The Jim Henson Retrospectacle: Celebrating Jim Henson

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Abigail Maughan – New Zealand’s Jim Henson Retrospectacle festival concluded on Saturday, April 29th, with the Celebrating Jim panel at Wellington’s massive art and history museum, Te Papa. The panelists were Jim Henson Legacy members Arthur Novell, Craig Shemin, and Bonnie Erickson, and performers Karen Prell, Carmen Osbahr, and Dave Goelz. Craig served as moderator.

Craig introduced the panelists, but had a special guest to honor first. He praised Square Eyes Film Foundation director Nic Marshall, the woman who had worked for ten years to make this event a reality. She came onstage and received a well-deserved round of applause.

The panelists started off by each telling a distinctive memory of Jim Henson. Craig recalled  seeing spectators awed by Jim at the filming of The Muppets at Walt Disney World, and that they tried to follow him even as he was going to the bathroom. He noted that this was what it must have been like to be Walt Disney. Dave recounted seeing him just after Jim’s mother had died, a gaunt figure in the rain, looking frail and in need of protection… an impression that, as Dave said he grew to learn, was something that could not have been further from the truth. Karen talked about her early days on The Muppet Show, and a memory of when Jim took the time to answer to her question of how Kermit sat on a stool.

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Jim’s Collaborators
Craig said that in the concert over the previous two days, the Count’s song was initially going to be counting people who worked with Jim Henson, but this proved difficult in rehearsal. He started a slideshow looking at these people, whom the panelists each had a lot to say about, so much so that Craig eventually had to set a limit to one story per person.

  • Jane Henson– Craig said that Jane hated attention and hated talking about herself, that she was content with Jim getting all the attention. So, Craig said, they were going to talk about her at this time because she never would, and the world needs to know what a funny and intelligent person she was. Arthur said Jane had wanted to be an actress when she was younger, that she trained with an acting coach and everything, to which he attributed her wicked timing and humor. Craig described her sense of humor by telling a story in which Jane, annoyed at being forced to read off a script, read her entire speech on a teleprompter completely in clunky monotone, just to prove a point to him.
  • Don Sahlin– Bonnie recounted a time in the Muppet workshop when Don made stuff on her desk jump via a string and a hole drilled in her desk, from all the way across the room at his desk. Dave said that if everyone told a prank story, they’d be here all night.
  • Jerry Juhl– Dave told the story of Jerry on the Ed Sullivan Show, rushing up and down from the studio to the elevator to their dressing room and back to retrieve the forgotten fire extinguisher pivotal to the ending of “Java.” Jerry arrived exactly in the nick of time to set off the extinguisher and complete the bit, and that was when he decided that he did not want to be a performer anymore.
  • Frank Oz– Carmen and Karen both recounted doing right hands for Frank’s characters. Karen asked her if Frank ever did the thing where he would pin down the right hand if it was doing something he didn’t like—Carmen deadpanned that no, that never happened to her, and won a laugh from the audience.
    • Arthur and Carmen both related that Frank Oz was always very self-deprecating regarding his performances, even the ones that appeared flawless to everyone else. Multiple comments were made about Frank’s relationship with Jim mirroring that of Bert and Ernie.
  • Jerry Nelson– Karen analyzed how all of Jerry’s characters were old souls, even children like Robin, as well as tremendous singers. Craig relayed going to Jerry’s home to interview him for the Emmet Otter bonus features, and how Jerry kindly set up all the accommodations he needed to do so.
  • Caroll Spinney and Fran Brill– Little was said about them for the sake of time. Craig simply pointed out the fact that Caroll chose to wear a cheesy Richard Simmons Show t-shirt to get his Sesame Street publicity photo taken.

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Jim Henson
It came time for audience questions, and the panelists were asked to describe Jim as a leader. Dave said that there are two types of leaders: the one with a whip and the one with a flute. Jim was the latter, inviting others to follow instead of driving them from behind. He continued his awesomely poetic streak by describing Jim as having a “whim of steel.”

The three performers said he led by example; he was constantly upstaging everyone and everything, but he encouraged that of everyone else, too.

  • Dave relayed Jim acting up when filming the finale of Muppet Family Christmas. The director, he said, had called out to whoever was performing a rabbit puppet to dial it back; the performer of this rabbit puppet turned out to be Jim Henson.
  • Carmen said he did the same when filming a song about dentists for Sesame Street, and how Kevin Clash, the number’s choreographer, was not amused.
  • Karen said ditto for filming the babies’ scene in The Muppets Take Manhattan, specifically the part where Baby Rowlf flips over onto his head.
  • They all came back to discussing the way Jim encouraged them to all have their own ideas and try them all out, was positive of all input from the performers and never got mad. Dave talked about the only time he ever saw Jim get angry, which was simply a moment of tranquil fury toward Muppet Show director Peter Harris.

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Miscellaneous

  • An audience member asked about dangerous performing situations, and they told the story of filming the Southern Bread commercial with the archer.
  • Someone asked about David Bowie, and Karen described the hectic filming of the “Magic Dance” scene from Labyrinth.
  • Dave told of his big fake argument with Jim over the “everyone dies” ending of the Gills Brothers song he choreographed on The Muppet Show, as once discussed here on The Muppet Mindset.
  • Craig talked about where Link Hogthrob’s voice came from; Brian Henson had told him that it was the voice Jim would put on for “traditionally fatherly duties, such as [Link voice] caaarving the Thanksgiving turkey.”
  • Karen talked about how involved the performers of Fraggle Rock got to be in the writing process when the episode starred their character.
  • Dave took time to praise the newest cast of Muppet performers, and how well they understand and love the Muppet characters. The audience gave a vigorous round of applause for Eric Jacobson, Matt Vogel, and Peter Linz, who were sitting in the back of the room.

After the panel, the speakers, as well as the other performers present, met and chatted with fans. I had the opportunity to meet many of them, and the rumors I had heard for so long about them being the nicest people you will ever meet in your life are absolutely true.

And thus, the Jim Henson Retrospectacle went out with a bang. It was incredible to watch Jim Henson’s friends and collaborators talk and laugh with each other in person, about their careers and their colleagues and their remarkable boss. Nic Marshall and the Square Eyes Film Foundation deserve huge amounts of thanks and gratitude for providing not only the experience on this day for so many people to see, but also everything in the 20 days prior celebrating Jim Henson and his contributions to the world.

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