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Jim Henson and Kermit

While Jim Henson made public appearances with Kermit, he was always more comfortable having the frog be in the spotlight, keeping himself behind the scenes.

I also found out when I was interviewing him today that you have the same manager, Bernie Brillstein.

HENSON: Oh yeah, right.

He actually called while I was there. It was sort of funny.

HENSON: Oh yeah? I've been with Bernie for about 18 or 19 years now, maybe 20.

I read the inspiration for the Muppets was Bunraku. Is there any truth to that?

HENSON: No, I don't think so.

Is this the kind of Japanese puppetry where the puppeteers are actually on stage but they're dressed all in black and you're supposed to ignore them, pretend they're invisible. Is that what Bunraku is?

HENSON: Sure, yeah. Bunraku is a marvelous and fascinating art form and puppetry form but, basically, I knew nothing about it until I had been working for a number of years myself.

This same article said you were also inspired by a French puppeteer who "perched puppets above exposed human hands." Is that also untrue?

HENSON: I'm not sure exactly what that means, but when I took that year off from the show, I wandered over to Europe. I traveled around and that was the first time I'd met any other puppeteers. When I was a kid, I never saw a puppet show. I never played with puppets or had any interest in them. I really did that whole thing in order to get on television because my enthusiasm was television and film. When I traveled around I saw the work of a number of people. Andrew Terhone is a very good French puppeteer, who does some marvelous things, and I'm sure I picked up some things from him but that was, as I say, three or four years into my work at least.

So by that time the Muppets had started to develop.

HENSON: Yeah, we pretty much had a form and a shape by that time - a style - and I think one of the advantages of not having any relationship to any other puppeteer was that it gave me a reason to put those together myself for the needs of television.

Yes, yes. I think you said on the interview over Labor Day that you were "active in theatre" at college and that you designed posters. These were posters for college theatrical productions...

HENSON: Yeah, yeah, in high school and college. I was very interested in theatre, mostly in stage design. I did a little bit of acting.

You did do some acting?

HENSON: Yeah, I did some small parts in high school and the first year of college and then fairly soon thereafter I settled into the backstage scenery, and then at the University of Maryland I was doing posters for their productions.

Did you ever take any acting classes or courses?

HENSON: I don't think so, no.

You said you got into puppetry because you were interested in getting into television and films, and yet you graduated in Home Economics. Why did you pick Home Economics?

HENSON: At the University of Maryland, my first year I started off planning to major in art because I was interested in theatre design, stage design or television design. But at that particular college, the advertising, art, costume design, interior design, layout - all of that stuff was part of Home Economics, for some strange reason. I think it's changed since then. And puppetry was a course that was given there that was also in Home Economics.

That was where you met Jane.

HENSON: Yeah, I met Jane. And that puppetry teacher said, you switch over to Home Economics, you don't have to take all of the math and sciences that you do in Fine Arts, so you can take more art courses. So I switched over to Home Economics on that basis and also ended up in classes - I think there were about 6 guys and 500 girls.

That sounds like a good ratio.

HENSON: Oh, it was marvelous.

I can imagine. You were active in Puppeteers of America. Are you still active in that, and what is it?

HENSON: Well, the Puppeteers of America is an organization in the US that has several thousand members, and I have been past president of it, and I've been on the board off and on, and then we have an international organization called UNIMA. The title of the organization is in French - it's the United - the Union Nationale Internationale Marionettist - (struggling to remember).

OK, something like that.

HENSON: It is one of those things. I was present of the US chapter of that for a number of years and been more or less active in that. These are two different organizations. Most people belong to both and, it's interesting, I was partly responsible for bringing that international conference to Washington, DC.

The 1980 one - 1980, the one you did the PBS special?

HENSON: Yeah, that was a marvelous festival that we had in Washington.

Yeah, that was wonderful. You didn't have anything to do with these couple of recent puppet exhibits that have come through New York, did you? There was one at the Museum on the Upper East Side. I forget which museum - the Cooper Hewitt? - but it was just great. There were some Muppets in it and an early Foodini and Howdy Doody.

HENSON: Yeah, right. Yeah, that exhibit was put together by the Puppeteers of America and is in Detroit right now with ours. The two of them are in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Oh, they're having a regular festival there all by themselves.

HENSON: Well, Detroit Institute is kind of a key - probably the largest permanent collection of puppets in the US.

You met Jerry Juhl and Frank Oz for the first time at the National Puppetry Convention in Carmel, California in 1961. Had you purposely set out to find somebody to take over for your wife, who was pregnant at the time, or was this just an accident that you went there and you met these incredibly talented people?

