Thursday, April 4, 2013

Remembering Jane Henson

I first met Jane Henson when I was 16 years old at the National Puppetry Festival of the Puppeteers of America, held in San Francisco in 1993. As a teenager from a small Alabama town, to me, she was an intimidating figure as the Muppets' matriarch. But she was nice enough to pose for a photo with me and sign my festival program. Little did I know in the years to come she would prove to be a true friend and supporter of my work.

Now, my story's going to get a little controversial for some die-hard Muppet fans, but sometimes the journey of life leads us in strange directions. I really met Jane during some auditions the Walt Disney Company (which had acquired the Muppet Show characters) was conducting for the purpose of finding understudy puppeteers for 4 of the main Muppet characters. I was encouraged by several of the Henson family to audition and traveled to New York for the open call. There were three elimination rounds: part one was simple lip-synch to a song, part two was performing for camera frame and lastly, voice match. I made it through two rounds of elimination. But before I could give my vocal audition, lunch was called. On the way back in from lunch, I saw Jane start walking up the stairs toward the audition room. She saw me and I said hello and introduced myself. She remembered seeing an adult piece I performed at a Puppeteers of America Festival Puppet Slam. “You did something risque,” she began. I told her the title of the piece and she commented “Soft core!” And now she was going to sit in on my audition. I was going to have to audition my best Muppet voices in front of Jane Henson.
But my feelings of intimidation proved unfounded. She had a smile on her face the entire time.

With Heather Henson during Disney Muppeteer training workshops

At the same time Disney/Muppets were auditioning, Sesame Street was also scouting new talent. I was called to participate in a week-long training/audition session in New York for potential Sesame performers. Again, some controversy. Based on the strength of my voice audition for Kermit and Fozzie, Sesame wanted me to stay an extra day to audition for Bert and Ernie. Now, I can't explain Sesame's or Muppets' specific reasons for auditioning talent for characters with established performers because I simply don't know. What I can say is that as a young performer, I took advantage of an opportunity that was presented to me. You learn that often in this business, if you say “no,” your phone will stop ringing. There were several of us called in for the Sesame duo and Jane was present for the whole day. At one point, while performing Ernie, Jane stood up and asked “Who do you prefer, Ernie or Bert?” I said that was a hard question since I liked them both for different reasons. I asked her “Who do you like me as?” She immediately shot back with, “I'm not about to answer that question.” However, I said that if I had to choose, it would be Ernie because of his playfulness. She nodded and sat back down. A little while later, I did a scene with Bert and then sat down next to Jane. She leaned over to me and whispered “You know, I kinda like you as Bert, too!”

