Synopsis: Take a peek behind the curtain with Henson’s Place, the original documentary that profiles Jim Henson, the creative visionary behind The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth and more, and provides a snapshot of the inner workings of The Jim Henson Company in 1984.
From honing his skills as a puppeteer in college to creating some of the world’s most beloved characters, see the imaginative genius like never before. Enjoy interviews with Henson, his wife Jane, long-time puppeteer partner Frank Oz and others, as they share memories of the legendary Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock, with a behind-the-scenes look inside Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Experience Henson’s desires to not only create new worlds, but also to celebrate the child inside all of us!
Henson’s Place 7.5
eyelights: the vintage interviews.
eyesores: the brevity of the piece.
“I think there’s a child in all of us” – Jim Henson
To say that Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets and many of our most beloved figures on Sesame Street, was a genius might seem hyperbolic to those who only view him as a puppeteer, but it is well-documented and recognized that his creativity and vision helped reshape pop culture.
Over the course of thirty years, and most noticeably from the ’70s onward, Henson (with the help of many assistants) was the catalyst for a ground-breaking children’s show that still thrives today, has established some our favourite pop cultural icons, was the backbone of many TV and film productions and helped launch countless careers.
I never really got a chance to witness Henson’s rise. Although I was certainly well-aware of the existence of Sesame Street, I knew nothing of Henson’ s involvement until much later. And while I was a huge Muppets fan growing up, by then his success was already confirmed, and I was too young to pay attention to that bearded puppeteer.
I wish I had, though: Jim Henson unexpectedly died in 1990 from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome at the age of 53. The world was deprived from a major creative force well before its time; without his vision, his family and friends struggled to pick up the pieces. It took many years to get the Muppets back on top again.
‘Henson’s Place’ is a 52-minute documentary film that was produced for television in 1984 – at the height of Jim Henson’ success. It’s a quick biographical overview of his life and key achievements, all the way up to ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan‘ and ‘The Dark Crystal‘. At the time, ‘Labyrinth‘ was in the process of being developed.
It features interviews with Henson and many of the people who know him best, including then-spouse Jane Henson, Frank Oz, Lord Grade, and quite a few others. Kermit and Miss Piggy also chime in, professing not to know him especially well. Even Big Bird does a small cameo in the opening parts of the show, popping by Henson’s office.
‘Henson’s Place’ charts his early life, followed by his first puppeteering work. Backed by footage from ‘Sam and Friends’ as well as some TV commercials that he did at the time, we get a good idea of the evolution of his characters and technique. Sadly, many of his initial TV appearances remain unmentioned here.
However, the programme does make mention of Henson meeting Franz Oz, who would become his best counterpart (case-in-point: Kermit and Miss Piggy/Ernie and Bert). Appropriately, Oz is also interviewed about his technique and personality, while his collaboration with Henson is discussed with other participants.
By 1969, when Sesame Street was put together by the Children’s Television Workshop, Jim Henson had enough of a reputation that they wouldn’t have done the show if he hadn’t signed on. Wow. And so it was that his finalized version of Kermit and many new characters were given a daily spotlight in North American homes.
By the mid-’70s, a shrewd businessman, Henson discussed a more mature show with Lord Lew Grade, who agreed on a deal for ‘The Muppet Show’ on merely a handshake – there would be no contract. The Muppets were a smash hit (over 120 countries, 5 languages, 250 million viewers/week) so Lord Grade agreed to two movies.
It was only just the beginning: The Muppets would become omnipresent pop culture figures. Persistent and focused, Jim Henson would go on to spearhead many other projects, many of which he would never see before his untimely death – including a Muppet*Vision 3D show at Disney World and Disney Land.
By the end of the programme, one gets a sense of the myriad possibilities that lay before Jim Henson. The future was unwritten, but it was clear as day that Henson was going to use his craft and creativity to the utmost of his capacity. And with the help of all his friends and collaborators, who obviously loved working with him, little would get in his way.
He is dearly missed. No one would ever take the place of Jim Henson.
Post scriptum: the DVD edition of this documentary also highlights ‘The Amphibian’ a 1985/86 yearbook for -and featuring- the Henson crew, with an audio introduction to the book by Michael Frith, former Creative Director for Jim Henson Productions.
Date of viewing: February 24, 2014