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Jim Hill
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by Jim Hill (archives)
August 2, 2001
Jim Hill begins a multi-part series that explores the history of the convoluted relations between the Jim Henson Company & the Walt Disney Company. Part 1.

When You Wish Upon a ... Frog?!
Part I: In the Beginning ...

Mark M. from Maynard, MA. writes:

Thanks for your recent LaughingPlace.com article about Muppetfest. Ever since I read your story, I've calling and calling Creation's offices -- trying to get more info about the September event. I finally bought my tickets yesterday and will be calling the airlines later today to book my trip to Pasadena. Thanks again for giving me the heads-up on this event.

Since you're obviously a huge Muppet fan yourself, Jim, I was wondering if you have any information yet about what's supposed to be happening at Muppetfest. I keep hearing that these veteran Muppeteers will be giving talks where they'll reveal all sorts of great inside stuff about Henson Company history. Do you have any idea what these guys will be talking about? I'm particularly interested in learning everything I can about all those attractions that Jim Henson supposedly designed for Disney's theme parks back in the early 1990s.

Sadly, no, Mark, I really don't have a whole lot of info on hand right now about MuppetFest. I do know that the event is supposed to take place at the Pasadena Center in Pasadena, CA. on Saturday and Sunday, September 22nd & 23rd. I have also been told that -- over the course of the weekend -- that "veteran Muppeteers" like Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson and Steve Whitmire will be taking part in some question & answer sessions. But as to whether these guys will be dishing the dirt about Disney theme park attractions that Henson helped design ... I just can't say.

Those LaughingPlace.com readers who want more specific info about the MuppetFest (times, dates, ticket prices, etc.), should probably go check out the event's official website. I myself just took a quick peek at the site a few minutes ago, and -- while there is a lot of stuff posted there about what's supposed to happen over the course of the weekend -- I'm afraid that there's little or no specific information about what's supposed to be talked when during those MuppetFest seminar sessions. There's certainly no mention of any talks that deal with proposed Disney / Muppet attractions ... yet. Perhaps as it gets closer to the actual event, Creation will put a schedule up on the MuppetFest website that will better reflect when things are going to happen.

But -- if it will help tide you over 'til September, Mark M. -- I guess now is as good a time as any to begin my long promised series that chronicles the convoluted history between the Jim Henson Company & the Walt Disney Company. I should warn you folks, though: This is not a particularly happy story. Nor is it a short one.

More importantly -- given the continuing talks between Disney's representatives and EM.TV & the Kirch Gruppe about the possible sale of the Muppets -- the story isn't over yet. Not by a long shot. So a little patience is going to be in order here, kids.

So why don't we get started? And what better place is there to begin than the Muppets' first flirtation with the Walt Disney Company. And -- no -- I'm not talking about the merger that was announced back in August 1989. I'm talking about that time back in 1983, when Jim Henson reportedly gave some very serious thought to acquiring Walt Disney Productions himself and personally saving the Mouseworks from the brink of disaster.

Don't believe me? Then get yourself a copy of Bernie Brillstein's great autobiography, "Where Did I Go Right?" (1999, Little, Brown Publishing). For over four decades now, Bernie has served at the upper most levels of the entertainment industry. He's been an agent, a movie producer as well as a personal manager. In all that time, he's stepped on a great number of toes. Which might explain the sub-title of his book: "You're No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead."

But Brillstein also made a lot of famous friends along the way: Among them John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Jim Henson. Jim was a particular favorite of Bernie's. Though Brillstein was obstensively Jim's agent (Bernie had been representing Henson's business interests to the Hollywood community since the early 1960s), he also considered the master puppeteer to be a genius, a great artist, a visionary as well as a friend. Which is why when Jim wanted to try something new, Brillstein moved mountains to try & make it happen.

For example: When Henson wanted to launch a weekly "Muppet Show," Bernie's the one who beat the bushes in the early 1970s to find all the financing necessary to help turn Jim's TV dreams into a reality. And -- when Henson wanted to see if Kermit & Co. could make it as stars of the silver screen -- Brillstein was the one who strong-armed all those celebrities into making cameo appearances in 1979's "The Muppet Movie" (Just so the Muppet's movie debut would be guaranteed to be packing a little extra "Oomph" when it appeared at your local cinema.)

This is why -- when Henson called Brillstein in the early 1980s and said that he wanted his agent to see if there is a way that the puppeteer could got about acquiring Walt Disney Productions -- Bernie made some inquiries. After all, Jim -- just like everyone else in the entertainment industry -- had stood around and watched as the once mighty Disney Studios stumbled its ways through the 1970s and early 1980s. Year after year of releasing films that were clearly out of touch with the tastes of contemporary audiences. "The Cat from Outer Space." "Hot Lead & Cold Feet." "Unidentified Flying Oddball." The list goes on and on ...

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