Tuesday, October 18, 2005



I’ve always loved the Muppets. Like many of you, I grew up with them. I saw them on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and all the Muppet movies. One of my favorite rituals during trips home from college was to rent the first three Muppet movies (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan), get into my pajamas, and spend a whole day glued to the television. How can you not love a world where rats are bellhops, frogs and pigs fall in love, vegetables sing from a pushcart, and penguins surf in the shower?

I appreciate the man behind the Muppets as much as I admire the furry creatures themselves. Here’s a list of some of the things I treasure most about Jim Henson:

  • His patience, kindness, and optimism

  • His endorsement of creative anarchy

  • His inclusive style of leadership - he collaborated well in creative partnerships and teams

  • The theme in all his movies of going after your dreams, supporting your friends to do the same, and being true to yourself

  • The way he saw no limits on what he could achieve on artistic and technological fronts The way he created work that was playful and kind in its tone while still having an edge

  • His dedication to promoting laughter in front of and behind the screen


In 1993, I went to The Museum of Television and Radio to check out an exhibit featuring Jim Henson. At this exhibit, which featured mostly screenings, I learned that Jim was about much more than the Muppets. A technical and conceptual wizard, he was a pioneer in the worlds of television and puppetry. Here are some interesting bits from his personal and professional history which I found in the new book It’s Not Easy Being Green and Other Things to Consider.

1936 – Jim Henson is born in Mississippi.

1947 – Jim moves to Maryland with his family and forms strong interest in the new visual medium of television.

1954 – Still in high school, Jim launches career in television by performing puppets on a Saturday morning program. Soon after, he is given his own show, Sam and Friends, which he produced with fellow student Jane Nebel.

1959 – Jim and Jane marry and have five children together.

1964 -1969 – Jim produces several experimental films, including award-winning Time Piece, Youth ’68, and the The Cube.

1966 – Joan Ganz Cooney begins work on Sesame Street and asks Jim to create a family of characters for it.

1975(ish) – The world is introduced to the Muppets through The Muppet Show.

1980s – Jim and friends make Muppet movies. In addition, they make fantasy films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, both of which feature three-dimensional characters “with advanced movement abilities”. The staff of the later two films form basis for what is now known as Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

1990 – Jim dies in New York City after a brief illness. The world mourns his passing and celebrated the joy, humanity, and artistic vision that he brought to this world. His memorial services take place at The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where Big Bird sang It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green. His family, friends and colleagues continue and expand his vision through the Jim Henson Company, Sesame Workshop, and The Muppets Holding Company, and The Jim Henson Foundation.


It’s Not Easy Being Green and Other Things to Consider also features quotations by and about Jim Henson. Here are some of my favorites:

“I feel that almost everyone maintains a childlike quality throughout their adulthood. One of the nice things about the puppet form is that it has the ability to communicate with this childlike side of the audience. The personalities of the Muppet characters are really quite innocent and everyone, in some way or another, seems to be able to relate to this innocence.”
-- Jim Henson

"From Kermit the Frog, literally an extension of Jim, comes a life-affirming decency, a passionate belief that there are stories to tell which don’t exclude children and don’t insult adults, which don’t exclude adults but which don’t insult children, which can be outrageous and innovative without being arch or misanthropic. There’s anarchy here, but it’s anarchy that celebrates rather than destroys.”
-- Anthony Minghella, Writer of “Jim Henson’s The Storyteller”

“Jim inspired people to be better than they thought they could be. To be more creative, more daring, more outrageous, and ultimately more successful. And he did it all without raising his voice.”
-- Bernie Brillstein, Jim’s friend and agent since 1961

"I don’t know exactly where ideas come from, but when I’m working well, ideas just appear. I’ve heard other people say similar things – so it’s one of the ways I know there’s help and guidance out there. It’s just a matter of our figuring out how to receive the ideas or information that are waiting to be heard.”
-- Jim Henson


http://www.jimhensonlegacy.org/ – good place to order books and DVDs
http://www.henson.com/ – the website of the company has lots of good insider info, esp. about the 50th Anniversary of the company
http://www.toughpigs.com/ – for Muppet fans who are now adults
http://www.hensonfoundation.org/ – is dedicated to keeping the art of puppetry alive
http://www.sesameworkshop.org/ – self-explanatory!
http://www.muppetcentral.com/ – inside scoop on all that is happening with the Muppets
http://www.kermitage.com/ – great spot to reminisce about The Muppet Show
http://www.mtr.org/ – site of the Museum of Television and Radio.
Note: New York’s Museum of Television and Radio is the premier spot for viewing works by and about Jim Henson. By making a reservation to use the library, you are privy to the many program titles which appear under “Jim Henson’s World of Television,” including special episodes of Sesame Street like “Maria and Luis’ Wedding”.

