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THE MOUSE AND THE FROG: Disney and Henson join empires
By Bill Givens Volume 3, Issue 3 - Winter/Spring 1990
"It's an unusual day on the back lot of the Disney Studios in Burbank. Pyrotechnics experts are wiring up incendiary devices and air cannons, and a memo has been circulated to all the offices on the lot, warning them to expect a series of explosions later in the day. There's a bit of tension in the normally bucolic town square setting, which is about all that remains of the Disney back lot. Gaily dressed extras hang around, playing cards, reading, waiting for the cameras to roll. Firemen-both real ones and actors-lounge on the back of a Burbank fire truck. Nearby, construction workers are putting the finishing touches to Disney's new corporate headquarters, a sandstone-colored 'modem monument on which the roof will be supported by statues of (ahem!) . . . the seven dwarfs.
The brobdingnagian creatures (let's face it-can you call a twenty-orso foot statue a dwarf?) are covered by plastic tarps to hide them from prying eyes until the structure is ready for its public unveiling. The building and a nearby parking structure have eaten up much of the studio's back lot. For the time being, there's not a mouse in sight. The star of this production is a frog. A frog. . . on the lot built by a mouse. A brick wall is about to be blown to smithereens, and the crew is hustling about, making sure every little detail of the filming is locked down, every safety precaution is firmly in place. The one person who doesn't reflect any of the tension of the moment is Jim Henson.
The bearded creator of "The Muppets", who is directing the film, is an island of relaxation in the midst of all the frantic activity. Asked about his calm demeanor, the Muppet Master says "There's not a lot that tension will do for us. There are times like this when I've done everything I can do, then I just sit back and wait for everybody else to get ready." The project that Henson is directing is a 3-D film, scheduled to become an attraction at the Disney /MGM Studio Tour in Florida. California's Disneyland may have its hipper- than-thou Michael Jackson as a 3-D "Captain EO", but Florida's multi-dimensional image will be good ole lovable Kermit the Frog and his Muppet Friends. Kermit, Miss Piggy, and all of the Henson characters are becoming a hard-working part of the Disney family in a buyout deal that has been estimated as worth $150 to $200 million dollars to Henson, even though neither party has quoted numbers. While the production shuts down for a lunch break, Henson heads for Disney's Roof top Executive Dining Room for a fast lunch and a chance to talk about the way things will be going when his company becomes a part of Mickey's empire. Idea Came From Eisner Henson says that the idea of the merger started with a meeting with Michael Eisner to discuss some joint projects, but before too long the conversation turned to a high-powered deal wherein Mickey's empire takes over Kermit's domain."
JIM HENSON: A DAY IN THE LIFE
By Bill Givens Volume 3, Issue 4 - Summer 1990
"A writer has the rare opportunity to get to know a wide variety of people-the famous, the infamous, the ordinary. It's one of the privileges of the profession. But with every privilege comes an attendant responsibility, that of constructing your article from whole cloth, of painting a true picture of the subject of your interview. There are times when it's difficult. Early on, you develop your personal "smoke detector", and within minutes you can recognize someone who's all style and no substance, an image made from smoke and mirrors. That's when you have to perform a little dance around your subject's psyche, looking for the door that will open long enough for you to get in and look around for the truth, for something solid on which to base your piece. When there's just nothing there, you can only back off and merely report your impressions, and let the chips fall where they may. But an interview is a true joy when you meet someone who is genuine, whose conversation transcends corporate jargon, political sidesteps, and "yupspeak". You ask a question, you get an answer. Sometime the answer is "no" or "I can't answer that", but you aren't taken into the woods of obscurity, you don't have to play mind games with your subject. You get a person who looks you straight in the eye, whose every word and gesture reflects the essence of the topic, who treats you as an equal. Jim Henson was such a man. We met over lunch at Disney's executive dining room and immediately hit upon a common chord, since he and I were both born about 20 miles and three years apart, in the Delta region of northern Mississippi. He also confirmed a rumor I had heard-that, as Kermit the Frog, he had preached Edgar Bergen's funeral oration from the pulpit. of my parish church in Los Angeles. Throughout the rest of the afternoon as I watched him at work, I could easily see why his characters can entertain children without condescending to them, and can entertain adults without patronizing. There is a large portion of Jim Henson in every one of his characters: a gentleness,a goodness,a charm, and a generous supply of wit. As I watched him direct an extremely complicated and somewhat dangerous scene, he was an island of calm surrounded by tension. I asked about it, and his reply was that "There's not a lot that tension will do for us. There are times like this when I've done everything I can do, then I just sit back and wait for everyone else to get ready."The crew went about the business of setting up an "explosion shot" for Disney Florida's 3-D movie as Henson watched from the background, intervening only when he caught something out of kilter. That was, to me, also a measure of the man. I've seen many a famous person surrounded by fawners and sycophants, yes-men and hangers-on who can't make a move or a decision without a nod from "the boss". Not Henson's crew. They seemed to work in an atmosphere of mutual respect, on a set that was both lighthearted and professional. That can come only from the top. From our conversation, I had the impression that Henson's sale of his company to Disney-even though he said that he didn't instigate it-was "the deal of a lifetime" for him.
Disney was the ideal company to take over his characters; he was free of administrative duties and the selling of his products and could now concentrate on what he liked to do best-create and produce. That's what makes me happiest," he said. That's what I like doing the most." Therein lies one of the tragedies of Jim Henson's early death, that famous "what might have been". If a man could give us so much while starting out as a puppeteer on a local Washington, D. C. station, and going on to create some of the most memorable characters ever to appear on television (and in the movies, ! too, for that matter), to build up a world- ~ ranging company, to feed both public ~ and network television's hungry maw, r;, who knows what we would have seen \ ~once he was freed of the fetters of rou- o~ tine-when he could direct 100% of his genius to that which we see on the screen? The day of our conversation, Henson told me that the deal for the sale to Disney was essentially complete, and that it was now "in the hands of the lawyers". His death came before it was out of those hands and officially signed, leaving a host of questions about the future, both from Disney's point of view and Henson Associates'. I felt a real sense of personal loss when Jim Henson died, because as a writer you treasure the time spent in the company of people of genius, of goodness, of genuine accomplishment. You rejoice at the privilege of spending time with people whose lives and work make a difference. You are honored when you meet someone who shows as much respect for your work as you have for his. And that's exactly the way I felt about my day with Jim Henson. There's so much sadness surrounding the early death of Jim Henson. But there's also a joy in knowing that he left us triumphant-at the very top of his profession, surrounded by solid accomplishment, a large and loving family, and creativity that will continue to enhance the lives of both children and adults. Jim Henson was a man wrapped in the mantle of a nation's love and respect. Not a bad way to go."