The False Dilemma Between Steve and Matt

“‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ creeps in this petty pace from day to day.
I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy
Without my having to name the play.

They think me Macbeth; ambition is my folly.
I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass–a massive pain.”
                        –Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, lyricist)

It may seem like a bit of a strain to apply Hamilton lyrics to the Schism, but I use this particular passage to illustrate the unfortunate attitude of some in the Muppet community who have been unfairly characterizing Matt Vogel as some sort of undertalented, opportunistic usurper of the throne.  I condemn this attitude out of hand; not only is it cruel and unfair to Matt, but it makes no sense: Matt has no more control over who does or doesn’t get hired than Steve does.  

(Now that I think about it, you know what else doesn’t make any sense?  My equating Matt with Alexander Hamilton.  Steve is clearly Hamilton in this whole scenario.  There’s not a comfortable analogue to Matt at all–at least, not as far as I can see.  But I digress.)

Conversely, in other factions of the Muppet fan community, support for Steve Whitmire is sometimes being interpreted as disrespect toward Matt Vogel, and if one expresses the desire for Steve to go on performing Kermit, it is sometimes interpreted as a vote of no-confidence in Matt.  

Let me state unequivocably that, as far as I am concerned, nothing could be further from the truth.  I have complete confidence in Matt’s abilities and, more importantly, in his good intentions.  In fact, I’ve felt a little sorry for him as all this has played out; Disney has put him in a terribly awkward position.

Though Matt has a fairly significant footprint on social media, he has not commented publicly upon the Schism one way or another–at least, not that I am aware of.  Whether he has remained silent voluntarily or Disney has imposed a gag order on him, I don’t know.  If it is his own choice to remain silent, I completely respect that.  However, I don’t think he’ll be able to avoid it forever.  Eventually, Kermit is going to have to start doing interviews again and, given journalists’ penchant for asking Muppets uncomfortable questions, sooner or later someone is going to ask Vogel!Kermit about Steve.  What is he supposed to say?  

Even looking at this from an executive’s point of view and considering it strictly as a personnel decision, by every objective measure, Steve is simply more qualified for the job of performing Kermit–not for performing in general, you understand, but specifically for performing Kermitthan Matt is.  That is not to say that Matt is unqualified by any means; on the contrary, it is more to say that Matt’s time and talents would be better served elsewhere, like performing Jerry Nelson’s characters–in accordance with Jerry’s own wishes.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s think like an executive and take a look at the job description:  Kermit is supposed to be able to talk about working with Jim Henson. Kermit is expected to be able to reminisce about working on The Muppet Show.  On both counts–and through no fault of his own–Matt lacks the experience that Steve has in these areas.

Matt’s a qualified puppeteer.  No one is disputing that.  If it was a matter of necessity, I think he would be an excellent candidate to perform Kermit.  But there’s the rub; it wasn’t necessary.  Even if you take Disney’s vague rationale at face value, even if you genuinely believe that they were justified in dismissing Steve, the irrefutable fact is that they had a choice in the matter.  For better or worse, they made their choice, and now they’re going to have to deal with the consequences, as all responsible adults must.

But I do feel sorry for Matt.  I see him as a victim in all this too.  As terrible as Steve’s situation is, at least he’s free now to speak his mind.  On the other hand, Matt has been thrust into a situation over which he has no control and put on the frontlines in the charge to recreate the Muppets in Disney’s image.  And I imagine that the circumstances of Steve’s dismissal must be hanging over Matt like the sword of Damocles: do a good job–play it the company way–or we’ll serve you the way we served Steve.

I support Steve and I will keep fighting for him, no matter what.  I support Matt equally.  If he does his best performing Kermit–and I have no doubt that he will–I will be grateful to him, just as I have been grateful to Steve for all these years.

Substitute teacher day

As I said yesterday, there are things going on in my life right now to which I need to attend, so I don’t necessarily have time to write long, thought-out posts at the moment, as much as I would like to.  So today, it’s sort of like when you’re in school and your regular teacher is gone and, to fill the time, you get to watch a movie.  

But don’t worry, I’m leaving you in the capable hands of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Michael Frith.  If only all substitute teachers were this cool.

