The TV adults that mattered in my childhood included Walt Disney, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers and Jim Henson. Of the four, Jim Henson was the most mysterious since he hid below the screen. He was the man that moved the Muppets’ mouths on Sesame Street. What was going on down there? Henson’s Place: The Man Behind the Muppets is a documentary from 1984 that gives a great sense of the man who created a kingdom out of felt.
Henson didn’t just spring up on PBS with Kermit. Nearly a decade of work on TV in the Washington D.C. area with Sam and Friends primed him for The Muppet Show. Several black and white clips of this era to see his early days of bringing the puppet action to a television audience, his wife Jane as his partner in the show. Besides their little show the muppets found themselves doing numerous TV commercials and this is when he hooked up with Frank Oz in a partnership that would change everything as the duo became lifelong partners in projects.
When the Children’s Television Workshop began to put together Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney would only have puppets if she could get the Muppets and Henson didn’t play hard to get. Along with bringing over Kermit the Frog, he and Oz created Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover, Ernie and Bert. During her interview Joan admits that once Henson became part of the show she knew they’d be a success with pre-schoolers.
After conquering little kids, Henson wanted to aim for an older demographic. However his concept for a variety show hosted by Kermit was met with disdain from ABC, NBC and CBS. On a lark, he flew to England to meet with ITC’s Lew Grade (or Lord Grade as he’s called in this documentary). The media mogul didn’t call in the lawyers to hash things out and microscopically write the small print; he merely shock Henson’s hand and told him to make the series happen.
He had sticking point: the show had to be made in England. Henson’s company had to go international, now. Later Grade would do a second unexpected handshake to let Henson know that whenever he wanted to make feature films, Grade would provide the budgets. Henson took puppetry beyond the Muppets with Dark Crystal, guiding us around the set. The final major project that’s explored is Fraggle Rock. At the end of the interview, Henson is optimistic about his future; six years later he died from a bacterial infection.
Henson’s Place: The Man Behind the Muppets gives an adult view of a man who stayed under his creations. He really was shy but driven to make his ambitions come true. He also had the fine fortune of meeting his creative partner in Frank Oz and financial backer in Lord Grade. These are important element for a genius to flourish.
The interview subjects remind us why they enjoy working with Henson. While he appears to be a workaholic, he seems engrossed in the process because it’s his dream. He wasn’t merely a grown man playing with puppets, but an entertainment genius who knew how to make us feel for felt.
The video is 1.33:1. The image quality varies depending on the source of vintage footage. It looks like a documentary made in 1984. The audio is Dolby Digital Mono. The levels are fine even though sometimes the Muppets lips don’t match their words (dubbing, perhaps). The documentary is Closed Captioned.
The Amphibian 1985/86 (28:41) is a tour through the yearbook put together to allow the folks at Henson Associates to know their co-workers. Michael Firth explains the reasoning behind the yearbook. By this time Henson’s staff were spread across both sides of the Atlantic. It helped build a sense of community with this high school era fun. This is a cool concept that more creative companies ought to do.
Henson’s Place: The Man Behind the Muppets takes us into the life and world of Jim Henson. At the end of the documentary, you get a sense of why he mattered to us as kids and why his legacy continues to educate and entertain us. This is perfect viewing for fans of Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Show. Although you might hold off showing it to youngsters who don’t know there’s a hand up Kermit’s rump.
Lionsgate presents Henson’s Place: The Man Behind the Muppets. Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. Running Time: 52 minutes. Released on DVD: August 3, 2010.
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.