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Jim Hill
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by Jim Hill (archives)
August 7, 2001
Jim Hill continues his multi-part series exploring the history of the convoluted relations between the Jim Henson Company & the Walt Disney Company. Part 2.

Why Henson wanted to sell ...
As Jim Hill continues his series about the continuing convoluted relationship between the Walt Disney Company & the Jim Henson Company, learn why Jim Henson finally decided to sell the Muppets and -- more importantly -- why Michael Eisner was so eager to buy.

If you missed it, Part One is still available.

I get such interesting letters from LaughingPlace.com readers.

After this series finally got underway last Thursday, I got a ton of nice e-mails from you folks. (Okay, okay. So there were a few notes in the pile that said -- in essence -- "Well, it's about %@#%*^& time." I guess I have been promising to get this story underway for quite a while now. My apologies to those who felt frustrated by the delay.) But I got one in particular -- from Bruce in Burlington, VT. -- that really got me thinking.

It read:

Jim --

Really glad that you've finally started this series. And it was wild to learn that Jim Henson was actually thinking about buying the Walt Disney Company back in the early 1980s. Wouldn't it have been interesting if that acquisition had actually gone through?

But your first installment didn't really touch on the real question, Jim: Why did Henson even thinking about selling out to Disney? After all, the guy was living the America dream.

Think about it, Jim. The man was the head of his own company. He'd created dozens of characters that were loved the world 'round. He oversaw a hand-picked staff of puppeteers & special effects artists that were considered by many in Hollywood to be the very best in the business. Jim was recognized the world over as a genius.

So what was to be gained by selling out to Disney?

Great question, Bruce. And the answer is ... time. Jim Henson happily accepted Michael Eisner's offer to buy up the Muppets in August of 1989 because he could finally lay down the burden of being the head of Jim Henson Productions and get back to doing what he really loved. Which was being creative.

Think about it, folks. Henson landed his first gig as a professional puppeteer back in 1954, when his character -- Pierre the French Rat -- began making regular appearances on "The Junior Good Morning Show," a kids show that aired daily on a local television station in Washington, D.C. From those humble beginning, the Muppets were born.

By the time 1989 rolled around, Jim had been on the job for 35 years now. And -- to be honest -- Henson was weary. Not from puppeteering, mind you. (In fact, one of Henson's main complaints during the 1980s was about how little time he got anymore to do any real puppeteering.) But from the day-to-day nonsense involved with running his own company. The constant pressure of having to meet payroll, having to make sure that there was always enough work in the pipeline to keep everyone at Henson Associates & the Creature Shop gainfully employed, having to make nice with all those studio heads and/or network bosses (Just so they'd pick up the tab for the next Muppet movie or TV special). All of that very important stuff that robbed Jim of most of his chances to do want he really loved the most: Which was being creative.

Plus -- and let's be honest here, folks -- the 1980s were a fairly frustrating time for the folks at the Jim Henson Company. Sure, the corporation won tons of awards and got plenty of kudos for all the great work it did during this period. But the big break-through success that Jim Henson had always hoped for -- that project that would finally convince the world that puppeteering wasn't just something you did to entertain children -- kept eluding Jim & his associates.

Don't believe me? Then let's do a quick review of the big Henson Associates projects of the 1980s: 1982's "The Dark Crystal" and 1986's "Labyrinth" were both hailed by critics for their extra-ordinary visuals and eye-popping special effects. But neither film was what you'd call a huge success. Jim -- who poured his heart and soul into the creation of both of these projects -- was particularly crushed when these films failed to connect with mainstream audiences.

And then there were the TV programs -- 1987's "Jim Henson's The Storyteller" and 1989's "The Jim Henson Hour" -- that were even more ambitious than "The Dark Crystal" & "Labyrinth." These too pushed the borders on puppeteering, making use of colorful art direction and cutting edge computer technology to tell compelling stories. But these projects also failed to find their audience. Henson was said to be horrifically depressed when NBC opted to cancel "The Jim Henson Hour" after only 10 episodes had aired.

Oh sure, Henson Associates (which formally changed its named to Jim Henson Productions in 1988) did have some successes in the 1980s. Audiences worldwide seemed to enjoy "Fraggle Rock" and the animated "Muppet Babies" TV series. Which helped keep the company's coffers full. And the accolades continued to flow in. Henson was even inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987.

That award should have made Jim feel good. Like he'd truly accomplished something in his lifetime. What it did -- instead -- was remind Henson about how old he was getting. That he was maybe nearing the end of his run.

This really bothered Jim. Not so much because he had a problem dealing with the idea of his own death. But rather because Henson was concerned that his creations -- the Muppets -- wouldn't be able to continue after he was gone. That Kermit & Co. would just fade away after Henson and his trusty team of puppeteers had passed on.

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