(No offense to any real-life substitute teachers out there.  You have a thankless job, and I commend you.)

What follows is an interview that dates from either 1989 or early 1990, in the days of the original Disney deal, that was given for the benefit of the design team at Disney to teach them how to render the Muppets in other media.  They focus on some of the major Muppets, one by one, and talk about each one’s characterization and background.

I hope you find it as fascinating as I do:

Some points of particular interest:

20:29–Frank Oz discussing the issue of “switching” performers and says that it is not done in the Muppets, that the same performer always performs the same character, affirming what Steve Whitmire said on his blog early on about the Muppets not being interchangeable.

24:30–Frank asks Jim about Rowlf’s piano playing–does someone provide both hands when Rowlf plays piano?  Jim says that Steve provides both hands “when we really want to get accurate” and calls Steve “a great piano player.”  I thought this was especially nice since Steve has said elsewhere that providing Rowlf’s piano-playing hands has been some of his favorite work with the Muppets.

Talking to my ten-year-old self

Lately I’ve found myself with not so much  a writer’s block but with sort of a writer’s log jam.  There are so many things that I want to say; it’s all sort of jamming together in my brain, all trying to get out at the same time.  I’m just trying to prioritize and try to figure out what is most important.  Also, some of the stuff has to go in a particular order or it won’t make sense.  So I’m just kind of trying to sort out the chaos in my head.

To further complicate matters, my life outside my head is also about to get kind of chaotic for a while.  I’m starting a new job next week, and also my parents are coming this Friday for a “surprise” visit, and I kind of need to make the place presentable for them.  (At the very least, I need to set up the bed where they’re going to sleep.)  So if my posts get sporadic over the next couple of weeks, that’s why.

But I want to take a moment and revisit an idea that I talked about last Wednesday and Thursday, about the wish that I’d had in 2012 that I could go back in time to reassure my grieving ten-year-old self that the Muppets would go on without Jim Henson, and Kermit would still be Kermit, and everything would be fine.  Looking back on that wish from five years in the future, it seems horribly ironic.

And yet, I do still kind of want to go back in time and talk to my ten-year-old self.  I don’t want to tell her–or me…maybe “me/her”–about the Schism; I remember the anxiety I/she felt back then when Jim Henson died, and I wouldn’t want to add to my/her anxiety by burdening me/her with troubles that I/she can’t to anything about.

(You know what?  This is getting too confusing with all the “me/her” stuff.  I’m just going to use “her” to refer to my ten-year-old self, and you’re just going to have to figure it out as we go along.)

But I would like to tell her about how I connected with Steve Whitmire last week.  That would be difficult to do–quite apart from trying to avoid the Schism, I’d have to explain to her what the Internet is.  I think I’d just say to her, “I can promise you that someday you will talk to Kermit the Frog, but it won’t be in a way that you might expect.”

That experience was really meaningful to me.  I love all the Muppets, but I’ve always considered a special few–specifically Kermit, Bert and Ernie–to be friends that I could turn to for comfort in times of trouble.

And I’ve seen troubles; I had a terrible time as a teaching assistant in grad school, and then after that, I had a job for four years that made my teaching assistantship seem like a picnic.  I can’t go into a lot of details there, but suffice it to say that I was in a very vulnerable position and, despite the best efforts of management, I endured a lot of verbal abuse that tore me down to the foundation of my being.  It completely destroyed my sense of self.  While working through the trauma of that experience, watching Steve’s work with the Muppets (pre- and post-1990) helped me to heal and to rebuild my self-concept.

It goes without saying that Steve went through a trauma back in October, and although I can’t say from first-hand experience, I imagine that being summarily dismissed from a job that one loves–not just a job, but a vocation–after nearly 40 years would be a major blow to one’s self-image.  In any case, the pain that Steve feels is palpable when he writes about it on his blog.  I’ve tried to make comments of support and appreciation on every post, with the hope that he will read them and smile, that they’ll help him to feel even just a tiny bit better, but not necessarily expecting him to acknowledge them in any way.  You could think of it as being like Johnny Appleseed; I planted the seeds in the hopes that they would grow, but without knowing whether I’d get to see any of them bear fruit.

