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Muppet Monday: Brian Jay on Jim Henson

Happy Monday! This Wednesday, Jim Henson would have turned 78. In the 3 years I’ve been working on THP, one of the highlights has always been learning and discovering more about Jim and the Muppets that I love. If you’ve been following since last year, you might remember I was SUPER excited for the release of the first grown-up biography of Jim. Author Brian Jay Jones created a fantastic portrait of a complex man who had a hand (ha) in so many of the movies, television shows, and characters we still love today. So I’m beyond thrilled to have Brian on the blog to answer a few questions as we celebrate Jim’s birthday. I hope you enjoy this Q&A and be sure to enter the awesome giveaway at the end. Psst. I know what Brian’s new book is about and he’ll be announcing it soon but oh gee, you guys are going to be all over it.

And, of course, happy Birthday, Jim.

I can’t believe it’s been just about a year since your biography on Jim released! Congrats on all the success; it makes me so happy to see people enjoying it. So this is kind of a two-part question. What was the most memorable part of putting the book together? Did you learn anything exciting about Jim from those you met at signings or event after you published the book?

Part the First: The most memorable part of putting the book together was meeting and talking with all the really extraordinary people in Jim’s life, from his family to his coworkers to his childhood friends. I got to see, do, and talk about so many fun and interesting things. I watched Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire film an OKGo music video in a studio in Burbank — with Kirk Thatcher directing, no less. I had brunch with Steve Whitmire and breakfast with Frank Oz, and I got to see the Burt sculpture that Jim gave Oz as a gift — the one Oz talked so movingly of at Jim’s Memorial Service. Lisa Henson showed me the dollhouse she and Jim built together. Jerry Nelson–that voice!–and I ate bagels in his kitchen in Truro while snow fell outside. Cheryl Henson sat me down in her apartment with Brian and Wendy Froud — at which I point all I could do was sit and listen to them laugh and tell stories and gossip like the old friends they are. I sat with Karen Falk for weeks, exploring the Henson Archives like two archaeologists. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It was a privilege to touch that world, if only for a moment.

Part the Second: What I learned from meeting people is just how deeply loved and appreciated he and his work are, even to this day. I mean, I suspected it intuitively, sure, but until I got out there, I really had no idea the true extent of it. Muppet and Jim fans are some of the most passionate out there–and they’re really well-versed in the life and work, so you get really good questions and great conversations. And every piece of Jim’s work has its devoted fans. There are people who live and breathe Muppets, while others live and breathe The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth or Sesame Street or Emmet Otter or Muppet Babies or . . . .again, I can go on and on. It’s such a deep and wide breadth of work that appeals across age groups, gender, or culture that I get to meet these really great, diverse groups of people. And usually, when I get to the end of a talk, instead of questions, more often than not I find that people in the audience want to raise their hands and tell me what Jim means to them. I love that.

Plus, I give probably the only book talks where there are puppets in the audience, nodding knowingly and reacting as I speak. Well done, all you talented puppeteers out there.

What was one of the rumors or stories you hoped to squash in the writing and researching of the biography?

That Jim died because his Christian Science faith wouldn’t let him seek medical attention. It’s a compelling narrative, but it’s just not true. At that point in his life, Jim hadn’t been a practicing Christian Scientist for decades, and he wasn’t averse to seeing doctors. Sure, he wasn’t great about having regular checkups with a doctor, but then you can probably say that about most people–and in fact, he would have had regular medical examinations in order to be insured for his TV and film projects. So, again, Jim didn’t have a problem with doctors or with medication. He took good care of himself, and rarely got sick–so rarely, in fact, that when he did get sick, he’d make a note of it in his journal.

I think there were two things going on during Jim’s final illness. First, Jim likely didn’t think he was critically ill. He thought he had a severe case of the flu, and his symptoms were very flu-like. For the most part, he had no reason to believe there was anything serious going on–unless you’re a hypochondriac, most people just don’t believe they’re critically ill. So, I think Jim thought if he just rode it out–and after that rough weekend at his parents’ place in North Carolina, if he just went back home to New York and went to bed–he’d get over it. And really, I can relate. In 2009, while I was researching the book, I was in London when swine flu was raging and — of course — I got it. I was flat on my back for days, shivering one moment, burning up the next, really convinced that I might die . . . and I still did nothing about it. I took Advil, and went to bed and rode it out. And I got better. And I really think that’s what Jim thought would happen.

