Interview on 9/21/82 by Judy Harris

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Just before THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982) was due to open, Fred Clarke, publisher of CINEFANTASTIQUE, called to ask if I would like to write an article about the career of Jim Henson. Would I! I had been a fan of the Muppets since I first saw them making guest appearances on Ed Sullivan and other variety and talk shows. When Rowlf made his debut as a regular on the JIMMY DEAN SHOW (1963), I ran out and bought myself a stuffed Rowlf (which I still have, somewhat the worse for wear). I had seen all the Muppet fairy tale TV specials and was an avid fan of THE MUPPET SHOW. The period of THE DARK CRYSTAL was a very creative one for the Henson organization; almost simultaneously FRAGGLE ROCK was about to debut on HBO. This became another show I never missed.

The Henson Organization supported and continues to support the art of puppetry. Some of the ways it does this is by mounting exhibitions of the work of puppeteers and also sponsoring actual performances. At the time of the following interview, I had recently seen at Lincoln Center one of these exhibitions which contained items from virtually the entire history of the Muppets; simultaneous with the release of THE DARK CRYSTAL, there was an even more impressive exhibit, also at Lincoln Center, of many of the puppet/characters from THE DARK CRYSTAL in wonderfully detailed dioramas. Subsequently, over the years, I have been to other exhibits mounted by or with the participation of the Henson Organization, including one devoted to the artwork of Jim Henson.

In doing additional research for the article on Henson's career, which was published in the April/May '83 (13:4) issue of CINEFANTASTIQUE, I came more and more to admire Henson as a human being. Previously, if anyone had asked me to name someone I considered a hero, I would have been hard pressed to nominate anyone contemporary; but certainly Jim Henson fit that description for me. It is a tribute to his vision that the Henson organization survived his sudden death on May 16th, 1990 and has continued to be creative and entertaining.

If you have ever attended a fan convention at which someone you admire was a guest, you know the frustration of having to raise your hand to get called on and, even then, being able to ask only a single question. You can perhaps then imagine how enormously satisfying it is to be able to spend about 90 minutes with someone you admire, not only being able to ask any question you like, but also being able to follow up the answers with questions you might not initially have prepared. I had prepared myself prior to the interview with a rather long, typed list of questions, and this list to an extent imposed a certain order to my questions but I certainly got derailed a couple of times when I got an unexpected response.

This project - the phone interview with Jim Henson, my subsequent face to face meetings with him a week or two later and the free access I had to the Muppet headquarters and workshop - is one of the high points of my life.

Following is a transcription of a telephone interview between me and Jim Henson on September 21, 1982. I am home in New York; Jim is in London taking a break from postproduction for THE DARK CRYSTAL. Reference is made in the following Q&A of a "Labor Day interview/tape" which was a preliminary interview between Fred Clarke and Jim covering ground I mostly already knew.

Since my initials and Jim Henson's initials are both JH, I will use "me" for me and "H" for Jim.

Me: I just want to say up front, I really appreciate your taking the time out for this interview. I know you must be terrifically busy with the last minute production aspects of DARK CRYSTAL and you also must be sick to death of interviews and stuff like that, and I'll try not to ask a lot of the kind of questions that people normally ask. Nancy Evans of your own Henson Associates has been very, very helpful. She let me see some tapes of TIME PIECE and THE CUBE and THE MAKING OF THE MUPPET SHOW. She let me look around the workshop.
H: Holy cow! Did you look at those? Did you look at THE CUBE?
Me: Yes. You know, the funny thing is I remember when it first aired. I remember seeing it because I'm a big fan of Richard Schaal. I'm very into improv actors and I remember seeing it, but I couldn't remember all the details. I enjoyed watching it again so much and I thought it was so well edited.
H: It's funny because I just looked at it myself about two weeks ago in Toronto. My 17 year old son was up there with me at the time and I showed it to him and my 11 year old daughter. Neither of them had seen it or remembered it. It's fascinating. I hadn't looked at it in 5 or 6 years.
Me: And it hasn't dated at all.
H: It was fun; I enjoyed it and they - my son, in particular - said wow! it's really a great show.
Me: Were you responsible for casting Richard Schaal, because he was just perfect in it.
H: Yeah, yeah. That was really a project that was a lot of fun and quite delightful, and that was back in the days when I was doing two careers, before I decided to concentrate on the Muppets.
Me: I was doing some research on the influences on you - the early exposure that you had to other puppeteers - Burr Tillstrom and Bil and Cora Baird - and one of the shows that you probably saw was LIFE WITH SNARKY PARKER. Does that ring a bell, an early Bil and Cora Baird TV show in 1950?
H: Only vaguely, I don't think I ever saw that show.
Me: Oh. The reason that I ask is that, apparently, the show was set in the Old West and there was a character called Ronald Rodent. I read somewhere else that the very first puppets you made were of a French-looking rat named Pierre and a couple of cowboys. I just wondered if SNARKY PARKER had rubbed off on you and that's where you got your initial inspiration for your first puppets?
H: I don't think so, no, because what I really knew of Bil and Cora Baird's work was their variety show stuff. Immediately before I first did any puppets, they were doing a CBS morning show, in opposition to the TODAY SHOW. They were just doing novelty records and little tiny short bits and pieces.
Me: In other words, they were lip syncing the way you...
H: I think so, yeah, and so I guess that was kind of how I started off into doing the record lip sync stuff.
Me: Speaking of that, when did the Muppets first talk - when did they stop doing the lip syncing and start developing their own voices?
H: Well, it was in those first couple of years. One of the first things I did was start into a commercial series for Wilkins Coffee, and for that I did both character voices (Wilkins and Wontkins). That was almost the first voice stuff I did. I had been doing a couple of little tiny things on the show until then.
Me: I read that these commercials were syndicated. I don't really understand that. How could you syndicate a commercial - did you just change the voice track and substitute a different product name?
H: Well, usually we should reshoot the entire commercial. You see, we started that commercial for a local coffee in Washington/ Baltimore called Wilkins Coffee, and so those commercials would only go on the air in that area, but the commercials were an immediate hit and they made a big impact. In terms of popularity of commercials in the Washington area, we were the number one, most popular commercial. They got a lot of talk, and so then the advertising agency started syndicating them and they would sell them to a coffee company in Boston, another coffee company in New York.