So it was both very gratifying and very humbling when he quoted a comment I had made and said, “This post made my day!”  To know that I made a tiny difference in his life, even if it’s just momentary…to be able to ease his pain even just slightly…to be able to pay back the smallest portion of the joy and comfort that he’s given me over the years…that’s a treasure that I will carry with me forever…and one that I really want to share.

 

 

Salient Themes: Jim Henson versus bullies

“Dear Mr. Dionne: 
              What the fuck are you talking about?
                                                       Yours truly,
                                                       Jim Henson”
–Response to the 1960s equivalent of an Internet troll (quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography)

Well, last night I received my first insulting comment on this blog–and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed; it was a pretty pathetic effort.  In the ’60s, when trolls actually had to put pen to paper and make an effort to insult someone, people like Jim Henson got classy insults referencing ancient Roman emperors.  Now that people’s attention spans are limited to 140 characters, all the creativity has gone out of gratuitous insults.  Sad! 

However, in a way I’m glad it happened, because now this seems like an opportune moment to examine how Jim Henson related to bullies, both in his life and in his work.  

Jim was famously averse to conflict.  In Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones tells a story about how Jim would create an excuse to fly to London rather than get involved in a dispute within his legal department in New York.  From that anecdote, I think a person could get the impression that Jim was prone to be passive in his dealings with others.  But I think that impression would be false, or at least incomplete.  

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that–interestingly enough–Jim was similar to Wembley Fraggle in his approach to interpersonal conflict.  On Fraggle Rock, when there’s a disagreement or dispute among his friends, Wembley becomes paralyzed with indecision, not wanting to upset or disappoint any of his friends by choosing one side over the other.  On the other hand, deep down inside, Wembley has the ability to stand up for himself–and it comes out when the situation is truly dire, as it did in the matter of the mean genie.  Moreover, Wembley will never stand silently by while someone else is being bullied.  Whether it’s the miniscule Cotterpin Doozer, the gigantic Junior Gorg,* or anyone in between, if Wembley sees somebody being victimized, he will immediately rush to his/her defense.  It’s interesting to examine a previously unconsidered link between Jim Henson and Wembley because Steve Whitmire–Wembley himself–recently told a story on his blog about how Jim once stood up to some Disney lawyers on his (Steve’s) behalf.

In spite of his aversion to conflict, Jim was also known for his determination.  He was capable of standing up for himself if he felt he was being mistreated.  The early days of the original Disney deal were something of a love fest, but eventually the honeymoon period was over, and Jim found himself “in combat with [Disney’s] business affairs people,” as he put it.  Frustrated, Jim wrote the following in a letter to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg:

“The tone of the negotiations does not seem to me to be the way two parties should be relating to each other if they intend to go into a long term relationship. […] The kind of deal I like is one in which both parties try to arrive at a fair settlement and everyone walks away satisfied.  […]  My impression is that Disney is standing firm on all issues, assuming that my company is committed to this deal and thus we will eventually cave in.  This is not a wise assumption.”–(quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography, my emphasis)

Oooooooh.  Here’s a guy who’s willing to go toe-to-toe with two of the most powerful and influential men in show business.  Cross Jim Henson at your own peril.

Another way that Jim dealt with bullies was through his work.  His sketches, especially those variety-show staples that predate The Muppet Show, often featured a situation in which one character would throw its weight around by harassing another–usually smaller–character.  Like in the story of David and Goliath, however, the bullying character usually–if not always–gets its comeuppance from the smaller character.  Here are some examples:

Early sketches:
Jim used this theme in a couple of sketches that he performed in Hamburg, Germany at the US Department of Agriculture’s US Food Fair in 1961.  One was a sketch about an army drill team being put through their paces by a nasty drill sergeant barking out unintelligible orders; at the end, the drill team turns around and blows the sergeant away.  In another sketch, a group of characters–denoted only by the puppeteers’ gloved hands–listens calmly to some soothing (read: “boring”) elevator music.  Another character comes along and spices things up with some band music.  The other characters attack the dissenter, beat up on him (her? it?), and destroy his radio equipment…however, things don’t end well for them.  Neither of these sketches have any dialogue, which is lucky, because the following footage has no audio:


(The drill team footage starts at 00:59; the other sketch starts at 02:39.)

