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"Jim Henson: The Biography" takes you behind-the-scenes during Disney's first attempt to acquire the Muppets

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"Jim Henson: The Biography" takes you behind-the-scenes during Disney's first attempt to acquire the Muppets

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So when Jim Henson finally signed the Muppets over to The Walt Disney Company, where exactly did the deal go down? New York City? London? LA?

Nope. According to Brian Jay Jones, the author of "Jim Henson: The Biography " (Ballantine Books, September 2013), this fateful meeting actually happened in Lake Buena Vista, FL. on August 24, 1989. Where ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... just after dark, Jim and the three Disney chiefs headed to the Portobello Yacht Club, an Italian restaurant in the newly opened Pleasure Island section of the resort. With the other eight spots at their large dinner table occupied by executives and attorneys from the Walt Disney Company and Henson Associates, this would be very much a business dinner. Starting at 9:15, as waiters whirled in plates of pasta and glasses of wine around them, both sides got to work.

Discussion went on late into the evening; lights went off in at the restaurants and shops out on Pleasure Island. Finally, just after midnight, the two companies reached an agreement -- legally speaking, an agreement-in-principle -- that would permit the Walt Disney Company to acquire Henson Associates and allow Jim to enter into a long-term exclusive production agreement with the Walt Disney Company. At 12:30 a.m. -- it was now the morning of Friday, August 25 -- Jim signed his name on the agreement's final page. Smiling, he said his good nights and retired to his suite at the Grand Floridian.

As Jones repeatedly points out in this beautifully written, thoroughly researched book, the Mouse had a huge impact on Henson's personal & professional life. Take -- for example -- the Muppet theme park that Jim and his team almost built.

Copyright Ballantine Books. All rights reserved

As recently as 1987, Jim had been seriously exploring the idea of a Muppet-themed amusement park called Muppetville before conceding that "Disney does it so well that we could never do it better."

Which isn't to say that Henson's love of all things Disney meant that Jim was a complete push-over when he sat down with the Mouse House attorneys to discuss selling Henson Associates.

While Jim was prepared to hand all of the Muppets to Disney, he didn't intend for Kermit to go with them unconditionally. He was too important. "Kermit should be treated in the negotiations as a separate issue," recommended a confidential Henson Associates memo. "Since Kermit the Frog is so closely associated with Jim Henson, Jim must have control over the use of Kermit." For Disney, however, getting the Muppets without the free use of Kermit was like getting the cast of Peanuts without Snoopy. For the moment, Kermit was in a kind of legal limbo as both sides tried to figure out, Solomon-like, how to split the million-dollar baby.

Copyright The Jim Henson Legacy. All rights reserved

This is what's truly terrific about "Jim Henson: The Biography." As you page through this 608-page hardcover, you'll come upon story after story that you've never ever heard before. All of these great moments from Henson history. Like when ...

In April (1990, David Lazer) briefly joined Jim down at Disney-MGM, where Jim excitedly described a new attraction he wanted to build: a fully operational studio in which park visitors could watch the Muppet performers at work on whatever production happened to be under way at the time. As he showed Lazer around the rest of the Muppet area -- making big sweeping motions with his hands as he pointed to where the Great Muppet Ride would be or where he wanted to set up the Great Gonzo's Pandemonium Pizza Parlor -- Lazer thought that "Jim was never happier in his life ... Anything he wanted to do, he could do," Lazer said. "I never saw this friend of mine so happy." 

And speaking of The Great Muppet Movie Ride, that never-built attraction that has tantalized Henson fans for nearly 25 years now, Jones reveals the classic Disney theme rides that Jim used for inspiration when he was ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... given a corner of the fledgling Disney-MGM Studios in which to develop Muppet-themed rides, attractions, and restaurants, with Disney's wildly creative and innovative Imagineers at his full disposal. This was a playground far more fun that even his Creature Shop. "The idea of working our characters into the Disney parks!" Jim gushed. "I can't wait. This is going to be such fun."

