It’s been a long time since I’ve written a book review.
I spent my free moments this summer pouring through a six hundred page biography, most of the time on my porch while my daughter played with her friends in the yard or poolside under a big umbrella while she swam. In my mind, I’m already associating the memories of reading of this book with that feeling of sweat building on my upper lip and eyebrows.
The book was a gift from my brother for Hanukkah last year. I’m a horrible person to shop for unless you know me really well. My brother knows me better than probably anyone, and he knew I would be giddy when he gave me a copy of Jim Henson’s biography.
I’m not going to review the book, per se, though I would highly recommend reading this book if you are a huge fan of Henson’s work. Written by Brian Jay Jones, who is currently tackling the George Lucas biography, the book is very detailed and heartfelt and I, who thought I was such the Muppet expert, learned a whole lot from it.
I’ve been a dedicated Muppet fan since childhood. I watched Sesame Street with the kids of my generation, enamored by characters made of felt and foam. I watched the Muppet Babies cartoon every Saturday morning. My family had all three Muppet movies in our limited mid-80s VHS collection. And I watched reruns of The Muppet Show, which ended its popular television run the year I was born. I didn’t understand the pop culture jokes at the time, but I was glued to the screen anyway. I was only eight years old and barely aware in 1990 that Jim Henson had died; his family would keep the franchise going for more than a decade before it would be sold to Disney, so for many of us, the Muppets never skipped a beat.
Henson started out young, doing puppet shows for local television stations in college. He claimed in one interview that he always knew he would be successful. He felt that anyone who worked hard and loved what they did that much was sure to be successful in time, although time would become a major issue for him. He would never have enough. When Henson was twenty-two years old, his older brother was killed in a plane crash at age twenty-four. His early death would instill a sense of urgency in Henson – no one really knows how much time they have here on earth. And he was going to squeeze in as much as humanly possible.
Jim Henson was a highly creative individual who had an imagination that had no limit. For every complicated project he attempted, there were two in the wings that he was already planning. For every successful show or movie he made, there were a series of failed endeavors that either never got off the ground or were not critically successful. He never shied away from trying, even when facing almost certain failure. The man died rather abruptly with a head and heart still filled with passion and ideas.
His reach has been immense. Sesame Street alone was a huge innovation in its time. Designed as a teaching tool for low-income, inner-city children who didn’t have access to early education programs, Sesame Street would redefine educational television programming. Not only was it entertaining and fun, but millions of children would learn basics skills such as saying the alphabet, knowing how to count or identifying shapes and colors. Sesame Street was by far the most important of Henson’s projects and he was very protective of it. By the mid 1980s, Henson would be busy running a Muppet empire while filming would-be cult classics like Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and The Labyrinth, but still found the time to actively perform the part of Ernie on Sesame Street until his death.
He was the life force behind several of the Muppets. He was Kermit the Frog, of course. But he was also Rowlf the Dog. And he was Dr. Teeth from the Electric Mayhem. He was also Waldorf, half of the heckling duo Statler and Waldorf. And he was Ernie, the sweeter half of Bert and Ernie. With his right hand inside the head controlling the mouth and his left hand as Ernie’s left hand – and a willing puppeteer basically attached to his hip performing Ernie’s right hand – a decorated piece of felt would come to life. But it was more than just a voice and hand movements – it was a personality that was injected into the character. It seemed like magic when you were sitting in your living room watching Bert and Ernie squabble. But really…it was a lot of hard work, dedication and collaboration.
The concept of the “right hand” was one of my favorite take-aways from the book. I had always wondered how a character, like Ernie or Rowlf, could have two moving hands. I can’t even comprehend the amount of practice that must have gone into two people performing the same puppet…and it somehow still appears to be one entity, moving its hands fluidly together, gesturing and holding things.
I really, really enjoyed this book. It was a soothing balm to one of my longest running obsessions. The works of Jim Henson continue to amaze me through years, as I watch them (and make my daughter watch them) over and over again. After all this time, the magic is still there.
Thanks for reading.
Jim Henson: A Biography by Brian Jay Jones. On Twitter @brianjayjones
* Photos credits: Muppet Wiki.