Java:
In “Java,” a creature that appears to be a living dryer hose does a dance number, while a smaller creature wants to join in, sort of like a younger sibling tagging alongside an older sibling, like I did when I was a little kid.  Unfortunately, the larger creature is less tolerant than my older siblings were of me…to its detriment:

Hugga Wugga:

“Do not take my sunshine away!”  The way that little creature phrases it, it almost sounds like a threat–or at least a warning.

Beautiful Day:


“You are so awful that it is truly beautiful.  You’ve probably worked all your life to be perfectly awful–year after year–to be just as bad as possible, and now all of your toil and self-sacrifice has paid off! […] In fact, you are the perfect example of beautiful awfulness!”  Generally speaking, my policy is not to feed internet trolls, but sometimes I’m tempted to try this on some of the trolls plaguing Steve Whitmire’s blog.

The Muppet Movie:
But perhaps the most triumphant example of standing up to bullies in all of Jim Henson’s work is the climactic “showdown” scene of The Muppet Movie.  Threatened with a sadistic choice by Doc Hopper–either sell his soul to a small corporation or be gunned down where he stands–Kermit appeals to Hopper’s humanity and sense of decency:

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.  But Hopper gets what’s coming to him anyway in what–to me–is the greatest and most Muppet-y moment of all time:


Not even the lousy video quality and strange, floating window-blind reflection can ruin this moment!

So…to all those who want to come onto my own blog to try to tear me down, this is your last warning:  You cannot hurt me.  There is nothing you can say to me that I haven’t heard before.  

In the past, I have endured verbal abuse that would make the Access Hollywood bus tape sound like a scene from Downton Abbey.  You think you can hurt my feelings by calling me a “moron”?  Please.  My classmates came up with more creative insults than that in the fourth grade.  

I’m a grown woman, and I’ve put up with more than my fair share of bullying nonsense in my life.  I’m not going to put up with yours.  I’m not going to indulge your pettiness and cruelty.  I’m not going to give you a platform from which you can attempt to build yourself up by tearing others down.  

You have no power over me.

 

_____________________________
*Yes, I’m aware that, in the episode I referenced, Junior Gorg had temporarily been rendered Fraggle-sized, but the point I am trying to make is that Wembley will stick up for a victim of bullying regardless of the victim’s size, color, species, etc.

The Violence Committed Against Kermit the Frog


“I don’t think you’re a bad man, Doc.  But I think if you look in your heart, you’ll find you really want to let me and my friends go, to follow our dream.  But if that’s not the kind of man you are, and what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense to you, well then…go ahead and kill me.”–Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie (1979)

There was a documentary on Jim Henson that was made in 1999, and in the middle of writing my previous post, I suddenly remembered that I had a segment of it tucked away in a playlist on YouTube wherein Steve talks a little about what happened when he first took up the mantle of performing Kermit.  So I looked it up just now because I thought it might be helpful to me.  And because I hadn’t seen it in several years, I kept watching it after the bit with Steve was over, and heard Frank Oz say that Steve “had to get in the soul of Jim to be Kermit.”

At that moment, I had an epiphany.  All this time, I’ve been angry and sad and upset about how Disney has been treating Steve.  Suddenly, the true horror of this situation finally hit me; it’s not just that Disney has mistreated Steve, it’s that they’ve mistreated Kermit.

The puppeteer is the soul of the character; I knew that before, but I hadn’t fully realized all the implications of it.  You can’t just take away someone’s soul.  You can’t fire someone’s soul; you can’t replace someone’s soul; you can’t audition for a new soul.  What Disney has done to Kermit–to Kermit–is an act of violation, comparable to the Dementor’s Kiss; or, to use an example from within the Jim Henson universe, analogous with the splitting of the urSkeks in The Dark Crystal.  

