6/7/1965 – ‘The Life and Times of The Muppets As documented by Jim Henson and begun this 7th day of June, in the year of our Lord 1965.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

On hiatus from The Jimmy Dean Show and shortly after screening Time Piece for the first time, Jim decided to document what he had done thus far, starting a regular record of his life and work moving forward. In a small cloth-covered blank book, he noted professional activities and personal highlights. His hectic schedule was slightly lighter heading into those summer months, perhaps giving him a little more time at home to enjoy his recently born fourth child, John Paul, and his new Great Dane puppy, Troy, and to go back through his calendars and desk diaries to make the entries in his red book. Given how Jim’s work had expanded from a little local show to national television appearances, television commercials, and experimental film work, it was time to take stock, see where he had been, and get a sense for what he wanted in the future. It was also a way to organize all the information and memories in his brain, freeing him to fill it with new ideas and inspirations.

While Jim tried to get a measure of control over his wide-ranging activities by setting them down on paper, he was developing an idea called “The Organized Brain”. Intrigued by thought processes and the source of ideas, Jim wanted to somehow visualize these on film. One of his earliest efforts was a combination puppetry and film presentation that aired on The Mike Douglas Show during a week in July 1966. It starred Limbo, a character created around 1960 consisting of foam rubber eyes and mouth that seemed to float in the air while manipulated with strings from below. Limbo was superimposed over a film of plumbing, strings, smoke and photographic images meant to evoke the inner-workings of the mind. Jim, speaking for Limbo and accompanied by electronic music by Raymond Scott, described how he had his thoughts filed away – as you might imagine, it was pretty crowded in there! By 1988 when Jim made his last entries in the “red book” journal that he started back in 1965, it was pretty crowded, too, filled with a lifetime of memories that merited organizing for reference and reflection.

One version of Jim’s exploration of the thought process called “Idea Man” can be seen here.

The title page from Jim’s Red Book journal, 1965.

Entries from 1974 and 1975 in Jim’s Red Book.

Limbo puppet (aka Nobody), 1960s.

Topics: 06-June '65, 1965 | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

1/26/1973 – ‘Garbage Creatures – “Hey Look Me Over”.’

Jim and his team were recruited by Flip Wilson’s production company to participate in an ecology-themed television special, Keep US Beautiful, which aired on NBC on March 27, 1973. That January, Jim, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson and John Lovelady flew out to Los Angeles to tape their part. Raymond Burr, the host, introduced what looked like a pile of garbage. According to Variety the, “Highspot of the hour was a parody of “Hey Look Me Over” done by Jim Henson’s Muppets made of trash, junk and garbage — a delightfully ironic plea for more litter to bury the earth and make their scruffly existence more enjoyable.” Jim clearly saw the value (and comedy) in trash talk. Not only had his grouch found a home in a garbage can on Sesame Street, but on Fraggle Rock, Marjorie the Trash Heap was the source of great wisdom and sage advice.

Jim’s rough storyboard for “Hey Look Me Over” with garbage creatures, 1973.

Michael Frith’s early concept for Marjorie The All-Knowing Trash Heap on Fraggle Rock, 1981.

Topics: 01-January '73, 1973 | Tagged , , , , , , ,

1/21/1981 – ‘Begin parachute sequence.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

When putting Muppets in outlandish situations, great preparation is in order. This was true for practically every scene in The Great Muppet Caper, including the finale/credit sequence. To return to the US after solving the mystery of the great baseball diamond heist, Kermit and the gang fly back in the cargo hold of a jetliner. They are jettisoned out of the plane wearing parachutes and as they float toward the ground, the last jokes are cracked and the credits roll. A July 15, 1980 memo from Caroly Wilcox of the Muppet Workshop made it clear why they waited until the last days of filming to shoot this scene. The possibilities she outlined included using costumed parachutists wearing Muppet masks, using oversized dummies carved to look like the characters, or shooting a scale model of plane with miniatures in a wind tunnel. Jim went with her last suggestion – to wait until the end of the shoot and use real puppets in weighted harnesses. “If they get ruined, they get ruined,” Caroly noted. my ip address The movie would be finished so it wouldn’t matter. The close ups were done in the studio and then for the long shots, the puppets were thrown out of the plane.

Caroly Wilcox’s memo outlining ways to shoot the parachute sequence.

Selected storyboards from the parachute sequence drawn by Bill Stallion, 1980.

Selected storyboards from the parachute sequence drawn by Bill Stallion, 1980.

Selected storyboards from the parachute sequence drawn by Bill Stallion, 1980.

Selected storyboards from the parachute sequence drawn by Bill Stallion, 1980.

Topics: 01-January '81, 1981, Great Muppet Caper | Tagged , , ,

1/17/1971 – ‘Ed Sullivan Show – String Quartet’

By his January 17, 1971 appearance on the last season of The Ed Sullivan Show, Jim was a seasoned veteran, having appeared more than twenty times before. The Sunday night audience enjoyed the Muppet interludes which included musical numbers, parodies, monsters, reindeer, and Kermit. Jim tried out new material and also went back to tried and true bits he had performed on other programs. “The String Quartet” was a bit of both. Almost a decade earlier, on March 30, 1962, Jim juxtaposed the staid world of classical music with the anarchy of his early Muppet characters for The Today Show. Kermit tries to organize a classical quartet with Harry the Hipster, and Theodore (graduates of Sam and Friends) only to be frustrated by the lack of a fourth musician (Mildred kindly offers violets when violins are requested) and the unwillingness of the group to all play the same piece of music. By the finish, Kermit is at his wits’ end (a place he will find himself frequently over the years), yelling to anyone who will listen, “Help! Help! Help!”

