A Hippie in the House of Mouse (Jim Henson at Disney, 1980)

Part I; Brillstein I: the POD
A Hippie in the House of Mouse
The Incredible Story of Jim Henson’s Amazing Tenure at the Walt Disney Company

Part I: Froggy Went a’ Courtin’

Chapter 8, Frog Eats Mouse?
Excerpt from Where Did I Go Right? (or: You’re No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead), by Bernie Brillstein (with Cheryl Henson[1])


You can blame it all on me.

It was late July of ’79 and Jim Henson and I were having drinks at a bar in Manhattan. We’d just pitched The Dark Crystal to Paramount and gotten shot down. Hard. Jim was putting on his brave face, but I could tell he was taking it bad. I wondered if it was because of Michael Eisner, who was leading Paramount studios at the time. Eisner had been an early supporter of the Muppets back at ABC. He greenlit the Valentine’s Day special in ’73. He saw the potential when others didn’t. To Jim’s eyes he got it. That must have made the rejection that much more painful.

Jim said, “they look at me, and all they see is Kermit.” He meant Producers & Studio Heads. He was right.

Part of being a good agent is knowing what to say to your client and when, and over time you get to know them on a deep personal and emotional level. And I’d known Jim since Rowlf was doing Purina commercials. He always did things on his terms and in his own voice. Even the commercials. His greatest fear has always been losing creative control of his vision to some corporate committee. He needed a lift.

“There’re worse things to be than Kermit,” I said. The Muppets had made Jim a multi-millionaire. The Muppet Show was an international hit, pulling in tens of millions every year. The Muppet Movie was a blockbuster success. There was Oscar buzz. By the time it was all said and done it’d top $100 million between the box office, merch, tie-ins, and sponsorships.

Jim grunted, morose. I see this all the time with kids’ entertainers and comedians: they want to branch out, be recognized for something serious, something real. I saw it with my uncle Jack. I’d seen it twice already with Jim, first with Timepiece in the sixties (which earned him his first Oscar nom) and later with the Gortch skits on SNL (which didn’t go so well). For most talent it was an ego thing, but for Jim it was something more: a crusade to see puppetry recognized as a legitimate art form and more than just kids’ stuff. Crystal was more than just a new look for Jim – it was a burgeoning revolution in the artform. It was going to change everything. And he was losing valuable time.
“Fuck Paramount, and fuck Eisner,” I told Jim. “Here’s what you do: when you get back to London next week you pitch Lord Lew a two-picture deal. First the bait: a Muppet sequel. Then, the hook: Crystal. A movie for a movie[2].”

Jim nodded sadly. It’d work. He knew it. But it meant that The Dark Crystal, the movie he’d been itching to make for the last two years or more, his passion, would have to wait another two years or more while he produced another Muppet flick that his heart wasn’t invested in. He’d given his all to the Muppets for over two decades at this point, but he was itching for a new challenge. He’d do another Muppet film, certainly, and he’d put his all into it, but it wasn’t where he wanted to be.

I could have left it at that. He would have gone to Lew, gotten the deal, and made the two movies. I would have gone off to the Hamptons that weekend to lie like a beached beluga and cook in the sun like a goddamned tourist. I could have, but I didn’t.

Instead I opened my fat mouth like a schmuck. “I know, Jim,” I said. “Hollywood is hell. Unless you own the studio, your vision is at the whim of some asshole with an MBA more concerned with returns than with making magic.” I ordered another round and we went back to small talk. I began to put the whole thing behind me.
Apparently, he didn’t. About half an hour later he said, “Bernie, do you think I could buy Disney[3]?”

I had no idea if he was serious. Truth be told, it wasn’t completely insane. If there was a time to make a run on Disney it was then. Disney was struggling, and frankly had been since Walt kicked the bucket in ’66. The Black Hole had just landed like a wet turd in the theaters and their upcoming work was not inspiring confidence. Herbie Goes Bananas? Seriously? Even the hallowed animation studio, the heart and soul of the company, hadn’t produced anything worth a damn since The Rescuers. The only part of the company turning a steady profit was the theme parks. The running gag in Hollywood was that Disney was a real estate holding company that did movies on the side. Stocks were languishing, and it seemed to me only a matter of time before it got bought up. I’d honestly much rather see it in the hands of a good man like Jim with a real love for the property than see it chewed up and spit out in pieces by some corporate pirate like Vic Posner[4]. Even so, The Mouse would be a pretty big bite for a small fry like Jim, who managed less than a hundred people at the time.

I thought for a minute. “It won’t be easy,” I told him. “And it’ll take some time. You’ll need to put the Muppets in hock and, even then, you might not have enough capital. It’s a long-shot at best. You’d be risking everything.”

Jim grunted. Once again, I could have just kept quiet. He’d think it over, weigh the risks, and then likely fly back to Lew and pitch the two-picture deal. But if you’ve read this far you already know me and know exactly what comes next.