You can also find these titles in the museum’s screening library:
The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years
The Jim Henson Hour: The Secrets of the Muppets
The Muppet Show, Featuring Paul Simon

Other Cool Stuff

* 50th Anniversary Commemorative Stamps, starring – who else! – the Muppets, are now available at the US Post Office.

* A book I recommend is Jim Henson: The Works - The Art, the Magic, the Imagination by Christopher Finch

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Have you seen the movie Mad Hot Ballroom (www.paramountclassics.com/madhot)? If not, run don’t walk! My co-worker Jessica and I went to the premier of this documentary about New York City public school students who train and compete in ballroom dancing. Jessica and I decided to gather some of our co-workers to see the 2005 final championship competition at The World Financial Center. It was amazing to see the young people do their thing live!

Going to see Mad Hot helped me remember how much I’ve always loved and still love to dance. With that fire rekindled, I hustled over to the New York Dance Alliance’s 11th Annual National Season Finale (http://www.nycdance.com/), a week-long national dance competition featuring young people who train year-round for the numbers they perform solo and in groups. At the Closing Night Gala, more than 1,000 audience members screamed with excitement as they watched some of the best dancers in the country.

After viewing about 15 hours of dance across three days at the Season Finale, I was so pumped up that I went to see the movie Rize (http://www.rizethemovie.com/), a documentary about the trend of krumping spawned by L.A.’s Tommy the Clown (http://www.tommytheclown.com/). Tommy describes krumping as “the raw, natural and expressive freedom of the body.” These dancers move their limbs as fast as hummingbirds move their wings. The other thing that makes krumpers exceptional is that they mentor each other and help each other resist the harsh effects of racism.

As it turns out, dancing is as fun as watching other people dance. Just because I can’t (yet) krunk or do Baryshnikov jumps doesn’t mean that I can’t get my own groove on. I think I had forgotten that for a while but remembered it after seeing all these performances. Recently, Mike and I were sitting around the apartment, waiting for guests to arrive. We were getting sleepy from the humidity and needed to do something to WAKE UP! So I turned on some disco and danced wildly around the living room! Needless to say, I was pretty pumped up for the party. And I’ve vowed to dance wildly on a more regular basis.


Early Childhood – My dad said that I was about 3 when I started doing ceremonial-type dances in the living room. Also, my younger brother and I took a shine to spinning around in feetie pajamas to the same Mariachi record until we collapsed on the carpet.
A few years later, I got to take dance lessons at Star Dance Studios in San Francisco and perform in recital numbers with names like Peach on the Beach and The Littlest Angels. (Oye vay!)

Elementary School – I first fell in love with the dancing of Ms. Beverly Hart when I saw her perform as a purple sequin-bedecked phoenix. Later, when I was eight and took dance lessons from Ms. H, she let me choreograph my own dance. My mom helped by sewing a red sequin sun onto a yellow satin leotard. I loved that Ms. Hart gave me all that creative freedom.
On my own, I choreographed dances in the swimming pool, in my roller skates (orange and yellow Adidas with homemade orange pom-poms), and in sparkly purple leg warmers (hello, child of the 80s!).

Middle School – My best friend, my brother and I choreographed a kick-a** dance to the 80s hit Funky Town. We used a big slide screen as the background so you could see our dancing shadows when we turned off the lights and turned on the slide projector. To open the dance, we flung little balls of tinfoil into the air. Later, my mom had to wade through olive shag carpeting to find all those balls.

I formulated my dream of becoming a choreographer for The Love Boat Dancers. I was obsessed with the idea of going on a cruise and wearing glittery dresses so the dream fulfilled two wishes.

