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Jim Hill
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Henson (Who -- despite all the attempts he made late in his life to create important puppeteering pieces that deliberately didn't feature the Muppets -- really did have a soft spot when it came to Miss Piggy & pals) just couldn't stand the idea that his characters would eventually drop from sight after he was gone. That's what Jim really admired about the folks over at the Walt Disney Company. They really seem to have the magic touch when it came to keeping characters evergreen. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy & Pluto (Not to mention Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs and the rest of the characters in the Disney stable) were just as popular today with the public as they'd been when these toons made their debut decades earlier ... Even though the animators who'd originally created these characters were long since dead and/or retired.

Jim had always hoped that there'd be a way that Kermit & Co. could achieve that sort of immortality. That the characters that he and his team at Jim Henson Productions had created would still be able to connect with an audience, still make people laugh after Henson & his team were long gone. As the 1980s drew to a close, this question really began gnawing at Jim. But -- try as he might -- Henson couldn't come up with an answer.

About this same time, Disney CEO Michael Eisner was having a character crisis of his very own. But Michael's problem wasn't about how to keep the company's characters alive. But -- rather -- how to keep from spreading them too thin.

Think back to 1989, folks. Disney / MGM Studio Theme Park had just opened to great acclaim at the company's Central Florida resort. This new WDW park did boffo business during its first Spring & Summer of operation. Yet Eisner was worried.

Why? Because Michael was concerned that Walt Disney World had way too many Mickeys. Think about it, kids. You could go to the Magic Kingdom and there would be the Mouse in his black suit, happily posing for pictures on Main Street U.S.A. You could then hop a monorail over to Epcot Center -- only to find Mickey out in front of Communicore. Still happily posing for pictures. Only this time, Disney's main mouse is wearing his spiffy space suit.

Okay. Now let's take a boat ride over to WDW's newest theme park, Disney / MGM. Ohmigawd! There's Mickey again. Boy, this mouse really gets around, doesn't he? Now dressed in top hat & tails, Disney's biggest star is strolling down Hollywood Boulevard, still happily posing for pictures and signing autographs.

Strange as this may sound now (Particularly given the crucial part that character encounters with Mickey & his friends play in the day-to-day success of Disney's theme parks these days. According to exit surveys, most guests now don't consider their visit to a Disney theme park complete unless they at least get a chance to see Mickey while they're in the park), but Eisner was genuinely worried that the company was over-exposing the Mouse. That's why he was downright desperate to acquire new characters to help people his studio theme park.

Okay, okay. In today's world, where the Walt Disney Company is producing at least one new animated feature every year -- giving it a steady flow of exciting new characters to regularly fold into its theme parks -- this may seem like a really odd way for Disney's CEO to think. But please keep in mind that "The Little Mermaid" wouldn't hit theaters -- and thereby kick start the "Second Golden Age of Disney Feature Animation" -- until November of 1989. So Eisner had no idea that this veritable mother load of characters was about to come spilling out of WDFA. He was just looking for ways to give the guests something different to look at whenever they visited Disney / MGM. So that these WDW visitors wouldn't feel ripped off if they caught sight of the very same Mouse that they'd just spied while visiting the Magic Kingdom and/or Epcot.

So now it's the early summer of 1989. And Jim Henson -- who's feeling very depressed because he's just gotten word that NBC's about to pull the plug on "The Jim Henson Hour" -- knows that he's going to have to come up with another new project ASAP to help keep his talented team of puppeteers employed. And he's heard that -- now that Disney's got its adult movie division, Touchstone Pictures, up & running and regularly cranking out hits -- the company's looking to seriously beef up output on the family friendly side of the house, Walt Disney Pictures.

That's why Henson made an appointment to have lunch with Michael Eisner: To pitch Disney's CEO on the idea of the Muppets making a movie for Walt Disney Pictures. Given that Michael had been a longtime fan of the Muppets, Jim knew that it wouldn't be too hard to sell Eisner on the concept.

Well, imagine Jim's surprise when -- before they'd even had a chance to order -- Eisner supposedly blurted out: "I don't suppose that that you'd still be interested in selling us the Muppets?" Startled, Henson looked up from his menu and said "Maybe ... "

And that -- my friends -- is how negotiations allegedly began the first time the Walt Disney Company attempted to acquire the Jim Henson Company.

(Strictly as a side note here: What I particularly find it intriguing is the timing of both instances where Jim Henson was ready -- even willing -- to sell off Jim Henson Productions to the Walt Disney Company. Both moments followed particularly crushing defeats for the main Muppeteer. The first sales talk -- back in 1985 -- came on the heels of "Labyrinth" 's failure to connect with a mainstream audience. The second -- in the summer of 1989 -- came right after Jim got word that "The Jim Henson Hour" was about to be canceled by NBC. One has to wonder: How much did Henson's disappointment in these particular projects' failure factor into his decision to sell off his entire operation to outsiders? I'm sure that there's a ton of amateur psychologists out there that would interpret this as a pretty extreme reaction to rejection. Me? I can't pretend to know what was going on inside the man's head. But I will still admit that I find the timing of these two incidents to be very intriguing. Anywho ... )

In our next installment: Learn how the Disney / Muppet deal was laid out, what it promised to both parties, and -- more importantly -- the rude awakenings that both Henson & Eisner had once formal negotiations got underway.

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-- Jim Hill

Jim Hill can be reached using the Talkback form below or by emailing him at [email protected].

Jim Hill is this guy who lives 'way out in the woods of New Hampshire. (Hey, it's not like he wants to live there. But the Witness Protection Program has got rules, you know.) He has one beautiful daughter and three obnoxious cats. When he's not looking for real work, Jim writes about the Walt Disney Company and related matters for LaughingPlace.com, AmusementPark.com, "Orlando Weekly" and Digital Media FX.

The opinions expressed by Jim Hill, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the past decisions and future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.

-- Posted August 7, 2001

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