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The Muppets pay tribute to Jim Henson

The Muppets pay tribute to Jim Henson

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Picking up where Chris left off last week ...

As the Jim Henson memorial service ended and we followed the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to the back of that magnificent cathedral in upper Manhattan, we were all feeling emotionally drained. The service was a rare moment in time. A legend was honored that day, by an outpouring of love, song, and "Muppetational" good feelings. I felt honored to have been asked to be there with the company, considering my status as a college intern. After the service, I'm sure I wasn't the only one wondering, "What now?"

The phone call came a month or so later as I was beginning to panic over my lack of employment. Apparently, there were some projects happening back at the Jim Henson production studio on 67th street. The question posed to me by my old intern supervisor was, "Would you like to come work for us for awhile?" I'm sure she could feel my smile beaming through the wires as I enthusiastically accepted.

There were two projects that were about to start production in NY. The first was a Muppet Sing-Along home video featuring a cast of all new Muppet characters and after that the tribute special, "The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson." The latter was to air on CBS the night before Thanksgiving of that year. My internship was special. The chance to meet and speak to Jim was now even more precious to me since his death. Now I would actually get to see the Muppet magic happen. I would get to see all the Muppeteers perform their craft and more importantly, I would get to help them do it.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

"Billy Bunny's Animal Songs" was a Muppet Sing-Along home video aimed at a very young demographic. It was meant to teach kids about different animals as the lead character, Billy, sings his way through the forest. Billy Bunny, performed by Muppeteer Kevin Clash (best known for Elmo) runs across a swamp full of very Kermit-like frogs, a cave full of rapping Bears and a sultry singing porcupine. Veteran Muppeteers Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Fran Brill played a variety of animals scattered throughout the forest. There was even an appearance by the ubiquitous Muppet penguin. The animals were cute, the songs were memorable and overall it was a pretty unique bit of Muppet history as none of the major characters were featured in this video. Perhaps the plans were to expand this character in the future. Amazon.com lists this video's release date as 1993. Considering we shot this in 1990, it's quite odd that this took 3 years to release and then Billy quietly disappeared.

Watching the Muppet crew work their magic was a dream come true. I had seen Jim's many "behind the scenes" specials, but it was great to walk onto that stage and see the Muppet's raised sets. The sets were raised, of course, to allow the Muppeteers to walk around below and puppeteer their characters out of sight of the cameras. The atmosphere on the set was very loose, very informal, and at times improvisational. If things in the script weren't working, these veteran performers stopped and figured things out. They knew each other so well and trusted each other's instincts, and yet were open to newcomer's suggestions as well. To this day, I have yet to see such a democratic attitude on a television set. There was no pecking order. The end result was most important. As long as the work was quality, it didn't matter how they got it that way. The camera guy's suggestion was as valued as the veteran performer's, which was as valued as the lowly production assistant. This meant for a long shoot, but a very satisfying one all the same. Jim Henson's spirit of fairness and artistry were completely evident in his extended family.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company

When Billy Bunny had wrapped, work began on the tribute special. Most of my time during pre-production was spent assisting the editor as he poured through the Henson library, compiling footage for several different montages to be featured throughout the special. Here I came across box after box of tapes containing rarely seen shows and segments from Muppet history. Original reels from Jim's early days producing Wilkins's coffee commercials, his early experimental films, "Timepiece" and "The Cube" and segments form the UK versions of "The Muppet Show" never seen in the US before, were just a sampling of the treasures we'd uncover every day. On one shelf in the photo studio I came across a binder the size of a phone book filled with Polaroids of every Muppet featured in "The Dark Crystal." What an astounding example of Jim's endless and limitless creativity this was. It was a page-turner for sure.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company

These montages were to be framed by interviews with the likes of Carol Burnett, John Denver, Stephen Spielberg and Frank Oz. When I found out I would be working on the only interview to be taped in New York, I wondered which it would be. Much to my joy and surprise it turned out to be Ray Charles. Ray spoke about "Bein' Green" and how it was an example of Jim's message to all of us to love one another for who we were. Ray's version of "Green" is still my favorite.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

Once these montages were complete, it was time for the Muppet segments to be produced. I watched as the stage was transformed into a backstage set closely resembling the set from The Muppet Show. As taping day approached, I realized that basically every person in Jim's extended family would be convening on this stage in the next few days. The premise was that Kermit was away traveling and in his absence the Muppets were supposed to prepare for a tribute to Jim Henson. The Muppets, however, could not figure out who this Jim Henson guy was. They set about to learn all they could about this guy Jim and create a suitable tribute to him. As things fell deeper and deeper into typical Muppet chaos, they become disillusioned with their efforts, which included Gonzo's friend Whoopee Cushions, the tap dancing whoopee cushion and a team of singing accountants. In the end, the Muppets find that if they only believe in themselves, they'll find the right path.

We worked long days, sometimes 15-16 hours, trying to get all the Muppet segments completed. I got to see Frank Oz perform Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, Dave Goelz perform Gonzo the Great and watch as Carrol Spinney put on the Big Bird costume. Bird's costume was complete with an eyepiece connected to a camera in Bird's eye to allow Carrol to see where he was going. The technology and the artistry was staggering. My primary responsibility was to run wires and small monitors to each Muppeteer, to allow them to view their performance as they puppeteered. It was amazing to see how complex "wiggling the dollies" really was.

As I watched and learned, I realized something about what was going on around me. This was the first time that the core performers were on a set together since Jim's death. They had performed at the memorial service, but this was home, a soundstage. This was a difficult time for all of them for sure, but their belief in the work got them through it.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

The last scene taped had the Muppets discovering that this person Jim Henson who they were honoring had indeed died. As they read actual letters from children and from fans expressing their sorrow over the loss of Jim, the set was eerily silent. Fozzie scrapped the production number, and declared that they were unfit to do a tribute to someone as important as Jim Henson. Kermit's nephew, Robin (performed by veteran Jerry Nelson) began to sing The Muppet's signature song, "Just One Person." The stage filled with Muppets and virtually every Muppeteer in Jim's "family." At the emotional climax of the song, Kermit walks in and for the first time ever Muppeteer Steve Whitmire's voice and hands were performing the frog. To my knowledge this was the first time any of the Muppeteers had seen this. There was only one take and Kermit promised that there would be lot's more Muppet stuff to come because, "..that's the way the boss would've wanted it."

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

As the director yelled cut, I watched this family have the closure they so badly needed. They all collapsed in each other's arms in tears and closed one long, beautiful chapter in their oh so fortunate lives. There was, however, a strong feeling that hopefully a new and equally wonderful chapter was about to begin.

After that special, things came to a halt at the Jim Henson Company as they slowly settled in to life without their leader and began to ask the big question, "What now?" My time spent on the east side of Manhattan in 1990, with a strange assortment of foam characters, and an equally intriguing group of humans had come to an end. It was, as I said at the beginning of this series, a brief but eventful tenure. As I left the studios on 67th street, marked only with the old ha! logo (Henson Associates) above the door, the final lines of "The Muppet Movie" were ringing in my head.

Life's like a movie, write your own ending

Keep believing...keep pretending

We've done just what we've set out to do

Thanks to the lovers...the dreamers...and you!

It was a sad walk to the subway that last day, but my movie wasn't over. To this day I keep believing and I keep pretending and I'm thankful to all the lovers and dreamers and most of all...Jim Henson...I'm thankful to you.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

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