|By Keith Mahne|
On the mourning of Wednesday, May 16 Imagineering and the rest of the world were shocked to learn of the sudden death of Jim Henson at the age of 53. A creative genius who re-invented the art of puppetry, Jim joined the Disney team when he and Michael Eisner announced an agreement-in-principle under which Henson Associates, Inc. would prduce theatrical motion pictures, network and off-network television shows, Disney Channel specials and series, as well as special Muppet attractions and rides for the Disney theme parks. Continue after the page break as Imagineers remember a true Disney Legend, Jim Henson...
At the time of his death, Jim was working closely with Imagineers on several projects for the parks, including the Muppet Vision 3D attraction, the never built Muppets' Movie Ride, and a Muppet-themed restaurant for the Muppet Studios.
"I first met Jim in a meeting at the Disney-MGM Studios with Bob Weis, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Frank Wells and Michael Eisner. When we decided to do a 3D film, Jim got very excited about learning a new form of entertainment, and pushing the medium. As a result of his interest and experimentation, some of the Muppet Vision 3D effects are the best we've ever done. For example, Jim recognized that Waldo, a computer-generated Muppet, held some exciting possibilities. He proved to be absolutely right, and the Waldo sequence in the film is the most successful 3D effect we've done so far - it's phenomenal.
Jim was unique in that he listened to what everyone had to say. He was always open to new ideas about how to make something better. Despite the fact that he had at least 15 to 20 projects going on at Disney, he had the ability to make each project team feel that they were getting his sole attention when he was with them - that their project was his priority. His creative energy and ability to focus were amazing.
He created a family, and pulled everyone into it. Once when a few of us were in New York, he asked us to go ice skating in Central Park with his family and co-workers. Afterwards, we went for hot chocolate and a bite to eat. I'll never forget that night, it was magic. He was so gentle and kind, and even though you may have met him only once or twice, because he drew you into his family, it felt like you had been connected to him for a lifetime."
"Jim's spirit became a part of whatever we did. He encouraged chaos and silliness - it was very refreshing. He was very much in tune to the people around him, and the irreverent aspects of the Muppets reflect that."
"Working with Jim, we discovered that he had his own language. He never would say 'yes' or 'no'; it was 'hmm' or 'hmmmm.' He used certain adjectives that the people who had worked with him a long time recognized - they could tell if he liked something or not. We Imagineers were getting to the point where we could read him also.
Jim was the most loving person. I remember that on the third time I met him, I was wondering if he would remember me when he reached out and gave me a big hug. His nature was reflected by the memorial service for him in New York. It was filled with warmth and love; so many people had been touched by Jim."
"For several years I freelanced for Henson, producing a variety of Muppet products. I was very impressed with how careful the company was about maintaining the integrity of the characters - that direction came directly down from the top. Jim's characters reflected his vision and warmth; I don't think he ever lost sight of what he wanted to achieve with them. Despite his incredible success, he never became spoiled. The kind, gentle persona he presented was genuine; he didn't believe in pretension or facades."
"One of the best things about working with Jim was that there was no sense of an impenetrable hierarchy. We never felt like we had to say, 'I can't bother Jim with that.' He was friendly to everyone. I remember after a press event at the Disney-MGM Studios, Jim was conversing with some VIPs and reporters. Whenever someone from his staff or one of us Imagineers walked in, he would stop his conversation and make a point of saying 'hello.' He made everyone feel special.
Jim loved the cookies from the Big D. He would always laugh at the obscenely huge piles of cookies that we ordered for meeting with him, and say, 'Oh no, not again.' I guess it was really a love/hate relationship - he moaned, and said ' hmm, maybe I shouldn't' every time he saw them, but he never failed to polish off a few."
"I was extremely fortunate to have been involved in the initial story development for the Muppet Vision 3D attraction. But more exciting to me than helping the team come up with gags and storyline for the film was working with Jim Henson - a man for whom I had much admiration. My reaction upon first meeting him was to tell him just that, and to thank him - for things as simple as helping to teach my son the alphabet. Thinking that it would be unprofessional to do something as silly as just thanking him, I chickened out.
During a break at one of the concept meetings, I mention to Jim that I had enjoyed seeing him on a television special that had aired the night before. One segment of the program, which was about handicapped people involved in entertainment, featured two Kermit the Frogs - one brought to life by Jim, and the other by a mentally handicapped entertainer. During their performance, they took turns singing 'It's Not Easy Being Green,' and the lyrics touched me more deeply than ever before. I wanted to shake Jim's hand and thank him for that, but again, thinking it was unprofessional, I didn't.
Before the meeting reconvened, Jim and I talked briefly about the powerful, wonderful feeling he experienced during that particular performance. He didn't see the show air, but was glad to hear that the same feeling came across on TV. He also told me something I shall never forget. He said, 'you know, it's funny, but sometimes we seem to lose sight of the value of even the simplest performances.' We discussed that sometimes shows such as these can be just as powerful, just as memorable, as a multi-million dollar movie or attraction.
As the meeting was breaking up later that day and everyone was leaving, Jim reached the conference room door at the same time I did. He shook my hand, smiled, and simply said, 'thank you.' "
Jim Henson was a lot like Walt Disney in several ways. He was full of creativity, left his mark on the world and the people who were lucky enough to meet and work with him. One thing that the Imagineers agreed on was that they had all been struck by his warmth and humanity. Not only do they mourn his loss, they are greatly saddened by thoughts of what was yet to come from the chemistry of Disney and Jim Henson.
If you are interested in learning more about the life and times of this warm, loving, creative genius; I highly suggest you grab yourself a copy of Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones from the link below.