7/31/1954 – ‘Went to WRC and started 3 times per week.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

In interviews over the years, Jim credited his first opportunity to appear on television to a visit to his high school puppet club by producers from the local Washington CBS station WTOP-TV in spring 1954. They were looking for young performers for the Junior Morning Show, new for Saturdays. Up until then, Jim was designing sets for the club, but this was his chance get work in television so he made some puppets to perform. He auditioned with his friend Russell Wall and got the job. According to TV listings, the show only aired twice that June. The Evening Star’s television columnist Harry MacArthur explained that the show was pulled off the air because of the, “…discovery that the revision of the child labor law permitting children to appear on the stage here applies to the stage and not to television. Three of the program’s key participants were under 14 and consequently couldn’t get work permits.”

The show may have ended, but this was just the beginning for Jim. James Kovach, a director from the NBC affiliate WRC-TV, had gone to see the host of the Junior Morning Show and also caught Jim’s act. He was impressed and recruited Jim for his station. By the end of July, Jim had signed on to appear several times a week over at WRC. He made puppets and performed on their Circle 4 Ranch children’s program and on Footlight Theater, and by the spring, was appearing regularly on Afternoon, a daytime variety show made up of various segments that included cooking, fashion and puppets lip-synching to music. Clearly he made an immediate impression – a May 15, 1955 article about the show quoted the producer Carl Degen saying of Jim, “The kid is positively a genius. He’s absolutely amazing.” Earlier that month, the station announced that Jim’s characters, collectively known as Sam and Friends, were so popular, they were getting their own show.

Jim’s career was launched. His five-minute live Sam and Friends show appeared nightly, often both at 6:25 and 11:25, claiming hearts and funny bones in the Washington and then Baltimore television markets from 1955 until the end of 1961. Based on the ingenuity of his characters and performances, he was asked to make hundreds of television commercials by local and then national companies. And his time spent behind the scenes at the station gave him access to all the latest technology and a chance to watch the directors, editors and cameramen at work. While the University of Maryland gave Jim his academic education, it was his experience at WRC-TV that provided his professional training and his first success.

Jim with Sam and Kermit at WRC-TV, 1958.

Jim’s photo album page highlighting Afternoon, 1955.

Washington Post article about Afternoon, May 15, 1955.

Jim’s behind-the-scenes photo at WRC-TV, c. 1956.

Jim’s photo album page of images taken at WRC-TV, c. 1956.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 07-July '54, 1954, Sam_and_Friends | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

7/25-26/1968 – ‘Attend Seminar in Cambridge – re Children’s TV Workshop.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

Jim’s relationship with Sesame Street creator Jon Stone dated back to 1965 when they first worked together on a potential Saturday morning television project. Jim and Jerry Juhl had been trying to develop a show based on their Tales of The Tinkerdee fairytale characters, and Jon Stone was working with writer Tom Whedon to create a series with similar themes. Stone and Whedon wrote a script for a Cinderella-based comedy pilot and with Jim providing the characters and performances, videotaped it. It never aired but was the first step toward Jim’s television special, Hey Cinderella! that was shot in 1968. The same year, Jim enlisted Stone to direct Youth ’68, his documentary for NBC exploring youth culture. Clearly they worked well together and had a mutual admiration for their respective talents.

Around that time, Stone was also working with Joan Ganz Cooney on the development of Sesame Street. They knew they wanted puppets, and Stone felt that Jim was the only one that would fill the bill. Jon also knew that Jim, by then a father of four small children, was interested in what pre-schoolers got from television and how the medium might be stretched to provide something truly educational that children would enjoy. Starting in 1967, as part of the show development, Cooney and her colleague at the Children’s Television Workshop Lloyd Morrisett hosted a series of meetings with television experts and academic advisors. In the summer of 1968, a series of curriculum seminars were organized and Jim was invited along with other artists, educators and television people to attend one in New York and one a week later at Harvard University. These served as his introduction to the main ideas and goals of the show and the personalities behind it. Most likely, it was during one of these seminars that he first encountered Maurice Sendak who was busily doodling during the proceedings.

The next six months was filled with production of other shows, appearances, pitches to the networks, and a move to new office/workshop space. Working with Jon Stone in January 1969, Jim shot a presentation with Rowlf and Kermit explaining the idea behind the Children’s Television Workshop project and poking fun at the difficulty in settling on a name for the show. In the late spring, Jim began work on his first series of counting films for CTW featuring the beleaguered chef who was always falling down the stairs and started designing the Muppet characters specific to the show. And the following July, the first Sesame Street pilot shows were shot.

Jim and Jon Stone in the Christian Science Monitor, April 18, 1970.

Jim’s original design for Ernie and Bert, 1969.

Storyboard panels for Jim’s #3 Chef counting film, 1969.

