4/21/1968 – ‘Sunday, 4 P.M. Air Youth ’68.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

Jim got his start on NBC’s Washington affiliate, and over the years, the network offered him exciting opportunities. Their Experiment in Television series that ran from 1967 to 1971 came at a perfect time in Jim’s career. His short film Time Piece was a success, he was exploring the possibilities of a psychedelic night club, and he was pitching his surrealistic drama The Cube. Experiment in Television was meant to showcase new talent and new ideas and featured documentaries, dramas, short films, music reviews, and programs from the BBC. The offerings ranged from Theatre of the Deaf and Fellini to a look at Marshall McLuhan’s message about media and George Plimpton’s presentation of shorts from the “Now Generation”. Jim’s idea for a show about the youth culture fit right into the series.

Billed as, “…an exciting mixed-media portrait of youth today…,” Youth ’68 was a visual and sound collage of interweaving interviews, literary quotations, popular music and modern dance. Produced by Jim Henson and directed by Jon Stone (future Sesame Street collaborator), this fast-paced documentary addressed such topics as drugs, religion, love, war, and the future and featured appearances by rock groups Jefferson Airplane, The Mamas and The Papas, and The Vanilla Fudge. By talking to people of all ages in Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Omaha, Houston and New York, the show attempted not to editorialize but to demonstrate the juxtaposition of different value systems within the context of a changing world. Because Jim was young but also professionally established, he felt like he was a part of both generations. By contrasting the different viewpoints and attitudes of each age, Jim created a portrait of society as a whole.

For Jim, the means by which the show was produced was equal in importance to the message. NBC provided a budget of $100,000 and the use of their facilities, which allowed Jim, who was always interested in stretching the technological possibilities of television and film to their limits, the opportunity to try out many new techniques. In his review of the show which aired on April 21, 1968, critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote, “No television program on a commercial network that I have seen utilized the possibilities of the TV camera to the extent this show did. Split images separated not by lines or by boxes but by a jagged edge of film, reverse, swirling lights, inter-cuts, all the facility which modern electronics and film has given us, were used.” As evidenced by the pile of positive fan mail received by NBC and its good reviews, Youth ’68 was a success.

See a clip from Youth ’68.

Dance sequence from Youth ’68.

Jim’s list of footage to be edited together to create Youth ’68.

Jim’s Youth ’68 editing script.

NBC publicity still from Youth ’68.

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

Topics: 04-April '68, 1968, Youth 68 | Tagged , , , , , ,

4/17/1980 – ‘To Today Show – pipes – say hi to Willard Scott. See building for Muppet Stuff! Meet Bessemer Trust people.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

In April 1980, Jim made the most of a two-week hiatus from The Muppet Show. He took a quick trip to Albuquerque to see his folks and then headed to New York to do television appearances and attend various meetings. April 17th was typical of his jam-packed schedule.

The day started early with an appearance on The Today Show. Jim said “Hi” to weatherman Willard Scott, an old friend from their days starting out at WRC in Washington. The main event was when Jim went behind the scenes with Gene Shalit to explore a closet full of pipes that Jim and his team had decorated back in 1964. While waiting for an appearance on the Jack Paar Program in a small dressing room, Jim, Jerry Juhl, Frank Oz and Don Sahlin decided to “muppetize” some of the exposed plumbing, painting faces and adding fur collars, mustaches, and hair. They closed the closet and no one was the wiser. At some point much later, they were rediscovered and revealed on TV during Jim’s appearance in 1980. Over the years, the closet has been highlighted on the air by various hosts and finally, in 2010, the area around it was renovated. The Muppet pipes are now a highlight of the NBC Studio tour.

The second stop of the day was a building at 833 Lexington Avenue that would house the first Muppet Stuff store. Decorated to be fun and welcoming with a giant character-laden clock, Muppet Stuff featured all types of Muppet toys, dolls, apparel, books, videos, and memorabilia. For the opening, set for late October 1980, the boutique was heralded as “Muppet Stuff – A shop with nothing but!” Visitors to the store were plunged into a world that included Muppets and Muppet Babies, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock. The design was meant to evoke a visit to the workshop in the midst of a project, but the intentional “…delightful clutter” requested by Jim ended up being a liability, making it difficult for customers to find what they wanted. In an attempt to balance whimsy with profit, the store went through some design streamlining over the years. Events at the store, including walk-around characters and holiday children’s activities, proved to be a big draw and kept buyers coming back. The style, contents, staff and promotion were managed in-house at Henson Associates nearby in a very hands-on manner. Michael Frith created the logo and all departments made suggestions about publicity, events, design and merchandise. Eventually, working with a partner in Canada, nine stores opened there. Retail is fickle, however, and as the company moved into the early 1990s, Muppet Stuff closed its doors.