The Sullivan version was a much more polished piece but had many of the same conceits and bad jokes. Again, the group starts out with only three musicians but is joined by a fourth – Mahna Mahna, Jim’s hipster character known for the song of the same name. In this bit, he is called Harry, perhaps in homage to the original script, and despite the need for a violinist, is a drummer. His exuberant playing anticipates Animal from The Muppet Show and is a neat contrast to the refined world of classical music. Using opposites is an easy way to make a joke, and it always seems to work for The Muppets. In the end, despite the best efforts of the leader, the group is won over to the groovy side and they happily make music together.

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Jim’s script for The String Quartet on The Today Show, March 30, 1962.

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Script used on The Ed Sullivan Show for The Sting Quartet bit, January 17, 1971.

The Muppet String Quartet, 1971.

Topics: 01-January '71, 1971, Appearances | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

1/10/1978 – ‘Interview Steve Whitmire and Wendy M.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

Jim was always on the look out for talent, whether for performers or for his workshop. He took time to learn about people personally rather than depending on the judgment of others. Taking advantage of a rare extended stay in New York in January 1978, Jim met with two people that would prove to be major additions to his team.

Steve Whitmire, performer of Kermit the Frog and Ernie for the past twenty years along with his own characters like Rizzo the Rat, was a young puppeteer from Atlanta working at The World of Sid and Marty Krofft, a local theme park. Caroll Spinney (Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch), met Steve at a puppetry festival and encouraged him to contact Jim who was looking for Sesame Street performers. Steve, then a very green 18 year old, flew to NY and spent a good part of the week talking and trying out puppets. Instead of Sesame Street, Jim decided that Steve should go over to London and join The Muppet Show cast. He performed a huge range of characters that first year, mostly in the background, and Jim was really pleased with his progress. Just a couple of years later, Jim said, “I think Steve has a sense of making a character a living [thing]. If you get a character that you can actually believe is a living, thinking, reacting creature, once you can work at that sort of level of believability, then it can grow from there.”

Along with The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, Jim was in the midst of getting his fantasy project, The Dark Crystal, off the ground. The core creative team was coming together in New York where designer Brian Froud would arrive for meetings starting on January 16th. The previous December, Jim had received an intriguing gift from his colleague Michael Frith: an exquisite Japanese-style marionette made by a young artist recently moved to New York, Wendy Midener. Jim immediately saw the potential of combining Wendy’s talent for sculpting dolls and puppets with Brian’s creative vision and called her in for the January 10th meeting. They talked about the project, and she was invited back for the first development meetings with Brian. Very quickly, The Dark Crystal became Wendy’s full time occupation, and by the time the production moved to London the following year, she and Brian were a couple. Notably, Wendy sculpted many versions of Jen and Kira and worked to translate scores of Brian’s drawings into three dimensions. The same year, she helped make Yoda for Star Wars and later was instrumental in the development of Jim’s second fantasy feature, Labyrinth. Today, the Frouds live in Devon, England in a 15th century house where they continue to make art.

A Muppet Show recording session with (l. to r.) Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Frank Oz, Steve Whitmire, and Jim Henson, c. 1979-80.

Wendy Midener working on a Gelfling, c. 1980-81.

Brian Froud and Wendy Midener in the Henson Creature Shop.

Topics: 01-January '78, 1978, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Muppet Show | Tagged , , , , , ,

12/25/1978 – ‘I don’t appear on cover of TIME – but big spread.’

With the tremendous success of The Muppet Show and the production of The Muppet Movie in 1978, Time magazine planned a cover story about Jim Henson and his creations. The Christmas-dated issue was to feature Jim surrounded by Muppets as a newsstand draw and would have been the first Time cover for the Muppets since 1970 when Big Bird was featured. Photos were taken and mock-ups were sent to Henson Associates; all were excited by the prospect of such great exposure and recognition. John Skow’s six-page article inside detailed the global reach of the Muppets and described their success in what would become the most quoted passage from all of Henson press coverage – Skow breathlessly exclaimed that The Muppet Show, “…is almost certainly the most popular television entertainment now being produced on earth. The Muppet series is seen by at least 235 million people in 106 countries.”

The presses were ready to roll when President Jimmy Carter announced that after thirty years of “bellicose estrangement”, the United States and Communist China would establish normal diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979. A huge accomplishment in international diplomacy for the President, the news merited a cover and took precedence over the examination of our shared popular culture. While the Muppets retained their six-page spread inside, Kermit’s smiling face was relegated to the upper right hand corner of the cover. Nonetheless, Jim’s was enormously gratified with the celebratory press in such a visible publication – and his public relations staff was thrilled to have such quotable text.

Jim and the gang pose for the Time magazine cover, 1978.

Time magazine cover, December 25, 1978.

Topics: 12-December '78, 1978 | Tagged , , , ,