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Book Review - Jim Henson: The Biography

Fred Patten digs into the definitive biography of the genius behind the Muppets.

Book Review - Jim Henson: The Biography

Jim Henson: The Biography

Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones.

NYC, Ballantine Books, September 2013, hardcover $35.00 (xiv + 585 [+ 3] pages), Kindle $11.99.

Whew!  Frankly, this is more information than I ever wanted to know about Jim Henson (1936-1990), the creator of the Muppets.  But for those who do want to know all about Kermit the frog, Miss Piggy, the Cookie Monster, Bert & Ernie, Rowlf the dog, Big Bird, the dozens of other Muppets, and the man who created them, here it is.  Inextricably included is much of the story of Sesame Street, the award-winning Children’s Television Workshop TV program that the Muppets were so much a part of.

Technically, this book should not be reviewed here.  This is about puppetry, not animation at all.  But Henson’s Muppets came the closest to the magic of animation, as far as the public was concerned.  The same audiences who regularly watched The Wonderful World of Disney (under its many names) on television and went to every animated theatrical feature, also went to all of the Muppet movies.  So it seems fitting to review Jim Henson: The Biography here.

Jim Henson: The Biography is much more than a brief overview of Henson and his puppets.  This is undoubtedly their definitive story.  It was written with the complete cooperation of the Henson family and access to the family’s records, and lengthy interviews with Jim Henson’s partners and staff, and others whom he worked with over the years (some of whom, notably Frank Oz, have become stars in their own right); and all of the details are here.  Jim Henson himself does not even enter the story until his birth on page 11.

Henson began his career with puppets, and will always be considered by the public as primarily a puppeteer.  He created his first Muppets (he had coined the term in 1954) barely out of high school in 1955 for a local Hyattsville, Maryland TV station’s variety program.  But this biography makes it clear that puppetry was always a means to an end for him.  “‘All the time I was in school, I didn’t take puppetry seriously,’ Jim said.  ‘I mean, it didn’t seem to be the sort of thing a grown man works at for a living.’  Rather, it was a placeholder until a better opportunity came along.  Just as an aspiring college journalist might take a summer job writing obituaries hoping that the experience and connections will lead to a permanent, proper press job, so, too, did Jim continue to view the Muppets as a preface to what he considered a real job in television, whether it was art and stage design, direction, or production.  ‘I had assumed at that point that I would probably end up in scenic design or advertising art,’ he said.” (p. 55)  “‘Jim wasn’t a puppeteer,’ Juhl [Jerry Juhl, Henson’s first employee and assistant puppeteer] stressed.  ‘He got into puppetry because it was a way of getting into television and film … that was really his passion.’” (p. 109)  He experimented with avant-garde filmmaking and even innovative nightclub design during his career.  But his imaginative puppetry always paid the bills – in TV advertisements at the start, then in brief acts in others’ local and then national news and variety shows, and finally in his own TV programs and motion pictures.  By then it was too late to expect any career outside of bigger, better, and more innovative puppetry.

The public knows Sesame Street and The Muppet Show on TV, the Muppet movies, and Henson’s other major productions:  Fraggle Rock and The Jim Henson Hour on TV, and theatrically The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.  But there were many other projects and programs at the beginning of Henson’s career, like cartoons published in the Christian Science Monitor during his childhood, his first TV puppetry for segments of Maryland local variety programs like Afternoon and Sam and Friends, and later guest spots on national TV programs like The Jimmy Dean Show and The Mike Douglas Show.

There were the many television commercials with puppets that evolved into his Muppet cast.  Henson could do this because he always retained ownership of everything that he created.  “Things got off to a shady start when the Young & Rubicam ad firm, representing Frito-Lay, sent over a contract adding a clause to take ownership of any characters created for the ads.  ‘This is completely wrong,’ Jim scrawled in his looping cursive on a note stapled to the contract.  ‘We always insist on ownership of the characters.’  Never sell anything I own, Jim had warned [talent agent Bernie] Brillstein six years earlier – and he still meant it, even if it meant scuttling a relationship with a client.  The offending clause was removed, and Jim would shoot three commercials for Munchos, memorable mostly for their antagonist: a snack-eating monster that Jim had originally created for an unaired ad campaign for General Foods back in 1966.” (pgs. 135-136)  The potato-chip-eating monster later evolved into Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster.

“Still, Jim was looking for a major project – something larger than scattered one-hour specials, psychedelic nightclubs, or experimental films.” (p. 135)  These included the many projects that were aborted, like the Cyclia nightclub, and the experimental short films like Youth 68 that were critical successes but that the public never heard of.  After Sesame Street in 1969, there were still projects like the Jim Henson Presents one-hour TV specials, the creation of The Creature Shop to build up a staff of puppeteers that would continue between projects, Henson’s feud with children’s book author Roald Dahl over the filming of Dahl’s fantasy novel The Witches, and the negotiations for the sale of Henson Associates to the Walt Disney Company that were brought to a screeching temporary halt by the unexpected, tragic death of Jim Henson in May 1990.

Jim Henson’s personal life is covered all through this.  All in all, the book includes 8 plates of photographs, 490 pages of biography, 5 pages of acknowledgements, 58 pages of notes, a select bibliography of 3 pages, and an index from page 559 to 585. 

Jim Henson was undoubtedly a genius.  What does seem bemusing are the many accounts of his genius, and his talent for winning strangers over to him immediately.  One of the features of the early Sam and Friends was the lip-synching of Henson’s Muppets to comedy records, without permission.  “Stan Freberg, in fact, admitted that he had been irritated when he learned his records were being used without attribution or recompense, and went storming down to WRC in April 1957 to issue a personal cease and desist.  Once he had the opportunity to actually see Jim and Jane perform, however, Freberg melted – and shortly thereafter sent the two an enthusiastic telegram with his blessings.  ‘I take it all back,’ gushed Freberg.  ‘This is one of the greatest acts I have ever seen [and I] am honored to let you use my records for ever and longer.’” (p. 63)  If Jim Henson was such a charismatic genius, then we should be grateful that his life has been able to be documented in such detail.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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