Forgive me if the following question comes across as rather rude or crass. But given that Jim Henson has been dead & gone for almost two decades now, isn't it high time that someone actually wrote a really-for-real adult biography about this creative genius?
I mean, sure. There are lots of kid-friendly versions of Jim's life story on the market already (EX: "Meet Jim Henson," "The Story of Jim Henson" and "Jim Henson: Puppeteer And Filmmaker"). But these books tend to shave off the corners, gloss over all of those parts of Henson's personal & professional life that might genuinely intrigue adult readers.
Mind you, back in 1993, Random House did hire Ron Powers (i.e. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Mark Twain: A Life" and "Flags of Our Fathers") to write Jim's bio. And from what I hear, a year or so later, Powers did turn in a manuscript that supposedly revealed quite a bit more of Henson's humanity than his family was really comfortable with. Which is why they reportedly asked Random House to hold off on publishing Ron's bio of Jim.
What exactly was the Henson family allegedly afraid of? That revelations like "In the late 1980s, Henson had separated from his wife, Jane, the mother of his five children" would get out there? That Powers -- as part of his book -- might reveal that "As a single man, Henson had had his pick of staggeringly beautiful companions. Daryl Hannah, who had flown in from California for (Jim's memorial) service on a private jet and now wept softly in a pew, had been one of them" ?
Well, if that was really the case, then Jane and the kids can't be happy about Michael Davis' "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" (Viking Adult, December 2008). Which -- as it looks back at the creation of this landmark television series -- also gives its readers their first warts-and-all look at Henson.
Copyright 2008 Viking. All Rights Reserved
Disney history buffs will particularly enjoy reading "Street Gang," given that Davis goes into great detail about The Walt Disney Company's first attempt to acquire Jim Henson Productions back in 1989. According to Joan Ganz Cooney (i.e. one of the founders of Children's Television Workshop, the non-profit organization that worked with Jim to create Sesame Street back in 1969), it was Eisner's desire to get his hands on Ernie, Bert & Big Bird that ultimately did that deal in.
According to Davis:
Despite Henson's refusals to discuss (making the Sesame Street Muppets part of the Disney acquisition deal), Eisner wouldn't let
up. Cooney recalled how early in the winter of 1990, Henson had invited
her to attend what he described as a peace luncheon with Eisner, at
which he wanted to put the matter to rest once and for all. She
remembered how charming Eisner had been, how well the lunch was
proceeding, until she looked over at Henson and saw that he had become
upset over a stray remark of Eisner's in which he discussed the Sesame
Muppets as if he might own them. "There you go again," Henson said to
Eisner, blood rising up his neck. Cooney had never seen Henson that
The author then goes on to say that -- as a direct result of Eisner's behavior at this luncheon -- that Henson told Cooney that he would soon file paperwork which would automatically transfer ownership of the Sesame Street Muppets to CTW in the event of his death. Unfortunately, Jim hadn't actually finalized these arrangements before he passed away in May of 1990. Which put Oscar, Grove and Cookie Monster in a pretty precarious position for a while there.
Jim Henson works with Kevin Clash to bring Kermit the Frog to life during the production of a Sesame Street Muppets segmentCopyright 2008 Viking. All Rights Reserved
Now where this gets interesting is -- while Henson was dead-set against Eisner getting his hands on the Sesame Street Muppets -- he really had no problem with Disney owning Kermit & Co. To hear Cooney tell the tale:
"Jim was fine with turning over the classic Muppets to Disney because
he was tired of running the company, tired of having to raise money for
every project. Plus Disney was promising to back any movie project that
Jim wanted to do. That was huge."
That said, Henson still had problems with some of the provisions that Disney's lawyers kept inserting in his personal services contract with the Company. Not building any Sesame Street-themed theme parks within 100 miles of a Disney theme park? That Jim could live with. But surrendering to the Mouse the rights to every single character & concept that he created over the next 15 years ... That was a far harder pill for Henson to swallow.
Again quoting from Cooney:
"(According to) the contract provision dealing with his personal services, Jim
would be exclusively (Disney's) for the rest of his life. He would be
permitted to work on Sesame Street for two weeks a year, but that was
it. Jim wanted to sign only a five-year deal for his personal services,
not fifteen, and Disney said no. In fairness, Disney was about to pay
him $150 million ... But Jim was (still) feeling like a caged bird, physically
and personally trapped. He just wanted to fly away. You want to say
that was what killed him."
Indeed, given how miserable Eisner made the last few months of Henson's life, Joan genuinely seems to believe that this was a contributing factor in Jim getting that case of bacterial pneumonia that ultimately killed him.
Frank Oz uses the Grover puppet to entertain the kids on setCopyright 2008 Viking. All Rights Reserved
Well, I don't know about that. But what I do know is that "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" is a surprisingly juicy read. This book is just full of great behind-the-scenes stories about your favorite kid's shows (EX: "Captain Kangaroo." Crew members who worked on this CBS show revealed to Davis that " ... Bob [Keeshan] had a hot Irish temper and he didn't mind using it." And given what a tough taskmaster Bob could be, the production team " ... loved [working with] the Captain [character but absolutely] hated Keeshan") and how many of these family-friendly programs ultimately came together.
Of course, your enjoyment of this book will ultimately depends on whether or not you can handle the idea that some of your childhood heroes were actually flesh-and-blood, flawed human beings. And given all of the insights that "Street Gang" offers up about Jim Henson ... Well, it just makes me wish all the more that the Henson family would finally allow Ron Power's bio to be published. So that we could all get a better understanding of who this creative genius was. More importantly, what Jim Henson was really like.
very much looking forward to reading this.
I got banned recently from a Muppets website in part because I was very frank about Jim's notorious skirt-chasing and drug use - facts that are well-known to me because I know people who worked with him. And I also knew the reasons why the Ron Powers book was dropped, which you do mention. What gets me is that the same people who praise Jim like he walked on water will gleefully cast aspersions on Walt Disney, aspersions based on lies and fabrications that have been thoroughly and credibly debunked. Yet those people then turn a blind eye to Jim's many questionable habits. Talk about double standards. And it makes me wonder: how come none of Jim's, um, adventurings never made it into the newpapers? If Walt had behaved anything like the way Jim did, a major, very public scandal would have broken out and there would have been screaming headlines in the newspapers. Yet Jim was protected by the press throughout his lifetime - and heck, referring again to the censoring of the Powers book, *after* his lifetime. You really got to wonder about our news media sometimes. Anyway, a book that at least takes a cursory glance at the warts on the Frog man is overdue. I'll have to take a look at it and see if it references any of the sordid tales I've heard about the guy.
My interet is not on the man. He is long deceased and his human fralities don't matter now. I just hope DISNEY doesn't let his creations die. Make the MUPPETS live on!
"isn't it high time that someone actually wrote a really-for-real adult biography about this creative genius?"
No. Don't need it. The world will not be enhanced by knowing about Jim's personal life any more than it will by knowing about yours or mine.
I've come to think this about all "tell-all" biographies. His significance is in his work, not what he did "off camera". That's none of our business.
He's dead. Let him rest in peace.
Of course it's important for us to know the man. We are long past the days where our idols and mentors are these larger then life fictional icons who knew no tragedy, only triumph. These days we need to know more about our heroes so that the next generation of creative geniuses don't get bogged down in their own frailties and imperfections.