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When the Muppeteers were fretting about the Mouse

When the Muppeteers were fretting about the Mouse

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After reading Jim Hill's recent article regarding The Muppet Holding Company's auditions for new puppeteers, it sparked some memories from my days working at Jim Henson Productions.

As I've said in previous articles, my time at Henson was short but eventful. One thing that was shaping up to be a possible big event at that time was the sale of Jim's company and creations to The Walt Disney Company. Most of us, at least most of us in these circles, know that Disney now owns The Muppets. After a mere 15 year waiting period, Michael Eisner finally got his wish and brought The Muppets into the House of Mouse. Some of us are thrilled. Maybe this is just the shot in the arm that our beloved Muppets need to bring them back into the spotlight. Like most six year olds, my daughter knows Big Bird and Elmo, but the only reason she knows Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy is because of my old tapes. They just aren't a huge presence like they were in my younger days. Maybe Disney's huge marketing machine can change that. But, is there another side to this coin?

When I first arrived at Henson, I wasn't even aware that Disney was in talks with Jim to buy the Muppets. I guess I should have been aware. It was a major deal in the entertainment biz. Perhaps I should have been following the trades and what was going on in the industry. Quite honestly, I was a senior in college and at the time had more hedonistic concerns. I was thrilled to just be there and was rather oblivious to such corporate issues.

The first time I received an inkling of this merger was the day I found out that Jim was coming to the studio with Frank Oz and Michael Frith, Henson's Creative Director, to shoot a video. This wasn't a movie or a commercial. It was a discussion about how the Muppet puppets were made. Jim was "working" Kermit and was describing different things about his design. For instance, Kermit's head when viewed as a profile is rather simplistically a contour of Jim's fist. Hold your hand like you're pretending your hand is a puppet and you'll see what I mean. One of my prized possessions is a pair of Muppet eyes attached to an elastic band that was given to people auditioning to be a puppeteer. Wrap the eye band around your fingers; use your thumb as a lower jaw and mouth and you've got instant Muppet. It's really quite amazing in it's simplicity. Jim, Frank and Michael went on to discuss how each Muppet's eyes were very similar. How they were all, for the most part, the same distance apart from each other, that they were all, again for the most part, looking in just a bit. This created a sense of continuity among all the Muppets, which undeniably linked them all together. Basically, they had a distinctive look. When you saw this look, you should instantly think Muppet and not just puppet.

When I questioned what this tape was going to be used for, my supervisor told me it was going to Disney. I didn't understand, and she said, "Don't you know, we're being sold to Disney." Presumably, this tape was to aid Disney's Imagineers in the creation of Muppet characters for the theme parks and more. I was quite surprised. I didn't follow the Walt Disney Company then, the way I do now. Still it seemed to make sense, two giants in the kids' entertainment world coming together. However, some of my co-workers didn't seem to see it that way, and I wonder if that rings true today.

Granted, most of them were worried about losing their job and the uncertainty of their future. It seemed to go beyond that for most of them though. They had a passion for these characters and were concerned that Disney would suck some of the life out of the Muppets. There were lots of jokes being cracked at all times. Comments like, "What's the difference Mickey owns us now anyway," and, " I don't know, would Mickey approve of that?" were pretty commonplace. It seemed like they thought that Disney was too conservative to exist alongside the wackier Muppets. Some even theorized that Jim had cut his trademark long hair right around the time of the merger talks to better fit in with Disney's straight-laced appearance policies. I do think that a lot of this was just employee grumbling. Any company being swallowed up by another larger company is going to have similar viewpoints. The company doing the swallowing is the bad guy. Still, I think the Henson people had some legitimate worries.

The one thing that I understood to be a major sticking point in the negotiations brings us back to Jim Hill's audition article. The story around the Henson studio back then was that Disney wanted a stable of several puppeteers per character. This would enable them to churn out product whenever and however they deemed necessary. The Muppeteers, however, believed these characters were individual to themselves and that multiple puppeteers would disintegrate the characters personalities. There couldn't be more than one Kermit or more than one Miss Piggy. This small-town approach to entertainment didn't fit in with Disney's big plans for the Muppet characters. As I understood it, this was a major roadblock. Keep in mind that this was, obviously, before Jim's death, before Richard Hunt's (Scooter and many others) death, and before Frank Oz retired from puppeteering. The core characters were very much intact.

The other angle to this roadblock was an amazing piece of information I learned from my co-workers. I was told, and I don't know if this is still the case, that the Muppeteers received royalties from all merchandise sold relating to their characters. Think about that the next time a Tickle-Me-Elmo craze comes around and you'll see why the characters exclusivity would be a major sticking point. This further cemented the fact that the characters were inextricably linked to their performers. Talks did break down and the deal was put off after Jim's death.

So the question is, was this ever resolved? 15 years later as Disney begins to reintroduce the Muppets to the six year olds of the world, will they water down the personalities of the characters by hiring multiple puppeteers? Are the worries I used to hear echoed by most of the creative staff back then coming to fruition? Did the Henson Company give in? Or, do they need Disney now more than ever?

And let me hit you with this question also. Can the Muppet magic be reborn without Jim, Frank Oz and Richard Hunt? Can new personalities fill these huge shoes?

Well JHM readers, what do you all think?

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