…A hand-drawn card was placed on the grand piano…from the imagineers at Disney… On the front, a despondent Kermit the Frog sat on a log in front of a blazing sunset, a discarded banjo behind him, his head in his hands; next to him sat Mickey Mouse, with a consoling arm draped around Kermit’s shoulders. No words were needed.
Real life is a lot less sympathetic than fiction. In a biography, you frequently know the lead character dies at the end, but it is hard to bear this once you have followed them through their lives, growing more attached by the chapter.
Reading this book, about the brilliant Jim Henson, made me think about the nature of genius, and how a genius is dependent on the world aligning to fulfil their expectations of life. This happened for Jim in many ways, largely because his expectations were so strong he was able to take everybody else along for the ride. We remember geniuses because of the amount of change they wrought on the world, and this was certainly the case with Jim.
It took awhile for the writers’ narrative to warm to his subject – the first chapter was a bit biblical, going through each of Jim’s forbears and their skills in minute detail – but once Jim’s career was moving along, the book was a good read. Jones was given unrestricted access to the Henson family and close friends, as well as Jim’s private diaries, and he used both judiciously to inform his story, which is scrupulously footnoted. The use of the diaries was sparing but insightful, Jim’s private reaction to significant events was often more subdued than that of the public, largely because, as we learn, he lived in the future. Once he was successful once, he wanted to push the envelope further, and further again.
Jim Henson didn’t set out to be a puppeteer, he wanted to work in set design. A chance hiring by a local TV station for a pair of puppeteers however, saw him recognised for his abilities, and after studying the art at University (and incidentally, meeting his wife in the process), he carried on being hired as a puppeteer for variety shows, for many years before having his chance to branch out. Due to the popularity of his segments, he became sought-after for advertising products with his puppets, which he did through Muppets, Inc, which was started in 1958. It was not until The Muppet Show was picked up (several years after it was first conceived) by a British TV show, that Jim Henson became a household name.
I recommend searching YouTube to have a look at some of Jim’s early work as you read – it gives you a further appreciation of his early genius. The Wilkins Coffee advertisements are particularly neat.
Jim believed in working with friends, and he was a true innovator – he was among the first to embrace every technological advance film & TV offered. He had ideas upon ideas, and earned the wherewithal to carry several of them through. By the time he died, his company had more than 150 employees across four different locations, working in films, television, and running the business. His legacy includes The Muppet Show (five seasons), Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, The Labyrinth, Three Muppet Movies (plus several ‘specials’), and so much more. He gave his all to everything he did, and those around him became better for having him there.
I highly recommend this biography to anybody interested in creativity. Jim Henson’s life is an inspiration, and I couldn’t help wondering what he would be doing now, if he were still with us.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Jim Henson: The Biography
by Brian Jay Jones
Published by Virgin