two photo inserts in here, and they look great.  I’m really pleased with the way everything turned out.

Oh, and as a nice little bonus and clever tip of the hat: if you take the dust jacket off, the book is bound in a nearly perfect Kermit green.

Meanwhile, kind words and encouraging reviews continue to trickle in.  I’ll send a few of them your way tomorrow. Until then, thank you, everyone, for your enthusiasm. Your wait is nearly over. It’ll be worth it. I promise.

Truro Daydreams

Jerry Nelson with Count Von Count.

Jerry Nelson with Count Von Count.

It was a year ago this week that we lost the wonderful Jerry Nelson — and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a little something about him before the week was through.

I interviewed Jerry Nelson–the Muppet performer behind The Count, Gobo Fraggle, Snuffleupagus, Emmet Otter, and so many others–late in the process for Jim Henson — on February 29, 2012, when I was a little more than  halfway through writing the book. That wasn’t intentional; the two of us had been e-mailing back and forth for nearly a year, but we were just having a really hard time making our schedules match up.  We were finally able to  line up our calendars–in person, no less–at the Jim Henson Legacy’s winter party in December 2011, where Karen Falk grabbed my arm and whispered, “Jerry’s here!” and steered me over to him. We spoke just a little bit at that time, but we both wrote down February 29 on our calendars as the date I would come up to Jerry’s home in Truro, Massachusetts, to interview him.

February 29 — a Wednesday — turned out to be one of those bitter cold winter days we do so well here in the Atlantic corridor, and as my plane flew into Boston from Baltimore, I was checking the weather forecast regularly. After arriving in Boston, I’d still have to drive down to the tip of Cape Cod, nearly two hours away, and I didn’t want a snowstorm forcing us to abort our meeting. Still, I had rented a large four-wheel drive SUV in case I needed to navigate snow and ice — if it did snow, I was going to get as close to Truro as I could get.

As it turned out, the weather for the drive down was fine, but it was snowing lightly as I pulled into the long driveway of Jerry’s quaint Cape Cod home a little before noon.  I made my way down the path toward the house, and Jerry welcomed me inside in that warm voice all Muppets fans know so well.

Jerry wasn’t well — when I met him at the Legacy event, he was in a wheelchair, but that was mostly so it was easier to push around the oxygen tank that he needed to make breathing easier as he battled emphysema. Here at home, however, he had attached a long length of breathing tube to the oxygen tank, so he could walk around his home slowly, but freely, dragging sixty feet of tube behind him as he moved from room to room. He was proud of his house–he’d been there a long time–and for a while we swapped stories about the fun and headaches of maintaining old houses.

Eventually, however, we settled in the kitchen, seated on stools and facing each other across the kitchen counter. As Jerry made coffee and toasted bagels, we talked not only about Jim Henson, but Richard Hunt, Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, and so many others  now long gone. He showed me photos of him and Jim at Disneyland, and unrolled a copy of “Floyd’s Lament”, a poem he had written shortly after Jim’s death. He talked openly about his daughter, Christine, who died of complications from cystic fibrosis, and of his own struggles with alcohol–and also, notably, of his pride in his contributions to Sesame Street and in a CD of his own music he had completed in 2009, Truro Daydreams. Through it all, Jerry was forthright and honest, taking his time to consider each question carefully, and answering thoughtfully. It couldn’t have been comfortable for him to talk for the four hours we spoke, and yet he gave me his time freely and without question. When I offered to wrap things up early out of concern he might be getting tired, he waved me off. No, no, he told me. “I want to talk about The Guys.”

As I wrapped things up and prepared to leave around four that afternoon, snow was starting to come down in big, thick flakes. I shook Jerry’s hand, thanked him for his time, and told him how happy I was that the weather hadn’t gotten in our way. He smiled and looked at the snow falling outside the window. “You’ll make it back to Boston okay,” he told me with the sureness of one who knows the local weather. “Thanks for letting me talk about Jim and The Guys.” As I walked back down the front path, he waved from the door. “Let me know when the book comes out,” he said. “I can’t wait to read it.”

We didn’t arrange a time to meet again–for I think Jerry somehow knew that was the last interview he would give. Six months later, Jerry Nelson died at age 78.

IMG_0477Jim Henson’s biography comes out in four weeks. While Jerry never got to read it, it wouldn’t be the book it is without him, and I’m so grateful for the time I had with him. Every morning, when I drink my coffee–out of a mug with The Count on it, no less–I always think of standing in his cozy kitchen, sipping coffee, eating bagels, and listening to Jerry Nelson talk all about The Guys as the snow drifted slowly down outside his Truro window.