'Jim Henson, the Biography' – Brian Jay Jones
'Jim Henson, the Biography' has two major advantages: the full co-operation of the Henson family and the author’s substantial qualifications. Brian Jay Jones wrote an award-winning biog of Washington Irving, having abandoned politics for the pen in 2008, and is a lifelong fan of Sesame Street and the Muppet Show. The story he gives us about the life and death of Jim Henson is long and detailed, exhaustively researched and – at least for me – a real page-turner.
Jim Henson’s character is made plain for all to see: basically we are confronted by that most difficult of traits, inherent goodness. His vision, in his professional work and in the raising of his five children, was to "make the world a better place". There was nothing righteous in him, his work was always about fun and craziness, but he "genuinely cared that it had a value system".
The book leads us through every stage of his career, which started at the University of Maryland. Switching from Fine Arts to Home Economics he was, unusually, able to take a number of art courses including puppetry and, in doing so, met his wife and lifelong close friend Jane.
Together they started to perform with some hand puppets (or ‘muppetts’ as they were described on his first paycheck received in 1954) with such originality, professionalism and brio that, little by little, they were more and more in demand. And not just for those reasons: Jim’s calm, his assurance, his kindness and his humour made him a personality people wanted to work with.
Not that Jim Henson was in the slightest degree weak: he is described as having "a whim of steel", a phrase to treasure. He had a strong vision and the talent for making the vision a reality, in large part through picking the right people and drawing them into his plans for the future.
He never intended to be a puppeteer, and for a long time certainly not a performer. His goal was to be an experimental film-maker, but he was just too good at the puppets, discovering their comic and educational possibilities, through design, the devising of great scripts, the discovery of a very select number of collaborators, the invention of new techniques for staging hand puppets onscreen.
Henson was always moving on to the next Big Idea, but refused to approach the art form academically: "When I hear the art…discussed or analyzed I feel it does what it does and is even a bit weakened if you know what it’s doing. At its best it’s talking to a deeper part of you."
He waged a lifelong battle against the preconception that puppets are only for kids, a belief surely vindicated by the worldwide success of the Muppets with adults even more than with children, if that were possible. However the puppets’ enormous contribution to Sesame Street’s success with the very young, and the programme’s seeming immortality, is difficult for the public to ignore, in just the same way as the BBC’s ‘Watch with Mother’ in Britain fixed puppets as entertainment for the very young in the public’s mind.
Jim Henson was an active member of the American puppetry community, Puppeteers of America and UNIMA-USA; in time starting the Jim Henson Foundation, which still gives a substantial sum distributed annually as grants to emerging puppeteers and new productions.
The book relates how his life became more and more crowded, the Jim Henson organisation bigger and bigger. I was riveted by the details of all this, of how the Muppet Show came to be telecast from London, thanks to Sir Lew Grade, boss of ATV; and of how he also put his faith and finance into the very different fantasy film, 'The Dark Crystal'.
Jones documents the increasingly stressful years when the Jim Henson organisation negotiated a merger with Disney, which proved very difficult and protracted, the legal wrangling going against the grain of Jim’s preferred way of working – a handshake would have been almost enough for him.
In the event his untimely death brought the matter to an end, at least for the time being, since the Disney corporation did at last acquire the rights to the Muppets. It has recently produced films and television programmes under the starry names of Kermit and his colleagues. Brian Henson is still deeply involved, fortunately.
In all of the meteoric rise of the Jim Henson enterprises, his children and their upbringing remained the centre of his private universe. Even when he and his wife bowed to the demands of their separate lives and found separate homes, they remained close, and he made friends and later co-workers of his off-spring.
One by one the children, Lisa, Brian, Cheryl, John and Heather were, to a greater or lesser extent, involved in the company’s activity and decision-making. Brian has become the head of the Jim Henson productions (within the Disney empire), and Cheryl leads the activities of the Foundation.
Jim Henson’s early death, from a too-long untreated streptococcal infection, was a tragedy felt deeply by anyone who came into contact with him. This "perpetual student of life" with a nobility of spirit that "saw virtue and worth in nearly everyone", who combined gentleness with dynamism and ambition, was missed on a personal level by literally hundreds of people. I knew him very slightly, but even on short acquaintance found him exceptionally kind and generous.
The story of his life in Brian Jay Jones’ book goes a long way in demonstrating the inner workings and outer achievements of a man with a huge heart and an enduring legacy. It’s a great read.
'Jim Henson, the Biography'
Brian Jay Jones