Kevin Hansen – So let me start off by saying that I’ve been a huge Muppet fan my whole life. I was born in 1982 and I started watching Sesame Street since before I can remember. Muppet Babies played a big role in my childhood as well, and I remember waking up in the morning when I was 3 or 4 and asking my parents to put on the movie “with Big Bird and the two Kermits” (The Muppet Movie of course).
I’ve followed the Muppets through their ups and downs throughout the years and I’ll never forget hearing about when Jim died. I was a pretty devastated seven-year old. My mom and I wrote a letter to the Children’s Television Workshop (we got their mailing address from the Sesame Street Magazine) asking basically what the plan was for all of Jim’s characters and we included a picture I drew of a bunch of Sesame Street characters. They wrote back, thanked us for the concerned letter, included some publicity stills from the upcoming season, told us that, while his death was unfortunate, the show would go on with Jim’s friends and in his honor.
Cut to 2017 – I’m married to my beautiful wife Erin and we have two amazing kids, Lizzie (5) and William (2). I got both of them into the Muppets early in their lives and they love it. My wife and I have seen Puppet Up on stage twice in the last 10 years – once with Brian Henson performing (so cool!) and another time for my birthday in 2008 at the Avalon in Los Angeles where I was actually the lucky guy to get called onto the stage to perform in one of their skits. I’m not a puppeteer but I’ve been studying them for a long time and did so well in the show that Patrick Bristow (co-creator and host of Puppet Up) turned to my wife and asked her if I’ve done this before (that’s Victor Yerrid on the left and Allan Trautman on the right!).
So I follow Puppet Up on Facebook but have never really planned on seeing them again unless it was a special occasion or something (the show is great and different every time but I can only drag my wife to so many puppet shows right?!). But when I saw that they were putting on a show at the Jim Henson Lot on June 16th, my interest was peaked. I’d never been to the Jim Henson Company Lot even though it’s only about an hour and a half away. And it’s not like they give regular tours or anything – it’s a place of work. But when I saw that the VIP package for the Puppet Up show included (among other things) a backstage tour and a MEET-AND-GREET WITH BRIAN HENSON, I couldn’t book the tickets fast enough.
Guys, I can sum up our night in one sentence: it was like taking a time machine back to my childhood. Even though Jim himself never actually worked there, this place was built to house Muppets. Originally built by Charlie Chaplin and his brother back in 1917 (100 years ago!), the Jim Henson Company bought it back in 1999 and added a Kermit statue on top of the entrance dressed in Chaplin’s classic Tramp costume. (pics 1-3).
The show was at 9 but the tour started at 7:30. The two tour guides took us from building to building, offering incite into the history of the lot (Henson Recording Studios was built by A&M Records in the 1960s with a blank check – make it the best studio ever and it still is to this day: Paul McCartney and Katy Perry are just two of the artists that currently record there). I’ll stick to the major Muppety highlights for this article though.
Our first stop was at the B.O.B. – the Big Ol’ Building. This building was more modern looking and has a huge Kermit popping out of the side of it (pic 6). Very cool. But it’s what’s inside this building that’s even better. We’re getting to the ‘time-machine-to-my-childhood’ part now. The lobby display case had all kinds of Labyrinth and Dark Crystal memorabilia. (pic 7). Then they took us to the big conference room. This is where they house the famous Muppet mural that used to be in the old Henson Company Townhouse in Manhattan (pics 9-11). We’ve all seen pictures, we’ve all tried to figure out who all is in the theater, we’ve all wanted to get a better look at it and guys I started freaking out a little bit. I had no idea the mural was still around, let alone on the premises. I’m still reeling from coming face-to-face with it. To me, it would be almost as iconic as like visiting the set of Sesame Street. It’s as amazing in real life as you could imagine. I was taking pictures of it from so many angles that when I was close to it, I even got on my hands and knees (I didn’t want to block others from getting their pictures) to get a solid shot of Bert, Ernie, and Fozzie that my wife actually said under her breath “Kevin, what are you doing?!” Seriously, do whatever you can to see it in person. While I was crazy stoked to meet Brian Henson, I had gotten used to the idea basically over the few weeks leading up to the event, but being surprised with the mural was just such a treat.
After we left the boardroom (farwell, mural), we went to the reception office. This was another amazing place (pics 22-32). You walk in and are greeted by a bunch of Kermit dolls, a display case full of awards, classic Jim painting on the wall. Hmm, what else, what else… Oh yeah a freaking Skeksis just chilling! I remember now hearing an interview that Chris Hardwick did with Brian Henson on his Nerdist Podcast (4/18/2014) where Chris was just amazed that they had this iconic movie memorabilia just hanging out in a hallway, not even in a display case and Brian had said that they had a bunch of those kinds of things but there’s only so much storage space they have and if they give them away they end up on eBay so they just display them. I’m not complaining.
They also let us hold an Emmy that The Company won for Muppet Babies, they had a few creature heads mounted on the walls, including Dino from the 1994 Flintstones movie and Carol from Where the Wild Things Are, as well as the creatures from Turkey Hollow. It was like walking through a Jim Henson hall of fame or something. Like, try to imagine working there every day. How cool would that be?!
