The Case of Jim Henson

All month, we have been talking about Jim Henson projects. This week, we’re wrapping up the month with an episode about the man himself; the one and only Jim Henson. 

It was 1954 and the start of the fall semester at the University of Maryland. The Home Economics curriculum had recently added a brand new course: puppetry. The professor was a talented silversmith, who had very little experience with the medium. This wasn’t a problem, considering the fact that the class was mostly made up of seniors that were inexperienced in puppetry, and trying to get their last college credits. It wasn’t a problem, of course, until a tall lanky 18-year-old man named Jim Henson walked in. 

For the last couple years, Henson had been working as a puppeteer on local network shows. Although he didn’t consider himself an expert puppeteer, he had more experience than anyone else in the room, and quickly took over the class. One of his fellow students stood out to Jim, a dry-witted 20-year-old named Jane Nebel. Together, Jim and Jane formed a partnership that would lead to the creation of some of the world’s warmest, funniest, and most familiar characters: The Muppets. 

This was only the beginning. Eventually the two of them would marry, and create a family of five children. Jane would take on more of a familial role, as Jim would carry on his career to new and more exciting ventures. He was a visionary, a true genius that never stopped working. Jim Henson constantly pushed the boundaries of his craft to reach the far corners of his limitless imagination. And when he found roadblocks, he broke through them with boundless creativity. 

Jim Henson’s friends referred to him as a “harvester of people,” a soft-spoken leader that hand-picked his team of collaborators. Everyone on set felt they could approach him. He was mild-mannered, and believed in others–he felt that everyone should love each other for their differences, not their similarities. He touched countless lives with his love of family, friends, and a good story. We still talk about Jim Henson because he made the world a brighter place, and he still continues to do so, 31 years after his death. 

So we felt it was only fitting to end June with an episode celebrating the magic of Jim Henson, and learning the impact that just one person can have. 

FAMILY/YOUNG LIFE

  • On September 24th, 1936, James Maury Henson (or Jimmy) was born in the Mississippi Delta. Shortly after, the Hensons moved to Maryland. This is where Jim Henson spent the first five years of his life. Throughout these years, he learned to talk, developing a slightly nasal and soft-spoken voice; one that generations of children and adults would one-day associate with a certain famous frog. It was also during this time when he saw his favorite film, “The Wizard of Oz.” 
  • When he was in first grade, Jim Henson’s parents, Betty and Paul, moved the family back to Mississippi. Betty was a loving mother with a jovial sense of humor. Paul was a quiet man, but known for his ability to tell a good story. Jim grew up along the swamps, going on adventures with his friends, gathering nuts for his mother to bake into pies. He was interested in animals, birds particularly, and created his own field guide to help identify them. 
  • Jim joined the Cub Scouts and formed a solid group of comrades. On Sundays, he went to church, and on Saturdays, he went to the movies. Jim Henson and his friends loved to soak up whatever on-screen adventures played at the local theatre, known to locals as, “The Temple.” It was these experiences that inspired him to dress up with his friends, building props out of household items. For every game, he discovered a new way to play, a skill he would perfect for years to come. 
    • Gordon Jones, one of Jim’s childhood friend said, “[Jim] had something the rest of us didn’t have–an unusual degree of originality.” 
  • Jim was incredibly close to his grandmother, a supportive and loving woman that everyone knew simply as, “Dear.” Dear often traveled over 1000 miles to see her daughter Betty and her family. She was a talented seamstress, able to sew with any material. She cultivated Jim’s interest in art and reading, and was his best audience when he told funny stories or acted out games. All of these things were instrumental in who Jim Henson would become, and what he would create. But, there was another aspect of Dear’s personality that Jim adopted. It was possibly one of the most important aspects of his life, and it helped him launch his career; it was the unwavering belief that Jim could be anything. Jim Henson always knew he would be successful, because Dear told him so. 
  • Of course books and films had a major impact on Jim Henson’s imagination, but it was the radio that got him interested in comedy. On Sunday nights, he would listen to Edgar Bergen, a ventriloquist act that performed on the radio. Bergen was a special kind of ventriloquist. He didn’t focus as much on the art of speaking without using his mouth, but rather he took great care in developing his characters. To even the most dedicated listeners, Bergen’s puppets seemed like real people. For the rest of his life, Bergen would be one of Henson’s idols. It was Bergen that first introduced him to the magic of puppetry, and the freedom of speaking through something else. As Jim Henson would later put it, “things were said that couldn’t be said by ordinary people.” 
  • Eventually, the Henson’s returned to Maryland. Jim spent his teenage years obsessed with a new technology that was changing the world: television. Watching the few channels available in the Washington DC area, Jim knew for certain that TV was his calling. He fell in love with variety shows, a format he would parody several years later with his own puppet creations. 
  • Jim also loved comic strips, and even had one published at the age of 13. Pogo was his favorite, a strip that took place in a swamp, filled with bright and silly animals. Pogo was the level-headed “normal” character that tried to reign in the wacky personalities around him. The strip also tackled social and political commentary. Henson happily referred to Pogo as one of his biggest influences in creating the Muppet characters. 
  • As Jim Henson approached his high school graduation, an opportunity to work in TV presented itself. The local network WTOP was looking for puppeteers. It might sound a little weird to us, but Jim didn’t consider himself much of a puppeteer. But since puppetry was what the network wanted, it was what Jim Henson was going to do. So, Jim did what anyone with limited to no experience would do: he headed to the library to do some research. He and a friend got together, and started building their own puppets for the audition. They had one week to learn puppetry, and although it wasn’t Jim Henson’s first  choice for a career, he seemed to be a natural. Both boys were hired!
  • The show was short-lived, and was cancelled after only three weeks. But, Jim had impressed producer Roy Meachum, and landed a role on another Saturday morning show. This show would also be cancelled, but the opportunity acted as a stepping stone of sorts, as Jim Henson’s work caught the attention of a producer for NBC affiliate WRC-TV, who promptly offered Henson another job. 
  • At this time, Jim was studying at the University of Maryland. Originally, he wanted a fine arts degree, focusing on production design. But, he quickly realized that Home Economics was more interesting. A degree in Home Economics would allow him to take even more art courses, including a puppetry course. It was in this course that Jim met the woman that would soon become his professional partner, and later his wife, Jane Nebel.  

FIRST PROJECTS

  • Afternoon
    • After Jim Henson met Jane Nebel, he asked her for her help in puppeteering for an afternoon variety show called, “Afternoon,” on an NBC affiliate station. Nebel agreed, and on March 7th, 1955, the TV Highlights sections of The Washington Post and Times Herald printed a small notice for the new show:
      • 2:15 P.M. –Afternoon: A new variety program features Mac McGarry and Willard Scott as co-hosts; fashion information from Inga; music by Mel Clement Quartet; vocals by Jack Maggio; and special features by the Muppets, who are puppeteers.
    • The casual reader flipping through their morning paper might not have even thought about that word, “muppet.” They certainly wouldn’t have known that this notice was an important moment for TV history, that this word would soon take the world by storm, and entertainment would never be the same.
      • For years after, there would be lots of speculation over the origin of the word, “muppet.” At one time, Jim Henson said it was a combination of “marionette” and “puppet,” but later he noted that it didn’t make a lot of sense since they didn’t do much marionette work. Author Brian Jay Jones, in his biography on Henson, speculated that the word came from another TV show that aired in the 1940’s. That show was called, “Hoppity Skippity with Moppet Movies.” Moppet is a word that means, “small child,” and comes from the word “moppe” which means, “rag doll.” So, muppet could be a mash-up of moppet and puppet, and allude to the child-like quality of the characters. 
    • For “Afternoon,” Jim and Jane would have to quickly produce new characters. There wasn’t a lot of time for rehearsal, and Jim Henson got familiar with the ability to perform off-the-cuff, a skill he used often in his later years. The two of them only performed on the show for a couple months before they were offered their own show, a 5-minute block between the news and The Tonight Show. It was called, Sam and Friends.
  • Sam and Friends 
    • Sam and Friends aired in the Spring of 1955 and followed a quiet bald character named Sam, and an abstract group of friends that helped him through daily life. The characters were meant to live within Sam, and Jim Henson liked their abstract quality. 
    • Jim Henson was still a teenager at the time, a college kid living in a town he knew very well. Nearby, his grandfather, a man known affectionately as, “Pop,” was dying of heart failure. It was during one of his many visits with his family that Jim sat down with an old felt coat and a ping-pong ball to make his favorite muppet: a milky turquoise creature named Kermit. In his book, Brian Jay Jones wrote, “That was it. From the simplest of materials–and perhaps appropriately, from a determination to bring a bit of order from darkness–Kermit was born.”
      • The simplicity that Kermit was born from, with his soft cloth of a face and body, made him easy to manipulate which gives him a wide range of appearances. Most of the puppets at this time were not meant for television and had rigid faces to be seen from great distances. Jim’s muppets were built to be expressive specifically for tv viewing.
      • At the time of Sam and Friends Kermit was not a frog. He was a blank slate, another one of Sam’s abstract friends that appeared.
        • These friends were made of pliable material such as foam rubber, fabric, and fleece.
    • Puppetry was still often done within a screen and hidden with a set that was a box that had curtains. Jim used television to his advantage. Instead of having a separate puppet box, the television itself was the puppet theatre set. This made it possible for the muppets to even get a close-up right to the camera.
      • As we have learned in photography the camera never lies but you control what it says. That is exactly what Jim Henson did.
        • In order to know exactly what the camera was saying he realized he needed to see what the camera was seeing. Instead of relying on merely checking to make sure he and Jane’s arms and bodies were out of frame he wanted to closely monitor what the camera was filming. Jim began by placing monitors in the two corners of the room but eventually decided on a single monitor in front of where the two were. To Jim it was not merely a way to monitor the characters and the exact movements, but that what was on the monitor defined the entire performance since it is what the audience would be seeing. 
        • Jim would continue to use this technique and improve it over the years to come. It would also continue to help improve the puppeteers performances, including his own. The only trick to it was that, just as when you take a selfie, the image is mirrored! So everything had to be done opposite to how it was viewed.
    • At the time Jim was still hesitant to use his own voice to vocalize the characters and so in Sam and Friends the characters are lip synching to records. Jim would spend hours looking into a mirror with a muppet practicing the most subtle of movements such as the slight tilt down of head as the muppet said something.
    • While working on the show, Jim hired Jerry Juhl, a puppeteer and friend of future muppet performer Frank Oz. Juhl was Henson’s first employee for Henson Inc., and he even filled in for Jane on the final season of Sam and Friends. 
    • Throughout its run Sam and Friends moved time slots and was cut a few times but stayed popular during its entire run. Fans would write in and demand its return when it was cut by WRC-TV, and the Washington fanbase was sad when Jim finally decided to end the tv spot in 1961. It seemed to be obvious to everyone however that it would not be the last time they would see Jim’s talent. The popularity of the show brought opportunities and exposure to his early muppets through television guest appearances and live shows. Jane would continue to stick with him even through continuing her schooling and doing two live shows a day. 

