Meeting Jim Henson

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Thoughts on Jim Henson

Jim Henson

Jim Henson was a very rare combination of talents. He was an astute businessman, and an extraordinarily talented artist with a curious and creative mind. The word "genius" is often bandied about, but it applies here in the truest sense.

He pioneered ways to use the existing technology in unique ways. He was also not constrained by the traditional limitations of television, film making, or puppetry. He used what worked for the situation. He was one of the first to use live monitors and simultaneous video in the studio. Prior to that, these technologies were used primarily in sports broadcasting. Now, it's common practice in television and films.

Before Jim Henson came along, puppets were considered only suitable for childrens' entertainment in America. In the few films in which they appeared they were only seen as background characters or props.

Since he introduced his unique characters, a whole new market has grown around the use of puppets in films. Puppets are now a valuable tool in the arsenal of the special effects industry. I don't think that would have come about without his vision.

Puppets have also become featured characters in films. Jim Henson was approached about doing the Yoda character for Star Wars. Jim suggested Frank Oz, and the rest is history. In more recent years, many films have used puppetry plus computer generated effects to achieve a performance. Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy might have been very different films if not for some of the innovations (puppet related and otherwise) that he introduced. His influence extended well outside the film and television industries.

Puppets are now viewed in a totally different light. They're used as a non-threatening therapy tool for traumatized children, and an effective communication tool for use with autistic children. Puppets are even used as surrogate parents for orphaned condors, so that the chicks don't imprint on humans and can be returned to the wild. Even though puppets have been around for centuries, these new applications are cropping up "as if by magic." I think the seeds of this were planted and nurtured in our social consciousness, at least in part, and at most in large part, by Jim Henson's work, his unique perspective, and the infectious curiosity that leads to innovation.

He kept a positive attitude toward his work, which aided in the creative process, and in quality of the work itself. With this "creative culture" in place, he was able to gather around him some of the most unique and talented craftsmen and craftswomen in the world.

He once said in an interview that he was able to tap into the child in the adults he encountered. I think that was a skill he nurtured as part of the business side, but on the artistic side, it seems an ideal approach to dealing with people in a cooperative, instead of a competitive way. It breaks down the defensive barriers behind which people hide (and in which people fear to experiment with new ideas). It opens their minds to innovation.

Jim Accepting Award

Meeting Jim Henson

Jim Henson didn't attend Worldcon '84, but I had the opportunity to meet him in 1985. He was being honored by The Women in Show Business organization with a lifetime achievement award. The event was a "celebrity benefit ball," and the proceeds of ticket sales benefitted a child with a serious medical condition (each year they provide funds for medical treatment for a child with a medical condition who would otherwise go untreated for lack of financial means). A friend from college, who was, herself a Muppet fan, accompanied me to the event.

During the course of the evening, Jim Henson was introduced, presented with a trophy, and given the stage. He said a few words about the good work the organization has done to aid underprivileged children needing medical care, and then produced Kermit. He spoke with Kermit, and Kermit spoke back. It was impossible not to get drawn into the illusion of a man and frog conversing as if it were an ordinary occurrence.

Jim and Kermit

About this time, the actress who had introduced Jim stealthfully made her way back to the podium and gave the frog a kiss. Jim handled the surprise with that gentle humor for which he was so well known. I could swear he made Kermit blush!

There were several other awards that evening, and at the conclusion of these, people mingled. I knew this would be my only chance to talk to him.

He was standing there, actively engaged in conversation with someone. I waited patiently nearby.

Actress Kissing Kermit

As he ended his conversation, I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around, and then looked down.

(I have to explain here, I'm five feet tall, and he was six-foot-three). He motioned for me to wait just a moment while he said some final words to the other party.

As I waited, I heard what sounded like Ernie from Sesame Street laughing off to the side. I looked over, and saw Jane Henson, hand over her mouth, stifling laughter. (Now I know where Jim got Ernie's laugh!)

He turned back toward me, and I told him very briefly about the World Science Fiction Convention in 1984, which had two separate Masquerade presentations based on The Dark Crystal characters, of which our effort was one. Since he didn't have the opportunity of attending, I thought he might like to see documentation of the presentations. I gave him with a folio of pictures and descriptions. He accepted the folio, and thanked me.

About a month later, I received a package from Henson Associates. It included my folio along with a very nice letter, thanking those who worked on both presentations. I let the others know who worked on my presentation (and that I was still in touch with), and sent a copy to George Doherty, who did the other Dark Crystal presentation (which won best of show for an individual in the Re-Creation category). The letter was signed in Kermit-green ink, with copies going to Bob Payne (Creature Shop and Pod People Fabrication Unit) and Mary Manilla (Director of Public Relations). It seems that the folks at HA! were pleased with both our project, and with George Doherty's.