Me: But you would completely redo them for each coffee company...
H: Yeah, right, and so for a while there - I bought my contract from that agency and then I was producing them - the same things around the country. And so we had up to about a dozen or so clients going at the same time. At the point, I was making a lot of money.
Me: You're not in the commercial business anymore, are you?
H: Not really. The last thing we did the beginning of last year was we signed with Polaroid, and we did a few for them, which have now ended, but that was my first dip back into commercials in years. When SESAME STREET came on - well, it was a combination - we were too busy to do commercials and it was a pleasure to get out of that world. If you've ever worked in commercials, it's a world of compromise and a world of...
Me: You're right. I used to think it would be fun to be behind the scenes and produce something like that, and I did work in an ad agency for a year, and I hated every minute of it. You're right about compromise. I was constantly told to talk down to people and pick the lowest common denominator, and it really made me grit my teeth. I was very unhappy.
H: Yeah, it's interesting when you're working at the lower levels through agencies and that sort of thing, it's really quite difficult. At the time of Polaroid - and I did a couple of other commercials just before I stopped doing that stuff - at that point I was at the level where they respect you and your opinion and all that sort of thing, but even then it's still a matter of every meeting is a meeting with a dozen people, who all have opinions and the whole process is really not easy on a creative person. So, anyhow.
Me: You drew cartoons for your school paper and magazines. Were these little characters, like the early sketches you would do to create a Muppet, or were these actual cartoons with balloons and captions?
H: Well, let's see. I did some of each. That very first Pierre, the French rat, that came out of a cartoon thing I had done for my high school magazine.
Me: Are any of these still available or are these all collector's items?
H: Oh, he's prob-- I'm sure we have him somewhere. We have an exhibit that's traveling around.
Me: Yes, I saw it when it was at Lincoln Center; it's wonderful.
H: If you saw it at Lincoln Center, you saw it at the very beginning.
Me: That's right; it was the first stop.
H: Yeah, and then thereafter we decided to mount it for traveling. We got invitations from a couple of museums and so it's been traveling for two years. It's in Detroit right now.
Me: Is there going to be a permanent home for this when it finally stops touring, because it would be a shame not to allow people to have access to it - it's so wonderful.
H: I don't - yeah, I would doubt it. We'll see. It's interesting, because that exhibit does a particular part of our career, but DARK CRYSTAL coming along does an entirely different thing, and we're starting a new show that's going on next year.
H: And that's another entirely different area, so I have a feeling that an exhibit type of thing will make sense for the next few years in different places; and we're thinking about sending that overseas to Europe; yeah, and that would be nice.
Me: Simultaneously with SAM AND FRIENDS (around 1955), which was on late at night, you were doing an afternoon show in DC. What was that called?
H: Well, we did - actually we did a number of things. There was a little afternoon show that was called AFTERNOON. Back in those days in television, most local stations had a midday show for housewives that had a series of things. It was like a variety show for midday. So we did a few little entertainment pieces on that show.
Me: So that was another 5 minutes that you had to come up with?
H: Yeah, well basically, the work I did in those days is not stuff that I'm creatively very proud of.
Me: I remember hearing on the tape you made with Fred Clarke that you refused to let the kinescopes out.
H: Oh, yeah, that stuff was really experimenting and it was just stuff that I did as a lark. I was going to college and so I was doing this and it was a way of working my way through school.
Me: How long did this afternoon show run?
H: I'm not sure; on and off for a couple of years but during that time - you're saying an afternoon show - there were times that I had 3 shows a day - one in the afternoon, one in the early evening during the 6 o'clock news strip, and then one during the 11 o'clock news strip, so it kept me busy,
Me: And yet, you left in the middle of all this and you went to Europe for a year. Did you leave your poor wife to do all of these shows at once all by herself?
H: Well, it was before we got married and before we were at all romantically connected actually, because I was engaged to another girl and she was engaged to another guy. I decided that what I really wanted to do was go off and paint. I was an artist, you see, so I was going to take the shows off the air - just quit for a while. The station prevailed upon me; they said, "Look, we'll pay you money and you can put somebody else doing the show", and so I realized I can get money and at the same time be off painting, so I brought in a friend of mine - an art student from the University of Maryland - and he worked with Jane. His name is Bob Payne, and he's working back with me now - joined me again about 5 or 6 years ago.
Me: I noticed as I looked at these older pieces of yours: TIME PIECE and THE CUBE, that the same names appear over the years. People are really loyal to you and they must really enjoy working with you, and the projects and working conditions 'cause the same names keep appearing all through the years.
H: Yeah, well there are a lot of us that have been together for a long time. There's a small core that has been around a long time. Frank and I have been together for nearly 20 years now.
Me: Luckily Nancy Evans was sitting with me when we were watching TIME PIECE, and she pointed him out to me as he dashed through it, or I would never have recognized him.
H: Oh, he was - I think he was about 17 or 18 at the time. He was just a kid; that was right after he joined us.
Me: He even had a longer name!
H: That was Oznowitz, yeah.
Me: Yeah, his original name was in the credits.
H: Right, right. Jerry Juhl was in that also, did you know that?
Me: Right, and Don Sahlen did the special effects.
H: Yeah, and there's a flash shot of Don in there too.
Me: I read that you were getting only $5 a show for SAM AND FRIENDS. Is that anything like reality?
H: Yeah, well when I first started working, it was $5 a show; it was probably a little higher by the time I got to my own show, but I remember that they put me under contract at $100 a week, which to me was really an astronomical price.
Me: But didn't you have to create all the sets and the puppets and your props out of that money?
H: Yeah, sure.
Me: If only Lord Grade knew that!
H: Yeah, well, I was a kid and it was fun. And also there wasn't much money in television in those days anyhow.
Me: And it was only a local show.
H: Sure.
Me: Was the term "Muppets" coined specifically for SAM AND FRIENDS?
H: Yeah, I think we did the term Muppets before we got the show SAM AND FRIENDS - a few months after I started working. It was really just a term we made up. For a long time I would tell people it was a combination of marionettes and puppets but, basically, it was really just a word that we coined. We have done very few things connected with marionettes.
