Remembering Jim Henson: Brad Meltzer and Cheryl Henson in conversation
I Am Jim Henson author Brad Meltzer and Jim Henson's daughter Cheryl Henson interview each other about the Muppet creator.
I Am Jim Henson, the latest installment in Brad Meltzer’s I AM series, focuses on the Muppets creator and Sesame Street pioneer. To celebrate the publication, Meltzer and Henson’s daughter Cheryl are allowing EW readers to virtually eavesdrop on them as they interview each other about Henson’s legacy, what it was like for Cheryl and her siblings to grow up with him, and which celebrity guests on The Muppet Show Jim Henson was most excited about.
Check out their conversation below, and pick up I Am Jim Henson wherever books are sold.
Brad Meltzer: It’s apparent that elements of your father are in Kermit, but do you see things from yourself or your siblings in some of the other Muppets?
Cheryl Henson: I wouldn’t say that any of us became Muppets. But I do think that we influenced who Kermit was. There were five children in our family. When they were developing Sesame Street, we were the target age for the show. Kermit on Sesame Street was kind and compassionate (when he wasn’t exasperated or yelling at Grover) and talked directly to the kids, like a dad. When my father made The Muppet Show, we were teenagers with lots of things going on all the time. Not only were there five kids in the house, but we had two dogs, six or seven cats, rabbits, a ferret and lots of friends. The sense of Kermit as the calm in the center of stormy chaos backstage of the Muppet Show was not unlike our home, or the office.
BM: That’s exactly how I see Kermit. The calm at the center who brings everyone together. So growing up, what were the shows your dad wanted you to watch as a kid?
CH: Our dad didn’t tell us what to watch. I remember that he enjoying watching musicals with us when they came on the air: The Wizard of Oz, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, My Fair Lady. The only time I recall him saying “you must watch this” was when Monty Python came on PBS. We were teenagers by then and it was sheer genius. When you researched my father’s childhood, was there anything that surprised you?
BM: Your grandparents. I’d heard stories that your grandmother always encouraged his creativity. But when I read about your grandfather – that he liked making jokes, but never at anyone else’s expense…that he didn’t like laughing AT people – well…that one just stuck with me. We all know that we love the Muppets sense of humor. We all know there’s an inherent kindness at its core. But I loved that you could trace that to actual people. And in honor of that kindness, I just have to ask. Yoda. I know it was Frank Oz. But if my dad had access to someone who was Yoda, I can tell you right now: I would’ve grabbed a Yoda. So you can tell me the truth: Do you have a Yoda in your house? I want this to be true.
CH: Ha ha. No.
BM: So what’s the best thing you stole from any of the sets?
CH: I don’t think we did any stealing…but I did beg a few times. My favorite souvenir from a production is an original Robin the Frog puppet from The Frog Prince which was taped in Toronto the winter of 1971. I was nine years old and I fell in love with Robin. He was a miniature version of Kermit, just right for a child’s hand. After the production wrapped, my father gave me a Robin from the show. I used to go in my room and secretly practice puppeteering. Robin was performed by Jerry Nelson who had an amazing singing voice.
BM: That Robin voice always got to me in the best way.
CH: Robin was and always will be very dear to me. I found that puppet with a box of things that I packed away when I went to collage. It was in my mother’s attic when she passed away. I was so happy to see the little guy again, I put him right on my desk at work until Karen, our archivist, told me he would fade in the sun and she packed him up to go on display in an upcoming exhibit….I would like my little friend back one day.
BM: It sounds like he was really special to you.
I love the title of this series “Ordinary People Change the World.” It is so empowering! Why is this idea of ordinary people changing the world important for kids today?
BM: Look around. Reality TV stars. People who are famous for being famous. With each refresh, our kids are being fed garbage through their eyes. We’ve confused the word “fame” with the word “hero.” So that’s where this series was born. For my own kids. But as for why we focus on showing how “ordinary” these heroes are, I think we as people also make the mistake of putting our heroes on pedestals. We build statues and say they’re perfect. And then no kid can ever relate to them. But after doing books on Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Goodall, and even your dad, one thing is clear: No one is born a hero. No one is born brave. Everyone you admire was scared — and realized that whatever life had planned for them, they had something bigger planned for themselves. Those values are at the core of the I AM books.
CH: It is such an honor to have my dad in this series. Of course WE always thought he was a great dad but to have him honored in this way is incredible. Before you wrote this book you included him as one of 52 heroes in your 2010 book “Heroes for My Son.” You came up with a wonderful list of people. What qualities did you look for when choosing your heroes?
BM: With that book, I picked who I liked, and then I picked attributes I wanted for my own kids. It was the morality version of Weird Science: the kindness of Mr. Rogers. Determination of Rosa Parks. Creativity of Jim Henson… We love who we love. To that end, beside Edgar Bergen, who were the top three Muppet Show guests your dad was truly excited about?
CH: Dad was excited about all of the Muppet Show guests. He really was. It was such a treat to meet and get to work with these amazing people. They had so much fun together. It really was a special time. I can’t speak for him, but I know he had a special appreciation for Beverly Sills, who hung a spoon on her nose, and fell a little bit in love with Bernadette Peters and Linda Ronstadt, but it was probably getting to meet Milton Berle and Edgar Bergen, who were his heroes growing up, who made the most impression on him.
BM: What about you? Who were you most excited to meet?
CH: I loved Elton John! His Yellow Brick Road album was the very first record that I bought with my own money (It was a double album, so I split the cost with my sister Lisa and we each claimed a record.) But there were so many great guests! So much talent. Leo Sayer was fabulous. You don’t hear about him anymore but he was such fun. Do you remember when you first watched Sesame Street?
BM: Birth. Practically since birth. I’m that generation that was truly there as it launched.
CH: Did you have a favorite Muppets character?
BM: Kermit and Ernie are just too obvious. So of the more obscure, Sam the Eagle. And I always had a soft spot for the Boomerang Fish guy.
CH: Lew Zealand.
BM: Love Lew Zealand. The voice just makes me laugh.
CH: He throws the fish away and they come back to him! Jerry Nelson performed that character and Jerry was a genius with voices.
BM: What about you? Favorite underrated Muppets and why?
CH: I loved the Muppaphones, the furry colored balls that said, “Oww!” in tune when bonked on the head. Bobby Benson’s all Baby Band was another musical favorite.
BM: I loved the Baby Band, but it also scared me. Evil babies are a push button for me. :)
CH: The bluegrass musicians that were made to look like Jim, Frank and Jerry. There were so many unusual musical combos. So much good humor and fun.
Last question. You gave a wonderful talk about how objects can hold stories at the 9/11 Memorial this past September when you presented the actual flag that was raised at the site on 9/11 to the museum. We have donated hundreds of my father’s original puppets to The Worlds of Puppetry Museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, to the Museum of the Moving Image here in New York, and to the Smithsonian Museum. Each puppet tells a story, the story of how they were made, who they were in their story, and who they are to the viewer. I love the physicality of puppets. Unlike animated characters, you can really imagine reaching out and hugging a Muppet. Can you apply your theory on objects to puppets?
BM: In that talk, I said that museums are like giant books. Because they’re filled with stories. That’s why we go there. Like a good story, the objects there make us feel something. We see an object and it can transport us—like we’re magically somewhere else. But the best museums, like the best stories…they tell us something about ourselves. They tell us who we are…what we’ve lost…we’re capable of… And if we’re really lucky, it might just tell you the greatest secret anyone can find—the greatest secret of all: who you really are. In Kermit, in Ernie, in all their messages of dreaming and believing, that’s what Jim Henson’s best work did for me.
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