MUPPET INC

  • In 1957, Jim and Jane agreed to formally be in business together. They started out doing commercials, something that Jim Henson would eventually be happy to leave behind. Advertising in the 1950’s was often flat and uninteresting. Jim decided to make commercials that made fun of advertising itself. It was remarkably successful, and soon Jim and Jane were contacted by other companies yearning for their artistic style. 
  • In 1958, the two of them decided to form Muppets Inc, their own business in which they were partners, but as Jane put it, “Jim is the boss.” With the proposal to start their business, Jim also proposed marriage. Although the two of them were engaged to other people at the time, it seemed natural to them that they be married because of their strong bond. 
  • After they were married, the two of them settled together as they continued to work on “Sam and Friends.” Jim started branching out creatively, making what he called, “animated paintings,” out of paper pieces and other material. 
  • Shortly after Jane gave birth to their first child, the Hensons drove to a Puppeteers of America convention in Detroit. There, Jim met some of the people that would remain his closest friends and collaborators for years to come. This was where he met his agent, Bernie Brillstein, and future muppet builder, Don Sahlin. 
  • A couple years later, when Jane was pregnant with their second child, The Hensons once again headed to a Puppeteers of America convention. This time, Jim met someone that would become his life-long friend and fellow performer: Frank Oznowicz (Oz). Oz was only 17 at the time, and he thought of puppetry as merely a hobby. But, two year later Jim Henson would convince him to come out to New York and join him, Don Sahlin, and Jerry Juhl as they embarked on the next adventure. 

INFLUENTIAL SHOWS AND FILMS

  • Some of Jim Henson’s most beloved creations came in the form of muppets on Sesame Street.
    • Sesame Street first aired on November 10th, 1969 on PBS stations.
    • Joan Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett conceived the show in 1966; their goal was to create a children’s show that uses the addictive nature of TV in a positive way. During this time, half the nation’s school districts did not have a kindergarten. Cooney sought out the best in television including those that had worked on Captain Kangaroo. Jon Stone, who had worked with Jim on a Cinderella spoof that was live action and puppetry, recommended Jim Henson and his muppets.
      • Jim Henson was intrigued but reluctant at first; he was very insistent that his puppetry was adult puppetry. He was worried that he and his muppets would be labeled solely for children. With some persuading and after seeing the goals of the Children’s TV Workshop he agreed to do the show with his muppet characters.
      • After two years of research the Children’s Television Workshop received a grant of 8 million dollars from the Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation
    • This was the first television show of its kind to base its content and production values on educational research and the first to include a curriculum. 
    • By 2009, it was broadcast in over 120 countries and 20 independent international versions.  
  • The Muppet Show
    • The world seemed to love The Muppets. For years, Jim and his team of furry friends were making regular appearances on variety shows and in commercials. But, the general consensus from executives was this: puppets are for children. This was a stereotype that Jim Henson has always tried to avoid. And when Lord Lew Grade of ATV in the UK took a chance on Jim, The Muppet Show changed television forever. 
    • After they had been working for a year at SNL, Jim Henson and his team: Jerry Juhl, Bernie Brillstein and others learned a lot about how to produce a variety show. They used this knowledge to fit the muppets into a similarly formatted show that would end up having Kermit as the frustrated stage manager. 
    • You can hear more about it in our Muppet Show episode!
  • The Muppet Movie
    • This film was the reverse of The Muppet Show. Instead of live actors coming to visit the muppet characters, the muppets were venturing out into the living world. It was incredibly ambitious and once again brought the creators new challenges that they were able to face and conquer. 
    • We just released an episode about it so be sure to check that out here!
  • The Dark Crystal
    • This film took about 6 years to create but at the time when it was released it was billed as the first live action film with no humans on the screen! It took about 6 puppeteers to perform each 6 foot tall evil Skeksis character.
  • Fraggle Rock
    • Once again Jim Henson created a fun and colorful world of characters that would be loved for years to come. It was a fun place filled with an array of music and a diverse cast of muppet creatures. Fraggle Rock was meant to display and encourage kindness towards those that look different than you. 
  • Labyrinth
    • Labyrinth was deeply personal to Jim and it explored a timeless story that everyone can relate to. It did not try to be something brand new but instead expanded upon great stories before it such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.
    • We just released an episode about it so be sure to check that out here!
  • The Storyteller
    • The idea for this show came from Jim Henson’s daughter, Lisa, after she took a folklore class at Harvard. Together, Jim Henson and Lisa created the concept of the show and based all the episodes on actual folk tales. 
    • You can hear more about it in our Storyteller episode!

AWARDS

  • Jim Henson was so influential that not only does he have a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, but so do The Muppets, Big Bird, and Kermit the Frog.
  • He was awarded many other wins from several different organizations. He shared these wins with those that helped him bring those projects to life. Some examples of these would be the Primetime Emmy for The Muppet Show in 1976, a BAFTA in 1992 for The Storyteller: Greek Myths, a Peabody Award in 1986 with The Muppets, the Daytime Emmy Awards in 74’, 76’ and 79’ for Sesame Street, and many others.
  • Jim also won some awards for how influential and driven he was, some of them posthumously. These awards were a Gabriel Award in 1981, The Television Critics Association Award in 1990 for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming, a Telly Award in 1990 for Public Service, a Visual Effects Society Award for their Hall of Fame in 2017.

HIS DEATH

  • 1986 was a big year for Jim Henson. His latest film, Labyrinth, was a box office flop. His marriage to Jane, one that had been weakened by Jim’s famous wandering eye for women, was officially ending. It was at this time that Jim headed to the south of France, and spent a few days alone. In recent years, it had seemed that his mind had been shifting to deeper themes, and seemed to consider his own mortality. So, Jim Henson decided, for one reason or another, to write letters to his children in the event of his death. He told no one, except his lawyers. 
  • Years went on and Jim Henson continued his work. In 1989, he worked on realizing a dream he had from when he saw “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” at age three: working with Disney. It might be impossible to believe, but there was a time when Jim Henson considered buying the studio when it was at its lowest point. But of course, that never worked out. Now, as Disney sat at the edge of a renaissance, Jim Henson was ready to secure a deal with the company. Although some of his collaborators felt that Disney was getting Jim too cheaply, he himself was thrilled with the idea. He even planned to have a celebration once the deal had been signed. 
  • But, it wouldn’t come to be. Just as Jim Henson was getting ready to make the deal, he came down with what felt like a cold. He was a generally healthy man, always willing to work through any slight sickness. He was the kind of person that never had time to be ill, and simply didn’t allow it. But this was different. Arthur Novell, Henson’s PR director and his collaborator Kevin Clash both noticed something was off with Jim as he struggled to perform Kermit on the Arsenio Hall show. He admitted to them that he might have strep throat, but still felt OK. 
  • On May 9th, Jim sent flowers to his daughter Lisa, who was recently promoted to an executive role at Warner Brothers. He then went with his daughter Cheryl to visit his father for a few days. It was a nice visit, but Jim was still feeling sick. He developed a cough, but didn’t want to worry his family. He and Cheryl took an early flight back to New York so Jim could get some rest. At this point, he was showing symptoms for pneumonia, caused by streptococcus bacteria.
  • When Jim cancelled a morning meeting, and an all-day taping session for Disney, it was clear that something was very wrong. Jane came to see him, and stayed with him as his condition seemed to worsen. His heart was racing, and he started coughing up blood. When Jane convinced him to go to the hospital, she called Arthur Novell. She put Jim on the phone who said, “Arthur…just look after them for me.” 
  • Jim Henson had two families: a family related by blood, and a family he built through work. After he lost consciousness in the hospital, both of these families raced to his side. It all happened very fast, and Jim Henson never awoke. The family said their goodbyes, and he was pronounced dead on May 16th 1990. 
  • The news was baffling. How could someone so healthy, so full of life, someone with seemingly so much more to give, just be gone? Amidst the devastation, the family tried to carry on. They headed back to Henson’s apartment, making calls and consoling each other. The Offices became a gathering place for anyone that worked with Jim, with groups of colleagues gathering for several days, trying to make sense of something so unbelievable. Brian Henson, who was in the UK as his father fell ill and didn’t get the chance to say goodbye, was tasked with meeting Disney’s lawyers and trying to figure out where to go from there. Disney would one-day adopt Jim Henson’s Muppets, but not for 14 more years.
  • As the family started early plans for the memorial service, they got a visit from some legal representatives, bearing letters from Jim Henson. He was gone, and yet, he found a way to reach out from beyond the grave, guiding his friends and family when they needed him most. Jim’s letters gave instructions on what to do with his body, and some requests for his memorial service, like playing, “When the Saints go Marching In,” and no black attire. 
  • The ceremony was emotional to say the least, with heartfelt speeches and performances. Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Steve Whitmire, and Kevin Clash all performed a medley of some of Jim Henson’s favorite songs. At the end, they each slipped on a muppet and sang the song, “Just One Person.” 
    • “And when all those people believe in you–Deep Enough and strong enough believe in you, Hard enough and long enough–
    • It stands to reason you yourself will start to see
    • What everybody sees in you…And maybe even you can believe in you too”                                           

POSTHUMOUS WORKS

  • While Jim Henson was alive he had a lot of ideas and projects that he was working on. Being a creator meant that his work was never done and so when he passed away suddenly there were projects that he had conceived or been a part of that had not been finished or released. Here are just a few of those works.
    • The final Season of Muppet Babies.
    • From his death until 2008 Sesame Street continued to use his performances within the show and would go on to use some of his old vocal tracks in updated versions of their familiar songs. One example of this would be the 1993 “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” which featured Aaron Neville. In this version they make use of Jim Henson’s original recording as Ernie. 
    • “The Storyteller: Greek Myths” which was released at the end of 1990.
    • The 1991 series “Dinosaurs”. 
      • Jim had come up with the concept of a sitcom format for Dinosaurs with the general premise in place.
    • The graphic novel “Tale of Sand” in 2012 was developed from an unused  screenplay by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl.
    • He helped to produce the 1996 mini-series of Gulliver’s Travels.
    • “Here Come the Muppets” was a stage show that was put on 9 days after Jim’s death where they had to use pre-recorded vocal tracks.
    • The last one that we will mention is a project that he worked on in his last few days and was the last film that he directed. It was Muppet*Vision 3D, an attraction that would premier at Walt Disney World one year exactly after his death. The main feature of the attraction was the 3D film that contained Henson as his characters of Kermit, Waldorf, and the Swedish Chef.

Many of us know the name Jim Henson. He was an innovator, a creative force that was responsible for countless happy moments. He was a man with a plan, a clear vision of his place in the world and what he wanted to do with his time. If you ask the people that knew him best, they’ll say he was an even-tempered, soft-spoken leader that took chances on the ones he believed in. Jim Henson knew that everyone on his team was valuable, no matter their title. And when he suddenly left the living world, every single person that knew him felt an immense loss. 

