It’s 24 years since Jim Henson died at the early age of 53, and I’ve just been reading his biography by Brian Jay Jones. There is much to enjoy and wonder at in this book, but I guess the principle elements that stand out for me are his extraordinary drive and sense of purpose, coupled with optimism about himself and his work. Apart from the staggering amount of work he did, it was the quality of the work which was always the key factor. Coming from an American culture it’s no surprise that in order to achieve his personal vision and mode of self-expression he needed to finance those dreams with hard-nosed business decisions relating to commercial work, always treading a fine line between the two. The purpose of the money was to finance better work.
Also key to his attitude was that puppets were a means to an end i.e. to be involved in TV and film, and his invention of a new form of puppetry was subservient to this goal. All the main performers were reluctant puppeteers at least at the start, despite their brilliance and commitment to the work.
It was fascinating to discover that the first book he read about puppets was Obratsov’s “My Profession” which remains one of the few books giving insights into the deeper motivations behind puppet theatre creation. Obratsov was quite revolutionary in presenting cabaret numbers which used a moving mouth operated by a concealed hand (The drunkard) and also a puppet which used human hands as its own (Ritardando). He was also using the kinds of raised staging which Henson would later adopt.
In France Phillipe Genty was presenting the kind of variety show parodies using bright, feathery,and goggle-eyed creatures which paralleled the early Muppets.
In recognition of these and other innovators, and maybe as a nod towards their influence, Henson put together “Jim Henson presents the World of Puppets”in 1985.
Sadly this series is no longer available on DVD, but there are fascinating excerpts on Youtube:
Bruce Schwartz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpwEwoauxkU
Phillipe Genty: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZl0yI7IGC0
Richard Bradshaw: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-fmsVDFpTE
Triangel : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yfEEMHtyhg
One of those performers was Bruce Schwartz, whose mastery of both a rustic style of glove puppetry and a highly refined table-top style resonates still with me, and also I’m sure with a lot of other performers of my generation.
Jim himself was keen to encourage new performers to investigate new means of expression, and not just follow the form that he had made successful. He surely must have found it strange to have spawned an entire generation of American puppeteers, amateur and professional who have adopted the Muppet-style of operation.
My contact with him and his work was minuscule, but nevertheless profound. I’m proud to have made Jim laugh with my audition piece for “Labyrinth”and apart from several weeks operating background goblins and Sir Didymus’ ear (!) in that film I later spent a couple of days being Rowlf’s right hand, and Kermit’s legs whilst filming inserts for one of the “Best of Muppets” video tapes. It was those couple of days in particular which introduced me to Henson’s extraordinary stamina, focus and quiet command. I quickly realised I was way out of my league technically, though I think I just about got away with it! I also realised the way that the Muppets had taken the art several planes away from anything I’d experienced before or since. I also witnessed Frank Oz take a minor character and use it to give a riveting performance. I was in the room with the world’s greatest puppeteers. I was both humbled and inspired.
10 years later at the “Festival of the Millennium”in Seattle, Jane Henson saw our “Piggery Jokery” show (the format of which was inspired by Bruce Schwartz) together with our version of “Punch” and spoke to me about the possibility of bringing the shows to a small theatre in New York as part of the Jim Henson Foundation’s work. Although the possibility remained just that, it is a tantalising “What if?” and also highlights the effect of the ripples sent out by Jim’s life. So many people were affected in so many ways.
The end chapter of the book deals of course with Jim Henson’s death, and it is very moving. One of his bits of advice was simply this:
“Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life. Enjoy it”