Rowlf the Dog as "The Dogfather."

Rowlf the Dog first appeared on the Jimmy Dean Show during the sixties.  Here, he is portraying "The Dogfather" in the 1999 Muppet Movie Parodies Calendar.

HENSON: Yeah, I think it was - I think it was an accident. I don't believe I was consciously looking for somebody. I think actually I met Frank's father and got to know him as a good friend before I ever met Frank. Frank's father is very active in the Puppeteers of America - well, his parents, it's actually both of them. They're marvelous, very outgoing and I talked to Frank, I think, early on about joining us. Well, he was really still at home and not ready to come East, but we talked about it as an idea, and I think the following year I invited him to come join us in New York and he did.

Don Sahlin built his first Muppet in 1960. Rowlf was the first non-abstract Muppet. I want to put these two ideas together - was Rowlf, in fact, the first Muppet Don Sahlin built?

HENSON: Yes, that's very good. Yes, that's true. I had met Don at that Puppetry Festival.

The same one, that was in Carmel?

HENSON: No, the first festival I went to was in 1960 in Detroit and the following year it was in California, I guess, but I met Burr there.

Burr Tillstrom?

HENSON: Burr Tillstrom.

Right, and Don was working with Burr.

HENSON: Yeah, and I just saw Burr two weeks ago in Detroit at the opening of that exhibit (9/8/82), and he's such a dear, sweet man, extremely talented, but it was such a nice thing to see him again. I hadn't seen him in a couple of years but, yeah, so Don was working for Burr part time and I had Don come down and work with us for a few weeks. He built Rowlf at that point and this other dog called Baskerville. The two of them were done for a series of dog food commercials we did in Canada. And then a little bit later I moved to New York, partly at Burr's suggestion, because Burr was encouraging me to come up there and we moved into an apartment building - the same building that Burr was in, as a matter of fact. We were all very close during that time.

It's nice that there was no competition between you.

HENSON: No, there's not much competition between puppeteers in general because everybody's working their own style. I've never felt any sense of competition with anybody, and we're all friends; we're all good friends.

When Nancy showed me Time Piece, I vaguely remember seeing it before. Would you happen to know if it was shown as part of the PBS series called Academy Leaders, where they showed theatrical shorts that had been nominated for Academy Awards?

HENSON: Yeah, I think it was, right. And when we first made that film, it opened in New York with A Man and a Woman at the - oh, I can't remember the theatre - the little theatre next to the Plaza Hotel.

Right, I know what you're talking about - the Paris or something like that.

HENSON: And it was one of those freaky things because it opened with a film that ended up playing there for a year.

So a lot of people saw it.

HENSON: Yeah, it did quite well. It got a couple of awards around the world and all.

The film guide that McGraw Hill puts out with it makes it seem very scholarly. It makes the film sound almost not enjoyable because they talk about it in such portentous terms.

Time Piece

First shown in 1965, the experimental 10-minute film, Time Piece was about a man running from time.  Jim not only directed and wrote this film, but he starred in it as well.

HENSON: Oh yeah? That's funny. Well the film is still being distributed and mostly to film societies and film classes and things like that.

Now that you mention it, I belong to a film society and we do show shorts occasionally. I think I'll recommend it to them, 'cause it's really worth seeing.

HENSON: Oh good. OK.

This is a question from my boyfriend, who is more into technical things. He tells me that when cartoons went from black and white to color, that there was considerable adjustment, because when they were in black and white, there were all these gradations of gray. He wondered when you were making the conversion from black and white TV to color TV whether the Muppets changed colors at all to adjust to the newly available color?

HENSON: Well, actually when I was first working, we were working in color now let's see, is that really true?

1953 you were working in color?

HENSON: Fifty-four, it was 54, I think.

1954 was Sam and Friends, yes.

HENSON: Well, I know we had color. I do remember doing shows strictly in black and white, too, so you're right. And I think I built and painted a couple of my early characters in black and white but, you see, NBC had established the color television system, and so they immediately converted their 5 owned and operated stations to color. Washington was one of those, so we were almost one of the very first people to do color television. NBC was trying to convert all of their local programming to color right away to encourage the sale of the sets, so I barely remember working in black and white, although I do know that I did do it, but there was not a major difference, though. If anything, there's a difference in working with color in England and the color in the US.

Why is that?

HENSON: Because the two color systems are different. It's fascinating, you know, and mostly it's the same except for the color yellow, for instance, because yellow in England is one of the basic electron guns and so you get beautiful, clear, gorgeous yellows. In the US yellow is a combination of the green and red guns.