The pipes in the closet at NBC decorated by Jim, Jerry Juhl, Frank Oz and Don Sahlin in 1964. Photo by John E. Barrett.

Muppet Stuff store logo designed by Michael K. Frith, 1980.

Design for Muppet Stuff store fixture by Lyndon Mosse, 1980.

Mail order form for Muppet Stuff store, 1981.

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

Topics: 04-April '80, 1980, Appearances, Family | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

4/14/1980 – ‘Academy Awards. Lisa comes out and goes with me. Kerm and Piggy do the rules – Kerm sings “Rainbow Connection” but we don’t win the Oscar.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

When The Muppet Movie was released in the June 1979, it was a critical and box office hit, catapulting Kermit and Miss Piggy into the realm of super-stardom. The Hollywood awards community, however, didn’t quite know how to define the picture in terms of what areas deserved nominations. The performers were much more than voice artists but since you couldn’t see them, should they get nominations as actors? Clearly it had spectacular effects (and did win a Saturn Award for best fantasy film), but there didn’t seem to be an obvious Oscar category that would appropriately celebrate the work in the film. The only area that seemed straight forward was the music, and Paul Williams’ score and his song with Kenny Ascher, “The Rainbow Connection”, were both nominated.

The Academy didn’t even consider the stars of the film, and while Kermit took it in stride, Miss Piggy was predictably upset – especially because her fans were so eager to see her suitably rewarded for her talent and hard work. Months before the movie opened, two Cincinnati marketing executives, Bruce E. Collins and James C. Hall, started a grass-roots campaign called The Committee to Award Miss Piggy the Oscar (CAMPO). With their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, they put out a press release describing their organization and their quest on behalf of Miss Piggy. They urged fans to write in to their P.O. Box or to the Academy’s public relations firm, and explained, “First it was Mae West, then it was Marilyn Monroe. Never before had actresses captivated the nation’s attention with as much charm, dignity, and suaveness as did these two radiating individuals. Now in 1979 a new motion picture starlet is born, whose great talent and qualifications are unique in the movie field – and who rightfully deserves an Oscar in her bedroom in 1980. Miss Piggy is a legend in her own time (and definitively in her own mind).” Collins and Hall went on to describe Miss Piggy’s television work and their confidence that the upcoming feature film would be, “…Miss Piggy’s masterpiece…we do not even have to see the film to know who deserves the leading lady award.”

CAMPO got front page treatment in Ohio, and the UPI story got picked up around the country. Hundreds of letters of support poured in and journalists from as far away as London and Sydney did interviews. Collins and Hall contacted Henson Associates and explained their activities and asked to be allowed to sell t-shirts and buttons to promote their cause. Everyone at the company was fittingly amused and permission was granted. Michael Frith even created artwork for CAMPO to use and connected them with HA!’s apparel licensing partner. Momentum built, but the Academy Award committee held firm, insisting that the existing rules precluded Miss Piggy’s nomination. As a consolation (and to enhance ratings), she and Kermit were invited to appear on the telecast, explaining the very rules that kept them from being nominated. As least Miss Piggy got a new evening gown.

Miss Piggy in The Muppet Movie, 1979.

Congratulations ad from Consolidated Film Industries, a major LA film processing company, 1980.

CAMPO featured in The Muppet Show Fan Club Newsletter, 1979.

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

Topics: 04-April '80, 1980, Appearances, Social | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4/-/1988 – ‘Working w/Kirk Thatcher on computer generated character – Later Waldo’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

The multi-talented Kirk Thatcher got his start at a very early age designing, building, painting and performing for George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. Working for himself with David Fincher, he did concept and design work on several rock videos, was then hired by Leonard Nimoy to associate produce (and perform a cameo in) Star Trek IV and landed at Walt Disney Imagineering, working on character design and theme park ride development. While doing similar work on his own in the mid-1980s, a mutual friend introduced him to Jim Henson who asked him to collaborate on a number of projects starting in 1987. Kirk did some designs for an unrealized project called Muppet Voyager, but was really recruited to work on the characters for The Jim Henson Hour. Kirk’s substantial design work for the show included the characters Clifford, Vicky and Leon, as well as the overall set design. He collaborated with Jim on the storyboards for the opening sequence and provided designs for other characters throughout the series. Perhaps most important was his work on Jim’s first digital character, Waldo C. Graphic.