The second thing: Jim didn’t like to inconvenience or bother people. Only Jim Henson would think going to a doctor was somehow “inconveniencing” the doctor. And even when the driver of car that Arthur Novell had hired to take Jim to the hospital pulled up at the wrong entrance–he stopped up to the main entrance instead of the emergency entrance around the corner–only Jim would tell the driver not to worry about it and walk around the corner himself. That was Jim. Being sick, in his mind, didn’t just inconvenience him, it inconvenienced anyone else around him. And he hated that.

Anyway, that was the big one. Then there were two other smaller ones I want to mention—and I’m probably not going to change the mythology on either one of these anyway, but here we go: One, Muppet really is not a combination of the words “marionette” and “puppet.” That legend has been debunked before–Jim himself even says it’s not true–and I talked about it in the book as well, but that one is probably never going to go away, despite the fact that it’s sort of Flat Earth Theory. I see people tweeting it constantly, so there you go. The second one — and this one surprised me — was that Jim really disliked the term “Muppeteer.” He always called them “Muppet performers,” and thought “Muppeteer” was far too cutesy. But again, that’s one that’s probably never going to go away, either.

Were there any interesting stories that didn’t make it into the book?

As you can probably imagine, with hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews, there are bound to be LOTS of stories and details that are fun or interesting that ultimately can’t make it into a book, or it would have been 5,000 pages long–and it’s already a pretty long book as it is. I had to cut the story of Jim and the Muppet team meeting the Queen of England during the jubilee, for instance — it was a story I thought was really funny, and there were great photos of it in the newspapers, with Sweetums looming up in the background behind this well-dressed group of royals. I liked it so much, I even opened a chapter with it. But it didn’t quite work, so it had to hit the cutting room floor in the name of space. I think it gets about three lines now. That’s what happens.

One of my biggest disappointments is that there’s just no way to devote space to every single project Jim touched — and that means someone’s favorite project is bound to get left out, and I can only say I’m sorry if that happened to a project that you love. I’ve gotten e-mails from people who love Follow That Bird, for instance, asking why it doesn’t get a mention, or why something like The Ghosts of Faffner Hall gets only a passing glance. A project’s absence or brief mention is never a reflection on the quality of the project. Rather, what I had to do early on was make a judgment call about how “Jim-centric” a particular project was in order to rank its likelihood it might make it into the final draft. If it’s any solace to those who’s favorite project didn’t make it in, one of my favorites isn’t in there, either, actually. I love the work Jim and the Muppet team did for Wilson’s Meats, and I don’t think we ended up with even a mention of it in the final. And that’s a very Jim-centric production. You win some, you lose some.

One of my biggest takeaways from the book was Jim’s ridiculous work ethic and how he was constantly moving on to something new when the original project wasn’t even finished yet. Then there was how much his employees meant to him, and how he always tried to inject fun into what he was doing. Since immersing yourself in his world, did you find yourself adopting any of Jim’s practices into how you approach your own work?

Jim didn’t understand why more people didn’t love working; he thought it was one of the great pleasures in life. Now, of course, we aren’t all lucky enough to be working with Muppets–or building a world like Dark Crystal or Fraggle Rock–every day, so he had a slightly different work day than most of us. But his point, I think, is to do your best to love what you do–and if you’re not doing what you love, try to find a way that you get to do it. It’s not always possible, but Jim was, as he once said, a ridiculous optimist. He genuinely believed hard work paid off, and that being positive about what you were doing–even if it wasn’t yet what you wanted to do for a living–would make the world a better place. He was certain that by staying positive and focused that you would eventually get to do what you love for a living. That kind of optimism is infectious.

On top of that, Jim, as Frank Oz put it, was also a great appreciator. He appreciated people, he appreciated things, and he appreciated hard work. Taken altogether, then, that’s an irresistible message about life and work. I’m very lucky that doing something I love is part of the way I make a living. That’s a great place to be–and, as Jim would want me to do, I appreciate that. But even more, Jim wanted there to be a conscious joy in work. When The Muppet Show was at the top of its game, Jim really wanted his performers to take a moment to not just appreciate, but to enjoy the fact that their work had paid off. So, Jim reinforced for me to never take anything, but especially the good things, for granted. I really work to make sure I have an awareness that I’m enjoying what I do when I’m doing it–to take a moment and say, “Wow, this is really great. I’m really lucky.” Because I really am.

With Jim’s birthday this week, it’s hard not to discuss legacy. Even in this internet age, I’m glad to see that his work is still so appreciated. Other than reading your fantastic biography, how can we ensure that his work is remembered?