I loved the movie Beat Street. My brother and I went to the opening night and I wore shimmering rainbow hightop sneakers.

After taking ballet at an uptight dance school, I was a rat in their performance of The Nutcracker. I have memories of loping around in a hot, heavy gray suit that I could barely see out of. After I broke my arm in rehearsals, the directory came up and snapped “Your parents better not sue me!” I quit taking any kind of dance lessons.

High School and College – Danced at school dances. Sometimes fun and sometimes not because of the emphasis on being cool. More fun to dance at home, where no one was looking. Also, my mom and I did something in the kitchen called Violent Ballet. We’d pretend to be gracefully dancing around and then whip around and kick each other in the tush. (I’m laughing as I remember this.)

Post-College Years – Went to see Bring on ‘Da Noise, Bring on ‘Da Funk (http://www.noisefunk.com/) and fell in love with its choreographer and lead dancer, Savion Glover. He’s the man who reinvented tap by bringing it back to its roots. I started going to lots of tap shows, including Buster Brown’s Sunday Tap Jam at jazz club Swing ’46.

Now – Like I said above in Remembering My Love for Dance, I’m eager to find outlets for this itch I have to cut loose on the dance floor. I wonder where this itch will lead?........................


1. Appreciate a Dancer or Choreographer. Dancer/choreographers such as Savion Glover get a whole lot of public accolade; I’m pretty sure that Mr.Glover knows that he’s well-appreciated. While dancing is a joyful and pleasurable activity, folks who choose to dance and/or choreograph professionally know that is not always glamorous or well-paid. You do it because you love it. Still, what a difference it would make if every person who chose this path was appreciated on a regular basis.

After I saw the National Dance Alliance Season Finale (see above), I sent a letter and flowers to the young woman who choreographed one of the best dances in the event. Here’s an excerpt:
Dear Jackie,
I’m writing to kept you know how much I loved Get Your Freak On [name of both the song and dance number] and what a superb job you did of choreographing that dance. I was totally riveted by your piece. The energy was raw and contagious. The choreography allowed the dancers to be fierce, have fun, and not be overly-delicate or confined to gender stereotypes. In that way, it embodied the sprit of Missy Elliott [the song’s writer] and her work. Hey – I bet she would love a copy of the video!Thanks for being such an inspiration, Jackie. You have enormous talent and a shining future.


What dancer or choreographer would you like to appreciate?

2. Support a Young Dancer. Too often, a young person’s love for dance is looked at as frivolous or less important than academics or organized sports. If a young person you know, male or female, loves to dance, then encourage and support him or her to take lessons or find some other outlet for their love. Go to their performances. I still remember some of the people, in addition to my family, who came to my very first dance recitals. I still have the card that my dance teacher, Ms. Hart, gave me after I performed the piece she let me choreograph.

3. Get dancing yourself. I bet that sometime in your life, even if it was when you were three, you liked to dance. Maybe embarrassment or discouragement came into the picture. Maybe you got the message that boys don’t dance. Maybe nobody joined it so it wasn’t as much fun. Maybe you started feeling awkward about your body or about expressing yourself that freely.
Whatever the reason may be, it’s not to late to try some of these things:

● Turn on some music and dance in your living room. What do you love? Disco? Reggae? Polka? Step to it!
● Go line dancing with a friend.
● Go square dancing with a friend.
● Take ballroom dance lessons.
● Host a dance party.
● Participate in a dance-a-thon.
● Be the one who risks looking like a fool when you dance. It creates safety for other people to get out and do the same!

4. Rent Dance-Themed Movies and Videos. So some of them are a little corny. I prefer to think of them as open-hearted!

Billy Elliott
Strictly Ballroom
Mad Hot Ballroom
Dirty Dancing
Dirty Dancing II: Havana Nights
You Got Served
Center Stage
Beat Street
Singin’ in the Rain
The Tap Kid
Shall We Dance
Save the Last Dance
Plus all the instructional dance videos you can get on the internet.

5. Take Yourself, A Friend, A Young Person to a Dance Performance. It’s fun to broaden one’s horizons. Look in the arts section of your local newspaper. I just read about the Arthur Aviles Theater Group and how they will be performing “A Disco Project” for free near Lincoln Center. I’m already rounding up people to go!