Me: When I talk with people at Henson Associates now, they practically blanch if you use the term Muppets in connect with DARK CRYSTAL. What is the difference between what you consider Muppets and what DARK CRYSTAL is, and have you coined a term for what the creatures in DARK CRYSTAL are?
H: No, we haven't, and a number of people say "you really should have a term for that" but at the moment we're saying creatures.
Me: Well, what is it that they're not Muppets?
H: Well, to me the Muppets are sort of fuzzy, bright colored, cute, lovable caricatures that we know from THE MUPPET SHOW. FRAGGLE ROCK also drops under the term Muppets. But I think DARK CRYSTAL - you've seen some of the promotion tape on DARK CRYSTAL, for instance?
Me: Well, I saw a trailer that had been theatrically released a couple of months ago, which is a real brief piece and I attend conventions here and so I've seen slides, but...
H: Yeah, we have an 8-minute tape. If you want to see it, I'm sure that Nancy could make that available to you.
Me: OK, thanks.
H: But, it's just a little promotion tape that we made a couple of months ago, which has brief interviews with Gary (Kurtz) and Frank and myself and Brian (Froud), and a few little scenes of the film, but it gives you a more complete picture of it than the trailer certainly, but originally...
Me: Is it - I remember in the interview you did with Fred Clarke over Labor Day, he sort of labored the point that DARK CRYSTAL wasn't heavily into humor. Is that why you don't want it to be called a Muppet movie - because it's more dramatic and adventure-oriented than...
H: Well, no, it's no so much the humor, but I have a feeling that the characters are just not Muppets at all. We hesitate to call them puppets even. I think of puppetry as being something more -- see, I love puppetry and what puppetry is, which is related to - if you - it sounds as if you've read everything I ever said.
Me: Well, I may have! I've really delved into this.
H: Yeah, so you know that my feeling about puppetry relates to stylization, simplicity, boiling down to - it's a wonderful form and I really love it - but with DARK CRYSTAL, instead of puppetry we're trying to go toward a sense of realism - toward a reality of creatures that are actually alive and we're mixing up puppetry and all kinds of other techniques. It's into the same bag as E.T. and Yoda, wherein you're trying to create something that people will actually believe, but it's not so much a symbol of the thing but you're trying to do the thing itself.
Me: Yeah, I understand that. We won't belabor that any further. The first Kermit was made out of your mother's coat. Would you say that it was just an accident that the coat was green and that maybe if the coat had been purple that Kermit would not have evolved into a frog?
H: That's quite likely actually. Yeah, the first Kermit was not even a clean green- it's sort of more a turquoise - sort of a milky turquoise.
Me: Yeah, I saw him at the exhibit; he looked a little faded.
H: Yeah, well, no, he's not faded; that was the color he was.
Me: That was his real color?
H: Sure, but you see back in those days you may have read somewhere, but I didn't call him a frog.
Me: Right, he was just Kermit the thing.
H: Yeah, all the characters in those days were abstract because that was part of the principle that I was working under, that you wanted abstract things.
Me: He didn't turn into a frog until you did THE FROG PRINCE for a TV special.
H: Yeah, that's right.
Me: That was the first time he got flippers and his little pointed collar?
H: Right.
Me: He just seems so froggy to me.
H: Yeah, well it's interesting how that evolved. See, I still like very much the abstract characters and some of those abstract characters I still feel are slightly more pure. If you take a character and you call him a frog, or like Rowlf, our dog, call him a dog, you immediately give the audience a handle. You're assisting the audience to understand; you're giving them a bridge or an access. And if you don't give them that, if you keep it more abstract, it's almost more pure. It's a cooler thing. It's a difference of sort of warmth and cool.
Me: That's interesting because one of my questions farther down on my list here is, I know that Kermit is your favorite character, but I was going to ask whether you preferred abstract or representational puppets, and I think you've just answered that.
H: Well, it's just that the two do different things. There are nice things about each and, in terms of going commercial and going broad audience, you want to reach the audience as much as possible, and you need those bridges. You need the characters that are more accessible, and that's why a Kermit or a Rowlf is more accessible as a style basically.
Me: It's interesting also that you should mention that because just earlier today I was interviewing Lorne Michaels for this career article about you, and he felt that this was the problem that the writers had on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE - that you had created these brand new characters and there were no rules about this land of Gorch - there were no parameters set up for what these characters could do and what would be expected of them, and the writers just couldn't seem to cope with that.
H: Yeah, that's interesting. I'd be really interested to see what Lorne said, because I really respect Lorne. We talked a number of months before the show ever went on the air. He described the show and I really loved it. I saw what he was going for and I really liked it and wanted to be a part of it, but somehow what we were trying to do and what his writers could write for it never jelled. I felt it jelled later on when they did THE CONEHEADS, because with THE CONEHEADS, they found it was a slightly abstract thing but they were able to write it in a way and pull it into their style of humor. When they were writing for us, I had the feeling they were writing normal sitcom stuff, which is really boring and bland.
Me: Well, maybe they thought it was funny to do sitcom stuff for characters that were so outlandish and weird.
H: Yeah, but that wasn't enough though.
Me: Anyway, he says primarily the same thing you did, that he felt that the writing just never came up to the standards of Muppetry and that part of the reason was the show itself was so new at that time and everybody was just feeling their way.
H: Yeah, I think that's true. Yeah, it just never jelled with the particular writers we were working with, but at no time did I ever lose my respect for the show. I always liked what they were doing.
Me: Yeah, well, he speaks very highly of you, too.
H: Yeah, yeah, well I think we parted on very good terms and we really stopped doing the show because we had to go to England to do THE MUPPET SHOW.
Me: I also found out when I was interviewing him today that you have the same manager, Bernie Brillstein.
H: Oh yeah, right.
Me: He actually called while I was there; it was sort of funny.
H: Oh yeah? I've been with Bernie for about 18 or 19 years now, maybe 20.
Me: I read the inspiration for the Muppets was Bunraku. Is there any truth to that?
H: No, I don't think so.