Okay so the last part of the tour was the meet-and-greet with Brian Henson. Someone earlier had asked if he’d be willing to do autographs for us (part of the VIP package included an autographed hot dog puppet from Puppet Up (pics 4 and 5) so to a certain extent it wouldn’t be out of the question to deny additional autographs). The tour guide said “Yeah, he’ll probably sign something for you.” Not knowing what to expect, I had brought along my blu-ray copy of “Muppet Christmas Carol,” “Muppet Treasure Island/Great Muppet Caper,” and my copy of Jim Henson: The Works book that my parents had given to my for Christmas in 1993, hoping Brian would sign all 3. I responded to the tour guide with “What about a few things?” and she said “hehe…don’t push it.” So now I’m torn: I have to pick one thing for him to sign but which thing?! “Muppet Christmas Carol” was the first movie he directed and the first Muppet movie made after Jim’s death and I love it, so to me, that’s the front-runner. And I kind of feel weird asking Brian to sign a booked titled Jim Henson…like I wonder if sometimes he feels like he can’t get out of the shadow of his father or something. I don’t know. I have about two and a half minutes to decide what to do though.
I’m whispering to wife about my predicament as we walk toward Brian’s office (more on that soon) and she talks some sense into me: “You gotta have him sign the book, Kev.” I’m also hearing my mom’s voice in my head. When she heard that I was going to meet Brian Henson, her first response was “He’s gotta sign the book!” Not only because she knew how much I LOVED that book as a kid, but also because of this: remember when we wrote a letter to Sesame Street after Jim died and I included a picture I drew? THAT PICTURE IS IN THE BOOK! (pic 40). I’ll never forget the first time flipping through the pages of The Works back when I got it…I came across the chapter that talked about Jim’s death and there was a full page next to it of all these letters concerned fans (like myself) had sent in and my picture was among those! My brain couldn’t register it at first: What am I seeing? How is this in here? I remember drawing that picture but but but…what’s going on? I asked my parents and my mom said that they must have held onto it after we sent it in. I still feel a little weird about Brian signing this book, partially because it’s not a book about him, partially because it’s a giant book and could be somewhat cumbersome to sign…but I decided to do it.
So the group of us (15-20 people) walk into Brian’s (I call him Brian now, we’re buds) office (used to be Charlie Chaplin’s office) and he greets us and shakes our hands as we shuffle through the door way. I said something like “Nice to meet you” or “ Thank you” or something and then stood against a wall as he started talking to us. His office…looks like the greatest playroom ever. Those Palisades toys from the 2000s decorate his shelves, Muppet busts on his mantle (I love it because I have all of them too), Baby Sinclair from Dinosaurs sitting in a chair next to Bear in the Big Blue House. Brian talks to us about how he has the slates (clapper boards) from the movies he and his dad have directed (so GMC, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, MCC, and MTI) and that he always like that both Dark Crystal and GMC had the same number of camera set-ups (876). They were both shot in 1982, practically back to back and he said that Jim really wanted to do the Dark Crystal but the studio wanted another Muppet movie so he agreed to do the old “one for you, one for me” deal – GMC was first, followed immediately by Dark Crystal. He described how he did MCC in 476 shots and MTI in 588 shots because he tends to do longer takes whereas Jim would do shorter takes He talked about how The Jim Henson Company won a technical Oscar for the animatronic control system (Henson Performance Control System) and that it kind of drives him crazy that it’s not the same size as a regular Oscar and someone said “It’s a Muppet-sized Oscar” (that got a big laugh).
And while he’s talking about everything, my mind starts wandering and I’m thinking “Oh man, I shook his hand and greeted him…was that the meet-and-greet? Will I not get another chance to talk to him? Nooooooo…”
That’s about the time the tour guide said “ok well let’s take some pictures!” Phew! We all lined up and now I’m feeling very self-conscious because for the first few people, it’s just a quick picture and they shuffle out. No signatures. Brian is being very gracious with everyone and just how you would hope he would be BUT the tour guides have a job to do and the show is going to start soon so let’s move move move!
Luckily, the lady who asked about autographs is in line in front of us and asks Brian to sign something and he politely agrees. Now we’re up. I’m crazy nervous. Guys, I’m meeting and chatting with Brian Henson and my knees are like buckling. I shake his hand again and introduce myself. I’m holding the book and I just get into it: “My mom would kill me if I didn’t bring this up…back when your dad died (my wife points out to me that that was an awkward way to start it off but I recovered)…blah blah blah and my drawing ended up in the book! Would you mind signing it for me?” “Oh man that’s awesome – yes I would love to sign it!” So he took his time to write “To Kevin, A True Fan! Thank You, Brian Henson.” (pic 41) He took so long to sign it that I had to suppress my arms from instinctively pulling the book away from him, as if to say “I think we got it, thanks, there’s other people waiting…” (pci 41)Maybe my inner tour guide was coming out and I was extremely aware of the need to shuffle people off to the next stop.
We got our picture with Brian after that and he was very gracious and warm. We left and my knees were buckling again. Suddenly I’m being coached on how to breathe by my ‘I’ve-delivered-two-babies-so-I-know-how-to-breathe-under-stress’ wife. I’m just in awe right now and even to this day as I write this. Brian Henson is up there in the pantheon of Muppet people you want to meet and I got to meet him. I still can’t believe it. That night will go down in the history of greatest nights of my life.
We walked around the lot a little bit before the show started. It’s pretty cool how they’ve decked out the place with Muppet stuff and preserved a lot of Chaplin stuff. (pics 17-21)
And the show was amazing (pic 42). Improv comedy but with puppets. Patrick Bristow was great as the host. And they did a performance of both “Java” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” live which is just such an iconic performance to watch. The night was Un. For. Get. A. Ble. Please do yourself a favor and A) see the show and B) figure out a way to get a tour of The Jim Henson Company Lot.