Jim Henson was a creator. He breathed life into his work. And by all accounts, he was a good friend and loving father. Sure, he wasn’t a perfect person, but he was like every human being in that way. Jim Henson made the world a better place, and planted a seed in every person that was moved by his work, to do the same. And although his final letters were meant for his children, many people have found comfort in his last messages, read at his memorial:

“Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it. Love, Jim.” ALL JIM HENSON EPISODES


SOURCES:

The Case of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth

When Jim Henson got the green light for The Muppet Movie, he started quietly working on another film. It was a groundbreaking movie that ambitiously used only puppets as its main actors. He collaborated with artist Brian Froud, and together they developed an entire fantasy world. After six years of work, that film, The Dark Crystal, made it to the big screen. After it premiered, Jim Henson, being the workaholic that he was, already wanted to jump back in to make another film. He contacted Brian Froud, who came up with the idea of goblins. 

Jim Henson loved the idea, and he told Froud that he wanted there to be humans in this film. Suddenly, Froud imagined a baby surrounded by goblins. He painted some concept art, and the idea for Labyrinth was born. 

The Labyrinth was a seamless combination of The Muppets and the deep fantasy of The Dark Crystal. For Jim Henson, it was a deeply personal story of which he was immensely proud. It followed the journey of Sarah, an adolescent girl that has lost her baby brother to Jareth, the Goblin King. It’s also a story of self-discovery, of leaving childhood behind and heading into the wild and winding world of the unfamiliar. With beautiful sets peppered with other-worldly creations, Labyrinth created a unique physical world that still enchants audiences to this day. 

So, as we continue Jim Henson June, let’s follow the Goblin King into the Labyrinth.  

WHAT INFLUENCED THE LABYRINTH

  • In 1939, three-year-old Jim Henson saw what would become one of his favorite movies: The Wizard of Oz. Of course, the only thing he really remembered from the experience was the terrifying MGM Lion. But the story impacted Jim Henson’s imagination, and elements of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy world would influence his own fantasy stories for years to come. 
  • As Brian Froud and Jim Henson laid out the story for the film, they intentionally pulled from several different established stories. The idea wasn’t to make something that felt completely original, but instead something that the audience would recognize. This was shown, in part, in the beginning of the film, when we see Sarah’s bedroom. There are pieces that inspired several parts of the story placed all around the room. This also plants the seed of ambiguity in the audience’s mind. Is this all in Sarah’s imagination, or is the Labyrinth real? This is a callback to The Wizard of Oz and another big influence, Alice in Wonderland. 
  • Sarah falls down several “rabbit holes” of sorts all through the movie. Her trip through the Labyrinth is very reminiscent of Alice’s adventures. Some of the set designs and characters were created to specifically call back to Alice in Wonderland, for example the guards that were shaped as playing cards that asked Sarah riddles. 
  • But beyond those two stories, the Labyrinth is filled with nods to classic fairytales and many different kinds of mythology. For instance, the concept of the labyrinth came from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Jim Henson said, “Traditionally, the labyrinth is thought of as the voyage through life–the journey through it is Life and the ultimate center is Death. And re-birth is coming back out again.” 
  • Initially, Brian Froud suggested that there be a labyrinth in the film. He felt that it would not only be an interesting place for her character to be, but also could mirror the convolutions of her own thoughts. Jim Henson added, “After all, life is a kind of labyrinth, with all its twists and turns, its straight paths and its occasional dead ends.” 

SUMMARY

  • Sarah Williams is an imaginative teenage girl. She feels life is unfair because she has to watch her baby stepbrother, Toby, when her father and stepmother go out on the weekends. Once wishing the goblins would take him away she realizes she really does not want to lose him. In order to bring him home she must solve the Labyrinth and reach The Goblin King’s Castle. It is a journey she must take, but not alone. Along the way she finds friends like Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus that help her navigate through the labyrinth.   

MAKING OF

  • The story goes like this: Jim Henson and Brian Froud rode in silence as their limousine left a showing of The Dark Crystal. They stared at each other until Henson started to laugh and said, “The next one will be so much better!”
    • Jim Henson’s daughter was studying mythology at the time, and often telling her father about the folktales she learned. He wanted to do a film inspired by these myths, but since Goblins were more of Brian Froud’s style, they shifted their focus to a story about goblins stealing a child. 
    • Of course, Henson would eventually make something inspired by his daughter’s education in folklore, a TV series called, “The Storyteller.”                                                                                                                                                
  • After the rigorous 5 years spent on creating “The Dark Crystal,” Brian Froud would have loved to take a break. Instead, he and Jim Henson started working on “Labyrinth.”  Although Froud’s title as Concept Director would mean a lot of work, this second film only took 3 years to create. So, Froud still considered it to be a vacation. 
  • The Labyrinth’s story went through many stages. As Jim Henson continued to promote his current film, he filled a notebook with ideas for his next one. One draft featured a king and a jester, and a twisted maze filled with monsters. There were concepts too dark to end up in the film, and some ideas that made their way to the final cut. For example, Jim Henson always wanted an Escher-inspired staircase sequence. 
    • Many critics felt that “The Dark Crystal” lacked the humor that audiences expected from Henson projects. So, Jim Henson made it a priority for there to be humorous scenes in “Labyrinth.” 
    • Brian Froud and Jim Henson met up with writer Dennis Lee, a songwriter for the series, “Fraggle Rock.” They pieced together a story from Henson’s notes, and Froud created some art to capture the look and essence of the film. One of these paintings was called, “Toby and The Goblins,” a beautiful image of a happy child among a crowd of monsters. Lee gathered the notes and drawings, and pieced together a first draft of the story. This novella would be worked into the final draft of the screenplay. 
      • As Lee worked on his draft, Jim Henson searched for a screenwriter. He wanted a comedian, and decided to go with Terry Jones, one of the frontmen of the famed troupe, “Monty Python.” Jones wasn’t just a comedian, he was also a fan of mythology and co-wrote the famous film, “Monty Python and The Holy Grail.” Jim Henson wrote to Jones, telling him that his contributions would make the script, “jump to life.” 
        • Dennis Lee provided Jones with a poetic treatment about 90 pages long, and Brian Froud handed him notebooks of concept art. Jones used these references to write his script, but was mostly inspired by Froud’s art. Jones said, “Every time I came to a new scene…I looked through Brian’s drawings and found a character who was kind of speaking to me already and suddenly there was a scene.” 
        • Jones was absolutely taken with Froud’s art and Henson’s ability to make these creatures come to life. While filming, he would not call the creatures puppets. He referred to them as some other form of magic.
      • Jone’s first draft went to another writer for revisions, and then another after that. The script went through almost 25 revisions over a two-year period. One of these writers was Elaine May, who was brought on to polish the script in 1985. Her revisions humanized the characters, especially the lead role of Sarah. Jim Henson loved May’s contributions so much, he decided to start shooting after her edits had been made. 
  • As the concept designer, Brian Froud was responsible for the overall look of the film and its characters. Each puppet was built from his designs, but Froud did not fully develop the characters because he felt that it would dampen the creative process. He wanted the creatures to develop beyond the page, and for the designers to have happy accidents in their creation. 
    • Froud also helped design the costumes in the film. He worked closely with costume designer Ellis Flyte to further develop a complex fantasy world. 
      • They decided to dress the baby Toby in a white and red striped onesie so that he would stand out in every scene. They had to invent a slimmed-down version of his diaper to make the costume look right, but this new version couldn’t hold in a lot of “mess” when he had an accident. 
      • Sarah’s costume was designed to be timeless. The top is modeled after old-fashioned peasant tops, paired with contemporary jeans. The costumes were all meant to reflect several different eras and types of folklore, so the audience could apply the story to any time. 
      • Jareth, the Goblin King, has several costume changes. His look changes as the film progresses, showing the feelings of the character in each scene. He is meant to look almost like a medieval knight, and a romantic lead. His hair was designed to be wolf-like, as wolves are often villains in many fairy tales. But, there were also influences from Japanese theater in his design. At one point in the film, he wears some armor. In another, he wears all white, to signify that he had lost his power. Jareth also carried around a “swagger stick” that also acted as a microphone!
  • In this film, the labyrinth itself is a character. Elliot Scott was the set designer tasked with creating both the complex world of The Goblin King, to Sarah’s American bedroom. The film needed to feel like a true voyage, and had to include several different unique spaces. Scott’s design really helped convey that. 
    • Scott was a gifted production designer that also created the worlds of Indiana Jones and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” 
  • Choreographers
    • Cheryl McFadden
    • Charles Augins
      • They got Charles Augins to help choreograph scenes such as Dance Magic Dance. They wanted the energetic movements that Charles choreographed so well. 
  • The Labyrinth was another groundbreaking film with several complex characters and sequences. Let’s talk about some of the most impressive accomplishments of the film. 
    • Hoggle is an incredibly important character in the film, as he acts as Sarah’s reluctant friend and guide through the labyrinth. 
      • The Hoggle puppet was considered to be the most complicated puppet ever created. He was performed by a total of five people, operating 18 different motors! One person was inside a suit (Shari Weiser) and four people on the outside controlling the mechanical head. The performers were together all the time during filming because it was important they remained in sync with each other. After doing the character for so many months, Brian Henson and the other puppeteers were almost able to improvise. Which is unusual for a puppet of this complexity.
      • Shari Weiser couldn’t see outside the suit and needed a monitor and camera. She apparently hated the system, and the camera in the chest was eventually removed. This meant that she could only see out when Hoggle’s mouth was open. Brian Henson had to come up with reasons to open the puppet’s mouth when Shari was about to run into things. He would often let out loud grunts and scoffs so she could see what was ahead of her. This became part of Hoggle’s character and charm.
      • Brian also performed the voice with the intention that his father was going to replace it, but by the end of filming, Jim said he was keeping Brian’s voice in. 
      • Brian said that he never felt closer to his dad than when they worked on “Labyrinth” together. He was only 20 years old at the time. 
    • As Sarah makes her way through the labyrinth, she falls into a shaft of green, arthritic hands. Terry Jones first came up with the concept of the hands, and Jim Henson called the scene, “bizarre and unusual.” 
      • Jennifer Connolly described scenes like this as a personal amusement park where she got to experience all these cool “rides” even though she was very ticklish! 
        • The shaft was 30 feet deep, filled with 150 pairs of foam latex hands, operated by 75 different puppeteers. In order to make this scene, they lined everyone up behind boards that were slightly diagonal, so the hands would show while their faces would stay hidden. 
        • Jim Henson came up with the idea of the hands making faces to speak. He and some other puppeteers spent hours in front of mirrors, trying to create different ways to imitate faces with hands. 
    • Another memorable piece of the labyrinth was the “Bog of Eternal Stench.”
      • Brian Froud was critical of the scene, thinking that the humor was too childish to be in the film. However, Prince Charles reportedly loved the bog of eternal stench, being the only one to laugh at it during the royal premiere of the film.
      • The water in the bog stayed stagnant long enough that it really was quite smelly! They had a stunt double stand in for Jennifer Connolly so there was no danger of her falling into the gross water. 
    • In Jim Henson’s original notes, he wanted a giant that came out of the wall. It was one of the few original elements that made it into the final cut of the film. During the battle sequence in the final act, a huge monster comes forth from the wall, operated by goblins. 
      • Brian really fought against the idea of a giant monster. So, he ended up making the creature come out of the door, because he did not want a straightforward puppet. He also designed it to look like goblins were operating him, so it was this incredibly advanced-looking technology, but in a very disarming and old way. 
      • The monster was gigantic and mechanical, one of the biggest puppets ever created. It was operated remotely. The machine was real and could cause problems if not operated properly.
      • Polyurethane foam was used and painted to look like armour with the entire project taking 2-3 months to build.
    • Jim Henson knew that a climatic battle sequence would be the best way to get his characters to the doors of the Goblin King’s Castle. 
      • The scene was not meant to be overly violent, as the goblin army is a hapless group, barely able to get their own weapons to work. One of these goblins was Star Wars actor Kenny Baker. In his sequence, a cannon doesn’t fire properly, causing his real-life costume to catch fire! 
      • The goblin army is painted many different bright colors, red, green, orange, and blue. They also have numbers on their heads. This design was actually inspired by Thomas the Tank Engine characters! 
      • Many of the goblins in this sequence are puppeteers in suits. They wanted every aspect of puppetry to be present, from suits, to mechanism, to hand operation. Like the rest of the film, the scene was incredibly complex. 