Me: Is this the kind of Japanese puppetry where the puppeteers are actually on stage but they're dressed all in black and you're supposed to ignore them, pretend they're invisible - is that what Bunraku is?
H: Sure, yeah. Bunraku is a marvelous and fascinating art form and puppetry form but, basically, I knew nothing about it until I had been working for a number of years myself.
Me: OK, so much for that spurious article. This same article said you were also inspired by a French puppeteer who "perched puppets above exposed human hands." Is that also untrue?
H: I'm not sure exactly what that means, but when I took that year off from the show, I wandered over to Europe. I traveled around and that was the first time I'd met any other puppeteers. When I was a kid, I never saw a puppet show, I never played with puppets or had any interest in them. I really did that whole thing in order to get on television because my enthusiasm was television and film. When I traveled around I saw the work of a number of people. Andrew Terhone (?) is a very good French puppeteer, does some marvelous things, and I'm sure I picked up some things from him but that was, as I say, three or four years into my work at least.
Me: So by that time the Muppets had started to develop.
H: Yeah, we pretty much had a form and a shape by that time - a style - and I think one of the advantages of not having any relationship to any other puppeteer was that it gave me a reason to put those together myself for the needs of television.
Me: Yes, yes. I think you said on the interview over Labor Day that you were "active in theatre" at college and that you designed posters - these were posters for college theatrical productions...?
H: Yeah, yeah, in high school and college. I was very interested in theatre - mostly in stage design; I did a little bit of acting.
Me: You did do some acting?
H: Yeah, I did some small parts in high school and the first year of college and then fairly soon thereafter I settled into the backstage scenery, and then at the University of Maryland I was doing posters for their productions.
Me: Did you ever take any acting classes or courses?
H: I don't think so, no.
Me: You said you got into puppetry because you were interested in getting into television and films, and yet you graduated in Home Economics. Why did you pick Home Economics?
H: At the University of Maryland, my first year I started off planning to major in art because I was interested in theatre design, stage design or television design, but at that particular college, the advertising, art, costume design, interior design, layout - all of that stuff was part of Home Ec, for some strange reason. I think it's changed since then. And puppetry was a course that was given there that was also in Home Ec.
Me: That was where you met Jane.
H: Yeah, I met Jane. And that puppetry teacher said, you switch over to home ec, you don't have to take all of the math and sciences that you do in fine arts, so you can take more art courses. So I switched over to home ec on that basis and also ended up in classes - I think there were about 6 guys and 500 girls.
Me: That sounds like a good ratio.
H: Oh, it was marvelous.
Me: I can imagine. You were active in Puppeteers of America. Are you still active in that, and what is it?
H: Well, the Puppeteers of America is an organization in the US that has several thousand members, and I have been past president of it, and I've been on the board off and on, and then we have an international organization called UNIMA. The title of the organization's in French - it's the United - the Union Nationale Internationale Marionettist - (struggling to remember)
Me: OK, something like that.
H: One of those things. I was president of the US chapter of that for a number of years and been more or less active in that. These are two different organizations. Most people belong to both and, it's interesting, I was partly responsible for bringing that international conference to Washington, DC.
Me: The 1980 one - 1980, the one you did the PBS special?
H: Yeah, that was a marvelous festival that we had in Washington.
Me: Yeah, that was wonderful. You didn't have anything to do with these couple of recent puppet exhibits that have come through New York, did you? There was one at the Museum on the Upper East Side. I forget which museum - the Cooper Hewitt? - but it was just great. There were some Muppets in it and an early Foodini and Howdy Doody.
H: Yeah, right. Yeah, that exhibit was put together by the Puppeteers of America and is in Detroit right now with ours. The two of them are in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Me: Oh, they're having a regular festival there all by themselves.
H: Well, Detroit Institute is kind of a key - probably the largest permanent collection of puppets in the US.
Me: You met Jerry Juhl and Frank Oz for the first time at the National Puppetry Convention in Carmel, California in 1961. Had you purposely set out to find somebody to take over for your wife, who was pregnant at the time, or was this just an accident that you went there and you met these incredibly talented people?
H: Yeah, I think it was - I think it was an accident. I don't believe I was consciously looking for somebody. I think actually I met Frank's father and got to know him as a good friend before I ever met Frank. Frank's father is very active in the Puppeteers of America - well, his parents, it's actually both of them - they're marvelous, very outgoing and I talked to Frank, I think, early on about joining us. Well, he was really still at home and not ready to come East, but we talked about it as an idea, and I think the following year I invited him to come join us in New York and he did.
Me: Don Sahlen built his first Muppet in 1960. Rowlf was the first non-abstract Muppet. I want to put these two ideas together - was Rowlf, in fact, the first Muppet Don Sahlen built?
H: Yes, that's very good. Yes, that's true. I had met Don at that Puppetry Festival.
Me: The same one, the one in Carmel?
H: No, the first festival I went to was in 1960 in Detroit and the following year it was in California, I guess, but I met Burr there.
Me: Burr Tillstrom?
H: Burr Tillstrom.
Me: Right, and Don was working with Burr.
H: Yeah, and I just saw Burr two weeks ago in Detroit at the opening of that exhibit (9/8/82) and he's such a dear, sweet man, extremely talented, but it was such a nice thing to see him again. I hadn't seen him in a couple of years but, yeah, so Don was working for Burr part time and I had Don come down and work with us for a few weeks. He built Rowlf at that point and this other dog called Baskerville. The two of them were done for a series of dog food commercials we did in Canada. And then a little bit later I moved to New York, partly at Burr's suggestion, 'cause Burr was encouraging me to come up there and we moved into an apartment building - the same building that Burr was in, as a matter of fact. We were all very close during that time.
Me: It's nice that there was no competition between you.
H: No, there's not much competition between puppeteers in general because everybody's working their own style. I've never felt any sense of competition with anybody, and we're all friends; we're all good friends.
Me: When Nancy showed me TIME PIECE, I vaguely remember seeing it before. Would you happen to know if it was shown as part of the PBS series called ACADEMY LEADERS, where they showed theatrical shorts that had been nominated for Academy Awards?
H: Yeah, I think it was, right. And when we first made that film, it opened in New York with A MAN AND A WOMAN at the - oh, I can't remember the theatre - the little theatre next to the Plaza Hotel.
