My Pilgrimage to the Jim Henson Company
In October, my wife Melissa and I had the opportunity of a lifetime. I had qualified as a contestant for the game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire", and we were being flown from Salt Lake City to New York City, where we were wined and dined by the studio. We left behind our son Miles, "The Cutest Baby In The World", but it was just for a few days, and for the chance to win a million bucks, we decided it was worth the risk. So we packed up Rubber Duckie (who travels everywhere with us) and a toothbrush and decided it was time to "Take Manhattan".
Well, one trip stretched into two, because they had over-booked contestants for the first week we were there, so after a lot of tension and several four-hour flights, we were back in New York. I finally got to play the game, the results of which I can't disclose, but it will be on the air in February 2003. I had a great time, was on two different shows, and Rubber Duckie and Melissa both got a lot of screen time. So after all of the limo rides and dinners and flights and touristy things to see and do in the Big Apple, we had one last morning. What did we decided to do with it?
We decided to visit 117 E 69th Street, home and headquarters of The Jim Henson Company. I knew the address by heart, having seen it on so many rejection letters, and I had caught glimpses of the interior of the building on various documentaries and specials, and in books like "Of Muppets and Men" and "Jim Henson: The Works". I remembered hearing about an elaborate reception desk in the lobby, and was hoping maybe we could just see the reception area before they called security to escort us out.
It had been raining all morning, but as we found our way from the subway exit and through the masses to East 69th Street, we were hopeful and nervous. What if they were just cold corporate nasty people who booted fans like us back out on the street? What if we tried to explain to them that our first conversation was mainly about the Muppets and Sesame Street, and they gave us the cold shoulder? What if the building was filled with accountants who didn't know the difference between a Fraggle and a Frackle? The what-ifs were overwhelming, and nearly stopped us in our tracks. Melissa said something to the effect of, "You have wanted this your whole life. And now you're so close. You've got to keep on going." So we kept going.
The building itself is unmarked, not so much as a "JHC" on the doorbell. We walked up to the brownstone, just like all of the other 4-story apartment buildings on the block, and peered at the door. Nothing. No Statler/Marley Doorknocker. No hint of a frog or amphibian of any kind. We backed off of the steps, where a delivery truck was unloading boxes. Melissa nudged me. "Look at the boxes!" she hissed. I started reading their labels. ELMO: MEDIEVAL COSTUME. BIG BIRD: LEGS PRAIRIE DAWN: DRESSES. COOKIE MONSTER: BAKER'S COSTUME. Something was afoot. We went back up to the silent, locked, unmarked door, feeling a lot like Dorothy and her party waiting to be admitted to the Wizard. We looked up and saw a security camera. The door buzzed. We pushed it, and walked in.
The first thing we saw was a small vestibule before the main lobby. There was a display case that featured Kermit and Miss Piggy watching a baseball game, complete with a LOT of gametime snacks for the pig. Above the display case was a beautiful stained glass pieces with Kermit sitting in his swamp. "Beautiful" was to become the keyword for everything we saw in the next half-hour.
We walked kind of sheepishly into the lobby, which is dominated by two features: a mural covering one wall, and the reception desk we had already heard about. The mural by Coulter Watt is set up to be the Muppet Show Theater, as if you were on the stage looking into the audience. The audience is, of course, Muppets. Some of the more prominent ones were: Statler, Waldorf, Big Bird, Kermit and Piggy are all in the box seats. The balcony is filled with monsters, including Sweetums, Thog, the Two-Headed Monster, Herry, and assorted creatures from the Land of Gorch. The main part of the audience was filled with favorites: Bert, Ernie, Scooter, Gonzo, Fozzie, Rowlf, Bunsen, Beaker, Swedish Chef, Cookie Monster, Grover, Animal, Janice, Zoot, Floyd, Dr. Teeth, Rizzo, Oscar, Sam, Pops, Jen, Kira, Mokey, Gobo, Wembley, and Sprocket. Basically anybody who's anybody from every major Henson Production through the 1980's is there in some way or another. The best part of the mural? There's a row of six red theater seats in front of the mural so you and your friends (in my case, my wife and Rubber Duckie) can sit there and be a part of the Muppet Show.
The other major feature of the lobby is the reception desk. It's three-sided and is inlaid with 120 different kinds of wood. Evidently it was commissioned while Jim Henson was still alive, but was so elaborate and took so long to craft that it wasn't delivered until about five years ago. The three panels of the desk depict "Arts and Letters," "Drama," and "Music." Gonzo and a rat (possibly Rizzo) portray "Arts and Letters," with Gonzo wielding a quill and enormous scroll of paper. Kermit plays Hamlet for "Drama," as our favorite frog contemplates the head of Yorick (an early Muppet). Fozzie and Scooter are in the background of this panel; Scooter is putting on a Puppet Show for Fozzie, who's filming the whole thing. The third panel, "Music," features Janice with her arm around a medieval guitar. I have loved Janice forever, and she has never looked more seductive, with her lips exceptionally pouty and her hair pulled into a bun, with ringlets spilling down the sides of her face. And the dress is FORM FITTING.