MUSIC

  • Jim Henson knew from the very beginning that he wanted a big star attached to the project. His son John was a big fan of David Bowie, and Henson noticed a certain other-worldliness to the entertainer. Bowie was immediately intrigued by the idea, and wanted to be able to write songs for the film that would appeal to all audiences. It was a perfect match. 
  • The film’s score was written by Trevor Jones, with music and lyrics by David Bowie.

Opening/Underground

  • The film opens with an owl, created by Industrial Light and Magic. It was one of the first fully CG creatures to appear in film at the time, and looks a little dated now. The owl signifies the night, and eventually turns out to be The Goblin King in disguise. 
  • Underground was the title track for the film, recorded in The Atlantic Studios in New York City around 2 in the morning. 
  • The opening leads us to Sarah, as she acts out a scene in the park with her dog. We’re soon introduced to her home, and bedroom filled with influences for the story that will soon unfold. 

Magic Dance

  • As Sarah has entered the labyrinth and makes her way toward the center, we see she is being watched by the cocky and spoiled Goblin King, from his hall filled with goblins. Then, Jareth sings an upbeat song with the baby, doing twirls in his more casual costume. David Bowie had trouble recording the song, because the baby in the studio wouldn’t make any noise. The baby sounds on the track were made by Bowie! 
  • This scene was one of the first ones filmed. The set had to have several holes within the walls to accommodate and hide the puppeteers. Brian Henson said that the set looked like Swiss Cheese. They were almost worried it would fall apart. 
  • In addition to the puppets there were actors that were on wires jumping around to bring more motion.
  • The song represents the carefree nature of the Goblin King, and his disregard for what he’s done. It also shows off the silliness of the goblins, characters that try to be evil, but just can’t seem to pull it off. 
  • When asked about Jareth, Bowie said, “I think Jareth, at best, is a romantic; but at worst he’s a spoiled child, vain and temperamental–kind of like a rock n roll star!” 

Chilly Down

  • During Sarah’s journey, she encounters a group of Fireys! These are brightly-colored bird-like creatures that live in the forest. At first, she is disarmed by their free-spirited song and dance, but the scene quickly turns dangerous when they want to see if she can remove her head, the way the fireys can remove theirs. 
  • During this scene there are several Firey characters that dance around, bounce their heads, and remove their hands. These characters were modelled directly after drawings by Brian Froud. Even in the drawings their movements were wacky and strange. The team decided to take this and bring it on screen. The rehearsals with these characters informed them a lot. A lot of experimentation was done and each time it changed the configurations and movement of the characters.
  • Since the Firey’s were able to unattach their heads, multiple puppeteers were used to create one Firey. The characters were shot on black velvet with the puppeteers covered from head to toe in black velvet as well. The characters are brightly colored to stand out against the black screen that they were filmed in front of and they were meant to look like traditional muppets.
  • Visual keys were done to match the lyrics. One example:
    • When they say “I shake my pretty little head” their heads are removed and bounced around.
  • This was the first song recorded by David Bowie for the film. 

As the World Falls Down

  • After Jareth convinces Hoggle to give Sarah a poisoned peach, she finds herself at a costumed ball. This scene is absolutely vital in showing Sarah’s progression from a sulky teenager to a young adult. It’s an abrupt transformation, as she’s transported from her regular clothes to a beautiful ball gown, and surrounded by confusing and unfamiliar faces. She gravitates to the only face she recognizes: Jareth, and the two engage in an almost trance-like dance. 
    • The scene meant a lot to Jim Henson personally, because he was able to apply his own emotions as a father of teenage girls, watching them mature into adulthood.  
  • For this scene, the filmmakers tried to create an adult world that Sarah would be simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by, because she’s in that stage between childhood and adulthood. 
    • This adult world was inspired by Venice and is set vaguely in the 18th century. The entire set was supposed to seem as if it existed in a bubble, preserved from the rest of the world. 
    • They took 10 days on this scene and ended up needing more people to fill the room. This caused the costume department to scramble for several more costumes in just a few days.
    • Although Sarah’s character is becoming an adult, Jennifer’s parents were worried about her growing up too much in the scene. So the hairdressers were sure to make her hair not seem too adult; they simplified her design and gave her natural references in her hair. 
    • The scene was Jennifer Connolly’s favorite to shoot because of the costume, and the thrill of dancing with David Bowie. 
  • Jim Henson asked Bowie to write a more traditional song for the scene, and Bowie felt that it was prettiest and most relaxed tune in the film.

Within You

  • With the help of her friends Hoggle, Ludo, and Sir Didymus, Sarah finally reaches the center of the labyrinth and must face The Goblin King. As she heads inside, she turns to her friends and tells them that she must face him on her own. The scene was meant to drive home Sarah’s maturity, but also paid homage to the classic fairytale or hero’s journey, as our hero must face their final battle alone. 
    • Sarah’s friends have grown with her, an idea that Jim Henson especially liked. He loved the concept that we were all connected and have a responsibility to each other. 
  • Sarah must now chase down her brother through a complicated mess of staircases, inspired by an MC Escher painting. For this scene, the crew built a complicated set that seemed to defy logic, one that really made you question what was up or down. 
  • Jim Henson wanted the stairs as a way to depict the meeting of real danger and the surreal nature of Sarah’s imagination. The story is never clear as to whether or not all of this happens in Sarah’s mind, and this scene illustrates that completely. 
    • For the scene, Jim Henson wanted to put baby Toby up on a tower, but Brian Froud and his wife were too scared to let them shoot it. Both of them were afraid of heights and they did not want their baby so high.
      • Although it looks like Toby is lost in the complex riddle of the stairs, he was actually just climbing up one or two steps off the floor the entire time. Family members stood around, calling his name and playing music to get him to look and crawl in certain directions. 
  • This song was David Bowie’s personal favorite from the film. He said, “I had to write something that sounded like stone walls and crumbling power; and the all-over effect, with Jim’s visuals, is, I think, very tragic and slightly disturbing.” 

Underground

  • In the final sequence that Sarah shares with Jareth, he’s dressed in white. He looks pale compared to his other moments, like he’s lost his power. He looks this way because he knows that he’s already lost, that Sarah has all the power. He pleads with her because he really is smitten with her and how strong she has proven herself to be. Jareth is lonely. The only companions in his life are those that he controls. But Sarah would be different because Sarah has the power to leave, even if she didn’t realize it until this moment. 
  • At the beginning of the film, Sarah was memorizing the lines from a play. She couldn’t remember the final lines, and she struggles to recall them now. She ignores Jareth, and a look of realization crosses her face. She remembers something she knew all along, a fact that seems so obvious to her now, if only she had remembered sooner. She looks at Jareth and says, “you have no power over me.” 
  • The words are enough to destroy Jareth’s hold on Sarah, as words were the thing that gave Jareth any power at all in the beginning of the film. Sarah didn’t earn or fight for her power. It was always there. 
  • This was Bowie’s favorite scene to shoot. He said, “It’s so sad, I think, because Sarah really likes Jareth, but she must get her baby brother, Toby, back safely, so she has to reject all of Jareth’s pleas for companionship in his pretty lonely world.” 
  • After Sarah returns to her room, she sees her friends in the mirror. They tell their heartfelt goodbyes, and Sarah tearfully tells them that she needs them. Then, the characters all appear, goblins and Fireys alike, to dance together. 
  • Brian Froud disliked the scene. He felt it was unnecessary and cheapened the ending of the film. But, he said he was happy to be proven wrong, as many people liked the addition of this happy scene. 
  • Underground then plays as the credits begin to roll. 