Me: Right, I know what you're talking about - the Paris or something like that.
H: And it was one of those freaky things because it opened with a film that ended up playing there for a year.
Me: So a lot of people saw it.
H: Yeah, it did quite well. It got a couple of awards around the world and all.
Me: The film guide that McGraw Hill puts out with it makes it seem very scholarly. It makes the film sound almost not enjoyable because they talk about it in such portentous terms.
H: Oh yeah? That's funny. Well the film is still being distributed and mostly to film societies and film classes and things like that.
Me: Now that you mention it, I belong to a film society and we do show shorts occasionally. I think I'll recommend it to them, 'cause it's really worth seeing.
H: Oh good. OK.
Me: This is a question from my boyfriend, who is more into technical things. He tells me that when cartoons went from black and white to color, that there was considerable adjustment, because when they were in black and white, there were all these gradations of grey, and he wondered when you were making the conversion from black and white TV to color TV whether the Muppets changed colors at all to adjust to the newly available color?
H: Well, actually when I was first working, we were working in color - now let's see, is that really true?
Me: 1953 you were working in color?
H: Fifty four, it was 54, I think.
Me: '54 was SAM AND FRIENDS, yes.
H: Well, I know we had color - I do remember doing shows strictly in black and white, too, so you're right, and I think I built and painted a couple of my early characters in black and white but, you see, NBC had established the color television system, and so they immediately converted their 5 owned and operated stations to color. Washington was one of those, so we were almost one of the very first people to do color television. NBC was trying to convert all of their local programming to color right away to encourage the sale of the sets, so I barely remember working in black and white, although I do know that I did do it, but there was not a major difference, though. If anything, there's a difference in working with color in England and the color in the US.
Me: Why is that?
H: Because the two color systems are different. It's fascinating, you know, and mostly it's the same except for the color yellow, for instance, because yellow in England is one of the basic electron guns and so you get beautiful, clear, gorgeous yellows. In the US yellow is a combination of the green and red guns.
Me: So you're telling me that Big Bird isn't really yellow?
H: It has always been difficult to get Big Bird to be very pretty. Big Bird in England is much more gorgeous.
Me: Really?
H: Yeah, it's a fascinating thing.
Me: It's strange. You mentioned that you liked the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE Muppets so much - why have they never been brought back? For example, you're getting a chance now to do a series on HBO. Why are you doing a children's series? Why aren't you doing another adult series and maybe bring back the Mighty Favog and Scred and those Muppets?
H: I don't know. I don't have any strong desire to bring them back to life. I like the characters physically; I like them very much but, as I say, I felt the thing never really jelled. When THE MUPPET SHOW ended, we all sat around and said, what kind of television show would we like to do. We felt the need these days is for some quality children's programming. There's not much done of a quality nature for kids. We were also looking - because of the way we've been going with THE MUPPET SHOW and SESAME STREET - to go more internationally. We thought it would be fun to try to design a show that would work well internationally and so that' s what we're intending to do with FRAGGLE ROCK, and we are indeed now selling it around the world.
Me: I remember reading that. I also read you are the one who built Gonzo and that he was built at a time when the staff was in a hurry to make a whole lot of monsters, and he was built in 3 hours. Is that true?
H: Yeah.
Me: Gee, I don't think of him as a monster at all. I think he's one of the most lovable and complex and...
H: Oh yeah, well, yeah, monster is probably not the right term. Matter of fact, we called these creatures Frackles on a special we did with Art Carney called THE GREAT SANTA CLAUS SWITCH. He was a very incidental character. He was called the Cigar Box Frackle, 'cause he pops out of a Cigar Box. He was just snipped out of a block of foam with a pair of scissors in a very short time; just really thrown together and then, because we liked him, we then continued to remake him and make him better and better and add mechanisms to the eyes and all that sort of thing.
Me: He's really one of my favorite characters. What exactly is he?
H: He's nothing, that's one of the good things about him.
Me: Yeah, he's not quite abstract but he's not anything that I've ever seen.
H: Right, right. I think in THE MUPPET MOVIE we said he's sort of like a turkey, but I never felt he was a bird particularly and so much of what Gonzo is really comes out of Dave Goelz. You get a talented performer, like a Dave or a Frank, and then any character they do just starts to bloom and blossom because of all that they put into it.
Me: And you can tell that those characters are loved by the puppeteers too. I read that all 5 of your children have worked on THE MUPPET SHOW - in what capacity?
H: Well, not particularly officially all 5 have. Generally, they would come and visit and they would do certain things. Lisa and Cheryl, the oldest two, both have worked in the shop on the show, building puppets and doing costumes and that sort of thing. I would throw the younger kids into a group scene operating a background character and stuff like that, but nothing official.
Me: How did the practice start of making a Muppet caricature of the guests on THE MUPPET SHOW?
H: We only did that a little bit.
Me: Oh, I thought you did that for all 120 shows.
H: No, no, we only did it for a few people. I'm trying to think who we did it for. Paul Williams is the one who comes to mind.
Me: I know you did it for Marty Feldman.
H: Oh yeah, that's right. Yeah, we did sort of a Marty Feldman character and Paul Williams. Was there anybody else?
Me: All along I've been envying these lucky people who got their own Muppet of themselves after they guested on the show.
H: I don't think so, and Paul is about the only one we ever gave the puppet to.
Me: I read somewhere or picked up spuriously that Bunson Honeydew is allegedly derived from Lord Grade. Is there anyone else whose name I would recognize that you might have built a Muppet character around?
H: Not really, and even Bunson Honeydew was not specifically Lord Grade when we did him. It would have been easy to make him much more like Lew Grade if we had tried to and, in retrospect, I wish that we had. The character that owns the Muppet theatre only appeared a couple of times and I always - in looking back - always wished that I had made that to look just like Lew Grade 'cause he's very caricaturable.
Me: I know that one of the things that appeals to you very much is creating new worlds and new characters and new creatures, but does the idea appeal to you at all of making Muppet versions of famous illustrations, like Tenniel's illustrations of ALICE IN WONDERLAND or Denneslow's illustrations of THE WIZARD OF OZ?
