Oct. 14, 2013 at 6:37 PM ET
Primarily known as the creative genius behind such beloved characters as Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Jim Henson was a creative genius and a true American original. Brian Jay Jones’ new book, “Jim Henson: The Biography,” takes an in-depth look at the extraordinary life of the “gentle dreamer” whose imagination touched the world. Here's an excerpt.
Jim Henson slowly folded himself into a couch inside Reeves Teletape Studio, sliding down, as he often did, until he was nearly horizontal, his shaggy head against the back cushions and his long legs stretched out in front of him. As always, Jim was the calm in the middle of the chaos, sitting quietly as studio technicians and crew members whirled around him, adjusting lights and bustling about the background sets for Sesame Street’s Muppet segments. Jim simply lounged, hands folded across his stomach, fingers laced together. Draped limply across his lap was the green fleece form of Kermit the Frog, staring lifelessly at the floor, mouth agape.
Jim and Kermit were waiting.
In the five years Sesame Street had been on the air, many of its most memorable moments involved children interacting with the Muppets. And while all of the Muppet performers were good with children, most agreed that it was Kermit children believed in and trusted completely—mostly because they completely believed in and trusted Jim Henson. Jim—and therefore Kermit—had a natural sweetness, a reassuring patience, and a willingness to indulge silliness—and the resulting interaction could be pure magic. Even as Jim sat waiting, then, there was, as always, a buzz of anticipation.
Sesame Street director Jon Stone—a warm bear of a man with an easy smile—strolled the set, the end of a chewed pencil sticking out of his salt-and-pepper beard. “Blue sky!” he said loudly—a signal that a child was present on the set, a coded reminder that the normally boisterous Muppet performers and crew should watch their language. There was actually little chance of Jim himself swearing—normally his epithets were nothing stronger than “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”—but with the cue that his young costar, a little girl named Joey, had arrived, Jim slowly unfolded himself and rose to his full six-foot-one height.
Casually, Jim pulled Kermit onto his right arm, slightly parting his thumb from his fingers as he slid his hand into the frog’s mouth, then smoothed the long green sleeve from Kermit’s body down over his elbow. He brought the frog’s face up toward his own, tilting the head slightly—and suddenly, Kermit was magically alive, sizing up Jim with eyes that seemed to widen or narrow as Jim arched or clenched his fingers inside Kermit’s head.
While Sesame Street’s Muppet sets were usually elevated on stilts some six feet off the floor—making it possible for puppeteers to perform while standing—no child would ever be placed at such a perilous height. Instead, Joey—in a pink striped shirt, with her long blond hair tied at the top of her head—was moved into position on a stool while Jim knelt on the floor next to her. Slowly he raised Kermit up beside her, eying the Muppet’s position on a video monitor in front of his crouched knees. Joey’s eyes locked immediately on Kermit. The frog was no mere puppet; Kermit was real.
“Rolleeoleeoleeyo!” called out Stone—and as tape began to roll, Joey was already patting and petting Kermit lovingly.
“Hey, can you sing the alphabet, Joey?” asked Kermit.
“Yes,” said Joey, nodding earnestly, “yes, I could.”
“Let’s hear you sing the alphabet.”
“A B C D . . .” sang Joey, and Jim bopped Kermit along in time to the familiar “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” melody, bouncing the frog’s head back and forth. “E F,” continued Joey—then instead of G, she substituted “Cookie Monster!” and giggled at her own joke.
All eyes in the studio were on the frog, waiting to see what Jim would do.
Jim reacted instantly, arching his long fingers inside Kermit to give him a surprised expression. Then he turned the frog, in a classic slow burn, toward the still-giggling Joey. “You’re not singin’ the alphabet!” Kermit said cheerily, and began the song again. Joey sang along eagerly, this time gliding past the letter G without incident, and stumbling only slightly through the troublesome quintet of LMNOP.
Joey patted Kermit lightly, unable to keep her hands off the slightly fuzzy Muppet. “Q R Cookie Monster!” she sang, and broke down in another fit of giggles.
Jim pressed his thumb and fingers tightly together inside Kermit’s head, giving the frog a brief look of mock irritation. Then he arched his hand back upward, returning Kermit’s expression to one of mild surprise. Joey tilted her head slightly and giggled directly into Kermit’s eyes. She believed in him completely.
“Cookie Monster isn’t a letter of the alphabet!” said Kermit helpfully. “It goes, Q R S . . .”
“T U Cookie Monster!” Joey exploded into giggles, clenching her hands in front of her.
For a moment, Jim nearly broke character. He snickered slightly. “Yuh-you’re just teasing me!” he finally said in Kermit’s voice, and the two of them began singing together again. “W X Y and Z . . .”
Joey briefly placed her hand on Kermit’s shoulder as they entered the refrain. “Now I’ve sung my ABCs . . .” the two of them sang.
“. . . next time Cookie Monster!” Joey erupted, and broke down in giggles again.
“Next time, Cookie Monster can do it with you!” griped Kermit. “I’m leaving!” Jim pulled Kermit’s face into a mild grimace—and with a groan of exasperation skulked the frog away, out of camera shot.
Joey stared after him. “I love you,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Jim bounced Kermit eagerly back toward the little girl. “I love you, too,” he said warmly.
“Thanks,” said Joey.
And she draped an arm around Kermit and kissed him on the head.
Excerpted from Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. Copyright © 2013 by Brian Jay Jones. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.