Saturday, September 24, 2016

Puppeteer extraordinary

‘I love it!. I’ve always enjoyed cars - and I enjoy being in love with my car.’ This is the famous US puppeteer, Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, not least Kermit the Frog, writing in his rather sparse journal about a brand-new Kermit-green Lotus given him by a UK TV impresario. Henson would have been 80 today had he not been struck down in his early 50s by a sudden illness - but his company, involving most of his children, continues to flourish, as do Kermit and other Muppets.

Henson was born in the US state of Mississippi, about 100km north of Jackson, on September 24, 1936, and raised as a Christian Scientist. His family moved to University Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s. While still attending school, he began working for a television company making puppets for a children’s programme. At the University of Maryland, he began studying art but switched to home economics which allowed him to study craft and textiles. For WRC-TV, he created a five-minute puppet show, Sam and Friends, in which he introduced Muppet characters, including Kermit the Frog. Henson travelled in Europe for a while, where he was inspired by the way puppetry could be seen as an art form; and, on returning to the US, he married Jane Nebel. They would go on to have five children.

Henson stayed with WRC until 1961. The popularity of Sam and Friends meant Henson was in demand as a guest on talk shows and his puppets were in demand for commercials. In 1963, he moved with Jane to New York City where they set up Muppets Inc. Henson started experimenting with making his own films; around the same time one of his Muppets, Rowlf, began making regular appearances on a networked programme, The Jimmy Dean Show. In 1969, Henson and his team were invited to work full-time on Sesame Street, a public television programme that would soon revolutionise children’s television. Apart from creating and performing the puppets, Henson was also involved in producing the programmes. 

During the 1970s, Henson’s team expanded to provide more adult entertainment, providing sketches for the groundbreaking comedy series Saturday Night Live. But, in 1976, rebuffed by American television companies for his idea of an adult variety show in solving Muppets, he moved his team to London, where Lew Grade, at ATV, was far more enthusiastic. The resulting programme - The Muppet Show - was a huge success, ran for five series and spawned several films: The Muppet Movie was the first film to feature puppets interacting with humans in real-world locations.

In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. That same year, his non-Muppet film, The Dark Crystal, co-directed with his colleague Frank Oz, who he had first recruited as a puppet performer in 1963, was a financial and critical success. However, a few years later, the Henson-directed Labyrinth was considered a commercial failure (later, though, it became a cult classic). Henson and Jane separated but remained close, as did their children who also worked with the Muppets. Other films followed, and a TV series, The Jim Henson Hour, and Henson was on the cusp of selling his firm to The Walt Disney Company for $150m when he died suddenly in 1990 from toxic shock syndrome. Further biographical details are available from The Jim Henson Company, Wikipedia,, or ADC.

Henson was no diarist, but he did keep brief handwritten notes for much of his life in a journal book. This was published for the first time in 2012 by Chronicle Books as Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal (and some pages can previewed at Googlebooks or Amazon). In the book, the short, brief entries have been supplemented hugely with illustrations put together by Karen Falk. In a foreword, Lisa Henson, Jim Henson’s oldest child, says: ‘The great profusion of images, titles, and characters that [Falk] has used to illustrate my father’s journal is a wonderful way to capture Jim’s very busyness - his wildly creative mind.’

Henson’s diary has also been used by Brian Jay Jones in his recent biography - Jim Henson: The Biography (Virgin Books, 2013). The New York Times called it ‘an exhaustive work that is never exhausting, a credit both to Jones’s brisk style and to Henson’s exceptional life’; but it also cautioned: ‘As strong as Jones is on Henson’s career, the man himself often remains out of sight, crouched just below the frame.’ Henson’s diary is referenced many dozens of time through the book, but most quotes from it are just two or three words long - reflecting the brevity of Henson’s diary entries. Most of verbatim quotes are embedded in Jones’s text, as in “Mom passed on,” he confided in his journal’ or ‘ “Received EMMY,” Jim wrote in his journal’. There are, though, a handful of slightly longer quotes (none dated), as follows:

‘My work schedule here is extremely full, [. . .] Work days usually start when I get up and go late into the evenings - shooting days end at 8 p.m. and often I’m meeting someone for dinner - business mostly. I go to ATV virtually every day . . . weekends I drop by the editing and sound dubbing.’

‘I don’t resent the long work time - I shouldn’t - I’m the one who set my life up this way - but I love to work. It’s the thing that I get the most satisfaction out of - and probably what I do best. Not that I don’t enjoy days off - I love vacations and loafing around. But I think much of the world has the wrong idea of working - it’s one of the good things in life - the feeling of accomplishment is more real and satisfying than finishing a good meal or looking at one’s accumulated wealth.’

‘Last night, I met the Queen of England - to dah!’ [At a Royal Variety Performance.]

‘I love it!. I’ve always enjoyed cars - and I enjoy being in love with my car.’ [On a brand-new Kermit-green Lotus with a license plate reading kermit given to him by Lord Grade.]

‘I really had a delightful time working on the concept - and talking it over with Cheryl - and it all gelled during that time, so that I’m quite happy with the way it has begun taking shape.’ [About The Dark Crystal.]

‘I’m trying to create this film in a different way, hoping to get all the creative elements going on it for a while before tying things down with a script.’ [About The Dark Crystal.]

‘It’s such a wonderful challenge to try to design an entire world ... like no one has ever seen before.’ [About The Dark Crystal.]

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