H: Well, I don't know. I've never particularly thought in terms of doing that. We did a bit on ALICE IN WONDERLAND style.
Me: Yeah, I remember that ALICE IN WONDERLAND show, with Brooke Shields.
H: Yeah, the Brooke Shields show. I loved working with Brian (Froud) on DARK CRYSTAL because I feel THE MUPPET SHOW grew over a period of years and all those characters grew, but there were many diverse styles, and so it was quite a mixed bag, which had its good points and bad points. It was a variety show, and it lent itself to that, but the idea of having one design mind create an entire thing really appealed to me, and that's what we did with DARK CRYSTAL, but the way things are going these days with special effects and all of the different film techniques, one of the things that's exciting is that you can do anything with these kinds of creatures. You can take and bring to life any sort of illustrations or you can create anything new and so it's very exciting from that standpoint. I think that whole worlds are opening up to us that are limited only by our imaginations.
Me: If the movie does really, really well, will there be a DARK CRYSTAL II? Will these characters continue?
H: Well, the story line does not lend itself to a continuation. I think this particular story has told itself and is complete. If the film is successful and if we decide that we want to continue on, I think we could set another story in the same world, but we probably wouldn't necessarily use the same characters.
Me: THE MUPPET SHOW was occasionally taped before visiting children but, other than that, did you ever tape in front of an audience?
H: No, not particularly. The way the show was taped, we would block and tape, which means that each piece of material would take anywhere from half an hour to several hours to tape, so it's a long, slow process. You can't really work in front of an audience that way. I mean, when we had Raquel Welsh in the studio, we had a good 150 guys from neighboring studios, but it wasn't an official audience.
Me: It seems to me that a laugh track was used on THE MUPPET SHOW.
H: Yes.
Me: Why did you do that? You didn't have networks breathing down your neck. Why did you put a laugh track in?
H: No, well because of the form we had decided to choose to do the show, that we were doing what amounts to a little vaudeville show in front of an audience on a little stage with a backstage, so having chosen that as a premise, we decided to sweeten the shows and, as I look at some of the early shows, I'm really embarrassed by them. The sweetening got better later on, but it's always a difficult thing to do well, and to create the reality of the audience laughing. I did one special dry - without any laugh track - looked at it, and then tried it adding a laugh track to it, and it's unfortunate, but it makes the show funnier.
Me: Really?
H: Yeah, it's really strange, 'cause I'm the sort of purist that doesn't like that sort of thing.
Me: No, I don't either, but I have to say that it never impacted my pleasure in the show.
H: Well, it does mine if it's badly done, and you really object to it. If the show is sweetened tastefully and just exactly right, you never notice it and it doesn't get in your way, so it really just depends on how well it's done.
Me: I know that the musical production numbers, the voices and the music tracks were recorded before you actually did the performance on tape, but the dialogue portion of the show - the sound was recorded live then. Could performers have the script in front of them, or because they had to move around so much, did they actually have to memorize the script?
H: Oh, it varied a lot. Since the show was done in small bits and pieces, we seldom taped anything more than a couple of minutes so generally you could learn your lines but, at the same time, when we were taping a lot of stuff rather quickly, we would tape up our little pieces of script on the scenery someplace.
Me: I read somewhere that you also arranged the musical numbers on THE MUPPET SHOW - I just can't believe that - you were doing so many things simultaneously that you would have time to arrange the musical numbers too.
H: No, no, I didn't do musical arrangements at all. We had several really good people who did that, but I think, basically, the thing I like to do was stage them or figure out what we could do with the number. I think someone probably misinterpreted that into arranging.
Me: That could be. The Muppet comic strip is no longer appearing in New York. Does it still exist?
H: Yes, it does. It was the decision of the DAILY NEWS to stop the strip, which was very sad to me because I liked it being there in New York, but it's still in several hundred newspapers around the country.
Me: Do you have any input to that at all?
H: Yeah, yeah. We worked for a long time. We spent a year and a half or two years working with different cartoon teams trying to find a good combination before we found Guy and Brad Gilcrist, and I'm very happy with the way they're coming, and the strip is growing quite nicely.
Me: Yeah, it's a shame that it's been dropped here.
H: Well, what happened was that it was immediately bought very broadly and it sold to more newspapers than most strips ever launch with. We immediately had - I don't know the figure right now - but several hundreds of newspapers, but after that first little bloom, a lot of people dropped it. Not a lot, but a few. Actually, I don't think it's gone down that much, but to me the guys are doing really a nice job and I think it's catching on. It's a growth process and all these characters always take a bit of time to settle in.
Me: I didn't see Jerry Juhl's name as a writer on THE FANTASTIC MISS PIGGY SHOW; is that because he's busy with FRAGGLE ROCK?
H: Yes, he was still doing FRAGGLE ROCK while we had to write the Miss Piggy show, so that's why we went outside to Buzz Kohan and Henry Beard. Did you like the show?
Me: I really liked it and it looked to me like a pilot; was it?
H: No, no, not particularly. We have no intention of doing another one.
Me: That's a shame. It's not until I got into doing the research on this and started looking at the old MUPPET SHOW episodes and reading about them in THE MAKING OF THE MUPPET SHOW that I realized how much I miss it. I realize that 5 years of doing that kind of intensive work is a long time, but I just like those characters so much.
H: Yeah, well, it's a quandary because I love the characters too and I want to keep them alive. I don't want to let them disappear. We all love them. Every time we get together and work the characters, we have such a good time, but at the same time, we never intended to do more than about 5 years. We wanted to stop while we still felt the show was fresh.
Me: But you're going to bring them back for periodic specials and things, aren't you?
H: Yeah, oh sure, yeah, we have specials. We have plans for another movie.
Me: Will this third movie be no human beings like DARK CRYSTAL, or are you going to have guest stars again?
H: The script that we're working with right now has them in New York City mostly and they're trying to make it on Broadway.
Me: Oh, great! As a matter of fact, that's farther down on my list of questions here but, in articles and interviews with you in the 60s, you seemed to be hinting that there was going to be a Broadway show in the offing that you were working on. Was that a Muppet or puppet project and is that still a possibility or has that been taken over by your ice and arena shows?