STARRING

  • Jennifer Connelly as Sarah
    • Jennifer Connelly began as a model before acting. She was not sure what she wanted to be when she grew up, maybe a vet or carpenter but she kinda fell into acting. 
    • Since this movie she has been in several things such as Requiem for Dream, A Beautiful Mind, and Spiderman: Homecoming.
    • It was the first time Jennifer was ever in England and she said the whole experience was fun for her.
    • Jim Henson was supportive and very kind to her. He did not have to talk down to her or tiptoe around her feelings. Many members of the team even remarked how mature and professional she was at the young age of 14.
  • David Bowie as Jareth
    • Bowie was a singer-songwriter that would also appear in movies. Some of these were UHF, The Prestige, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
    • Michael Moschen was the amazing performer behind David Bowie, juggling the balls.
      • He was working blind behind Bowie and so every time they had to do several takes.
  • Toby Froud as Toby
    • Toby is actually Brian Froud’s son!
    • He was influenced by what his father did and things like this movie and so he is now a special effects designer, puppeteer, filmmaker, and performer.
  • Shelley Thompson as the Stepmother
    • Shelley is most known now most for her character in Trailer Park Boys as Barbara Lahey. 
  • Christopher Malcolm as the Father
    • He was in things like Highlander, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Never Say Never Again.
  • Shari Weiser as Hoggle
    • Shari was often a suit performer and was in Babes in Toyland(1986), Follow that Bird, and Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.
  • Brian Henson as Hoggle/ Goblin (voice)
    • Brian was about 22 when this movie was made. He has continued on his father’s legacy and is an amazing puppeteer, director, and technician in his own right.
  • Ron Mueck as Ludo(one of the two that would switch off in the costume)/ Firey 2/ Goblin (voice)
    • He is an amazing sculptor. His sculptures are very lifelike and have a huge scale. He also voiced a character in The Tale of the Bunny Picnic.
  • Rob Mills as Ludo(the other that would switch off in the costume)/ Firey 3
    • He worked for 12 years with Jim Henson’s puppet studio and even started a couple of his own production companies.
    • Ron Mueck was the main actor within Ludo, but since it is such a heavy and difficult character Rob Mills would sometimes take over. 
      • These actors would control Ludo by using one arm to move his head around and one arm to control one of the creature’s arms. Ludo’s second arm hung by itself. Inside with the puppeteer, whether it be Ron or Rob, were two video screens strapped in so they could see what the camera was filming and where they were heading. For a little extra visibility there was also mesh that they could see through, hidden in fur on Ludo’s chest.
      • There were two Ludo heads, one that had a smile and one that had a frown. Both of these heads were animatronic like Hoggle’s and required three people to control. The three people that contributed to this were Francis Wright, Sue Dacre, and Donald Austen. 
    • Jim Henson came up with the idea of Ludo communicating with rocks. He liked the idea of creatures communicating with nature.
  • Dave Goelz as Didymus / The Hat / The Four Guards / Left Door Knocker / Firey 3 (voice)
    • We mentioned Dave Goelz in the last episode as well and has been with Jim Henson’s Company for a long time now and has even voiced the new series Muppets Now on Disney Plus.
    • There were about 4 different Didymus puppets.
      • Didymus is part fox and part dog in an Elizabethan costume that guards the bridge.
      • The first Didymus was essentially a hand puppet, but a little more complicated. In the left hand of the character is a rod that is used as a prop for Didymus, but it is also a clever disguise to assist in control of that arm. Karen Prell aided in controlling the right arm while Dave controlled the mouth and left arm. From afar other puppeteers controlled the eyebrows, eyes, and ears.
      • In the shots where it is just Didymus’s legs a marionette was used and controlled by David Barclay.
      • The third was a radio controlled Didymus that was strapped onto a live sheepdog that was playing Ambrosius.
      • The fourth was a Didymus that was connected to a dog sized puppet where Dave Goelz hand would go up through the dog to get to Didymus’s mouth.
        • Kevin Clash would then control the movements of Ambrosius.

AWARDS/ HOW IT WAS RECEIVED/IMPACT

  • The Labyrinth opened at number eight in the US box office charts with $3.5 million, putting it behind other films such as Ferris Buller’s Day Off and Top Gun. During its next weekend, the film dropped to number 13 only earning another $1.8 million. By the end of its run, it had grossed $12.7 million, just over half of its $25 million budget. 
    • According to Variety, it also made another $12 million overseas which would still just fall short of the budget. 
  • The film received mixed to positive reviews from critics. It currently sits at a 73% from critics on rotten tomatoes and 86% from audience scores. The general consensus from critics is that while the Labyrinth is most interesting on a visual level, it provides further proof of director Jim Henson’s boundless imagination. 
  • Labyrinth was nominated at the British Academy Film Awards for Best Special Visual Effects and received two Saturn Award nominations for Best Fantasy Film as well as Best Costumes. Lastly it was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. 
  • The film is ranked 72nd on Empire’s “The 80 best ‘80s movies’ and 26th on Time Out’s “The 50 best fantasy movies”. In 2019 The Telegraph named it as one of “The 77 best kids’ films of all time”. (Two British publications.)
  • Despite its poor performance at the box office, Labyrinth was a success on home video and later on DVD, and has become a cult classic. 
    • Brian Henson remembered his father as being aware that Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal both had cult followings by the time of his death in 1990, saying, “he was able to see all that, and know that it was appreciated.”
  • This movie continues to be a classic beloved by many. In 2017 McFarlane Toys made a special collectible Jareth the Goblin King figurine and in 2019 made a special Dance Magic Jareth!

Much like the name of the film suggests, the Labyrinth takes the audience on a wild and remarkable journey, with confusing sequences and strange visuals. Like the classic fairy tales on which it was based, it’s a timeless story that can appeal to every generation. This film is rich with visual metaphors, telling a deeply personal story that audiences everywhere can relate to. 

Afterall, life is a labyrinth. We’ve all ventured into the twisting walls of the unknown, gathered our friends, lost our way, and fought our own Goblin King. To many of us, this film is a guide that reminds us we’re all on our own strange and magical journeys. And if ever we should need it, we know where to find it.   

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, and Carlos!

You can now buy us a Popcorn! @  buymeacoffee.com/blackcasediary   

Thank you to all that support us, whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


SOURCES:

The Case of The Muppet Movie

Well, it’s no secret that we here at The Black Case Diaries are BIG fans of alliteration. So, last week we departed from Musical May, and this month we are heading into…Jim Henson June! Usually, June is the month reserved for June Tunes, but we decided to shake things up this year. This week, we’re covering a Jim Henson film that is near and dear to our hearts. 

From 1976 to 1981, The Muppet Show dazzled audiences everywhere with its chaotic charm. Jim Henson was known everywhere as an innovator, and master entertainer. He took the rigid medium of puppetry, which was known to cater almost exclusively to children, and turned it into something for everyone. So, in 1979 when the Muppets were at their peak popularity, Jim Henson produced their first ever full-length feature film. It was a beautiful musical journey of how The Muppets met and came to be, with a variety of high-profile cameos speckled throughout. 

So this week, we’re moving right along, out of the swamp and on our way to Hollywood! It’s time to explore the Magic Store with The Muppet Movie! 

In the late 1970’s, Jim Henson was one of the busiest men in show business. Caroll Spinney, the man that brought Big Bird to life, called him “the hardest working man I’ve ever met.” In 1977, as Henson juggled The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, holiday specials, and live performances, he started working on The Muppet Movie. 

The film would be incredibly ambitious. No one had ever made puppets the main actors of a feature film before. Of course, Jim Henson could have turned an episode of The Muppet Show into a film. But, instead he did something much more challenging. This film would be the reverse of The Muppet Show. Instead of live actors coming to visit the muppet characters, the muppets were venturing out into the living world. 

Jim Henson brought this idea to Lord (Lew) Grade, the chief of ATV, which was the home of The Muppets. Grade was enthusiastic about the idea, and granted Henson an 8 million dollar budget (quite steep at the time). Filming started in 1978.  

SUMMARY

  • After being discovered by an agent in a swamp, Kermit the Frog decides to head to Hollywood to chase his dream of becoming a professional performer. Along the way, he meets a struggling bear comedian named Fozzy, a talented dog pianist named Rowlf, a beauty queen that happens to be a pig, an alien plummer, and many more! As the group heads to California, Kermit must also escape the clutches of an evil restaurateur that intends to use Kermit to sell deep-fried frog legs! 

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • Jim Henson wanted to direct The Muppet Movie himself. But, he was eventually persuaded to allow an experienced filmmaker to come in and take charge. Henson had never shot film, and the producers chose director James Frawley to take the helm. Although this was incredibly frustrating for Henson, he seemed to work well with Frawley. Frawley was familiar with directing quirky material, like episodes of the TV show, The Monkees, and Henson liked his sense of humor.  
    • Frawley performed a screen test, which helped him understand the characters and how they worked, and whether or not they would fit into the real world.
    • In a USA Today article, the director said, “We shot them in and among cows — real locations though — trees, farmland and cars to see if you accepted their reality mixed in with real reality.” 
      • Frawley admitted to not understanding their mechanics and process at first, but he was soon an ally to the muppet performers. Jim Henson had worked with directors in the past that did not understand the physical demands of puppeteering. For this film, performers would often stand in small, claustrophobic places while holding their arms above their heads. In some scenes, they hid in underground cylinders, covered with plywood and dirt. Frawley was sympathetic, and would often shout, “Muppets relax” between takes, so the actors could rest.  
    • Making a groundbreaking film meant solving a lot of problems. Frawley felt that the most difficult scenes to shoot involved driving. The scenes inside the Studebaker forced up to four puppeteers to squish together under the dashboard with their monitors since there was no room for an actual driver. Frawley had the car rigged, so a stunt driver could operate it from the trunk, while watching the road on a monitor! 
    • But the sequence that Frawley felt was the most difficult of all, was the opening shot of Kermit singing in the swamp. Originally, Jim Henson wanted the scene to be in a real swamp, but quickly abandoned the idea. Instead, he shipped in trees from Georgia, and turned a water tank into an incredibly realistic swamp set.
      • Henson had a diving bell made to sit in the four-foot tank. He squeezed inside, and was sealed in. A rubber sleeve at the top allowed him to reach up and control Kermit with one hand, and a wire allowed him to operate Kermit’s banjo movements. Except for a headset that allowed him to communicate with the outside world, and the oxygen being pumped in, Henson was essentially buried alive. The scene took 5 days to shoot. At one point, Henson was sealed in for over three hours. 
      • Any time a muppet was shown with their feet, a creative solution was required to make it happen. For example, one sequence when Kermit walked across the sand in a ghost town, the camera was ground level as someone operated two green legs from above.
  • This movie was written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl, the head writers for The Muppet Show. Back when Jim Henson first pitched the show, Juhl was the main writer. But, the network hired comedian Jack Burns to take the head writer title, because he was a more well-known comedian. So, Juhl understood Henson’s frustration when he wasn’t named director of The Muppet Movie. For years afterward, Juhl continued to write muppet content, and is responsible for many of the jokes that we associate with the muppets today. 
    • Juhl and Burns wrote a film that was a nod to old Hollywood. There were elements of classic movie musicals, buddy films, and slapstick comedy. But, Juhl also made sure to incorporate elements of Jim Henson’s own life. Jim Henson had left Mississippi (where there are a few swamps) to achieve his dreams in Hollywood. Like Kermit, he gathered up a group of coworkers and friends that shared his dream of wanting to bring more light into the world. He also fought to escape the clutches of the advertisement business. 
      • In Brian Jay Jones’ biography on Henson, he points to the climactic scene in which Kermit faces Doc Hopper at High Noon, as a true Jim Henson inspired moment. 
      • “Yeah well, I’ve got a dream, too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, Well…I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And it kind of makes us like a family.” 
      • Jones wrote that Juhl could have lifted those words verbatim from Jim Henson’s mouth. 
  • Filming took a total of 90 days, with many shots done on location in California and New Mexico!
    • The entire film was done in camera with no after effects added. Every scene was choreographed so that the actors knew exactly where to be. It’s a complicated process, because the muppets need to appear autonomous, which means that puppeteers cannot ever appear. 
    • “Simple is good,” was always one of Jim Henson’s philosophies. But, it seemed as if his definition of simple would fluctuate. Writer Jerry Juhl said, “We always used to kid Jim that after telling everybody that ‘simple is good,’ he would turn around and try to produce the most complicated work in the world.” 
      • One notable example of this would be the scene in the film when Animal consumes chemicals and grows a gigantic head. Although some suggested filming the scene using the regular-sized Animal puppet with miniatures, Jim Henson instructed his crew to build a 60-foot Animal head instead, controlled by Frank Oz. 
  • When you’re watching a Muppet movie, you’re witnessing a series of complicated maneuvers by people so talented, that it all looks seamless. Only two characters in the film were operated as suits. Sweetums, the ogre muppet that works at the used car lot, and Big Bird! 
    • Another example of these maneuvers was the scene that included legendary actor Orson Welles. As the group is about to appeal to Welles to become rich and famous, the five or six puppeteers were wheeled on a dolly across the stage and objects in the foreground were used to help conceal them, such as chairs and couches.
  • In the finale we see many of the muppets all together under a rainbow. When watching you may not even think about what kind of an amazing feat this is. You see the muppets as actual characters, but in reality they must be moved by puppeteers. In this final scene there are more than 250 Muppet characters with 137 puppeteers hiding. The scene took an entire day to shoot and several of the puppeteers were called to help from the Puppeteers of America. In the beginning of the day Henson and Oz gave a crash course in the art of cinematic puppetry.
    • We will include in the blog a picture of how they organized where each puppeteer would stand with their characters by numbers written on the ground.
The Muppets.jpg

The Muppet Movie released in America on June 22,1979! It was a critical and commercial success, just like Jim Henson knew it would be. It was one of the most profitable films of the decade. 