So you're telling me that Big Bird isn't really yellow?

HENSON: It has always been difficult to get Big Bird to be very pretty. Big Bird in England is much more gorgeous.

Really?

HENSON: Yeah, it's a fascinating thing.

It's strange. You mentioned that you liked the Saturday Night Live Muppets so much - why have they never been brought back? For example, you're getting a chance now to do a series on HBO. Why are you doing a children's series? Why aren't you doing another adult series and maybe bring back the Mighty Favog and Scred and those Muppets?

HENSON: I don't know. I don't have any strong desire to bring them back to life. I like the characters physically; I like them very much but, as I say, I felt the thing never really jelled. When The Muppet Show ended, we all sat around and said, what kind of television show would we like to do. We felt the need these days are for some quality children's programming. There's not much done of a quality nature for kids. We were also looking - because of the way we've been going with The Muppet Show and Sesame Street - to go more internationally. We thought it would be fun to try to design a show that would work well internationally and so that' s what we're intending to do with Fraggle Rock, and we are indeed now selling it around the world.

I remember reading that. I also read you are the one who built Gonzo and that he was built at a time when the staff was in a hurry to make a whole lot of monsters, and he was built in 3 hours. Is that true?

HENSON: Yeah.

Gonzo

Since his debut in 1970 (on The Great Santa Claus Switch), Gonzo has developed into one of the most beloved Muppet characters.

Gee, I don't think of him as a monster at all. I think he's one of the most lovable and complex and...

HENSON: Oh yeah, well yeah, monster is probably not the right term. Matter of fact, we called these creatures Frackles on a special we did with Art Carney called The Great Santa Claus Switch. He was a very incidental character. He was called the Cigar Box Frackle, because he pops out of a Cigar Box. He was just snipped out of a block of foam with a pair of scissors in a very short time. Just really thrown together and then, because we liked him, we then continued to remake him and make him better and better and add mechanisms to the eyes and all that sort of thing.

He's really one of my favorite characters. What exactly is he?

HENSON: He's nothing, that's one of the good things about him.

Yeah, he's not quite abstract but he's not anything that I've ever seen.

HENSON: Right, right. I think in The Muppet Movie we said he's sort of like a turkey, but I never felt he was a bird particularly and so much of what Gonzo is really comes out of Dave Goelz. You get a talented performer, like a Dave or a Frank, and then any character they do just starts to bloom and blossom because of all that they put into it.

And you can tell that the puppeteers love those characters too. I read that all 5 of your children have worked on The Muppet Show - in what capacity?

HENSON: Well, not particularly officially all 5 have. Generally, they would come and visit and they would do certain things. Lisa and Cheryl, the oldest two, both have worked in the shop on the show, building puppets and doing costumes and that sort of thing. I would throw the younger kids into a group scene operating a background character and stuff like that, but nothing official.

How did the practice start of making a Muppet caricature of the guests on The Muppet Show?

HENSON: We only did that a little bit.

Oh, I thought you did that for all 120 shows.

HENSON: No, no, we only did it for a few people. I'm trying to think who we did it for. Paul Williams is the one who comes to mind.

I know you did it for Marty Feldman.

HENSON: Oh yeah, that's right. Yeah, we did sort of a Marty Feldman character and Paul Williams. Was there anybody else?

All along I've been envying these lucky people who got their own Muppet of themselves after they guested on the show.

HENSON: I don't think so, and Paul is about the only one we ever gave the puppet.

I read somewhere or picked up spuriously that Bunsen Honeydew is allegedly derived from Lord Grade. Is there anyone else whose name I would recognize that you might have built a Muppet character around?

HENSON: Not really, and even Bunsen Honeydew was not specifically Lord Grade when we did him. It would have been easy to make him much more like Lew Grade if we had tried to and, in retrospect, I wish that we had. The character that owns the Muppet theatre only appeared a couple of times and I always - in looking back - wished that I had made that to look just like Lew Grade because he's very caricaturable.

I know that one of the things that appeals to you very much is creating new worlds and new characters and new creatures. But does the idea appeal to you at all of making Muppet versions of famous illustrations, like Tenniel's illustrations of Alice in Wonderland or Denneslow's illustrations of The Wizard of Oz?

HENSON: Well, I don't know. I've never particularly thought in terms of doing that. We did a bit on Alice in Wonderland style.

Yeah, I remember that Alice in Wonderland show, with Brooke Shields.