H: Well, no not really. It's interesting. Well, it was a different show back in those days. I was actively building a show when we got THE MUPPET SHOW, so I shelved that whole project and we went over to London and got into THE MUPPET SHOW, but now I'm still working on a concept for a Broadway show which is probably a couple of years away. It's not the Muppets, but it's very exciting.
Me: Is it puppets or something like that?
H: Yeah, yeah, it's puppets and a mixture of all kinds of other things, too.
Me: Sounds great!
H: Well, if we get it together, it'll be a lot of fun.
Me: With a project like FRAGGLE ROCK, which you create from scratch, you didn't have to get anyone's permission or sponsorship or anything. With something like that, who creates the names of the Muppets - do you come up with them or the writers or who?
H: The whole project has been fun because it was very collaborative. We invited a bunch of our people and some of our friends together and we sat around a room for several days with a couple of different sessions. During that period of time, we cooked up the whole scheme and the names fell into place. The FRAGGLE names - some of them are fun - came from different places. Boober is one of my favorite names. There's a character in FRAGGLE ROCK named Boober. My daughter was in Devon at a farm, and there was this cow - this angry cow because they'd taken her calf away - an angry cow named Boober, and she came back and told me this story of this cow, and we were just laughing hysterically and I said we have to find a character and name him Boober because it's such a great name, and then FRAGGLE ROCK came along a number of months later and so there's Boober on FRAGGLE ROCK now.
Me: In 1978 there were over 500 Muppets, so there must easily be many more by now. Do you have any idea how many Muppets there are?
H: You know, I don't really. I couldn't begin to guess actually.
Me: When they're not being used, are they all in your various buildings on 69th Street - is that where they're housed?
H: No, we have a lot of storage - we have theatrical storage in New York because we built up - they're quite bulky, you know, particularly the large characters, and so we couldn't begin to store all the stuff in our place.
Me: So how do you keep track of them? Is there some one place where they're all inventoried?
H: Yeah, yeah, we have boxes and they're all carefully labeled and that sort of thing, and we do go back and pull them out for other shows.
Me: I know you used some of the EMMET OTTER characters on THE MUPPET SHOW from time to time. How many copies do you make of major characters, like Kermit or Rowlf?
H: Well, it varies just by the need. Actually the copies of characters is something I don't particularly like to talk about in articles but, just for your information, most characters there's only one. Somebody like a Piggy or a Kermit, there needs to be several versions and so there will be several of them; I'm not even sure how many because often we'll also have a photocopy - a character that's made that we use just for posing for photographs. It would be armatured, that sort of thing, but I don't think it's good to talk about that particularly. I remember hearing that there were several Lassies, and I never liked knowing that sort of thing.
Me: She couldn't have been alive all these years; I mean, she'd be 200 and something.
H: No, but besides that Lassie was always male, which was another one of those disillusioning pieces of information you don't want to know.
Me: I guess not. Well, I guess you don't want to tell me how often the Muppets wear out.
H: That's the same story. Actually, they don't wear out that much really.
Me: The original Ernie and Bert are in the Smithsonian. Do you have a place that you put other worn out Muppets, or do your staff just take them home or what?
H: No, actually, they're basically all in storage. We have all of that stuff together. We don't release Muppets out hardly ever. There's one Kermit in the Detroit Institute of Arts and Ernie and Bert in Washington and that's about all.
Me: OK, the next question may also be something that you don't want to answer, but I have it down here, so how much does it cost to make a Muppet from the amount of time that somebody spends from the initial sketch and all the materials that it takes and the time to costume it?
H: You can't really put a figure on it. The cost of the material is usually negligible because you're not using that much of hardly anything, so it's really all time and labor and that varies a great deal. If you're doing a large, complicated character with radio controls, it might take a number of people several months to make it and if you're talking about a quick little hand puppet, it could be made in 2 days, so there's enormous range there, and no real easy generalities.
Me: But once you create a puppet, isn't it that much easier to make a duplicate of it, once you've gone through all the...
H: Strangely, no, with major characters in particular. Any time we have to duplicate Ernie and Bert, for instance, we all cringe because they're very, very difficult to duplicate. Much harder to do than the first ones.
Me: Why is that 'cause they don't even have that many features. They just have, you know, that big eyebrow...
H: Yeah, there's an incredible subtlety to the placement of the eyes and the planes of the shape that they're made of, and if any of those things are off just slightly, the character doesn't look the same. You can't put your finger on it. You study and measure it with calipers and all that sort of thing, but the first time you build a puppet, you just toss it together and it's fine, but then you've got to build the next one exactly like that, and we all go crazy. But besides that, you see, as you work with the puppet, it wears out, and as it ages it changes and the nature of the fabric changes, the hair. Then you come back to do it again and you've got brand new fabric and so it doesn't look anything like it. It's always been a big problem.
Me: It's interesting when I was allowed to walk through the workshop, and there were all these Muppets that were on racks and they all look so lifelike - as though they were going to start talking to me any minute - except Kermit, who was just this limp thing. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of emotion that Kermit can convey for a character that is so basically simple - doesn't have movable eyes and just...
H: Yeah, well, the nice thing about Kermit is there's nothing in that head. I mean, the whole shape is merely just a cloth pattern and so it takes the shape of your hand inside, and so the whole thing is really created by your hand, which is why he's a delightful character to operate, too. He's so flexible and very responsive. One of the things we've always tried to do with any of our puppets is to try and get them flexible enough so that you have a wide range of emotions possible.
Me: It's just amazing to me that you could do that with a hunk of felt. You know, a character that can't really curl his lip, for example, you can still put that kind of, I don't know...
H: That's again one of the great things about puppetry. You do part of it and the audience fills in the rest.
Me: I guess so, but I still think it's more your ability than in my mind.
H: Well, it's a joint thing.
Me: I can't believe how fast you work; you said you devote only 3 months to a special, and that includes one month writing for the first draft; and you only spend 3 months of the year on SESAME STREET and you're involved in so many projects, you've got the TV series and the specials and the ice show and the traveling art exhibit, comic strip and theme park - how actively involved are you in the day-to-day creative aspects of all of these things?
