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[White Ajah Fantasy Week] Labyrinth! ~ Jim Henson's Creations

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Biographer Brian Jay Jones spent five years researching Jim Henson: The Biography—interviewing all five Henson children and Henson’s widow, Jane, poring through notes at the The Jim Henson Company archives in New York, and rewatching Henson’s masterpieces. The result is an insightful look at the gentle artist. Below, Jones shares six little-known facts about the puppeteer.


For the millions around the world who know and love his work, Jim Henson is more than just the creator of the Muppets; he’s practically a member of the family. Whether it’s Muppets, Fraggles, Gelflings, or Goblin Kings, Henson and his creations have educated, entertained, and inspired generations.


Here are six things you might not know about Jim Henson and the Muppets:


1. Jim Henson didn’t originally want to be a puppeteer. 
Growing up, what Jim wanted to do more than anything was work in television, preferably as a stage designer or art director. But when a local TV show advertised an opening for puppeteers, Jim—who was still in high school—built two puppets, taught himself how to perform with them, and got the job. “I never played with puppets or had any interest in them,” Jim said later. “It was just a means to an end.” It was a means that worked—and once Jim got on TV, he would redefine puppetry for television—and films—over the next thirty years.


2. Jim Henson was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966—but not for the Muppets
Before The Muppet Show, before Sesame Street, there were the experimental 1960s—an era in which Jim hit a wildly creative stride, developing Twilight Zone-ish TV specials, hippie documentaries, and short animations, all without a Muppet in sight. His seven-minute experimental film Time Piece earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject. (He lost to the French comedy The Chicken.)


3. The first nationally-famous Muppet was Rowlf the Dog.
Originally created for a Purina Dog Chow commercial, Rowlf the Dog was added to the cast of The Jimmy Dean Show in 1963, and was an immediate hit. Each week, fans would send the jazz-loving dog—performed by Jim with the assistance of a nineteen-year-old puppeteer named Frank Oz—over two thousand pieces of fan mail, more than even Dean himself received, making Rowlf the Muppets’ first genuine national celebrity.


4. Cookie Monster originally had fangs.
Okay, he wasn’t the Cookie Monster yet; instead, he was a ravenous, fanged Muppet monster called the Wheel-Stealer, built for a 1966 commercial for Wheels, Flutes, and Crowns snack foods. Three years later, he would be defanged—and made slightly more lovable—for Sesame Street, where he would devour cookies instead.


5. Jim performed Kermit from underwater for The Muppet Movie.
The opening scene in The Muppet Movie—with Kermit sitting on a log in the middle of a swamp, strumming a banjo—was done by cramming the six-foot-one Jim into a makeshift diving bell and sinking him under four feet of water. He could then perform Kermit by sticking his arm up through a rubber sleeve in the top, watching his performance on a monitor cradled between his knees. Not a comfortable way to spend an afternoon.


6. Kermit the Frog wasn’t the host of the original version of The Muppet Show.
In the early 1970s, Jim taped two pilots for a weekly Muppet TV series. The first was called The Muppets Valentine Show, and was hosted by a sorta human Muppet named Wally. When that pilot failed to take hold, Jim produced another—called The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence—this time with the vaguely amphibious Muppet Nigel at the helm. It wasn’t until Jim started work on The Muppet Show in 1976 that Kermit was finally installed as the host of the show—and the rest is Muppet history.

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I didn't know any of those facts!


Not Henson specifically, but I do remember hearing about Frank Oz and his feud with Marlon Brando.  Apparently, Brando didn't want to take directions from a man who voiced a puppet pig.  *lol*

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Apparently there were many "stars" that didn't like working with the puppets. Even David Bowie had a hard time on the set of Labyrinth because the puppets voices came from off camera behind him and it kept throwing him off!


Fantasy Films

Never one to rest on his laurels, Henson moved on to an even more ambitious project. With the help of fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, he created a Tolkien-like world for the film The Dark Crystal. This production was entirely populated by extremely detailed, realistic-looking puppets -- a major breakthrough and change from the (intended) cartoony look of the earlier Muppets. Though an initial box-office failure, The Dark Crystal later developed a following as a widely respected cult film.


Based on what he and his team learned from their experiences on The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson founded the Creature Shop to create new characters both for Henson movies and for outside productions. In-house productions during his lifetime included Labyrinth and The StoryTeller, while outside productions included Dreamchild, The Bear, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Witches.


Yes, TMNT and The Witches! I had no idea!

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Oh yes! I love looking at the wide variety of places we see work that came out of the Creature shop in those days! Many characters on Dinosaurs also came out of the Creature Shop (if anyone remembers that sitcom). It was fun when things came out to guess if something was a Henson creation and then go look it up later, which generally meant digging through magazines for interviews that might have information. I loved The Bear! TMNT too. :smile:

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Do you know what I found out? 



At the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, a worker unpacking a large wooden crate got a scare when he unexpectedly came face-to-face with Hoggle. He has remained in that unclaimed baggage museum ever since!

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