Up to this point, Jane had only seen my work in the context of Muppets/Sesame characters but had not seen any of my live shows. Heather Henson and her IBEX company started a puppet festival in Orlando, FL. I was honored to be a guest performer for the first two of these annual puppetry extravaganzas. The second year, Jane was in attendance. During that Sesame cattle call, my gut had begun screaming that I needed to move to New York and pursue my dream of becoming a Henson puppeteer. Friends wouldn't dissuade me and my gut wouldn't let up. So, by the time of IBEX's festival, it had become common knowledge that I was going to make the move to New York. I found a moment to sit next to Jane and ask her about the move she and Jim made to New York in the 1960's. She said the impetus for them was the cancellation of “Sam and Friends” as well as a contract for regular appearances on the Today Show, which shot in New York. Had they not had the opportunity she thought they probably would have stayed in the Washington DC area, where they had quite a following..
After one of my performances, she came up to my stage and said “I want to have lunch or dinner with you. I want to find out what you hope to accomplish by moving to New York.” Well, I had no idea what to make of that. Did she think I shouldn't move to New York? Much fretting on my part ensued. The last night of the festival, I gave my final performance. There was a question/answer session after the show. A lot of people were asking me questions knowing I was moving to New York and thinking I was permanently concluding my career as a touring puppeteer. In many ways, I thought maybe I was, too. I had no idea what the future held but the urge to make a go of being a television puppeteer was too strong to ignore. As people were leaving and I was striking my stage, Jane asked that I join her for dinner at a Thai restaurant nearby. I threw my gear in my van as fast as I possibly could and sat down for some pad thai with Jane. After a few moments talking about one of the shows that day, she looked me dead in the eye and said “You're so much like Jim.”
What had she just said? I could barely process it.
She went on,” Part of it is your Southern sensibility..and your banjo playing! Jim had Kermit play the banjo, but I'm sure he would have.” And later, “I wish Jim could have known you and you could have known Jim.”
For the next two hours, Jane and I had a candid conversation about my work. Jane had a reputation for being a very protective mother figure for the Muppets and the Muppet style of puppet. Of course, because of their popularity, they are mercilessly emulated and imitated. I make no bones about my Muppet influence but ultimately never desired to copy their work, only to integrate their influence with my own ideas. To that, Jane commented,”There are very few people who I endorse using the Muppet style. But you're so sensitive to that style, the timing and the construction of the puppets. I have no problem with you using the Muppet style.”
And all that anxiety about her New York question was dismantled when she plainly stated: “Of course you need to move to New York.”
I lived in Brooklyn for about a year and a half, working for “SeeMore's Playhouse,” a safety-themed PBS puppet series, and “Sesame Street.” Occasionally, paths would cross with Jane and the Henson family. Magical times seemed always to ensue in their company. And Jane was pleased that I was finding work opportunities in New York. Ultimately, however, the work ran out and with it, the money to afford the high cost of big city living. Though accomplishing all my childhood dreams of working as a Henson puppeteer, I had to face the reality that it was time to move back to Atlanta, dust off my touring gear and make a living.
Performing Shades Wolf for "SeeMore's Playhouse"
photo by David Fino

Performing an Anything Muppet during season 39 of "Sesame Street"

In the fall of 2008, I found myself in East Haddam, CT as a puppeteer for the debut of Goodspeed Musicals and The Jim Henson Company's collaborative effort: a musical adaptation of “Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas.” It was also at this time that, once again, I got phone calls from Sesame Workshop regarding doing some work as Ernie. Well, I was torn. Do I say no and in so doing cut off any future chance for work with them or say yes and risk offending the very performers whom I so admire? It was an awful position to be placed in and I was at a loss for what to do. When asked, Jane was pretty clear on how she saw it. “Well, I think you need to grow thicker skin.” But she also was quick to cast her vote of encouragement. She also told me “You really are your own performer,” which helped me get back into doing my own work, creating my own characters and making my own opportunities.

Jane Henson with Jan and Jerry Nelson on opening night of "Emmet Otter"
Jane admitted that she loved a man with a beard because a beard seemed to draw attention to the eyes. During the second run of “Emmet Otter,” I had to shave my beard for a role in the show. I don't think Jane was too pleased with that alteration.
After my return to Atlanta from New York, Jane and Heather were in town for a fund raising event for the Center for Puppetry Arts. They invited me to sit at their table and I offered to pick them up at their hotel. I donned my best suit and thought a purple shirt and tie would be appropriate for the event. When I arrived at the hotel, Jane came out sporting a purple dress and shawl. We were perfectly matched for the evening.

In October of 2008, “Jim Henson's Fantastic World,”a touring exhibition of Jim's sketches and puppets curated by the Smithsonian, was hosted by the Atlanta History Center. For the opening festivities, I was asked to demonstrate TV puppetry so that visitors could experience performing in front of a camera and using a TV monitor, the method by which the Muppets have always worked. There were several History Center staffers who enjoyed joking around with puppets I had brought when Jane came by with Henson archivist, Karen Falk and Arthur Novell, past president of Jim Henson Legacy and longtime Henson associate. Suddenly, no one wanted to be on camera. Jane came over to the table of puppets, looked them over and asked me “Which one am I?” She grabbed Norbert, a purple monster character I use regularly. I grabbed another puppet and we proceeded to amuse ourselves and demonstrate TV puppetry techniques for onlookers. Seeing Jane pick up a puppet and perform, Arthur commented, “She never does this!” Though she had stopped performing regularly in the early 1960's, it was amazing how good Jane's techniques remained. It was as if she'd never stopped. And she commented on the similarity of my puppets to the early Muppets she and Jim made.