There are other flourishes around the lobby that left me speechless: Plaster Kermits and Fozzies adorned the top of the doorway, framed original artwork from Jim Henson was tucked in the corner of the lobby, a table based on his designs held a plant, and in an adjoining room we could see shelves of Emmys and other awards. The receptionist, Mark, was very nice, and as we gushed that we were from Salt Lake City and were huge Muppet fans and had always wanted to come to New York to see the headquarters and thank you so much for letting us take a picture with the mural and you're so nice and oh yeah, can I take pictures of the desk thank you so much thank you thank you. So in mid-gush, he apologetically explained that this IS a business, and that we couldn't really go through the rest of the building to see the other marvels of 117 E 69th Street. We understood completely, and were happy just to see the parts of the lobby we could see. He let us take some pictures, and some pictures of Rubber Duckie, and we were getting ready to leave, when this other guy came in from one of the offices and started talking to us.
It turns out he's the building manager, and he was waiting for an appointment with a guy who hadn't shown up yet. He had heard that we were from WAY out of town, and were big fans, and was wondering if we'd like to see some more of the building while he was waiting for his appointment to show up? Melissa checked my eyes for tears. There weren't any. Yet. So he started taking us on a tour of the rest of the building.
We started in the basement, where they had recently moved the workshop where they actually build the Muppets. The workshop had been at an external location for several years, and just in the last few weeks had been moved back "home". These were the boxes we had seen being unloaded in front of the building. So there, in the basement, on tables, on shelves, on the floor, suspended from the ceiling, were Muppets. And pieces of Muppets!
Fur, feathers, fleece, flocking, foam rubber, eyes, armatures, sketches are all over the place. Some of my best friends were there! Among them were Bear (from the Big Blue House), the Two-Headed Monster, Big Bird, Elmo, Grover, Zoe, Prairie Dawn, and a bunch of others who happened to be in for costume changes, check-ups, or rebuilds. Melissa asked (for me, since I was in shock) if we could take a picture of me with my furry pal Grover; in retrospect, I wish I would have taken more pictures than we did. It was amazing to see these puppets, who I've "known" since I was just a pup, in person. Some were bigger than I thought, some smaller, but all were delightful. Bright, colorful, and even though they weren't being used by their performers, they were still full of life. I could have died here. But we kept going.
We started winding up the staircase, passing an enormous sculpture/mobile called "The Great Balloon Race". It had three hot-air balloons ascending up the atrium of the building, and in the baskets and on the rigging of the balloons were dozens of Muppet, Sesame, and Fraggle PVC figurines. Very elaborate, very cool.
Our guide took us into the upper floors of the building, where there was even more Muppety goodness. We started to go into a boardroom, but there was a meeting in progress, so we backed out of there and went into other offices. We saw Jim Henson's old offices, which have been kept in basically the same condition and décor as when he was alive. They've moved in some more desks and updated a few things, but the spirit of the room was still very much the same, with a giant Jim-made moose head mounted on the wall, and a stained glass window featuring Bert and Ernie in the top pane and Frank Oz and Jim in the bottom pane. These rooms were full of people who seemed very busy, so we didn't interrupt them. All of the people we met were very friendly, and I envied them and their jobs and their working environment. There were framed pictures of Muppets everywhere: some from the "Parodies," some from the Kermitage art collection, and others were production photos and original artwork. It was amazing. There were also various Muppet products and merchandise on display in various offices. We saw Palisades second wave of action figures which looked GREAT, and some vintage stuff too.
Then the meeting let out, and our guide took us back into the boardroom to show us a few more goodies. One entire wall of the room was a library of episodes of Henson productions. We could have spent a YEAR there looking and watching all of the Henson we could stand. Which is a lot. But the best part was that, on a rack at the end of the table were some Muppets being prepped for a Mastercard commercial. These included Fozzie Bear, Rowlf, Animal, Pepe, and Foo-Foo, and it was great to see them. Melissa started talking about how much I miss Rowlf, and so we got to take more pictures. There was also the large Skeksis throne in the corner of the boardroom from "The Dark Crystal", and I got to sit in that (which made me feel like an idiot, but I can say I've done it.).
What impressed me over and over again was that these were people who loved doing their jobs. Our guide was 27 years old, and had worked at Henson for 9 years, working his way up the ladder and he loves his job. He took us back to his office and showed us all sorts of things, like the "Shrine to the Almighty Dollar" that Jim built, and loads of art and toys and cool things that could be in a museum, but instead it's in his office.
Some people dream of going to the Super Bowl. Some people want to meet movie stars. Others dream of singing with their favorite band. I've always wanted to visit the Muppets. All of the times I dreamed about visiting the "Muppet HQ", I imagined it would be just like this: a creative, homey environment, friendly people, and a place that invited you in and gave you a warm Muppety hug. That's what it was.
We went to New York to win a million dollars, but we came away with something as valuable, I had finally made my "pilgrimage", and fulfilled a lifelong dream. It was an experience I'll treasure my entire life, and I'm grateful to the people there who had the time and the patience and the love to indulge a fan, his wife, and their Rubber Duckie.
Editor's Note: Because the Jim Henson facilities are used for offices which are always in operation, tours even if scheduled in advance generally are not permitted. Please be respectful of the company's wishes if you attend New York City. This article is a case of the writer being in the right place at the right time.