10/9/1966 – ‘Shooting “Cyclia” footage – Gabi.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

Jim’s initial creative efforts for his unrealized Cyclia nightclub project focused on the filmed images he wanted to couple with music tracks. He and his team went and shot hours of footage that he imagined would be projected on ceilings and walls and even body-suit clad go-go girls, timed to the music. At first, Jim looked at existing structures and locations and tried to squeeze his vision into those spaces. As things progressed, his ideas became more expansive to include all aspects of the club, and Jim came up with ideas for a variety of shaped structures, furniture, and entertainment systems, without limiting them to what was necessarily practical or even possible.

Jim contacted lighting and sound experts including the Lumadellic Experience lighting company in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His associate at the time, Barry Clark, wrote to them that, “We have been thinking of a Technimation-process floor, using rotating polarized discs below a thick plexiglass layer to create an animated effect keyed to music tempo and mood.” This inspired some innovative thinking, and Morgan Rockhill at Lumadellic responded, “I’ve done some deep thinking in relation to your question regarding the possibility of recording the lighting data program adjacent to the musical sound track on a magnetic tape system. I have not only discovered that it is possible, but also that it is extremely practical and far more economical than the data storage system I had previously conceived!”

In 1967, Jim looked at real estate in New York, and came close to signing a contract for two adjacent buildings on East 78th Street. By the following year, he was scouting locations in Los Angeles and promoting the idea to backers as having venues on both coasts. A building on Santa Monica Boulevard was of interest, and in New York he pursued several properties on the east side. As his vision expanded to giant geodesic domes, Jim made inquiries about a vacant lot on Second Avenue that now houses the base of the Roosevelt Island Tram. In an empty space like that, there were practically no design limitations. By 1970, however, the Cyclia Corporation was dissolved, and Jim’s energies went into Sesame Street and his quest for a Muppet series.

For more information on Cyclia, see the entry for July 1967.

See samples of Cyclia footage here and here.

Blue prints for a potential Cyclia location on East 78th Street.

Barry Clark’s sketch of a possible Cyclia location on Madison Avenue.

A possible look for a Los Angeles Cyclia location.

Projection plan for Cyclia.

A geodesic dome brochure from Jim’s Cyclia file.

Dome inspirations from Jim’s Cyclia file.

Jim’s interior plan for a circular nightclub, 1967.

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

Topics: 10-October '66, 1966, Appearances | Tagged ,

10/6/1986 “VTR The Christmas Toy in Toronto”

Inspired by the success of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and earlier attempts to create Muppet holiday specials (like a Halloween special or even an “Income Tax Day” special,) Jim produced two charming shows in 1986: The Tale of The Bunny Picnic and The Christmas Toy. During a period when Jim was actively pursuing projects that could utilize the latest in computer graphics and digital technologies, these two specials were purposefully old fashioned puppet productions (although Henson puppets are never as simple as they might look).

The Tale of The Bunny Picnic, combining elements of Beatrix Potter and the can-do spirit of Fraggle Rock, was populated by cute bunnies and the requisite Muppet dog. Capturing the joy of Henson picnics on the Hampstead Heath, Jocelyn Stevenson’s story coupled with Diane Dawson-Hearn’s visuals was well received on television and translated into an appealing picture book. The interminably cute star, Bean Bunny, became a regular Muppet ensemble player.

The Christmas Toy, written by Labyrinth contributor Laura Phillips, also featured a new group of characters – an array of toys that come to life in a playroom when the household’s children, Jamie and Jesse Jones, are not around. The classic tale (almost a decade before Pixar’s Toy Story release) focused on friendship, the meaning of Christmas and how new toys would impact the group dynamic. Rugby the Tiger (performed by Dave Goelz) sets things in motion with a misguided plan that required the intervention of the other toys to make things right. The core Fraggle crew, Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Kathy Mullen, Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson performed with younger puppeteers, Camille Bonora, Brian Henson, Rob Mills and Nikki Tilroe, and Jim performed Kermit to introduce the story.

Airing on ABC on December 6, 1986, The Christmas Toy got generally good reviews. Variety described the new characters as, “…refreshingly varied and sophisticated,” and the story as, “…surprisingly effective.” In USA Today, Matt Roush called the show, “…an inventive and engaging treat.” Given the abundance of holiday specials on TV (Newsweek listed almost 50 programs airing that season,) just getting reviewed was an impressive feat. In interviews, Jim noted that he was inspired by The Velveteen Rabbit and The Nutcracker to try to create a whole new group of characters based on toys that come to life. He would have been pleased that a variation on this group formed the core cast of a new series produced by Brian Henson in 1994, The Secret Life of Toys.