Storyboard panels for Jim’s #3 Chef counting film, 1969.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 07-July '68, 1968, Appearances, Sesame Street, Tales of The Tinkerdee, Youth 68 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

7/24/1975 – ‘Fly to Dallas – talking about B’way.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

By 1975, Jim had been developing ideas for a live stage show for about four years. He filled a large accordion file until it bulged with drawings, script ideas, lists of concepts, and even a small acetate shadow puppet. Most were in his hand, but there were also contributions from Jerry Juhl, Dave Goelz, and others among the pages. One section held colorful polished images meant for presenting to potential backers. Jim worked with various collaborators into the 1980s on these ideas, but he did not ultimately get to produce his Broadway Show. The ideas, however, did not go to waste – many of the concepts for large or abstract puppets were put to good use on The Muppet Show and appeared in other forms in Jim’s fantasy films and special appearances. Here is a peek into that accordion file and Jim’s imagination:

Jim’s concept for a musical number featuring just feet, 1970s.

Jim’s sketch of puppets that became known as Clodhoppers on The Muppet Show, 1970s.

A small frog shadow puppet from Jim’s Broadway Show file, 1970s.

Dave Goelz’s design for abstract walk-around puppets, 1970s.

A page from Jim’s presentation book used to pitch his Broadway Show, 1970s.

The finale of the Broadway Show as drawn by Jim for his presentation book, 1970s.

For more detailed information about the Broadway Show, see journal entries for:
March 7, 1973
June 19, 1981

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 07-July '75, 1975, Muppet Show | Tagged , , ,

7/19/1977 – ‘Steve Martin (MS)’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

When making lists of potential guest stars for Season Two of The Muppet Show, comedian and actor (and writer and art collector) Steve Martin seemed like an obvious choice. Steve Martin didn’t host Saturday Night Live until the start of the second season so Jim didn’t cross paths with him there, but they would have known many of the same people. And Steve’s zany humor which Jim would have witnessed when Steve did host SNL was a perfect fit for the Muppets.

Many of the guest stars on The Muppet Show were encouraged to do things that they were not known for but had always wanted to do on camera. Opera star Beverly Sills hung a spoon from her nose, sung a country/western song and tap danced, Christopher Reeve traded his Superman tights for Shakespearean tights, and tough guy actor James Coburn played ragtime on the flute. Steve Martin, however, did all the things in his repertoire that had already made him famous: he wore an arrow (seemingly) through his head, he did a bit with balloon animals, he played his ramblin’ banjo piece, and he demonstrated his juggling techniques. Martin’s act was so in tune with the Muppets that if he had learned to throw boomerang fish, he could have been a regular member of the cast.

This was just the start of a long relationship with the Henson team. For The Muppet Movie, shot in 1978, Steve Martin stretched his acting skills in his first non-musical film role. He played the sarcastic waiter at the Terrace Restaurant where Kermit and Miss Piggy were trying to have a romantic dinner. Wearing short lederhosen, Martin looked appropriately ridiculous and did his best to ruin the meal. In 1985, he appeared with the Muppet Babies in print in a feature in Muppet Magazine. Around the same time, Martin appeared as the sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors, the first non-Henson film directed by Frank Oz. Martin and Oz would work together many times over the ensuing years, with Martin starring in the Oz-directed films Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), HouseSitter (1992), and Bowfinger (1999).

Steve Martin on The Muppet Show, 1978.

Steve Martin and the Muppet Babies, Muppet Magazine, Spring 1985.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 07-July '77, 1977, Muppet Babies, Muppet Movie, Muppet Show, Saturday Night Live | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

7/16/1984 – ‘Dreamchild begins shooting.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

In 1979, Jim purchased the building at 1b Downshire Hill in Hampstead, London to house the creature building workshop for The Dark Crystal. A former post office, it was a large open space with a high ceiling and mezzanines along the sides, ideal for creating over-sized puppets and experimenting with messy materials. The long development process for the film introduced a new team of artists and engineers to Jim and allowed them to invent all sorts of new ways of making puppets. By the time the film was finished in 1982, Jim recognized that the combination of his experienced and collaborative team with a central place for their work was a huge asset that should be maintained. He sought outside work to keep them busy until they were needed for his next fantasy project which turned out to be Labyrinth.

The first non-Henson project at the Creature Shop was creating characters for Dreamchild, a film written by Dennis Potter. Jim admired Potter’s work, particularly Pennies from Heaven, and was pleased to have a chance to work together. Jim wrote Potter after the premiere, “Your delightful script made the film a joy to work on. I feel proud to have my name on a picture of this calibre, and to be associated with your efforts.” The film was the story of the friendship between Alice Liddell (inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) and the Rev. Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). Most of the film was live-action, but it featured a fantasy sequence with Henson-created characters based on the Alice books.

Designer Lyle Conway, having followed The Dark Crystal with work on the film Return to Oz, was tapped by Jim to oversee the shop for Dreamchild. Conway’s experience paid off and the build exploited everything he and the team had learned, using it in a much more efficient fashion. The budget was tight and, as Conway described, it “…turned out to be one fourth the work [of The Dark Crystal] at ten times the speed. We had 14 weeks to build everything, which is no time at all for us, and I think we stayed that much fresher as a result.” The film opened in summer 1985 to generally positive reviews, particularly for Coral Browne’s performance as Alice, and the writers made much of the creatures from Jim’s shop. The review in The Guardian noted, “The realization by Jim Henson and his team of the fabled creatures of Lewis Carroll’s imagination is beguilingly original.”

The tea party in Dreamchild, 1985.

The Caterpillar from Dreamchild, 1985.

Puppeteers on the set of Dreamchild, 1984.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 07-July '84, 1984, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth | Tagged , , , , , ,