As they used to say in the closing credits of every episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, “Keep circulating the tapes!” One of the things I hear from a lot of readers is that as they were reading Jim’s biography, they kept diving into YouTube to watch commercials, clips, or other bits talked about in the book. And I love that. The internet age is actually making it easier for people to see Jim’s old work — before, you had to wait for it to show up in a television retrospective, or as part of a museum exhibit; now it’s a mere Google away. So keep posting links and pointing people toward Jim’s work.

Also: please keep talking about Jim when you talk about the Muppets. I know Disney owns them now, and it’s their prerogative to do with them as they will, but–and this is going to sound really cranky–it really busts me up that they’re now marketed as “Disney’s The Muppets.” We don’t see them marketing “Disney’s The Avengers,” or “Disney’s The Amazing Spider-Man.” It says MARVEL right on the poster, for crying out loud. Now, understand, I don’t pretend to know any of the legalities here; I just wish it said somewhere “Jim Henson’s Muppets.” I don’t think that would be a disservice to the Disney brand at all. But then, what do I know?

So: Keep watching. Keep talking. Keep believing. Keep pretending.

A birthday giveaway: Brian was generous enough to offer a signed copy of the audiobook of Jim Henson: The Biography for a lucky reader. In addition, I am offering a Nook or Kindle copy of the book to a second winner. Must be a U.S. resident to enter and over the age of 13. Good luck! Details below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Big thanks to Brian for visiting This Happy Place Blog! Can’t wait for more of your work!

Simple Moments: The Start of You and Me

Welcome, friends. We’ve almost made it through another week and I’m ecstatic to have Alex from Practically Imperfect back on the blog. She’s helped us prep for our Alaska trips (fun fact: one of THP’s top performing posts), and now she’s chatting about a great moment during her honeymoon trip to WDW. Happy reading! -emh

Simple Moments Banner at This Happy Place Blog

When Estelle emailed a few weeks ago telling me about this series, I was instantly on board. The more my visits to the park have slowed down in pace over the past few years, the more of these simple moments I seem to have. There was one that immediately came to mind, though.

It was November 29th {confession: I looked this up} and it was the first day of our honeymoon. We had just arrived at Bay Lake Tower for a short two-night stay before seven glorious nights on the Disney Fantasy. We checked in, hopped on the monorail, and were on our way to our favorite eatery in the world, Via Napoli. We had an amazing lunch. After this, we had no plans until Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, so we lingered in Epcot. We grabbed a drink in France. Then the UK.

But the simple moment didn’t really happen till we had our drinks in hand {a Bass for Vinnie, Magner’s Pear Cider for me} and we moseyed to the garden area of the UK, where the band typically performs. They weren’t today though, and we were the only people in this entire area. It was quiet, peaceful, and we were so happy. We plopped ourselves on a bench and just relaxed. We had been married for less than two weeks, we were at the start of an amazing vacation {isn’t the first day full of so much excitement?!} and we were extra giddy from sangria, grey goose slushies, and our current beverages.

I don’t know how long we sat there, but it was quite a bit of time before we moved. It was a perfect, simple, moment.

Epcot - Alex Mastrianni


Back to High School Musical: The Original

For all the time I spend talking about my affection for High School Musical, I have never officially written about it on the blog.

Well, folks, the time has come.

To commemorate the start of a brand new school year, I am assigning myself the task of rewatching all 3 movies in the High School Musical franchise and reporting about it on here. Are we excited? Are we all in this together? (Bear with me, will ya?)

♥  ♥  ♥

At this point, I’ve seen High School Musical more than any well-respected gal in her late-20s should probably admit. When it debuted in 2006, I had just moved back to my college dorm for the spring semester and I caught it on TV, never thinking it would be more than background noise as I unpacked. But I had known Zac from his days on Summerland (a short-lived series on the CW Network) and he was adorable. From his first solo with Vanessa Hudgens playing Gabriella Montez at the very beginning, I was hooked.

In ways, I see High School Musical as this generation’s Grease without the sexual innuendo and pregnancy. Two people, total opposites, meet and discover, despite their interests and level of popularity, they feel something real for one another. When Troy and Gabriella first lay eyes on each other they are at a winter resort, away from their stations at school and their friends. Forced to get up in front of a crowd of strangers and sing karaoke (the nerves!) and discover despite Troy’s athleticism and Gabriella’s alleged shyness, they sing well together and bring out the best in each other.

