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Saying "Goodbye" to Jim

Saying "Goodbye" to Jim

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There's nothing quite like the sound of a huge church pipe organ.

There's also nothing quite like hearing that huge church pipe organ playing "The Rainbow Connection."

Sitting in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine awaiting the start of the Jim Henson memorial service hearing that familiar song being played in such an unfamiliar way, I knew I was in for a memorable experience. It was only five days ago that I received the early morning call from my best friend Dawn alerting me to Jim's passing. Only nine days earlier I had sat across a desk from my hero and gained, if possible, an even greater appreciation for him. It had been a rough few days for everyone who appreciated Henson's gifts to the world. Now the Jim Henson Company had organized one heck of a send off for their beloved leader.

The cathedral, a national treasure itself, was decorated with large photos of Jim and his various creations hanging on the massive columns that line the walls. There were collections of company and family photographs arranged on boards in the back of the cathedral as you entered. Hundreds of small foam butterflies attached to a metal puppeteers rod were handed out to be "performed" by everyone at a later point in the service. I still have mine. The foam is barely holding together.

At Jane Henson's request there were flowers everywhere. As per Jim's own instructions, people were to refrain from wearing black. There were celebrities in attendance. George Lucas, Darryl Hannah, Rick Moranis, Frank Wells, and Michael Eisner himself were all spotted. More importantly, the service was open to the public and the seats and aisles were filled with fans. The most touching thing to me was to see so many parents holding small children who were in turn clutching their Ernies or Kermits in their little arms.

As the organ music came to a stop, the Henson family, the Muppet performers and several clergy were led in by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band playing a somber New Orleans style funeral march.

As the service began Muppeteer Richard Hunt (Scooter, Janis and countless others) took the stage and read letters from children who had grown up on Sesame Street and how the loss of Jim had affected them. He told us that we would laugh and cry today but we would also "breathe in Jim's air...one last time."

Long time Muppet writer Jerry Juhl spoke, Muppeteers Jerry Nelson and Louise Gold sang. Harry Belafonte performed a song he had performed years earlier on "The Muppet show." During this performance everyone began fluttering the butterfly puppets. The sight of hundreds of multicolored butterflies coming to life as Belafonte sang "Turn the World Around" was a sight I'll never forget.

Next up was Frank Oz (Bert, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, etc.). Frank's close relationship and love for Jim was apparent as he told a wonderful story about a particular Christmas present that Jim had made for him. In their Saturday Night Live days, Jim asked Frank to go into his dressing room, take off all his clothes, hold his hands over his genitals, and look into the lens of a camera with a shocked expression as Jim took a photo. Frank cautiously but happily obliged. As Christmas approached Jim gave Frank his gift. It was a sculpture of sorts, consisting of a large Bert holding a shelf of little Bert's all looking back at the big Bert. Jim had taken pictures of all the Creature shop people responsible for making Bert. He cut each face out and glued them onto the shelf. He then cut out the pupils of big Bert's eyes and replaced them each with the photos of Frank naked.

As Frank finished his story, he went on to say how this gift was so representative of Jim. The detail, the textures, the generosity of the time it took to make, were all so indicative of Jim's personality. He then left the stage in tears. The tears were infectious as Kermit's signature song "The Rainbow Connection" began playing. Nobody was on stage. Only the sound of Henson singing as Kermit filled the air in the cathedral as more butterflies fluttered and we all cried.

After a short heartfelt speech by Sesame writer/director John Stone, the soft sounds of a piano were heard. As we wondered what or who was next, we saw Big Bird gently, almost elegantly, stroll out onto the stage. He was wearing a Kermit green bow tie. The tears flowed as Bird began to sing, "Bein' Green." You could hear Carrol Spinney's voice struggling to get through the poignant song as he finished, looked up at heaven and said, "Thank you Kermit." I tear up just thinking about it, all these years later.

A few more speakers followed; Bernie Brillstein, Jim's longtime manager and Michael Frith, Henson's Head of Design each spoke eloquently about the loss of their dear friend. Original Muppeteer Jerry Nelson spoke as his character Floyd and read a poem entitled, "Fearless Leader." Several priests then read from different religious texts at the Henson family's request.

Then the family themselves took the stage. Jane introduced the five children, spoke for awhile and then let son Brian and daughter Cheryl read from letters that Jim had left for them. Henson had written about his thoughts on his own death four years earlier. He expressed his curiosity about the afterlife, his love for his kids and his wishes for his service. Cheryl read that he was hoping to leave this world a little bit better than it was when he got here. I hope he realized just how successful he was in that respect.

Perhaps the most special part of the service took place next as the core Muppet performers, Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Kevin Clash and Steve Whitmire (dressed in a Kermit green three piece suit, shirt, tie, and shoes, perhaps foreshadowing the fact that he would take Jim's place as Kermit) took the stage and sang what they referred to as some of Jim's favorite songs. "The Cutest Little Baby Face," (sung in Muppet chickens' voices) "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" (sung by Clash in Elmo's voice), "You Are My Sunshine," "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" (sung by Goelz in Gonzo's voice) were among some of the treasures performed by the Muppet troupe. The final song, "Just One Person" was begun by Richard Hunt performing with Scooter, his most famous character. As each verse progressed, each Muppeteer joined in with their own Muppets until the stage was filled with all the Muppet performers and their beloved characters. The audience rose to their feet and applauded and cried out loud. It was an extremely moving moment and a fitting way to end the service.

The bishop closed the ceremony and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band led us all out with a rousing rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."This was what Jim Henson had requested. Maybe some of the performers could sing a little. Maybe some of his friends could tell some stories. Maybe a Dixieland band could play "Saints." His wishes were granted happily by his beloved family and friends.

The words he left behind for his kids, which were printed in the program, summed up the day's emotions:

"Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It's a good life, enjoy it."

Once again, even in his passing Jim Henson taught us all a valuable and treasured lesson.

Next week, I'll talk about what it was like to work with the Henson extended family that following fall on "The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson" TV special.

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