Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones

If you love the Muppets, as I do, here's a good book for you.  At about 500 pages, this is a thorough biography, but it does not drag; Jim Henson lived a full life in his 53 years.  This book is especially fun to read in tandem with Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal.  In addition to combing through archival material, Brian Jay Jones spoke with people close to Henson both personally and professionally.

Born in 1936, Jim Henson grew up in Mississippi through his early teens, and then his family moved to Maryland. He plunged into puppetry at age 18 by answering a television station's job posting. His future collaborator, head writer Jerry Juhl, explains, "Jim wasn't a puppeteer.  He got into puppetry because it was a way of getting into television and film . . . that was really his passion" (109).  As it turned out, of course, he was talented in both the design and performance of puppets.

At the same time, he enrolled at the University of Maryland and studied design.  He met Jane Nebel in a college puppetry class, and recruited her to work with him as a puppeteer for the television station.  They would later marry and have five talented children:  Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather.  Jim and Jane had a hit segment with Sam and Friends, and Jim also produced television commercials. They moved to New York in early 1963, and soon settled in a house in Greenwich, CT.  Jane, though having cofounded her husband's company, did not continue performing.  Jim's recruit Frank Oz "thought he understood why Jane had gotten out of regular performing, for reasons that went beyond motherhood.  'A great puppeteer needs to be aggressive and selfish,' Oz said--qualities, he thought, the artsier Jane lacked" (115).

We learn about Henson's first characters, including which Muppets appeared early on.   Although Kermit was the first of the Muppet characters to be conceived, Rowlf first resonated with audiences as a strong character through his appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show.  Kermit started as a turquoise puppet that wasn't any particular animal.  "'We frogified him,' Jim said later, only slightly lamenting the loss of the abstraction.  'He just slowly became a frog'" (93).  Jim explained about Kermit that he "is the closest one to me.  He's the easiest to talk with.  He's the only one who can't be worked by anybody else, only by me.  See, Kermit is just a piece of cloth with a mouthpiece in it.  The character is literally my hand" (163).

Ernie and Bert were the premier characters Henson came up with for the children's television show Sesame Street in 1969.  Says Frank Oz, who took over Bert, "The design was so simple and pure and wonderful.  You had somebody who is all vertical and somebody who is all horizontal'" (143).  Said Henson of Sesame Street, "Kids love to learn, and the learning should be exciting and fun.  That's what we're out to do" (167).

The Muppet Show, pitched to major networks in the U.S., ultimately was funded by Lew Grade, who approached Henson to produce the program for his ATV Associated Television franchise in the UK.  The show lasted for five seasons consisting of 120 episodes which were first broadcast in Britain between 1976 and 1981.  The show was recorded at ATV's Elstree Studios just north of London.  Henson split his time between the two countries, establishing the Creature Shop in London in addition to his company headquarters in New York City.  Some tension grew between the two locations' employees, who sought Henson's attention and approval.

1979's The Muppet Movie was a hit, and created the demand for future movies starring the Muppets.  Henson was more interested after the first Muppet movie in exploring other creative visions.  His movie projects The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Jones posits, suffered from sacrificing story for visuals, which were what Henson was really interested in.  Indeed, he said, "I guess I've always been most intrigued by what can be done with the visual image.  I feel that is what is strongest about the work I do " (331-32).

Although The Dark Crystal made a good profit, for Henson "it was about vision and inspiration, and the fact that audiences didn't or couldn't appreciate it hurt him terribly" (348).  He explained that The Dark Crystal "was a huge undertaking--a vision I had, and one which ultimately has helped to carry our art form to a more sophisticated and technically advanced stage.  The most important thing, however, is to love what you're doing and to go after those visions, no matter where they lead" (351).

Labyrinth, however, only grossed $12 million on its $25 million budget.  Said Henson, "I was stunned and dazed for several months trying to figure out what went wrong--where I went wrong" (390).  "Labyrinth was 'absolutely the closest thing to him,' said Jane, the one in which he had invested most of his creative capital--and to have audiences reject it felt to Jim like they were rejecting him personally" (391).  It seems, though, that these two movies have gained greater appreciation from viewers over time.

Henson did not much separate his work life from his personal life.  He said, "I love my work and because I enjoy it, it doesn't really feel like work.  Thus I spend most of my time working" (291).  He found most of his expressiveness through his work as well:  "I live kind of within myself as a person, so my outlet has always been the Muppets; therefore, I tend to do sort of wildly extroverted characters" (163).  His marriage to Jane apparently suffered from a lack of communication on his part.  Their marriage would crumble into a separation, but despite this and the fact that Jim then dated a lot, a bond remained between them.

Sadly, John Henson, Jim's fourth child, died of a heart attack two days ago, on February 14, 2014.  He was 48 years old.  John was also a puppeteer and performed the ogre Sweetums following the death of Richard Hunt in 1991. He served as a shareholder and board member of The Jim Henson Company.  His mother, Jane Henson, died less than a year ago, in April, 2013, of cancer at age 78.

Jim Henson had an interest in spirituality and possessed faith in goodness and all things being interconnected.  He embraced optimism as a guiding principle in his life.  "Simply, Jim Henson's greatest legacy will always be Jim himself:  the way he was, and the way he encouraged and inspired others to be--the simple grace and soft-spoken dignity he brought to the world . . . as well as his faith in a greater good that he believed he and his fellow inhabitants of the globe were capable of" (487).

I like that the book's blurb about the author includes:  "His favorite Muppet is Rowlf (thanks for asking)."  Mine is Janice.  Which Muppet is your favorite?


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