You know how George Lucas is always saying that he made the Star Wars pictures purely for the kids, while his heart really belongs to the wackier, more experimental stuff he did when he was young? The kind of stuff he plans to get back to making any day now, as soon as he's finished signing all those damn merchandising contracts? Jim Henson had no need for that kind of self-justifying crap, because he somehow managed to be simultaneously a great children's entertainer, an artsy-fartsy weirdo and a shrewd businessman, every day of the week.
Nowadays we tend to remember Henson almost entirely as the creator of benign kiddie fare. But judging him solely by stuff like Sesame Street is a bit like judging America based on a short trip to Disneyland's Main Street USA.
In 1969, when Henson was approached to take part in what eventually became Sesame Street, he was initially reluctant. Henson was convinced that puppeteering could be an art form for grown-ups as well as kids, and his imagination was overflowing with surreal happenings and cartoonish violence, more Monty Python than Captain Kangaroo. After years of making weird commercials, TV specials, far-out short films and his own mind-blowing Washington, D.C., local TV show, Sam and Friends, the idea of signing on to do a kids' show struck him as a step backward.
But eventually he became convinced that Sesame Street could be a whole new kind of show, using all the flash and dazzle he'd learned in commercial TV to teach reading lessons to urban kids. (He hated the title Sesame Street—"No kid is going to get the connection between Sesame Street and 'Open Sesame'"—and jokingly suggested calling it The Inner City, Itty-Bitty, Little Kiddie Show.) Even when the show had become a phenomenal success, Henson was determined not to lose his edge: a 1974 pilot for The Muppet Show, shot two years before the substantially retooled series actually made it on the air, was subtitled Sex and Violence.
In 1975, the Muppets debuted as regulars in the first season of Saturday Night Live, a pairing that sounds shocking now but made a lot more sense back in the days when the Muppets and SNL were both young, wild and experimental. Of course, this wasn't Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy trying to fit in with the New York, mid-'70s, cocaine and bell-bottomed anarchy of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players: the inhabitants of SNL's planet Gorch were mossy-looking beasties with piercing eyeballs, scarily protruding fangs and distinctly unwholesome appetites. They looked like post-World War III mutant humanoids crossbred with crocodiles, and they acted like it too. Their sleazy antics delighted a generation of stoners and (as I can personally attest) gave nightmares to the kids who stayed up late enough to see them.
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In 1976 The Muppet Show debuted and became an overnight sensation with kids and adults alike, although then as now few adults would openly admit to being fans. (I did know one gent years ago who picked up a really hot girl by sauntering up to her and asking, "So, who was your favorite Muppet?") Henson never did quite manage to convince America that puppets weren't just for kids, but for the rest of his career he never gave up trying: movies like The Dark Crystaland Labyrinth are far too dark and weird to be dismissed as pure kids' stuff, and in the '80s he produced a series of TV specials entitled Jim Henson Presents the World of Puppetry, showcasing the work of avant-garde puppeteers from around the globe.
And so I imagine that Henson, who died much too young in 1990, would be enormously pleased by the Newport Beach Film Festival's daylong Puppetry on Film program. It begins at Edwards Island on the morning of Saturday, April 22, with The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, a rarely seen 1972 TV oddity that takes the classic fable of four mistreated farm animals who form a traveling band and transports it to the American South of Henson's youth. Some of the characters, featuring human bodies and puppet heads, were so eerily convincing that legendary makeup artist Dick Smith reportedly sent Henson a letter congratulating him on what looked like an amazing new makeup technique. The special is paired with 40 minutes of rare Muppets shorts. It's followed at noon by Handmade Puppet Dreams II, short puppet films (some of them most emphatically not for kids) by independent artists.
Have a car waiting for you outside with the engine revving, because you'll want to race over to the Orange County Museum of Art for the 2:30 p.m. showing of the documentary From the Dream to the Screen: The Making of Independent Puppet Films, followed at 4:30 by Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, a "puppet" movie of such overwhelming peculiarity that I'm willing to bet Henson would've adored it.
PUPPETRY ON FILM IS PRESENTED SAT., APRIL 22, BEGINNING AT 10:30 A.M. AT EDWARDS ISLAND WITH THE MUPPET MUSICIANS OF BREMEN, RARE MUPPET SHORTS AND HANDMADE PUPPET DREAMS II; IT CONTINUES AT 2:30 P.M. AT ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART WITH FROM THE DREAM TO THE SCREEN: THE MAKING OF INDEPENDENT PUPPET FILMS AND BEING JOHN MALKOVICH.