When viewed in that light, how could anyone greet the recasting news with indifference or  unconcern, with cautious optimism–or even, as some are doing, with enthusiastic anticipation?  How could anyone be resigned to this unspeakable act of violence against our beloved frog?  Steve has gotten a lot of flak for speaking out about it on his blog.  I’ve felt that that was unfair all along, but having had this epiphany, I don’t see how any reasonable person could expect him to stay silent; how can anyone who claims to love the Muppets stand silently by and watch as our lifelong friend, Kermit the Frog, is being eviscerated?

Of course, Disney owns the rights to the characters, so they are at liberty to cast whomever they want in whatever role.  And I imagine that their rationale was that, since Muppet characters have been recast before, it wouldn’t make much difference.  There’s no denying that characters have been successfully recast before; it is inevitable in a “franchise” (how I hate that word!) that’s over 60 years old, and if the characters are to survive in perpetuity, all of them will eventually have to be recast.  

Nevertheless, there’s a difference: in the past, the recasts happened in an organic way.  It happened out of necessity, and the main performers were allowed to have a say in who would be their replacement.  

This is completely different.  It’s arbitrary, cynical, and self-serving.  But most of all, it’s unnecessarily cruel.

 

Change versus growth; or being “real”

Yesterday I posted an edited version of an essay I wrote in 2012 about what Jim Henson means to me.  It was interesting, and a little poignant, to revisit a piece of writing like that, five years after the fact.  I revised it before publishing it again: some things were no longer relevant, some of the points seemed extraneous, and some of the writing seemed inelegant.

But I cut out the part about the immediate aftermath of Jim Henson’s death, when Kermit’s–and all the Muppets’–fate hung in the balance, and how it all turned out all right because Steve Whitmire was there to step up and perform Kermit.  While I wanted to keep that praise of Steve in there, ultimately I left the whole paragraph out because, in the aftermath of the Schism, it was just too painful to revisit.  It was still a raw wound.

Or so I decided last night.  I woke up at 5:00 this morning with the sudden realization that one of my stated purposes in starting this blog was to show my support for Steve, but by cutting out that paragraph wherein I praised him, I wasn’t doing a very good job of it.  If Disney were paying attention, they could probably twist that so that it would cast a doubtful light on my sincerity.

Sometimes, in order to diagnose and treat an injury, you have to poke at the tender spots.  In order to show my support for Steve, I need to be willing to examine those raw emotions.  So here goes.

Here’s the paragraph in question from my original essay, unedited.  This is exactly what I wrote in 2012:

“At the time, I wasn’t sure which was the worst-case scenario: a world without Kermit, or a Kermit who wasn’t “really” Kermit. I remember that, more than anything, two questions dominated my thoughts as I tried to comprehend this tragedy: would someone else take over performing Kermit? And if so, would it be the same Kermit I knew and loved? I sometimes wish that there was a way that I could go back in time and reassure my nearly-ten-year-old self that the answer to both questions was “yes,” thanks to the superlative Steve Whitmire, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect.”

“Superlative” is the highest compliment that I can give.  The word “superlative” can be used not only be used to modify nouns, it also modifies other adjectives, denoting “the highest degree of comparison.”  When I say that someone or something is “superlative,” it means that I’ve weighed many other adjectives and found them all insufficient to express my enthusiasm or highest regard.

I’ve always had the utmost respect for Steve Whitmire.  Even when things were a little rough with him performing Kermit at the beginning, I appreciated that he was doing his best to keep Kermit alive.  Later on, I found out from interviews how difficult it was for him to take up the responsibility and what it took for him to get to that point, and it increased my appreciation and gratitude exponentially.

At the time that Jim Henson died, when I was somewhere between the ages of nine and ten, I was preoccupied with figuring out what was “real,” and I had very rigid views about what was “real” and what was not when it came to books and movies and stuff.  Take, for example, The Little Mermaid:  prior to the animated movie, I was familiar with the original story by Hans Christian Andersen.  And I hated it because it was so sad.  The animated version provided the happy ending that I so desired.  So, which was the “real” version?  Was the original story “real” because it came first, or was the animated movie “real” because it had a more satisfying ending?  I spent a lot of time contemplating questions like that.  It seemed vitally important to me to firmly establish which version was “real” and which was not.

