“Cynics beware, [Henson] is a genuinely good guy,” biographer Brian Jay Jones said in a recent interview. A self-professed member of the “Jim Henson generation,” Jones grew up watching “Sesame Street,” “that sweet spot between Disney and Warner Brothers.” Years later, Jones would interview several major “Sesame Street” players for his Henson biography. The “memories were very consistent,” Jones said. Henson “was very loved. … People really wanted to please him.”
But in Jim Henson: The Biography, Jones goes beyond simply gratifying fans of the puppetry innovator and his legacy—he’s a meticulous master of disparate material and memories. Through his painstaking research and arrangement, Jones has created a full portrait of one of the world’s greatest and goofiest inventors.
Jones was reading Wikipedia one day when he realized who he wanted to profile next. “I noticed the Muppets entry was all about the work, and not the guy, and wondered, Had anyone done anything?” As soon as Jones, the former biographer of Washington Irving, began getting in touch with Henson’s family and colleagues, he realized the importance of amassing Henson-related records and accounts in order to shape the artist’s story. Jones saw “the gravity of the time that had passed. People important to Henson’s story had died; it was time to get voices on tape.”
Although Henson’s family had no editorial control over the book, Jones said they provided “their complete cooperation,” including unfettered access to Henson’s private archives, a first for any biographer. In Henson’s files, Jones found a prescient young man: “He started saving things from 17 years old; he knew that he was doing something special.” Some of Henson’s earliest relics include embryonic sketches of Kermit. Back in 1960, the now-famous frog was a creature of uncertain lineage, fashioned from Henson’s mother’s blue coat with ping pong balls for eyes.
In his biography, Jones also investigates Henson’s ambition to create and operate a “themed nightclub” called Cyclia, complete with dancing women and synchronized music and images. Despite the huge effort and passion Henson poured into the venture, his dream never came to fruition. But, in nearly all of his projects, Henson found as much joy in the act of creation as he did in its result. In documenting Henson’s varied projects, Jones renders a man who mirrors the biggest—and greenest—star he created. “In the chemistry of the show,” Jones said, “Kermit is the eye of the hurricane. At the center is Jim/Kermit. … Without him, nothing works.”
To dig up more about the Muppets and their fuzzy father, be sure to catch Jones around the 505. Jones, a UNM English literature graduate and former Daily Lobo staff member, presents on Henson and signs books on Saturday, Oct. 26, at Page One Bookstore (11018 Montgomery NE) at 2:30pm and at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW) on Sunday, Oct. 27 at 1pm. Then, on Monday, Oct. 28, Jones sits down with James McGrath Morris, President of the Biographers International Organization, for a conversation about Jones’ book and a biographer’s responsibility. Their discussion happens at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe (202 Galisteo) at 6pm. Between these three events, an intimate portrait is sure to emerge of a man who “muppeted” with guts, one who touched viewers as deftly as he reached inside and gave life to his colorful constructs of felt and wire.