HENSON: Yeah, the Brooke Shields show. I loved working with Brian (Froud) on The Dark Crystal because I feel The Muppet Show grew over a period of years and all those characters grew, but there were many diverse styles, and so it was quite a mixed bag, which had its good points and bad points. It was a variety show, and it lent itself to that, but the idea of having one design mind create an entire thing really appealed to me. And that's what we did with The Dark Crystal, but the way things are going these days with special effects and all of the different film techniques, one of the things that's exciting is that you can do anything with these kinds of creatures. You can take and bring to life any sort of illustrations or you can create anything new and so it's very exciting from that standpoint. I think that whole worlds are opening up to us that are limited only by our imaginations.

If the movie does really, really well, will there be The Dark Crystal II? Will these characters continue?

HENSON: Well, the story line does not lend itself to a continuation. I think this particular story has told itself and is complete. If the film is successful and if we decide that we want to continue on, I think we could set another story in the same world, but we probably wouldn't necessarily use the same characters.

The Muppet Show was occasionally taped before visiting children, but other than that, did you ever tape in front of an audience?

HENSON: No, not particularly. The way the show was taped, we would block and tape, which means that each piece of material would take anywhere from half an hour to several hours to tape, so it's a long, slow process. You can't really work in front of an audience that way. I mean, when we had Raquel Welch in the studio, we had a good 150 guys from neighboring studios, but it wasn't an official audience.

It seems to me that a laugh track was used on The Muppet Show.

HENSON: Yes.

Why did you do that? You didn't have networks breathing down your neck. Why did you put a laugh track in?

HENSON: No, well because of the form we had decided to choose to do the show, that we were doing what amounts to a little vaudeville show in front of an audience on a little stage with a backstage. So having chosen that as a premise, we decided to sweeten the shows and, as I look at some of the early shows, I'm really embarrassed by them. The sweetening got better later on, but it's always a difficult thing to do well, and to create the reality of the audience laughing. I did one special dry - without any laugh track - looked at it, and then tried it adding a laugh track to it, and it's unfortunate, but it makes the show funnier.

Really?

HENSON: Yeah, it's really strange, because I'm the sort of purist that doesn't like that sort of thing.

No, I don't either, but I have to say that it never impacted my pleasure in the show.

HENSON: Well, it does mine if it's badly done, and you really object to it. If the show is sweetened tastefully and just exactly right, you never notice it and it doesn't get in your way, so it really just depends on how well it's done.

I know that the musical production numbers, the voices and the music tracks were recorded before you actually did the performance on tape, but the dialogue portion of the show - the sound was recorded live then. Could performers have the script in front of them, or because they had to move around so much, did they actually have to memorize the script?

The Muppet Show Cast

The Muppeteers in a manic moment during the production of The Muppet Show in 1980: Jerry Nelson, Karen Prell, Richard Hunt, Jim Henson, Kathy Mullen, and Steve Whitmire. (Photo courtesy of Karen Prell).

HENSON: Oh, it varied a lot. Since the show was done in small bits and pieces, we seldom taped anything more than a couple of minutes so generally you could learn your lines. But, at the same time, when we were taping a lot of stuff rather quickly, we would tape up our little pieces of script on the scenery someplace.

I read somewhere that you also arranged the musical numbers on The Muppet Show - I just can't believe that - you were doing so many things simultaneously that you would have time to arrange the musical numbers too.

HENSON: No, no, I didn't do musical arrangements at all. We had several really good people who did that, but I think, basically, the thing I like to do was stage them or figure out what we could do with the number. I think someone probably misinterpreted that into arranging.

That could be. The Muppet comic strip is no longer appearing in New York. Does it still exist?

HENSON: Yes, it does. It was the decision of The Daily News to stop the strip, which was very sad to me because I liked it being there in New York, but it's still in several hundred newspapers around the country.

Do you have any input to that at all?

HENSON: Yeah, yeah. We worked for a long time. We spent a year and a half or two years working with different cartoon teams trying to find a good combination before we found Guy and Brad Gilcrist, and I'm very happy with the way they're coming, and the strip is growing quite nicely.

Yeah, it's a shame that it's been dropped here.

HENSON: Well, what happened was that it was immediately bought very broadly and it sold to more newspapers than most strips ever launch with. We immediately had - I don't know the figure right now - but several hundreds of newspapers, but after that first little bloom, a lot of people dropped it. Not a lot, but a few. Actually, I don't think it's gone down that much, but to me the guys are doing really a nice job and I think it's catching on. It's a growth process and all these characters always take a bit of time to settle in.

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