MUSIC

  • The music and lyrics were written by Kenneth Ascher and Paul Williams.
  • In an interview with Stephen Deusner, Paul Williams said “Jim instructed us never to write down to children. That was never the point. We were writing the story and the characters. I think the special thing about the Muppets is that they encompass every age.”
  • When Williams was asked about working with his co-writer he said that, “The way Kenny (Ascher) and I write, it’s almost like we’re one consciousness. I probably write about 85 percent of the lyrics and a little bit of the melody as I’m singing, and he writes 85 percent of the music and a little bit of the lyrics. It was a perfect collaboration for The Muppet Movie.”

SONGS

  • The Rainbow Connection
    • There are a lot of magical moments in this film, but the opening of “Rainbow Connection” is other-worldly. It starts in the sky, as the orchestral opening music fades away, to make room for the humble sound of a banjo. The camera comes in from a wide shot, reminiscent of the opening of “The Sound of Music.” This first song of the movie sets up our main protagonist Kermit so that we see him as a true character and not a pile of fabric. 
    • At the film’s premiere, Jim Henson’s 14-year-old son, John, burst into tears. When asked about it later he said, “I cried in the opening. I still do.”
      • The inspiration for The Rainbow Connection was “When you Wish Upon a Star.” Both songs deal with inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
      • The Rainbow Connection is essentially an “I want” song. Linda Holmes from NPR wrote this about the song, “His ‘I Want’ is not just for his own dreams to come true. It’s for those who believe in the enchanting myths that we’ve all written together to be proved right. Someday, he hopes, we will find a thread that makes all this make sense. You know. Life. It’s almost a ‘We Want’ song.”
    • Jim Henson decided that when the audience first sees Kermit he would be sitting on a log. When Williams and Ascher asked Henson what Kermit would be doing, Henson thought briefly and said Kermit would be playing a banjo. Williams and Ascher built from there.
    • Performed at the 1980 Oscars
      • It was named in 2017 by Billboards Andrew Unterberger as one of the 100 Greatest Award Show performances of all time.
    • The song hit number 25 on the Billboard Chart and stayed in the top 40 for seven weeks! 
    • Since then the song has been covered by many artists. It’s wise lyrics may not be grasped by younger listeners but it has the capacity to be appreciated by all. It has been covered by Willie Nelson, Sarah McLachlan, and Jason Mraz.
  • Movin’ Right Along
    • This song comes just as Kermit is able to “convince” Fozzie to come with him to Hollywood. It sets up the beginning of their journey together.
      • This song also shows the audience the chemistry between Fozzie and Kermit, two best friends hittin’ the road together. It sets up the film as a “buddy” and “road trip” movie. It also shows how creative the characters are, as they are singing the song and writing it in real time! 
      • This song is filled with funny asides and is a plucky tune pounded out on banjo. Movin’ Right Along is an absolute jam. It also has a great cameo from Carroll Spinney’s Big Bird! 
    • In January of this year The Muppets social media uploaded a video of current day Kermit and Fozzie singing the tune together via a phone video call as Fozzie does a quick road trip. We will link to the video if you would like to view it.
  • Never Before, Never Again
    • This song really shows Frank Oz’s range, as Miss Piggy sings a love ballad while noticing Kermit for the first time. This song is filled with silly moments of the two Muppets being in love and spending time together, although only in Miss Piggy’s imagination. 
  • I Hope that Somethin’ Better Comes Along
    • This song is unique in that Henson duets himself! In order to accomplish the performance the two tracks were recorded separately and then composited together. 
    • The Muppets constantly walk a line between entertainment for children and adults. It’s tough to say if anyone has ever done it as well as they have. This song has the most grown-up jokes, as Rowlf and Kermit lament their lady troubles.
    • Rowlf the Dog was a very special character for Jim Henson. He was as much Jim as Kermit the Frog. When Jim Henson passed away, Rowlf only made a cameo appearance in The Muppet Christmas Carol, because Brian Henson didn’t want to recast him. 
  • Can You Picture That?
    • Shortly after Fozzie and Kermit meet up, the two encounter Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (aka the heroes of the film). Hanging out in a church, which they hope to turn into a coffeehouse. Once the band finds out about Kermit’s troubles with Doc Hopper, they decide to help by disguising their car. 
      • This is also the introduction of Scooter, Kermit’s eventual stage manager! 
    • This song is filled with trippy lyrics, and hilarious Animal moments, not to mention it absolutely rocks harder than almost any song ever. 
  • I’m Going to Go Back There Someday
    • When The Muppets break down in the desert, all dreams of Hollywood seem to have been lost. Sitting around a campfire, Gonzo performs one of the most poignant songs of the film. 
    • When Dave Goelz first took up the Gonzo puppet, he was a quieter, more emotional character. He was always very emotive, more so than many other Muppets. As The Muppet Show progressed, so did Gonzo’s character. He became more confident, and hardly afraid of failure as the resident daredevil.
    • But, when it comes time to perform this song, we see the complex emotional side of Gonzo that’s more akin to his original character. “I’m Going to go back there someday,” describes how it feels when you think you have finally achieved your dreams, just to have them fall apart.
    • Just after this song, Kermit goes and has a conversation with his inner self. He feels responsible for everyone’s misery, and wishes that he never left the swamp. Then, he realizes that they came along with him because they believed in the dream, and he owes it to himself to keep trying to achieve it.
    • Kermit says, “I guess I was wrong when I said I never promised anyone. I promised me.” And he looks up just as a shooting star strikes across the desert sky. 
      • The shooting star has been recreated for several other movies in honor of Jim Henson. It was a Christmas tree light rigged to a wire. When Frawley gave the signal, it shot across the other desert stars.
    • After Henson’s passing, I’m Going to go Back There Someday was one of the songs performed for his funeral at St. John’s Cathedral in New York City.
  • America
    • In one of the funniest and most off-beat moments of the movie, Fozzie Bear sings an off-key version of America The Beautiful. The rendition is charming and warm, with Fozzie singing along to the swelling music at the end. This is the kind of moment that really appeals to younger audiences, children that are listening to the songs, but also singing along. It’s also a great representation of the silly shenanigans that often happen on a long car ride. 
  • The Magic Store
    • This song is the big finale, a moment of celebration for our heroes that finally found their way to fame! The group sings to the audience, detailing their paths from being awkward kids in school, to successful entertainers. It’s a song for the audience, inspiring them to follow their dreams, too. 
    • The group starts to perform “The Rainbow Connection” together. Then, the ceiling breaks open and a rainbow appears, distracting everyone with its beauty. The music seems to stall for one haunting moment, except for two notes gently played on the piano. Then, Kermit turns to the camera, and tells us what he learned: Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.

STARRING

MUPPETS

  • Jim Henson: Kermit the Frog/ Rowlf/ Dr. Teeth/ Waldorf/ Swedish Chef/ Link Hogthrob 
  • Frank Oz: Miss PIggy/ Fozzie Bear/ Animal/ Sam the Eagle/ Marvin Suggs/ Motorcycle Guy
  • Jerry Nelson: Floyd Pepper/ Crazy Harry/ Robin the Frog/ Lew Zealand/ Camilla/ Blue Frackle
  • Richard Hunt: Scooter/ Statler/ Janice/ Sweetums/ Beaker
  • Dave Goelz: The Great Gonzo/ Zoot/ Dr. Bunsen Honeydew/ Doglion/ Nigel/ Pig
  • Steve Whitmire: Fletcher Bird

GUEST STARS:

It isn’t The Muppets without some guest stars. The puppeteers on set were thrilled to work with the large group of celebrities that agreed to appear in the film, from Bob Hope to Richard Pryor. 

  • Charles Durning as Doc Hopper (He looks a little like Colonel Sanders)
    • At one point on set, Jim Henson and Frank Oz got into an argument about Hopper. Henson believed that they should redeem the character. He believed that of any villain, and was once quoted saying, “Our villains are innocent, really–and it’s that innocence, I think, that is our connection to the audience.” Oz reportedly responded with, “bullshit.” 
  • Austin Pendleton as Max
  • Edgar Bergen as himself and Charlie McCarthy (you know, that monocle puppet)
    • Of all the celebrities, this was the most revered by the muppet cast. Edgar Bergen was a trailblazing puppeteer that paved the way for Jim Henson and every other performer on set. Writer Jerry Juhl said that watching him perform was like being a child again. 
    • Bergen was ill while filming The Muppet Movie, but agreed to do it anyway. It would be the very last footage of him, as he died that fall. Jim Henson spoke at his funeral, and the film is dedicated in Bergen’s honor. 
  • Milton Berle as Mad Man Mooney
  • Mel Brooks as Professor Max Krassman
  • James Coburn as El Sleezo Cafe Owner
  • Dom DeLuise as Bernie the Agent
  • Elliott Gould as Beauty Contest Compere
  • Bob Hope as the Ice Cream Vendor
  • Madeline Kahn as El Sleezo Patron
  • Carol Kane as Myth
  • Cloris Leachman as Lord’s Secretary
  • Steve Martin as the Insolent Waiter
  • Richard Pryor as the Balloon Vendor
  • Telly Savalas as El Sleezo Tough
  • Orson Welles as Lew Lord
    • Lew Lord is a nod to the head of ATV, Lord Lew Grade!
  • Paul Williams as El Sleezo Pianist
  • Scott Walker as the Frog Killer

AWARDS/ HOW IT WAS RECEIVED

  • The movie grossed almost $66 million in its initial release. Lew Lord certainly made back his 8 million dollar investment. Thanks to the film’s success, several other muppet films followed. 
  • It was nominated for two Oscars, for best song and best score. It won the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film. 
  • When Jim Henson’s agent Bernie Brillstein saw the film, he said, “Kermit was Jim. Jim believed in the entire world.” 