(Ironically enough, now that I’m an adult, Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Little Mermaid has a lot more resonance for me.  But that’s a whole other story.)

Eventually, of course, I grew up; I matured, I went to college, I started studying literature, and I developed a much more fluid notion of what was “real,” and I began to be able to accept the notion that multiple versions of a given thing could be “real.”  As another example, take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The first version of A Christmas Carol that I ever saw was–I’m sorry to have to say–the Disney version, entitled “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.”  For better or worse, it informed my concept of what A Christmas Carol was supposed to be.  While it’s reasonably faithful to the original story, it doesn’t lift the original text straight out of the story.  It takes a much lighter approach than most versions, and there are elements of parody and humor.  When I was older and saw other, different productions of the same story, I was shocked and disturbed by how dark and scary and humorless they were.

When The Muppet Christmas Carol came  out, I expected it–alas–to be closer to “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” in tone.  Actually, what I was really expecting was the “Monsterpiece Theater” version of A Christmas Carol, heavy on parody and silliness.  But while it did have a somewhat lighter touch than some versions, ultimately Muppet Christmas Carol is more or less a straight adaptation of the original story.  This is not a criticism, I hasten to add; merely an observation.  It’s not that I don’t like Muppet Christmas Carol or think that it is bad; it’s just to say that it is different from what I expected.

But my point is that, unavoidably, I’ve seen so many versions of A Christmas Carol that I gave up trying to decide which is the “real” version.  I can appreciate now that, so long as the story is recognizable, and the characters are consistent, there can be multiple “real” versions, and I can appreciate each of them for the good that they have to offer.

But I’m realizing more and more–not only in regard to the Muppets, but any time you’re trying to tell a story–that consistency of character is key.  An audience will forgive a lot of faults if the characters are acting in a way that is believable and consistent, but if not, it doesn’t matter if all the other story elements are in place and firing on all cylinders; if the characters aren’t consistent, the audience generally isn’t going to buy it.  That’s why the “Han shot first” issue is so hotly debated in the Star Wars fandom.  That’s the moment that tells us who Han Solo is: that he’s pragmatic, morally ambiguous, and not afraid to use violent means in the cause of self-preservation.  And yes, he grows beyond that over the course of the series, but that’s the foundation on which he is built.  Take away the foundation, and the whole structure collapes.

My point is that, when Steve took over from Jim, Kermit wasn’t immediately polished and perfect, but he was still real.  He was still consistent with what we knew him to be, so we were able to forgive a lot and be patient and trust that Kermit was going to come back into his own and continue to grow and evolve and build up from the foundation that was laid by Jim.  

Kermit himself actually addressed the issue very beautifully in an interview in 2011.  When asked how he “gauged success,” Kermit answered, “I just try to be myself and stay myself and […] grow and evolve with the times, but stay based on who I am […] Not change, just grow.”

(I invite you to watch the whole interview, below.  It is both candid and charming; a beautiful example of what I said elsewhere about Jim Henson giving the whole world license to make believe through his creations.)

Things I’ve Learned from Jim Henson

(What follows is an adapted version of a post I wrote on my poor old LiveJournal in 2012.  Oh, what an innocent time it seems in retrospect!)

Like most people, I knew Jim Henson primarily through the Muppets. I never even knew what he looked like until he made a cameo appearance in A Muppet Family Christmas in 1987. Nevertheless, I–along with many others of my generation–can count him as one of my first teachers because of his involvement in Sesame Street, which was part of my daily routine for as far back as I can remember until I started school. This makes me a very small part of his legacy, a thought that makes me feel simultaneously honored and humbled.

From the research that I’ve done, the impression that I get of Jim Henson is that–in a gentle, optimistic way–he expected the best from everyone around him. He led by example, inspiring those around him to give their best by always giving the best of himself. He didn’t play to the lowest common denominator. When he was working on something like Sesame Street, for which the primary audience was children, it wasn’t simplistic or banal, and when he was working on something like The Muppet Show, which was targeted more to adults, it wasn’t rude or crude or nasty. The Muppets’ material works on multiple levels; to paraphrase Anthony Minghella, it doesn’t exclude children and doesn’t insult adults, or vice versa. In a world where entertainment, and particularly puppet acts, are almost exclusively for children or exclusively for adults, the Muppets are unique because they appeal to everyone and therefore have the power to bring people together.

