12/19/1970 – ‘Heather arrives – during final mix of Santa Switch’

And baby makes seven! As Jim finished the post-production work on his Christmas special, The Great Santa Claus Switch, his wife Jane finished production on their fifth child, giving birth to Heather. Resting comfortably, Jane and the one-day-old baby watched the show the following evening. A very productive week!

Read more about Heather Henson and her work in the world of puppetry.

The Henson family (from l. to r.) Jane, Heather, Paul (Jim’s dad), Lisa, Cheryl, Jim, Brian, and John, 1971.

Heather Henson performing in 2011. Photo by Richard Termine.

Topics: 12-December '70, 1970, Great Santa Claus Switch | Tagged ,

12/17-19/1979 – ‘VTR test in London – Dark Crystal.’

Work on The Dark Crystal began in earnest in early 1978, and there was great interest in seeing how the creatures that were developing would work on film. Jim shot the first test footage near his home in Bedford, NY in the fall of that year and tried another filmed test the following April. By the end of 1979, many of the character groups had been built in some form, and Jim used his hiatus from The Muppet Show to do more tests. The December ones described in his journal focused on a miner character and his assistant who eventually got cut from the film and on the Pod characters, described at that point simply as peasants. In January, Jim met cinematographer Ossie Morris and immediately signed him on to work on both The Dark Crystal and The Great Muppet Caper. From that point forward, Morris helped organize the tests so that they could, according to a meeting memo, not only test the characters, but also test various types of equipment to understand which would be right for the film.

See some early test footage from The Dark Crystal.

Log of Dark Crystal test, December 17-19, 1979.

The Henson Company’s 1982 holiday card featuring Brian Froud’s drawing of a Pod person.

Topics: 12-December '79, 1979, Dark Crystal | Tagged ,

12/13/1988 – ‘Free to Be airs’

Jim took two trips to Moscow in 1984 to plan and produce his show about Russian puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov for the Jim Henson Presents series. It was a wonderful experience, and while Jim was there, he met up with his friend John Denver and performed for children at the American Embassy. Accompanied by his daughter Cheryl who had spent the summer of 1982 in Russia, Jim had a very positive trip.

By 1988, perestroika was in the air, and opportunities were opening up for broadcast collaborations. Mr. Rogers visited that spring and taped a segment for his program with characters from the classic Russian children’s show Good Night, Little Ones. That summer, Chris Cerf, Jim’s Sesame Street colleague, started production on a show with Marlo Thomas called Free to Be A Family (following up from her 1970s special, Free to Be You and Me). The show was meant to encourage glasnost, connecting children in the US with those in the USSR by means of a “space bridge” (i.e. satellite link). Between the live segments (this was the first live entertainment television special produced jointly by, and in, the US and USSR), there was to be taped segments featuring Jim’s characters, Kermit and Miss Piggy, and the stars of Good Night, Little Ones, a pig named Khriusha and a rabbit called Stepashka. Jim taped his part in Moscow that August, accompanied by his daughter Heather, Kathy Mullen (who performed Miss Piggy), and Michael Frith. With post production and voice recordings in New York that fall, the show was ready to air in December.

Jim was eager to establish relations with media organizations in the Soviet Union, inspiring an expedition by his international television distribution team (under the banner HIT – Henson International Television) to meet with people at the American Embassy and various divisions of Goskino, the state committee overseeing broadcast and home video. The Ministry of Culture was planning for 40% budget cuts, making them suddenly interested in selling commercial air time. They needed programming that would attract consumers and were very interested in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth which had been screened at the Moscow Film Festival. They were highly interested in educational programming, and a second trip resulted in the sale of Fraggle Rock to Soviet television. Two minute clips aired that December to promote the show, and in January 1989, Fraggle Rock became the first American television series to appear on Russian televisions. By the end of the year, as the show’s lessons of tolerance and understanding wafted through the airwaves, the Berlin Wall came down.

Free to Be A Family was not the first time Jim used his characters to help spread the American way. See Jim Henson’s PSA promoting democracy in the Dominican Republic created on behalf of the U.S. Information Agency in 1962.

Press coverage of Free to Be A Family.

A USIA comic promoting democracy provided to Jim to help create a 1962 Public Service Announcement for the Dominican Republic.

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12/5-9/1983 – ‘VTR SS inserts’

Even after fourteen years, it was always a joy for Jim to go into the studio to tape Muppet inserts for Sesame Street. Working with his co-performers in a rhythm that had been established over the years, under the direction of his longtime friend and collaborator Jon Stone, Jim enjoyed these sessions immensely. Many times, the team dissolved into laughter, requiring a pause in the action to catch their collective breath and settle down before turning the cameras on again. The camaraderie on the set and acknowledgement of the smart writing and sharp humor of the material being performed made work on each season fresh and never a chore.

Jim and Jon Stone rehearsing a Sesame Street insert in 1970.

Muppet insert taping on Sesame Street, 1970s.

Jim and Jerry Nelson on the set of Sesame Street, 1980s.

Topics: 12-December '83, 1983, Sesame Street | Tagged ,

12/1/1985 – ‘Back to UK – re-shoot Hoggle’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

By December 1985, most of the work on Jim’s second fantasy film Labyrinth was complete. The major filming started that April and wrapped September 6th. In October and November, co-producer George Lucas gave his comments and worked with Jim on some of the editing. Jim flew back and forth between Lucas’s office in San Francisco, the Fraggle set and taping of The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years in Toronto, and the post-production for Labyrinth in London. The December Hoggle re-shoot was just a small fix related to some portion of the editing process.

Hoggle, Sarah’s hostile guide through the Labyrinth, is one of the most important characters in the film both thematically and technically. The animatronics used to perform him were ground-breaking and opened up tremendous possibilities for expressive performances. Jim explained that, “Hoggle is certainly the most complicated puppet creature we’ve ever built. It’s the most technically elaborate face because we’ve put about eighteen motors in there, to control all the different portions of the face, and four people operating that from outside by radio control. It creates enormous problems in just trying to figure out how to make that into an expression.” Brian Henson was one of those performers and also provided the voice. Actor Shari Weiser was inside the costume performing the body movements. Having five puppeteers perform one puppet was an extremely difficult collaborative process. As Brian Henson described it, “Shari’s inside the costume. She does all the body movement and her head is inside the head. However, the jaw is not connected to her jaw. Nothing that the face is doing has any connection with what she’s doing with her face.” And to make things more difficult, there was no video monitor inside the puppet; Shari’s only view was intermittent, through the flapping mouth.

Watch a clip from Inside the Labyrinth 1996 behind the scenes documentary.

Hoggle from Labyrinth.

Set design by Elliot Scott showing Hoggle meeting Jareth in the hedge maze.

Topics: 12-December '85, 1985, Labyrinth | Tagged , , , , ,