The Muppet Movie was another triumph by Jim Henson. He took his team of dreamers and continued to push the boundaries of his medium. He found artists that truly understood his vision and songwriters that captured the true magic of The Muppets and what they represented. The Muppet Movie works for many reasons, but one of the most notable is because of how much every single person that touched it believed in its message. This film walks the line between silly and sentimental, displaying a truth that will stick with audiences of all ages. 

The Muppet Movie is beautiful. It’s magic personified. And the best part is that it’s for absolutely everyone: the lovers, the dreamers, and you. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, and Carlos!

You can now buy us a Popcorn! @  buymeacoffee.com/blackcasediary   

Thank you to all that support us whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


Sources:

The Case of The Christmas Toy

Happy New Years Eve, Cassettes! We’re ringing in the new year with a special (brief) case about a very special made-for-TV Christmas movie!

Sure, you know about The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and loads of other Muppet content. But, the Muppets have a whole catalog of TV and home video releases, including a long list of Christmas specials! 

Just for fun, we did a google search for a list of all the Muppet Christmas movies, and still didn’t find a complete list. Every list we found features Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, which aired while The Muppet Show was still going strong. This special is probably the best of them all, and really set the stage for more Muppet movies to come. We also see the delightful, “Muppet Family Christmas,” listed with, “Letters to Santa.” Even the, “Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie,” gets mentioned (which was very meh to be honest.) 

But of course there’s even more! We already mentioned “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree,” earlier this season, which we love to hate (or hate to love?) So today, we’re talking about the under-appreciated and often forgotten, “The Christmas Toy,” from 1986.  

HISTORY

  • The Christmas Toy was produced by Jim Henson and Martin G. Baker with the executive producer Diana Birkenfield and directed by Eric Till.
  • The story was written by Laura Phillips. She had also been called in around this same year to help rewrite and contribute to Jim Henson’s movie The Labyrinth! Which is also one of our faves.
  • This short 50 minute special aired on ABC on December 6, 1986. A year later it would be made into a storybook written by Joanne Barkan and illustrated by Lawrence Di Fiori. 
  • Music and lyrics were done by Jeff Moss. If you don’t recognize his name you may recognize some of his music and lyrics from Sesame Street like “I Love Trash” and “Rubber Duckie.”
  • In the original release Kermit introduces the story and sets the stage dressed in a Santa outfit on the roof. Unfortunately due to Legal issues with Disney in 2006 many releases around that time cut Kermit out because, as we have discussed before, Disney acquired rights to The Muppets. Fortunately at least for now you can view the original beginning and everything on Amazon Prime (not a sponsor.)
  • Although CGI was becoming popular to use, Jim Henson specifically chose to use puppets. Boy are we sure glad he did!
  • Due to the popularity of Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas and other attempts at seasonal specials, The Christmas Toy was born. In order to make it happen, the main voices for Fraggle Rock were brought in and some new voices as well. According to The Jim Henson Company, he was inspired by The Velveteen Rabbit and The Nutcracker to form the characters that he brought to life. Although Jim Henson produced the special and still contributed, The AV club points out that he had the most hands off approach with it because there were many other projects calling for his attention as well such as The Labyrinth, The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, and The Storyteller.

SUMMARY

  • It’s Christmas Eve in the Jones’ house. The playroom of Jesse and Jamie Jones is a-buzz with excitement, as the toys prepare for the newest arrival to their household: the beloved Christmas Toy. Last year, Rugby the Tiger was the Christmas Toy. The rest of the toys try to explain that he will soon be replaced, but Rugby refuses to listen. Instead he decides to sneak downstairs and place himself under the tree to be the Christmas Toy again. But, if Rugby or any other toy is caught outside of its normal position in the playroom, they will be frozen forever! Other toys, like Mew (an adorable cat toy) and Apple the doll, attempt to save Rugby from this terrible fate. 

Although the concept of toys coming to life was not new (for example pinocchio, Winnie the Pooh, or the island of misfit toys) this story brings a new high stakes obstacle. The threat of being caught and frozen in place forever is an imminent threat, even for a cat toy like Mew. This harkens back to one of Jim Henson’s inspirations for the story, The Velveteen Rabbit. Within the Velveteen Rabbit there is also a heavy sense of doom for the toy character as he is possibly to be burned in order to disinfect the environment that the sick child is in.

THE CHRISTMAS TOY (1986) AND TOY STORY(1995, AND THE SEQUELS)

  • You may be thinking, I’ve heard this story, and this isn’t new! Toy Story has brought characters like these to life before! Well yes, Toy Story has a very similar plot and many characters from the collection are almost too similar. But The Christmas Toy came almost a decade beforehand. The similarities have brought some, like cracked.com, to go so far as to say that Toy Story shamelessly ripped off the obscure movie of The Christmas Toy. We cannot tell you that Toy Story for sure ripped the characters and story from this Jim Henson classic. We also cannot go over all the similarities we found between them because it would take forever so we will just discuss a few things that really stood out to us.
  • Plotline
    • The similarities in plot are basic, but glaring. The toys come to life when humans are not looking at them.
  • Characters
    • Rugby the Tiger/ Woody
      • The main characters, although their appearances are very different, the attitudes they gain when learning that a new toy may be replacing them is pretty similar.
    • Meteora Queen of the Asteroids/ Buzz Lightyear
      • Both come from outer space, believe they are real, and are the newest toys that cause quite a commotion without meaning to for the main character.
    • Balthazar/ Lotso the Bear
      • The physical similarities such as being a bear, the thick eyebrows, and the cane. Seen as the wise older leader in both.
    • Barbie Doll/ Bo Peep
      • The Barbie Doll is literally dressed as Bo-Peep with a staff and frilly dress.

CAST

  • Dave Goelz as Rugby Tiger and Ditz (the toy clown)
    • You may remember we have talked about Dave Goelz many times now as Gonzo and a few other muppets. He was also Boober in Fraggle Rock.
  • Steve Whitmire as Mew and the Dauntless Dragon
    • Known mostly for taking over Kermit after Henson’s death, he was also Wembley Fraggle.
  • Kathryn Mullen as Apple (the doll)
    • She was Mokey Fraggle and Cotterpin Doozer. She also puppeteered for Kira in The Dark Crystal.
  • Jerry Nelson as Balthazar (the teddy bear)
    • He was Gobo Fraggle and The Count from Sesame Street.
  • Richard Hunt as Belmont (the rocking horse)
    • He was Junior Gorg in Fraggle Rock and  Scooter and many others in The Muppets. 
    • The name Belmont is a reference to the famous Belmont Race Track located in New York.
  • Camille Bonora as Meteora and Molly (voice)
    • She is known for her many voices in many different Jim Henson projects including Little Red and Meryl Sheep in Sesame Street. 
    • She is also the character, Twitch in another little known special called The Tale of the Bunny Picnic. 
  • Brian Henson as Cruiser (the taxi driver)
    • A producer on many Muppet movies and shows, as well as Hoggle from The Labyrinth. 
  • Rob Mills as Bleep (the robot)
    • He was also Ludo from The Labyrinth but he also did special effects for movies including Secret of the Ooze.
  • Nikki Tilroe as Ding-a-ling (the rotary dial phone)
    • She was also in Fraggle Rock as a Muppet performer and played the Board of Birds from Follow That Bird.
  • Marsha Moreau as Jamie
    • Known for many children’s voice acting roles from Little Bear to Madeline to Babar. 
  • Zachary Bennett as Jesse
    • He is an actor who has done plenty of voice work but is known now for his roles in Maudie and the recent Umbrella Academy. 
  • Jim Henson as Kermit the Frog and Jack-in-the-Box (uncredited)
    • What else can we say 🙂

THE SECRET LIFE OF TOYS (1994)

  • In 1994 Jim’s son Brian Henson brought back some of these adorable characters for a show based on the movie. Although Apple the doll is replaced by a doll named Raisin many of the others are present; such as Rugby, Mew, Balthazar, and Cruiser. The two children have also been changed to be Penny and Simon instead of Jesse and Jaime.
  • We also see that Ditz the clown is alive! 
  • The show lasted for only 13 episodes and was aired on the Disney Channel. In each episode the group of toys gets into some kind of trouble while also trying to follow a set of rules to abide by that they call “no-no’s”. These are meant to keep them safe.

The Christmas Toy is a sweet, interesting story with enough holiday cheer to get the whole family into the spirit of Christmas. With characters like Mew, a toy often looked down on for being a cat toy instead of a “real” toy, finally finding his place among the other toys, and Rugby Tiger finally understanding that he needs to let someone else take the spotlight, we learn lessons of acceptance and humility. 

Sure, there are some scenes where things may seem a little dark or sad, but it all has a happy ending! 

So we happily end this year by saying Happy New Year, Cassettes! We will see you again in 2021!


BCD PRESENTS: NO SMALL PARTS

Don’t forget to check out our NEW show No Small Parts. You can find all the links you need to listen HERE.

No Small Parts is a short-form audio drama that explores the backstory of minor characters in major films. Each episode is written by Miles Murphy and performed by a member of the Black Case Diaries Podcast. Episodes to be released monthly!


SOURCES:

The Muppet Case

In the mid 1950’s, a young man obsessed with television was about to get a degree in set design,  when he saw an ad in a newspaper. It was from the local TV station, looking for performers for a new show. They were looking specifically for puppeteers, and although he knew nothing about that, he got a couple books from the library and created his own puppets for the audition. The man was Jim Henson, and even though the show he auditioned for was short-lived, it set him on the path of changing the puppet medium, and television, forever. 

But this episode isn’t about Jim Henson (don’t worry, we’ll get there). Today, we’re taking a specific look at one of his most well-known and beloved creations: The Muppet Show. The Muppet show aired from 1976 to 1981, five seasons of perfect insanity and uninhibited joy. It followed Kermit, a hapless producer and host of a weekly variety show, and the rest of the Muppets as they put together a live performance with a special guest. The show followed back-stage hijinks, and even included commentary from Statler and Waldorf, grumpy critics from the upper balcony. 

The show became more popular than anyone could have imagined, and the appeal of The Muppets continues today. So, it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to learn about the Muppets on the BCD tonight!The Muppet Case 

JIM HENSON’S EARLIER WORK

  • Back in the 1950’s, an 18-year-old Jim Henson put together an old felt coat and two halves of a ping-pong ball. Placing his hand inside, he brought his creation to life: a charismatic monster named Kermit. He would use the puppet on a local TV station’s 5-minute time slot between the evening news and the Tonight Show. It was called, “Sam and Friends.” 
  • Along with his future wife, Jane Nebel, Jim had been working on various shows on the local TV station in the Washington, DC area. His creations, that he started to call Muppets, essentially changed the game for puppeteering, and he was given his own program with more freedom. 
    • Up to this point, puppets weren’t considered a versatile medium. They were often rigid, made of wood or plastic, and while they appeared on various children’s programming, they were not commonly used in adult entertainment.
      • Jim Henson changed this by building new types of puppets with various materials. They were more flexible, and easy to manipulate. They also had a lot of character, as he constantly used new technology to give his creations movable features and expressions
    • While working on the show, Jim hired Jerry Juhl, a puppeteer and friend of future Muppet performer Frank Oz. Juhl was Henson’s first employee, and he even filled in for Jane on the final season of Sam and Friends.
  • Juhl moved to New York with Jim and Jane to help them put together their team of puppeteers, and he began to work as a freelance writer in the late 1960’s. He also followed Jim to Sesame street in 1969 as a performer and writer.
  • Eventually Juhl moved to California to pursue writing further, and would help with Jim Henson’s projects from afar. 
  • This relationship is incredibly important, as Juhl was vital to the creation of the Muppet show and the signature humor of the Muppet characters.