See the Christmas Toys in action.

Jim and his colleagues enjoyed what they called “bunny picnics” on the Hampstead Heath in London.

Diane Dawson-Hearn’s designs for The Tale of The Bunny Picnic, 1985.

The performers shooting The Christmas Toy, 1986.

Characters from The Christmas Toy in the playroom set, 1986.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books on October 31, 2012.

Topics: 10-October '86, 1986, Christmas Toy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10/1-2/1984 – ‘VTR next 3 Muppet Home Video Wraps’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

Jim enjoyed getting his work out in whatever format was available – first on the airwaves and then to viewers on various home video formats. In 1984, the first run of The Muppet Show was long finished, and Jim was eager to get compilations of the program out on home video. That year, he and Jerry Juhl chose clips organized by theme, and created wrap-around introductions which were videotaped in October. The tapes, distributed by CBS/Fox under their Playhouse Video label, included such titles as The Kermit and Piggy Story (with Cheryl Ladd, Tony Randall, Loretta Swit, Raquel Welch), The Muppet Revue (with Harry Belafonte, Rita Moreno, Linda Ronstadt, Paul Williams), Gonzo Presents Muppet Weird Stuff (with Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Vincent Price, Jean Stapleton), Muppet Treasures (with Loretta Lynn, Ethel Merman, Zero Mostel, Buddy Rich, Peter Sellers, Paul Simon), Children’s Songs and Stories with the Muppets (with Julie Andrews, Charles Aznavour, Judy Collins, John Denver, Brooke Shields, Twiggy), and Rock Music with the Muppets (with Alice Cooper, Debbie Harry, Helen Reddy, Linda Ronstadt, Leo Sayer, Paul Simon, Loretta Swit, Ben Vereen).

Putting out existing shows on video was a wonderful way to reach audiences, but Jim was also excited by the possibilities of creating original material for the home viewer. By the mid 1980s, he was thinking about television as an interactive media, having audiences be active participants rather than passive viewers. And about a decade before Baby Einstein, Jim decided he wanted to develop interactive home videos with educational undertones specifically for babies or toddlers. The result was a series, taped in 1988, called Play-Along videos distributed by Lorimar.

The series was meant to engage children of various ages with activities like making music, drawing, telling jokes and storytelling. Marketed as “video-active”, the Play-Along videos attempted to “treat kids as more than just spectators”. Jim sketched out activities for babies and designed two new humanoid characters, P.J. and Kai-Lee who joined the Classic Muppets in the activities. Jim even got into the act for the Neat Stuff video, demonstrating how to skip rocks in Central Park. The final result was a series of six tapes: Sing-Along, Dance-Along, Do-Along; Neat Stuff…To Know and To Do; Wow, You’re A Cartoonist; Hey! You’re as Funny as Fozzie Bear; Peek-A-Boo; and Mother Goose Stories.

Ideas for baby activities, mid-1980s.

Ideas for baby activities, mid-1980s.

Jim, P.J. and Kai-Lee with other characters featured in the Play-Along videos, 1988.

Jim’s design for P.J., 1988.

Play-Along set design by Lyndon Mosse, 1988.

Kai-Lee and P.J. dance with a Big Bossman puppet.

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

Topics: 10-October '84, 1984, Muppet Specials | Tagged , , , ,

9/30/1982 – ‘D.C. Exhibit opens Lincoln Center Library.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

With the footage for The Dark Crystal in the can, attention turned to all the spectacular craftsmanship that went into the production. There were hundreds of props, costumes and extraordinary puppets that made up the world of The Dark Crystal, and creating an exhibit where fans could marvel at their artistry seemed like an obvious thing to do. There was so much to show, in fact, that two exhibits were created. In New York, for the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, the exhibit was called “The World of The Dark Crystal” and, according to the press kit, it gave the public, “…its first look at the fantastic creatures of The Dark Crystal and their environment, in tableaux using the actual sketches and drawings, as well as set pieces, artifacts, furnishings, costumes and symbols, all of which [were] used in the film.” In Los Angeles, at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the exhibit, which opened several weeks later, was called “The Art of The Dark Crystal” and concentrated on, “…the exceptional craft artistry – fabrics, household utensils, weapons, work tools and the like – of the civilization created [for the film],” along with creatures.

The “World of The Dark Crystal” exhibit toured internationally to England, Japan and Australia. In France, the displays were handled differently. Items from the film were exhibited as part of the “Exposition de Cristaux Geants”, a natural history show featuring giant crystals at Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. Interspersed among the amazing gems were images and actual Skeksis, Gelflings, Mystics and other representatives of the species populating The Dark Crystal. At the opening event in Paris in 1983, Jim, Brian Froud, and producer Gary Kurtz celebrated having won the grand prize at the Fantasy Film Festival in Avoriaz, France.