Sure, the lessons here are simple. We are not only one thing. Troy shouldn’t be seen as only a star basketball player, while Gabriella shouldn’t be limited to being a brainiac. And maybe they wouldn’t be forced to discover these shades of gray if — thanks to movie magic — Troy and Gabriella end up in the same school, same class after break. Gabriella sees this as an excuse to start fresh, while Troy can’t ditch the pressure of bringing a championship back to the high school from his dad (who doubles as the coach). Throw in an entitled diva (Sharpay played by Ashley Tisdale) and most likely, Troy and Gabriella’s connection is not meant to amount to much more than a one-night thing.

Can a jock and a nerd really fall in love? Most importantly, can all the students at this school pursue other interests without worrying about their peers judging them?

Well, not exactly. Not even a choreographed number in the high school cafeteria makes it okay. At first.

As cheesy as it was, there was always something about Troy and Gabriella that resonated with me. I think it’s probably the same feeling I had when I saw Baby dance with Johnny Castle for the first time. She didn’t have any experience, but she put her mind to something outside of her comfort zone. (Her attraction to Johnny and internal desire to do something that defied her dad being her main impetuses.) Troy and Gabriella were doing a bit of the same. (It’s no surprise Kenny Ortega, director of Dirty Dancing, also directed and choreographed HSM.) I think most people relate to that feeling of wanting to go out there and kick ass, especially when no one really expects you to.

It’s terrifying yet empowering.

Start of Something New on Disney Video

Going back to the basics of so many movies we love helped launch so many of the stars in these films (all four of the main actors are still working today) and made High School Musical the most successful Disney Channel Original Movie ever. EVER. Go figure. The obvious low budget, the jarring mix of Zac Efron and Andrew Seely’s voices to make Troy, and the badly dubbed scenes didn’t stop viewers from noticing the chemistry between Zac and Vanessa, the fantastic choreography performed by some outrageous dancers, and the catchy ORIGINAL tunes.

Does something have to be completely revolutionary to be a hit? Obviously not. Sometimes it pays to stick to the old formula and sprinkle it with some jump shots and a few jazz squares.

♥  ♥  ♥

A few of my favorite things:

Standout character: Alyson Reed, Ms. Darbus as the intense drama teacher. Her casting is comical because she is a Broadway actress and played “Cassie” in the movie version of A Chorus Line. Delightfully dramatic, her presence is felt and she brings a ton of comedy to the film.

Best choreographed number: “Ge’tcha Head in the Game” with “We’re All in This Together” as a close second. Dancing with basketballs is pretty memorable.

All in This Together on Disney Video

I obsessed over: Whatever book Gabriella kept carrying around on New Year’s Eve before she met Troy.

Also: Zac can freaking dance.

Great detail: Chad’s wordy t-shirts. (Corbin Bleu!)

Weirdness: Sharpay and Ryan do not act like brother and sister, at all. It throws everyone for a loop, at first, I think.

It annoyed me: That Troy and Gabriella’s friends were so close-minded AND there might have been a lack of kissing… (spoiler!)

Ashley Tisdale’s shining moment: Looking over a cafeteria of classmates indulging their deepest secrets like the evil queen in “Stick to the Status Quo.” Her singing is pretty spectacular there.

Underrated: Olesya Rulin as Kelsey — the mastermind behind the high school’s winter musical. She’s so nice and uber talented.

Biggest realization: I have no idea what their high school musical was actually about.

Bonus: Troy and Gabriella were the precursor to Glee’s Finn and Rachel. Big time. Even this dance step was in “Breaking Free.”

Tell me the truth. How do you feel about High School Musical? Is it great, does it leave you feeling totally nostalgic,
or does its popularity surprise you?

Quinn @ Quinn's Book NookSeptember 17, 2014 - 10:51 am

I discovered HSM in college, too, all because I was babysitting some kids who kept talking about it. So glad they did, because I really liked the movie.

I never thought about it, but you are so right about Troy and Gabriella and Finn and Rachel. Too funny!

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about HSM2 and HSM3

deshipleySeptember 17, 2014 - 10:54 pm

I didn’t really start to feel invested in the HSM movies until number 2 premiered (conveniently enough, on an evening we were visiting our grandmother who — unlike us, at the time — had cable). I do have fond memories, though, of my youngest sister performing her 10-minute abridged version of the songs and select plot points. X) It didn’t do much to convey what in the world was going on, but it was hilarious to watch, and was my first taste of the awesomeness that is the “Stick to the Status Quo” number.
Then, of course came 2, which I loved more than I expected to, in all its glorious over-saturated color. And then 3, the soundtrack of which I had on replay for months. But let’s save all that for your forthcoming posts. :)

Muppet Monday: Sharpay vs. Miss Piggy

I had a crazy Saturday where I ate cheese and watched High School Musical 2. In case you forgot, that’s the one where the kids from the first HSM movie are working at a country club owned by the parents of Sharpay and Ryan Evans — the musically talented and weirdly close siblings. Sharpay is blond, gorgeous, and used to being the queen of the school in a bit of a bullying way. At the end of High School Musical, viewers are almost tricked into thinking she is turning over a new leaf but nope. A few months later, she schemed to steal the star basketball player from the new girl at school by demanding that the country club manager does whatever it takes to get him a job there.