With Jane, demonstrating video puppetry at the Atlanta History Center

During a visit with Jane and Heather while “Jim Heson's Wonders From His Workshop” was being hosted at the Center for Puppetry Arts, a visitor asked Heather if I was her brother. Jane chuckled and Heather replied, “No, he's honorary family.”
Around this time, one of the musicians in Jack Parnell's orchestra who provided all the guitar/banjo tracks for The Muppet Show musical numbers had fallen ill and, facing rising medical costs, had decided to auction off several instruments. One of these included the very tenor banjo he had used on those Muppet Show sessions. The banjo had also been signed by Jim (and Kermit) and many of the guest stars on the show from the second season on. Heather had acquired this banjo for the Jim Henson Legacy (founded by Jane) after I had seen it up for auction. Heather remembered she had the banjo and brought it out while I was visiting. I normally play a 5-string banjo, which is tuned differently than a tenor model. But I got the hang of the basic chords. Then Jane and I sang “Rainbow Connection” on the very banjo which actually played that song for Kermit on the Muppet Show in Season 5.
Again, magic.
Autographed banjo by Jim, Kermit and many of the Muppet Show guest stars.

Jane was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and our visits became more infrequent. When they did happen, they were certainly no less memorable. During a visit with them one morning, Heather and I were in the kitchen and I asked if I could put the kettle on to make some tea. I filled the kettle and placed it on the stove. During our conversation, we noticed an odd smell. Smoke started rising from the bottom of the kettle and I immediately removed it form the eye and realized I had just ruined Jane's electric tea kettle. “That is SO funny!” Heather exclaimed. “We bought that for mom because she was always leaving pots of water on the stove, forgetting about them and burning the pot!” Then I came along and burned the kettle. I made sure a nice replacement was sent to her.
In 2008, I was awarded a Henson Foundation Family Grant to produce “The Reluctant Dragon.” After many concept revisions and tweakings, the show was finally ready for touring in 2011. I wanted to give the Foundation members an opportunity to see the show and Jane suggested that some performances be held in the Henson Carriage House on East 67th Street. Puppets At the Carriage House or “PATCH” was unaccustomed to hosting family shows, but two shows were sponsored and well attended. Though the show did not include any of my banjo playing in it, Jane suggested that I play a few numbers before the start of the second show. It meant a lot that she was such a fan of my music.
With Jane after my shows at the Carriage House.
I saw Jane one last time in early March of this year. By this point, her body had succumbed to it's three-year battle with cancer. Though bed-ridden, she was still mentally her old self. When I called her to ask if it was ok to come see her, she said that would be fine. This visit was no different from our others. We laughed a lot, she smiled a lot and was genuinely interested in what was going on in my world. Though physically frail, her spirit and energy were still a very powerful force, almost as if, at any time she wanted, she could jump out of that bed and flip it over if she so chose. But anyone who knew Jane knew this about her. Though she could be quite timid and quiet, she had such power and presence. Though our visit was short, I was so glad to see my friend one last time to say goodbye.
How do you adequately thank someone for helping you become the person and professional you are? I am so grateful for Jane's friendship and her encouraging words and spirit that so many puppeteers were privileged to experience. To hear her laugh and to see her smile and twinkling eyes was to know joy. I will miss her laugh and her smile and all the warmth I felt in her presence.
Perhaps the greatest thing she said to me once was, “You are probably more talented than you know.” If ever there was anyone who could recognize talent, it was certainly Jane Henson.