Jim Henson's Fantastic World arrives this week at the Orange County Regional History Center, and members of the puppet pioneer's family will be on hand to help celebrate the exhibit. Never before have I been as nervous as I was last Saturday, pacing outside a Winter Garden café, waiting for a woman who shares a big name from my generation's childhood. I shouldn't have worried so much, because Jane Henson proved warm and open as she shared hours of stories and insights on the life and work of her late husband.
This Smithsonian Institution—sponsored event (Jane's Saturday, Feb. 7, lecture is sold out) is one of her efforts to preserve Jim Henson's legacy and "keep his work out there," she says. Included in the exhibit itself are rare pieces of art (Jim was a painter who "had a thing for trees"), as well as books, photos and puppets. In addition, Muppets, Music & Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy, a series of video retrospectives produced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Jim Henson Legacy, will be screened over four weekends, starting March 7.
The collection has already toured through a handful of cities and received warm receptions. Jane says the opening at a stop "down the rabbit hole," in an underground Washington gallery, led security to frantically announce, "You have a capacity problem!" Each presentation is different: "I understand that Orlando is going to do it very colorful and playful," she says, with an "Imagination Station" for the kids.
When Jane Nebel met Jim Henson in 1954 as University of Maryland freshmen, he had already experimented in high school with puppetry on TV. "He wasn't a puppeteer as a child, but he was thespian," she says. "Clearly, Jim wanted to get on television. … He went to the library, got a couple books … he went from knowing nothing about it to being on `the local CBS station`."
In 1955, Jim was offered a five-minute spot on Washington, D.C.'s NBC affiliate, and he recruited Jane to assist. "Somebody upstairs decided to put this puppet show on" between the local news and The Huntley-Brinkley Report, she says, "a very daring thing to do." Sam and Friends ran six years and spawned the now-iconic Kermit the Frog. When Jim went to the 1958 Brussels puppetry festival, Jane continued the show: "It wasn't as good … a little more loose and silly."
She says Henson returned from Europe with a new outlook for the field of puppetry, just as the Muppets' popularity was expanding. When Steve Allen requested an audition, Jim and Jane lip-synced to a Rosemary Clooney record behind an overturned desk in Allen's office, and a string of Tonight Show appearances followed.
When the couple attended their first Puppeteers of America conference in 1960, they met and hired puppet-builder Don Sahlin, writer Jerry Juhl and performer Frank Oz (who was only 16 at the time but joined after high-school graduation); together they formed the core of the Jim Henson Company. By 1963 they had enough work from guest appearances and commercials to move to New York City.
Through the late '60s, Jim created experimental short films like the documentary Youth '68, an existentialist TV drama called The Cube and the Oscar-nominated Time Piece. Jane says Jim was interested "in the psychedelic movement … double images … it is hard to watch some of it now." In 1969 he began work on Sesame Street for the nonprofit Children's Television Workshop, and the rest is history.
The Hensons have been frequent visitors to Orlando since the early days of Walt Disney World. "We first came in 1972 or '73," Jane recalls. "Our oldest was around 12. At that time it was so great … Mr. Toad was definitely the favorite," she continues. Jim always loved the Disney films, she says, especially 1959's Sleeping Beauty. "He was very keen on watching how `animation` worked" and applied that same eye to the theme parks.
In 1990, a few months before his death, Jim bought a circa-1934 house in Windermere while negotiating with Disney over their purchase of the Muppets. He never lived there, but it remains in the family, used for Thanksgiving dinners and vacations. Jane says, "Jim loved the idea of working with Disney," but that merger famously broke down after his untimely passing, producing only a single attraction (MuppetVision 3-D) of the many envisioned.
In 2004 the Muppet characters were acquired by Disney in a final act of outgoing CEO Michael Eisner. Jane admits that the transition has been "messy" and "difficult" for veteran Muppeteers like Dave Goelz. She attributes the friction to a clash between two "very different cultures," comparing it to when Goelz's Gonzo appeared with Kevin Clash's Elmo from Sesame Street; even though the performers are friends, the characters are from "totally different realities." She was pleased, however, with the recent Disney-produced Christmas special, saying that "they did pretty darn good" in capturing the Muppets' personalities.
As for the risqué Broadway hit Avenue Q (a blue homage to Henson's work), she says, "I don't think I should be expected to like it." She is pleased with the show's success for the Muppet-trained stars, but says the boundary-bending made her "uncomfortable." She's more interested in seeing Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, a stage adaptation of the 1977 TV classic that debuted at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, go on to bigger productions.
She's similarly nonplused by elements of Michael Davis' new book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. "There's lots of interesting things in it," Jane says, but she didn't appreciate some unflattering comments from one of the Children's Television Workshop founders, Joan Ganz Cooney, who she speculates "never really made peace with the fact that Jim was an established company."
"For all we've been through, I'd do it all again," she says near the end of her pot of tea. "Since Jim died I felt like it was up to me to keep his work out there"; a job made easier by the fact that it's not dated. "The `guest stars` are, but the Muppets aren't, the humor isn't."[email protected]