Around 1986, when Jim discovered that it would be possible to adapt his radio-controlled animatronic puppetry system that he had used so effectively for the fur and foam characters in Fraggle Rock to a computer-generated character, he was eager to try it. Development for The Jim Henson Hour moved forward over the next two years, and it seemed appropriate to include a digital puppet in an hour devoted to exploring a variety of stories and styles. According to the press kit, “The computer animated character [was] the result of an elaborate process developed at Pacific Data Images after much research, experimentation and head-scratching.” Both the software and hardware, developed with PDI, was combined with Henson puppetry to create the final footage. Steve Whitmire, performing Waldo C. Graphic, operated an elaborate armature rigged with electronic sensors to capture his motion. The data was sent to the Silicon Graphics Iris 4D/70GT where Waldo’s shape data resided. It was animated in real time and composited into the live shot that included actual puppets being performed at the same time. Both Steve and the other puppeteers used monitors to locate their characters in the scene and in relationship to each other. Additional rendering added Waldo’s color and costume changes to create the final images. Waldo was immortalized in 1990 as part of Jim’s Muppet*Vision 3D which continues to entertain delighted audiences at Walt Disney World and at Disney’s California Adventure. Advancements to this technology in recent years gave birth to the Henson Company’s Sid the Science Kid which features a whole community of digital characters performed in real time.

Hear from Kirk Thatcher about his experience on the Henson.com Podcast.

Jim Henson, with Rex Grignon from PDI, explains how Waldo works on The Jim Henson Hour episode “The Secrets of The Muppets”, 1989.

Kirk Thatcher in the late 1980s.

Kirk Thatcher’s design for Waldo C. Graphic for The Jim Henson Hour, 1988.

Kirk Thatcher’s design for Waldo C. Graphic for The Jim Henson Hour, 1988.

PDI’s cartoon showing one puppeteer performing the digital character while another performs a real puppet.

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

Topics: 04-April '88, 1988, Jim Henson Hour | Tagged , , , , , ,

4/10/1986 – ‘Kennedy Center – award’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

When Jim was honored at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on April 19, 1986 with the Frances Holleman Breathitt Award for Excellence in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the arts and to young people, it was just one of the many times Jim’s lifetime achievement was recognized over the years. As early as 1975, when he was just 39 years old, Jim received the coveted Sons of the Desert Award, an appreciation from The Worldwide Laurel and Hardy Society. As The Muppet Show hit the airwaves, the accolades started to pile up – everyone from the Advertising Club of Washington and the Electronic Industries Association to The National Council for Children and Television and The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wanted to honor Jim.

Along with the usual Emmy, Grammy, Peabody, and BAFTA awards related to specific productions, Jim was ultimately rewarded with one of the highest honors in his industry: induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. As successful as he had become, this was truly the ultimate honor, and Jim was genuinely gratified to be placed among his idols in the pantheon of television greats. While film and other types of projects were a passion for him, Jim knew that his work in the television medium was groundbreaking and was where he had made the largest impact.

Unfortunately, Jim did not live to accept many of his biggest honors. In the years following his passing, Jim’s friends arranged for him to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Various groups in the entertainment industry lauded him along with such diverse organizations as UNICEF, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Wildlife Federation. TIME Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential artists of the 20th Century and Entertainment Weekly counted him among the 100 greatest entertainers from 1950-2000. Clearly, Jim’s legacy lives on – not just in the recognition of his past triumphs but in the new works being created with his characters and within the creative community he inspired.

Watch Jim’s induction into the TV Academy Hall of Fame.

Jim with Bob Payne and Jane Nebel holding his first Emmy Award for Sam and Friends, 1958. Photo by Reni.

Banner on Hollywood Blvd. celebrating Jim’s star on the Walk of Fame, 2010.

A display case with some of Jim’s awards watched over by a Doozer from Fraggle Rock.

Jim with family and friends at the Television Academy Hall of Fame induction ceremony, 1987.

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

Topics: 04-April '86, 1986, Honors | Tagged , , , ,