Jim's favorite attractions in the Disney parks were the Pirates of the Caribbean ride -- the reliable favorite in which passengers float through scenes filled with comic, Audio-Animatronic pirates -- and the lesser-known River of Time, a quiet boat through moments in Mexican history, housed in the Mexico pavilion at EPCOT. Both were dark rides in which riders floated through the attraction in boats ... so it is perhaps of little surprise that the first attraction Jim wanted to design was a massive dark ride filled with scenes featuring Audio-Animatronic Muppets. Jim thought it would be funny to parody Disney-MGM's centerpiece dark ride -- ... the Great Movie Ride -- with an attraction of his own called the Great Muppet Movie Ride. "It'll be a backstage ride explaining how movies are shot," said Jim, giggling, "but all the information is wrong!" Michael Firth went quickly to work, pencil flying as he drew Muppet parodies of famous movies.

Now given that The Walt Disney Company failed in its first attempt to acquire Henson Associates, it shouldn't surprise you that "Jim Henson: The Biography" explores why this deal went off the rails. But Jones -- being the great reporter that he is -- uncovers the personality conflict that actually prevented Henson from closing the deal with Disney before he passed away in May of 1990. And that was all the head-butting that Jim had to do with then-Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Jeffrey Katzenberg doesn't seem all that impressed with this early storyboard
for Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

As Jane Henson recounted to Jones ...

"Jim really didn't want to work with somebody who had no respect for what he did."

(David) Lazer ... spent countless evenings on the phone with Jim, trying to smooth things over after one of Jim's encounters with the abrasive Katzenberg. "Many times, the deal was off," said Lazer, "and I brought it back to life again." Lazer's advice: talk with Eisner. "Every time he would go see (Michael) Eisner, it got better," said Lazer. "Eisner made it better."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Still, even Jim's relationship with Eisner could get prickly from time to time. The point of contention was usually the same: Sesame Street. Jim had continued to assure Joan Cooney that Disney wouldn't acquire the Sesame Street Muppets in the deal, and had even personally informed Eisner that pursuing such a negotiation would be a "non-starter." During one lunch meeting with Cooney and Eisner, however, Jim became visibly annoyed when Eisner even mentioned the words Sesame Street. "There you go again," said Jim curtly. Eisner let the matter drop.

But you know what's really great about Brian Jay Jones' ability to dig that detail that genuinely makes a story? Check out this anecdote:

Disney's internal memos referred to its acquisition of Jim's company as "Project Big Bird," giving the transaction a code name based on a Muppet the company was never going to get.

Jim Henson and an early, early version of Sesame Street's Big Bird puppet.
Copyright The Jim Henson Legacy. All rights reserved

I know, I know. I'm making "Jim Henson: The Biography" sound like it's a very Disney-centric book. Which it really isn't. But given that Muppet fans have already probably picked up this national best seller, I thought that I'd also try and make Disneyana enthusiasts aware of Brian Jay Jones' latest book. If only because this thoroughly entertaining volume offers a great look at the way The Walt Disney Company operated back in those pre-"Little Mermaid " & "Beauty and the Beast " days.

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  • I read this book a couple of weeks ago. Its an amazingly good in depth look not only at Jim's life and work but also really of the man himself and his thoughts and values. Highly recommend.

  • There was a glossy animation magazine that ran a lengthy interview with Henson just after his death, talking to him during the shooting of the Muppets 3D film. Henson said he liked the prospect of Disney taking over the ever-expanding business aspects of the Muppet empire, leaving Henson and company to focus on creative work.

    Disney wanted Henson himself as much as they wanted the Muppets. There was a realization they needed visionaries as well as properties -- note that when they bought Pixar, they immediately had John Lasseter consulting on non-Pixar projects.

    Also the long courtship of George Lucas, who then was showing a Walt Disney-like interest in new fields (witness the Young Indy DVDs: an ambitious and expensive educational venture instead of a slam-dunk fan release).  

    The eventual acquisitions of Lucasfilm and Marvel seemed to be more about assets than talent, but note that they've been diligent in securing the (lesser known) visionaries needed to bring those assets to life.

  • I've been reading/listening to the audio book version and I was shocked to think that Henson Enterprises was in  better shape in 1984ish that Jim actually considered buying Disney.

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