THE MAKING OF THE MUPPET SHOW

One of the pseudo pilots- The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence
  • In 1969, audiences everywhere met the lovable and unique Muppet Characters through the widely distributed Sesame Street. Although the show gave his characters exposure, Henson was afraid that he was becoming typecast as a children’s entertainer. 
    • Although the content that Jim and Jane created wasn’t inherently for children, the public eye saw puppets as a means of entertaining children. Popular children’s shows like Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody often used puppets, which cemented this mentality. 
    • The creatures Henson created were brightly colored, and had a friendly look that attracted younger audiences. But, he believed his Muppets were for all ages, as the characters themselves have a wide range of ages.
  • To attempt to get out of this, he began to play with the concept of a more adult oriented program. Two television specials were produced for ABC and are pseudo pilots for The Muppet Show. They were The Muppets Valentine Show (1974) and The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence (1975). At the time, neither of the two specials were ordered to series. 
    • The Valentine Show was written by Jerry Juhl, while Sex and Violence was not. Juhl’s writing voice was now a signature part of Jim Henson’s work, and the Muppets were not as successful without it. 
    • One great thing that came from Sex and Violence was the introduction of Statler and Waldorf, who became staples on The Muppet Show.
  • After the prime-time access rule was enacted, networks were able to shift their 7:30-8pm time slot to their affiliates. This helped convince CBS to consider airing some of Jim Henson’s show proposals, though he would have to go across the pond in order for him to get a green-lit series.
  • Luckily for Henson, British TV station ATV was interested in having his creations appear in a weekly show. He would have to move production to London, and Henson called his best writer Jerry Juhl to come on and develop the show. The station allowed Henson to hire Juhl, but they would not give him the head writer role, as they were looking for a more established comedian, and they hired Jack Burns.
    • The team met to develop the concept of the show, and they would pull elements from both specials. One of these ideas was the “show within a show” format, with a human guest that the characters can play off of.
    • This meant that Jim Henson’s manager Bernie Brillstein would have to find celebrities willing to travel to the UK and appear on the show. This was difficult in the beginning, but once the show became popular, celebrities were calling him!
      • With his team in the UK, Jim filmed two pilot episodes that they attempted to sell to US networks.
  • Meanwhile, the Muppets were featured during the first 1975-76 season of Saturday Night Live. Although they lasted for only that one season on Saturday Night Live, Henson and his team learned a great deal from being involved in the show’s production. They gained knowledge about adapting the current affairs of the world as well as quickly creating a television episode within a seven-day period. Henson also gained friendships with many celebrities through his work on SNL that were later able to be guests on The Muppet Show. 
    • This experience also helped Henson and his team to figure out the personalities of the Muppet characters and how they could be used on their own show.
  • Because Jim had been using the characters for TV appearances for almost 20 years already, he had well-set ideas for them and knew where they could fit in the show. All of the pieces were coming together.
    • Jim Henson chose one of his most well-known puppets, Kermit, to be the host of The Muppet Show. Kermit was originally a character that had trouble finding his footing. He seemed rough and a little rude, often criticizing other characters and frequently yelling. Placing the character as a frustrated stage manager really changed the context of his personality and made him a much more relatable character–someone who just wants things to go right. 
  • After leaving SNL, the creators were able to focus more on the show. They made huge improvements on the characters, based on the notes from the networks that did not want to buy The Muppet Show. The team went back to London and set up a studio to make the endless amounts of puppets needed. 
    • The next episode was far more successful, and the actors started to understand their characters. It also introduced Scooter! 
    • Each episode improved on the last, an incredible feat. Being able to adapt is what made Jim Henson and the Muppet performers so special, and it’s how the show lasted as long as it did.
    • There were cases of violence on the show, but Jim Henson was generally against any kind of TV violence, but the beauty of using puppets meant that viewers always knew that no one was getting hurt.
  • The Muppet Show first aired in September of 1976. By Christmas of the same year, the series saw around 14 million viewers on Sunday evenings in the UK. In January 1977, over 100 countries had either acquired the series or were making offers. 

SHOW PRODUCTION

  • The show had multiple writers. Jerry Juhl, who was appointed head writer for season 2, conveyed that there is a lot of freedom in writing a show like this. He said you can write down any insane fantasy you can think of on paper and there are people standing by to make it happen. 
  • Episodes were typically written a couple months before recording.
    • The other writers included: 
      • Don Hinkley
      • David Odell who began working with them first in the Muppet Movie.
      • Chris Langham
        • He was the only English writer and Jim Henson said  that he had an off the wall sense of humor.
  • The crew would start building sets about 5-6 weeks before they were needed on the show.
  • The Workshop was where the puppets were created and oftentimes they would spring ideas on the builders at the last minute.
    • In order to have multiple puppets throughout the series with different personalities they created The Whatnots. These puppets had blank faces that you could add features like eyes, noses, mouths and wigs in order to give character and personality. They had a variety of sizes, colors, etc for the features and they were typically attached via tape or pins.
    • Most, if not almost all, of the characters did not exist below the waist meaning they didn’t have legs. The trick was convincing the audience that there was a whole world for them and that they have their own reality. 
  • Stages of events leading up to a show
    • The first day was a script read-through and music rehearsal for vocals.
    • The Second day they would record the band and vocals.
    • Next they were in the studio rehearsing and videotaping the action.
    • Each episode of course had its own set of problems or hurdles to jump over.
    • They typically spent about three days shooting everything for the week’s episode. Sometimes a seemingly small number like, The Viking number (In the Navy), can take an entire day to perfect for an episode.
  • Philip Casson and Peter Harris were television directors that switched back and forth between weeks and would control the final product of what the audience sees on the television. They acted as regular television directors, but also dealt with the special problems that arise with working with puppets.
    • Richard Holloway would be the in-between for these two directors and those that were controlling the puppets. 
    • In order for the actors to see what the audience would see, there were monitors all around on the ground. They needed to make sure that every actor was looking at a monitor in order for them to fully understand the world that they were creating.

THE MUPPET PERFORMERS

  • The stars of the Muppets were of course those that controlled the Muppets. These performers became known as a Muppeteer. This term simply means a puppeteer for the Muppets. They each manipulate the puppets, provide voices, and bring a life, attitude, and character to the diverse characters.
    • The term Muppeteer derives from a portmanteau of “Muppet” and “Puppeteer”. This term has been used as early as the 1960’s in order to help promote Muppet projects. 
    • However, according to Brian Jay Jones, author of 2013’s Jim Henson: The Biography, Henson was not a big fan of the term. His entry reads:
      • “There was one term that Jim expressly would not allow to be used to describe his performers—and that was the word Muppeteer. While the media and others would use the term freely to describe Jim’s occupation, Jim thought it was just a bit too gimmicky. In 1984, when the Apple computer company sent Jim a mock-up of a page from its annual report proudly hailing Jim as an Apple user and listing his occupation as “Muppeteer,” Jim scratched darkly through the term and wrote “Muppet performer” beneath it. He was a performer or a puppeteer, not a Muppeteer.”
  • Many of the performers acted as many characters throughout the show. 
    • The men behind the Muppets had pros and cons of not being the seen stars. On one hand they weren’t recognized, so they could shop in peace. On the other hand they were not recognized, so they were not seen as famous. 
    • Jim Henson himself performed as the voices of Kermit, Rowlf, Waldorf, and even the “Mahna Mahna” singer.
      • Mahna Mahna originally appeared on Sesame Street! 
      • Jim Henson saw himself as Kermit. They were both trying to hold together a bunch of crazies.
    • Frank Oz voiced Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Snowths, and T.R Rooster.
      • Jim Henson said that he credits Frank Oz with one of the reasons that the Muppet Show is so funny. 
        • Frank Oz was such a big part of the show.
        • He was such a great performer, which was his absolute best attribute.
    • Richard Hunt voiced Scooter, Statler, Wayne, and in some cases, Miss Piggy, as well as Miss Piggy’s Dancing Partner.
    • Dave Goelz voiced Gonzo, Muppy, Miss Kitty, and Zoot
      • He was encouraged to perform by Jim Henson, and didn’t necessarily believe in his own ability. This made Gonzo seem a little quiet and childish, as Goelz was a shy performer. 
      • Gonzo developed to be a complex character that has a sensitive quality to him that other Muppets lack.
    • All of these performers would also voice many more minor or one off characters, along with additional voices from Jerry Nelson, Louise Gold, Steve Whitmire, and Kathryn Mullen.

GUEST STARS

  • After 5 seasons and 120 episodes, The Muppet Show never repeated a guest. According to manager Bernie Brillstein, celebrities contacted the show and asked to come on!
  • The initial contact with a guest is a phone call, where they find out information about the guest and figure out how to play to their strengths.
  • David Lazer the Executive Producer would be the one to guide each guest star through the week. 
  • Some of their most popular guests were: 
    • Julie Andrews 
    • John Denver
    • Gene Kelley
    • Elton John
    • Dom Deluise
    • Bob Hope
    • Steve Martin
    • Carol Burnett
    • John Cleese

RECEPTION

  • The Muppet Show was an unprecedented piece of television, because no other prime-time show had attempted to make its main characters puppets. It allowed both adults and children to come together and was more popular that anyone could have imagined. 
    • Jim Henson was thrilled with the success, but he couldn’t shake the fear that audiences saw the Muppets as children’s characters.
      • Network executives were seemingly the only ones who saw it this way.
    • It left such an impact that there have been several movies and shows since. Some classics are: The Muppet Movie, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppet Treasure Island.
  • The show was well received and was given awards, even early on!
    • 1977 the British Academy Television Award for Best Entertainment Programme
    • 1978 British Academy Television Award for Most Original Programme/Series
    • 1978 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy-Variety Or Music Program
    • 1979 The Peabody Award
    • 1979/1980 WGA Award for Best Variety Series or Special: Musical or Comedy – Television
    • 1980 The Raven Award
    • 1981 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing – Variety Series- to Jerry Juhl

It has been 44 years now since The Muppet Show first aired and we are still seeing its influence and characters today. On the Disney+ streaming service they have even put out a new series titled Muppets Now which is labeled as an improvisational comedy based on the franchise.

SOURCES: