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?
Nope. According to Brian Jay Jones, the author of "Jim Henson: The
" (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
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 ...
... 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."
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
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
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.