Displays in “The World of The Dark Crystal” exhibit, 1982.

Displays in “The World of The Dark Crystal” exhibit, 1982.

Displays in “The World of The Dark Crystal” exhibit, 1982.

Jim, Brian Froud, a French official, and Gary Kurtz at the “Exposition de Cristaux Geants” in Paris, 1983

Jim with real giant crystals in Paris, 1983.

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

Topics: 09-September '82, 1982, Dark Crystal, Exhibits | Tagged , , , , , , ,

9/–/1983 – ‘Mira Velimirovic joins us – and Lisa goes to Warner Bros. to work for Lucy Fischer – instead of going to film school U.K.’

Mira Velimirovic was Jim Henson’s creative assistant from 1983-86. She continued as director of creative development until late 1988, when she moved to Los Angeles. Using what she learned from her time with Jim and the Muppets, often unintentionally, she works to maintain the same sense of creative delight, slapstick, and goofiness in raising her family. She recently shared her memories of working with Jim:

In 1983, I was working at Late Night with David Letterman as a researcher, specializing in finding odd guests, like the worst-selling author, or a hot dog vendor. The show and the staff were a blast, but somehow I yearned for a little more variety. Then Kermit the Frog called. Well, Jim, actually, but as with most people hearing from Jim for the first time, it took me a moment.

Lisa Henson and I had known each other in college. Since she’d been working with her dad and was about to fly off to LA to work at Warner Brothers, she hoped to find someone else to work with her father, particularly someone who had production experience.

So Jim called. He and Lisa and I had lunch, I visited the final filming for The Muppets Take Manhattan on the top of the Empire State building, confirmed that my passport was up to date, and he hired me. Thank you, Lisa! I joined the whirlwind world of Jim Henson. Within a month I’d tried to soak up everything about the NY offices, the London offices, traveled on a press junket to France and Germany, and landed in Toronto where Jim performed in Fraggle Rock.

Maybe the most interesting thing about the role I played in the company was that it was the first time Jim employed an assistant who traveled with him and kept tabs on all of his meetings and ideas–perhaps inspired by his working with Lisa during The Dark Crystal. His goal was to expand the number of projects he could pursue, and it was easier with somebody nearby who could check in on projects and productions while he actively puppeteered or directed.

At that point, Jim was working on a huge number of projects: besides puppeteering on Sesame Street and performing or directing Fraggle Rock, Jim was developing The Creature Shop in London to create special creature effects for other productions. He was working on a new television puppet series, Starboppers, and a series about the art of puppetry around the world, Jim Henson Presents… and a possible segment for 60 Minutes that revolved around a talking Mt. Rushmore. Labyrinth was percolating in Jim’s and Brian Froud’s imaginations, and Jim was envisioning an MTV video for The Muppets Take Manhattan.

So I jumped in. I carried Kermit in a small carry-on sometimes if Jim was going to do a televised interview. As we moved into production on Labyrinth, I lugged around one of the earliest models of a cell phone for Jim to use during breaks. You would not believe the size of it.

Jim’s days were filled with meeting people who created new things, like the people at Oxford Scientific Films who developed new microscopic cameras, and the folks at Digital Productions, and playwrights and composers. I loved the Concept Meetings, where company staff members and invited guests would brainstorm about a new project on a Saturday, from a live-action TV show about a puppeteer (which became Puppetman), to an animated series about the Muppets as babies. Jim heard everyone’s ideas in those meetings, and with remarkable creative generosity, folded together the best into the project.

What’s most amazing to me about that time was how much Jim accomplished each day, and how fluidly he connected people and ideas to projects. He attracted spectacularly talented people, from the puppet designers and builders to the company staff, to the performers and artists who were eager to collaborate on his projects.

Jim could juggle more ideas and keep track of more information than anyone, and he was generally cheerful, in spite of the jet lag. The traveling schedule was crazy, but there was always something exciting to see at the next stop: new creature eyes at the London Creature Shop, or amazing new sculpts from Ron Mueck in New York.

I remember getting the giggles a lot, like on the airplane ride where we couldn’t stop laughing at the idea of a Swedish Chef cereal, and during restaurant dinners when Jim would quietly moo, after non-vegetarians ordered beef. Mostly, I was thrilled to be along for the ride.

It was an incredible time to work with Jim. No wonder we loved to go to work.

Mira Velimirovic and Jim, 1980s.

Mira Velimirovic and Kevin Clash, 1980s.

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

Topics: 09-September '83, 1983, Fraggle Rock, Muppets Take Manhattan, Sesame Street | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,