Why couldn’t she just invite him to hang out for the summer? Oh, that would be too too easy.

Anyway. Her first big musical number in the movie is “Fabulous” — complete with backup dancers, more pink than you ever wanted to see, and the gorgeous backdrop of Utah. (Seriously, it’s gorgeous.)

I couldn’t help but think this was a page taken out of Miss Piggy’s book, right? She might not want to be caught dead in the hills of Utah instead of the Hollywood Hills but I could very well see Piggy lounging in a pool chair, imagining the world waiting on her hand and foot. Or hoof? Of course, she would be in love with a green frog but I think you get the idea.

Miss Piggy vs Sharpay Evans

(I do not own either of these pictures.)

Sharpay and Piggy have more than that in common. They don’t have any real girlfriends; their best confidant is a tiny dog. They are used to bossing everyone around and getting what they want – mostly. They can’t seem to get the man (or frog) of their dreams, and they are constantly trying to convince people that they are the biggest and best star in the world.

Their desire to be at the top casts them as the villain in more than one instance, and whatever lengths they go to in their movie, their diva-licious persistence picks right up in their next appearance.

So who is the diva-est of them all? I’m not sucking up in the least bit but Piggy still takes the cake. (Though I’m not sure if that makes her a true winner exactly.) Because Sharpay is still young, I do think she wants to be friends with these guys (as freaky as she thinks they are) because she doesn’t want to end up alone. In each of her movies, there’s always a point where she realizes that despite her behavior, everyone else does want to accept her and be her pal. For Piggy, not so much. Other than Kermit, she mostly stands on her own and doesn’t back down for anything. Even if she does wear the diva crown, maybe she could take a lesson from Sharpay sometime in the future.

As for right now, I’m dreaming of a future duet between Ashley Tisdale and Piggy. I think it would be — you guessed it — fabulous.

Happy Reads ( + Recap) Time: 9/14/2014

Why hello there.

Been a crazy few weeks with me as I transition into a new job so I’m not sure quite on frequent these wrap up posts will be but I am going to try my best.:)I love sharing my favorite posts with you even if I am weeks and weeks late. Now let’s talk about the news. Frozen madness taking over Norway officially. Sigh. I have a lot of thoughts on this, and none of them are because I think Maelstrom is the best attraction in the whole World. More like… a change like this represents a huge shift in what the World Showcase is supposed to be. What does the future hold? I guess we shall see. As you mourn for Norway this weekend, I do urge you to check out these great reads. It will soften the blow, I promise.

Minnie Moo + pre-Splash mountain construction make appearances in Burnland‘s Looking Back Magic Kingdom 1991.

Dave McBride mourns the loss of Epcot entertainment vets Off-Kilter over at Jambo Everyone blog.

Emma from Pinch of Pixie Dust plays tour guide to the new Grand Floridian rooms, comparing to the older look. So fun!

Stuck at the WDW in the rain? Great list about the best places to hide out during those unfortunate times from Main St. Gazette.

I really want the cast of Sesame Street to read my tweets but they went on Jimmy Fallon instead. Thanks for sharing, ToughPigs!

A great way to remember Robin Williams & the classic Back to Neverland short from the good old days at Hollywood Studios with Jerry Rees and The Disney Project podcast.

Lounges — one of my favorite stops on vacation! Alex over at Practically Imperfect shares her favorites from around the World.

Between Disney reviews Life, Animateda non-fiction book about a father, a son, and how Disney movies brought them together.

We played a fantastic round of KILL REFURB MARRY this week. Thanks to all the participants — old + new — would sounded off about transportation! I loved reading your picks. So creative. Next month: COFFEE PLACES. Join us!

Simple Moment series is going strong with an entry from KJ at Plus the Magic and a quiet story about Future World.

I also talked about Joan Rivers and Miss Piggy in this week’s Muppet Monday.

Thanks so much for reading, friends! Enjoy your Sunday + these fun reads!