Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones – Review by Mary Donnelly
For those of us who grew up in the seventies and eighties, with access to a television, Sunday nights were set aside for one thing – The Muppet Show. It was family television at its best, a variety show containing singing, dancing and explosions. Behind all of this, behind Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, the Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and so much more was the creative force that was Jim Henson.
In this comprehensive biography, Brian Jay Jones traces Henson’s life, an artist and performer who undeniably changed both children’s television and entertainment television forever. Jones had extensive access to the Henson archive and both his family and close collaborators so the book is packed with detail on every aspect of his life, particularly his working life. We hear of his childhood where his creativity was encouraged and nurtured by his artistic grandmother Dear, and his early studies in puppetry – in the home economics course in the University of Maryland no less! One of the most telling incidents is the tragic and premature death of his brother in a car accident, this death seemed to urge him on to do as much as possible in the time that he had, time that would ultimately prove to be quite short “When his brother died, he felt like maybe he didn’t have enough time… He realized that he just didn’t have an infinite amount of time to do all the things he wanted to do”. Henson met his wife Jane in college and together they achieved very early success in television with the Muppets appearing in popular bit parts on variety shows and ultimately their own shows. As their family grew, Jane found herself more and more in the home as Henson met other creative partners such as Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, RIchard Hunt and Frank Oz. Oz, a sometimes moody and reluctant puppeteer would turn out to be one of the most successful and talented performers in the Muppet crew. The relationship between Henson and Oz is brilliantly described, their personalities so like those of Bert and Ernie, the characters they made so famous in Sesame Street, one serious, one anarchic “They’re Jim and Frank… Their relationship is the relationship with Jim and Frank. Jim loved to play tricks on Frank.. and Frank is Bert. Frank is very buttoned-up and uptight and compulsively neat, and Jim was just wild and off the walls and funny”.
The book is at its most interesting in its account of the development of the Muppet Show “a variety show hosted by dogs, frogs and monsters”. The Muppets as we know them started out on Saturday Night Live where they were disliked by most of the comedians who referred to them as the “mucking fuppets”. Fortunately they were spotted by television executive Lew Grade (himself a Muppet like character who had spent his early years in vaudeville, dancing the Charleston on narrow tabletops until his knees gave in) who gave them a slot on primetime television in the UK. Jones tells of the evolution of some of the most popular and enduring Muppet characters such as Fozzie who found his voice during the now famous neck-a-tie sketch and Miss Piggy, who had quite a colourful background as devised by Oz “she grew up on a small farm; her father died in a tractor accident, her mother wasn’t that nice to her…”, and at the centre of it Kermit the frog, the lovable hand waving heart of the Muppet Show, just as Henson was at the heart of his company. Jerry Juhl, longtime writer and collaborator gave a description of Kermit which could just as easily be of Henson “He relates to the other characters on many different levels… More important they have to relate to him. Without Kermit, they don’t work. Nothing could happen without him. The other characters do not have what it takes to hold things together”. The Muppet Show went from strength to strength spawning three highly successful big screen outings, and the accounts of the technical achievements behind the making of these films are fascinating – Henson ended up in a diving ball, underwater in order to achieve the opening “Rainbow Connection” scene of the Muppet Movie, likewise Oz had to perform underwater for Miss Piggy’s Esther Williams style number in the Great Muppet Caper.
Despite the huge success of the Muppets, Henson decided to end it when it was at its height to pursue other creative interests with varying degress of success, pet projects such as the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth met with mixed critical reactions and poor box office takings, while Fraggle Rock became a huge international success. At the same time, Henson’s marriage was failing, in part due to his devotion to his work and, although only hinted at by Jones, in part due to an inclination to play around. Jim and Jane Henson adored their children and their children adored them and they remained close for the rest of his life.
In the last few years of his life Henson was working on a number of projects – the Storyteller, the Jim Henson Hour – all the while entering talks to sell the his company to Disney, a plan he felt would ensure the Muppets would be looked after for future generations. Ultimately that deal would not be done until fifteen years after his death. The final chapters of the book deal with Henson’s death and the subsequent memorial and they make for emotional reading – Henson became ill with pneumonia and contrary to rumour, did not refuse treatment, he just didn’t give in until it was too late. He had written a note to his family outlining what should be done at his memorial which in his usual way combined his idealistic nature and wry sense of humour, ending “Have a wonderful time in life, everybody. It feels strange writing this kind of thing while I’m still alive, but it wouldn’t be easy to do after I go”.
Jones’ biography is one of an idealist, a creative genius and as Kermit would say, a dreamer, in a quote from the Muppet Movie he sums it up – “Yeah, well, I’ve got a dream, too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well… I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And it kind of makes us like a family”.