In my case, the Muppets are one of the bonds that connects my family. I am the fourth of five children. My three older siblings were teenagers when my younger brother and I were preschoolers. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to my older siblings sing songs from The Muppet Movie; I think I knew all the words to “The Rainbow Connection” before I ever knew that there WAS a Muppet Movie. My older siblings had all grown up watching Sesame Street and they would happily watch it with my younger brother and me when they were able. More than that, they were always enthusiastic about singing Sesame Street songs with us or joining us in recreating Sesame Street skits (well, except at bedtime–although my sister and I sometimes inadvertently acted out quasi Bert-and-Ernie sketches when I would want to talk to her at night, and she would tell me to go to sleep). And it wasn’t just a matter of them humoring the little kids: my sister and my middlemost brother once performed Sesame Street sketch for the annual high school talent show. To this day, some of my fondest family memories involve the Muppets, and most of my fondest Muppet memories involve my family.  In May 2017, we were able to bring things full circle when the five of us siblings, plus my sister’s three kids, performed a rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” at our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party to honor the ways in which Jim Henson’s work has brought us together as a family and given us so much joy.

In all of Jim Henson’s work, but particularly with the Muppets, he fostered imagination. In a way, he gave the entire world license to make believe. 

Somebody once said, “Jim always had respect for children, and so his characters never talked down to them.” Even as a little kid watching Sesame Street, I always had a sense of this respect. As a child, I had very little patience with kids’ shows that I found condescending. Sesame Street was never condescending. This is another case of Jim Henson’s teaching by example: by showing respect for children, he taught children to have respect for themselves.

When Jim Henson died, I learned about genuine heartbreak. I was very nearly ten years old, and it was one of my first significant experiences with death.  You sometimes hear people refer to significant (usually negative and often traumatic) events in their lives as “the end of my childhood.” I wouldn’t say that Jim Henson’s death marked the end of my childhood, but I think it was the beginning of the end. When you’re a kid (or, at least, this was my experience) there’s a wide gap between what you know and what you believe. You know about mortality; you know that you, and everybody you know, and everybody you don’t know, is going to die sometime in the murky, abstract, indetermine reaches of the future, but you try not to think too much about it. You believe in the permanence of the routine fixtures in your life and you take for granted that your heroes are invulnerable. Jim Henson was (and still is) one of my heroes, so when he died, it changed my perception of the world; it narrowed that gap between what I knew and what I believed. Death became less of an abstract concept and more of an unescapable reality.

One of the things I remember most significantly about the immediate aftermath of his death is that everyone around me, all my family, was just as devastated about it as I was. I don’t specifically remember this part, but my mom has said since then that Jim Henson’s death is one of few celebrity deaths that she has ever cried about. It was as though we had lost a close family friend…from a certain point of view, we had.

About six months after Jim Henson died, there was a TV special called “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson”. Toward the end of that special, once the Muppets understand the terrible truth, Gonzo says, “Jim died? But we were just starting to get to know him!” And that’s exactly the way that I felt when he died, that I was just starting to get to know him as the man behind (and beneath) the Muppets. Nevertheless, I’m very grateful to be old enough and lucky enough to remember him. I’m even grateful for the sorrow that I experienced at his death because it allows me to appreciate the joy of life–represented in so many ways by the Muppets–much more deeply than I would otherwise.

Jim Henson once said, “My hope is still to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here.” Even though he left the world far too soon, under bewilderingly tragic circumstances, he achieved that hope. I say that with absolute confidence because my own life has been so enriched by his having been a part of it, however indirectly. I have the love of music that I do in part because of Jim Henson. I have the love of literature/films/theatre that I do in large part because of Jim Henson.  I learned about cooperation from Jim Henson, and because of him, I always want to call it “Shirley,” which is to say that I have the sense of humor that I do in part because of Jim Henson. 

The foundation of love on which I have constructed and reconstructed my self-concept was built in part by Jim Henson.