H: Well, it varies a lot. I think my own strengths are in television production. It's what I see as what maintains the thrust of us as a group and so that's really where I like to spend my time and energy. We have a marvelous group of people that are involved in our publishing programs and the art department working with different licensees trying to keep these things faithful. Basically, I review that kind of thing and try to stay in touch with the people and their problems, but I'm not working with that on a day to day basis.
Me: How are new operators, new puppeteers trained and what do you look for when you recruit somebody - what skills do they have to possess?
H: Well, let's see, generally we'll have a series of auditions. We'll contact all the different people who have contacted us since our last auditions, and we look for a whole combination of things. We look for a basic sense of performance, a sense of humor. We look for the type of person that kind of sparks to what you think everybody else would spark to. You have to find people who put their whole performance into their hand and that's a very specific talent that a lot of performers don't have. A lot of very funny performers will never be good puppeteers.
Me: You're saying it's nothing that somebody could be taught.
H: Well, it can be taught if there's a basic kind of receptivity there. It's hard to know. I so often don't know myself and so usually what we do is after that first series of auditions, we go through a workshop period where we'll take twice or three times as many people as we want to end up with. We'll take people who have no puppetry experience also. We'll work with all of them for a week and at the end of that time - if we think they have an ability there that looks like it'll work out - we basically know whether or not the person will become a good puppeteer or not. The whole process of learning our style and becoming good at it takes nearly a year, I would say, at least.
Me: And that's just practicing lip syncing for that whole year?
H: It's not just lip syncing; it's all the other skills connected with what we do and so generally what we try to do is whenever we're in production, we try to have a couple of people working with us on a - not exactly apprenticed - but the new people learning, a backup team in order to be able to grow into good puppeteers. A lot of it is just doing it because all of the stuff you just have to do it a lot until it gets natural and totally without thinking, so you don't have to think about how to lip sync and you don't have to think about the monitor and the fact that the picture's reversed.
Me: That's one of the things I could never get used to, the fact that you have to move left when you want the puppet to go right. My brain is just not set up that way.
H: Right, right, but after you go through working with the monitor for a particular period of time, then it's totally automatic and you never even think about it.
Me: In the films and even to a certain extent on the TV shows there's increasing use of radio controlled devices and mechanical and hydraulic things. Do you envision the Muppets ever become completely, I don't know, robotocized, like these Walt Disney animatronic figures?
H: Well, no, although one of the things that we're working with these days in FRAGGLE ROCK is a way of performing a character completely outside. We have some little tiny characters in the show called Doozers. They're about 6 inches tall. We've been able to radio control their movement, so that one is outside operating a large thing, and it's all translated down to this little tiny thing. He can talk while he goes riding across on a motor scooter but, basically, the performance is still coming from the performer and I think that always has to be a key thing to us: that all of the mechanical things and all of the radio controlled stuff is always at the service of the performer in order to try to get a more complete performance. I think it's that sense of performance that is always essential to everything we've ever done. The automated shows very often look incredibly wooden to me because it's that sense of performance that's not there.
Me: Yeah, you're more in awe of the fact that it's a machine doing this; you don't lose sight of the fact. You think, "What a wonderful machine"; you're not thinking, "What a wonderful performance."
H: Right, right, and the performance is where the humanity is, where the relationship is and I think that has to stay at the heart of it all.
Me: The Henson people are not doing the voices for DARK CRYSTAL. Are they being done by well known actors?
H: No. Some of our performers did their own voices but only a couple of them. Usually, because we felt that I was casting the performance in terms of performers really, so tying the type of character to the performer but not feeling that I wanted to lock to somebody who has the right voice because in a film it's not difficult to find a voice for the type of thing that you want to do. That's almost easier than the performer.
Me: So does this mark the first time that somebody else is doing a voice that they're not actually performing?
H: No, not really. We've done bits of that all along, back from the days when we did MUSICIANS OF BREMEN we used a number of voice people. EMMET OTTER we had a couple of voice people in that. I think we've always done a certain amount of that.
Me: I guess I never picked up on it because your people do so many different voices, it's hard to really tell who is doing who.
H: Good.
Me: I saw an ad in PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY for THE TALE OF THE DARK CRYSTAL, which is a children's version of the story and I was surprised to see that it wasn't using Brian Froud's illustrations or production photographs. Why is that? Why did you get somebody else to do the illustrations?
H: Yeah, Brian preferred not to do the book. I mean, we certainly offered it to him, if he wanted to do it. I'm trying to think what his reasons were at that point. I think probably he was tired, having spent a number of years on the film, and he didn't particularly want to go right in to doing the characters for the children's book, but he also had no objection to someone else doing it. Actually, we had another artist lined up and, for some reason, that fell through and so Bruce McNally, who's our art director in London, had to step in suddenly. Bruce is a brilliant illustrator who did, I think, an incredible job on this book. It's just a gorgeous book. It's really nice.
Me: I read somewhere that you have an interest in psychic phenomenon. Is that true?
H: Oh, just an outsider's/layman's interest slash curiosity, I suppose. I love all that stuff.
Me: I do too. Is there any special aspect of it that appeals to you?
H: Well, let's see. A number of years ago I became quite interested in Seth, if you know anything about Jane Roberts' books. Jane Roberts wrote a series of books from an entity called Seth. Those are the Seth books, which I particularly love and enjoy all the concepts in those. I haven't read them recently, I must say.
Me: Isn't there one called SETH SPEAKS?
H: Yeah, SETH SPEAKS is one of her early books.
Me: Well, I've just about exhausted all my questions here.
H: Oh, good.
Me: I just really appreciate your taking the time to do this. I know you must be really exhausted after working all day and to have to sit and talk...
H: It's night over here now, so it's time for me to go to sleep. OK, Judy, I've enjoyed talking to you. It's fun to talk to somebody who knows that much about us.
Me: Well, I'm a long time fan and it's just a pleasure to have an opportunity to speak with you and tell you how much I love Kermit and all the characters and I hope to see them soon. I wish you really the very best luck with DARK CRYSTAL and FRAGGLE ROCK.
H: Gee, thank you so much. I look forward to meeting you some time.
Me: Wow, me too, thank you very much
H: OK, Judy, good night
Me: Good night!

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