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When You Wish Upon a ... Frog?!
Breaking the Rainbow Connection
As Jim Hill continues his series on the convoluted relations between Jim Henson Productions and the Walt Disney Company, he reveals what may have finally this "merger made in family entertainment heaven" to go to ... Well, you get the idea.
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It didn't take long for the first signs of trouble to emerge. Literally 48 hours after Jim Henson's untimely death, Walt Disney Company officials suddenly found themselves at odds with the Henson family.
All that Mouse House executives had wanted to do was quickly put together a tribute to Jim. Some sort of TV special that would air in prime time on a major network that would poignantly underline how the world was going to miss Henson's artistry. Preliminary discussions with NBC and CBS revealed that both networks were eager -- anxious even -- to air such a program ... provided that the Mouse could pull the show together in 10 days time.
So then-Disney TV head Rich Frank approached Frank Oz the day after Jim's death and -- after apologizing for even suggesting such an idea like this at a time like this -- asked the long-time Muppeteer if he'd been interested in directing the program. Frank at first demurred, but then -- pained at the thought of some hack slapping together a cheesy tribute to his longtime friend's career -- eventually agreed to take charge of the project.
With one condition, though: Rich Frank had to get clearance from the Henson family that it would be okay for Disney to quickly slap together a TV special that paid tribute to Jim.
So Rich Frank called Jim's widow, Jane and reportedly asked for Mrs. Henson's blessing on the project. Initially, she agreed. 24 hours later, though, Jane's son Brian called Frank back and allegedly told the Disney television executive that the family had changed its mind about the TV special. Henson's son supposedly said that it was just too soon for the family to get involved in this sort of project. Particularly since they and the veteran Muppeteers were already deep in the planning phase on Jim's official memorial service -- which would be held five days later at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Brian was reportedly polite but firm with the Disney TV exec, insisting that the Henson family wasn't really against the idea of Disney doing a TV special that paid tribute to his dad. But -- since he and his mother & sisters were still in the midst of the grieving process -- this just wasn't the sort of program that they wanted to see go forward at this time. So Brian asked Rich Frank to please postpone the TV special for a few months ... Which Frank did. The program -- "The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson" -- eventually aired on CBS in November 21, 1990.
But still Rich Frank was troubled by this awkward precedent. The Disney TV exec had -- or so he thought -- closed a deal with Henson's widow so that the Mouse could quickly move forward with the tribute TV special. 24 hours later, Jim's son calls and reneges on the previously hammered out agreement. Which meant that Frank then had to turn around and shut down everything that he had already set in motion.
Given that Henson had been survived by his estranged wife and five children, was this the sort of squabbling that Disney could expect every time it tried to work out a deal with Jim's surviving family members? If so, the Mouse was really going to miss Jim Henson -- who used to provide a singular, calming voice for the entire Henson organization.
As it turned out, this wasn't really the case. The Henson family would eventually come to have one unified voice when it came to all their dealings with the Disney Company. The only thing was: Jim's estranged wife and children suddenly didn't seem all that eager to see Jim Henson Productions swallowed up by the Mouse.