“It’s a gamble,” I continued, “but if you make it work there’ll be no one to tell you ‘no’.”

Jim raised his eyebrows and went “Hmm.”

I felt like I’d just handed Don Quixote his spurs, or Captain Ahab his harpoon. And I thought to myself “Bernie, you putz, you’re in it now.” And with that I consigned myself to weeks of pouring through accounting books, consulting lawyers, calling in favors, twisting nuts, and setting up Hollywood lunches. All to answer the simple question: “how does a frog swallow a mouse a hundred times his size?”

[1] In our timeline Bernie Brillstein partnered with David Rensin as co-author. This timeline has given him a new co-author. See if you can find Cheryl’s fantastic flamboyant fingerprints within Bernie’s bawdy banter!

[2] This is what happened in our timeline, though it was Producer David Lazer’s idea, not Bernie’s (let’s say he’s…misremembering). Lazer pitched the two-picture idea to Lord Lew Grade at ITC, who was producing The Muppet Show. The results were The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and, eventually, The Dark Crystal (1982), only right before the latter’s release disaster of a sort struck. Grade, in dire financial straits following 1980’s double box office disasters of Raise the Titanic and Can’t Stop the Music, sold his shares to Robert Holmes à Court, who then led a boardroom coup in ’82 that ousted Grade and claimed ITC for himself. Unlike Grade, who had a love for Henson and his art and gave him full creative freedom, Holmes à Court constantly interfered with Henson’s direction. Henson eventually took the huge personal gamble of buying back the rights to his own characters for $15 million out of pocket. The Dark Crystal then saw mixed reactions at the box office, ultimately becoming a cult classic whose genius was only belatedly recognized.

[3] Consider this the Point of Departure for this timeline. In Bernie Brillstein’s actual version of Where Did I Go Right? he relates the following: “In the early ‘80s, knowing Disney was vulnerable, Jim wanted to make a run at taking over the company, which was still under its old management team of Ron Miller and Roy Disney. It was just idle talk that never went anywhere” [pg. 327 of the hardcover version]. Jim Henson: The Biography clarifies this to happening in the year 1984, when Saul Steinberg was making his infamous run on Disney (Jim the White Knight?). Here I assume Brillstein inadvertently gave Henson the idea earlier.

[4] This, of course, happened in our timeline with corporate raider Saul Steinberg, who attempted a hostile takeover/greenmail scheme with the undervalued Disney in 1984. After a close-run fight, Disney bought him off for $325.5 million in cash. This led to Roy Disney leading his first great shareholder revolt which saw the fall of Ron Miller and Card Walker and the rise of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeff Katzenberg. The rest, of course, is (for better and/or for worse) history.
 
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Today, May 16th, 2020, marks the 30th anniversary of the untimely passing of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and so much more. I've been formulating this timeline as an idea in my mind for a long time now, and the unfortunate fact of life that is the current Pandemic has, in a strange silver lining, given me the time to put my thoughts to electronic paper. I have already written over 200 pages for this timeline, and decided that this unfortunate anniversary was the right time to launch. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had writing it. We miss you, Jim! May the following pages keep the magic alive.
 
[2] This is what happened in our timeline, though it was Producer David Lazer’s idea, not Bernie’s (let’s say he’s…misremembering). Lazer pitched the two-picture idea to Lord Lew Grade at ITC, who was producing The Muppet Show. The results were The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and, eventually, The Dark Crystal (1982), only right before the latter’s release disaster of a sort struck. Grade, in dire financial straits following 1980’s double box office disasters of Raise the Titanic and Can’t Stop the Music, sold his shares to Robert Holmes à Court, who then led a boardroom coup in ’82 that ousted Grade and claimed ITC for himself. Unlike Grade, who had a love for Henson and his art and gave him full creative freedom, Holmes à Court constantly interfered with Henson’s direction. Henson eventually took the huge personal gamble of buying back the rights to his own characters for $15 million out of pocket. The Dark Crystal then saw mixed reactions at the box office, ultimately becoming a cult classic whose genius was only belatedly recognized.
It also didn't help that ITC distributed Legend of the Lone Ranger, the movie whose creator (Jack Wrather, a Texas oilman, who owned the rights to the Lone Ranger franchise) decided it was a good idea to sue Clayton Moore in order to get him to stop making appearances as the Lone Ranger so that the star of Legend, Klinton Spilsbury, could be positioned as the new Lone Ranger; if you've read @Greg Grant's thread about the film on the Fandom page (as part of his Forgotten Flops series), that backfired on them epically (it didn't help that Spilsbury's voice was so wooden he had to be dubbed)...

Good start, BTW, and waiting for more...
 
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Meta-Discussion: Introduction
Introduction: Frogs, Mice, or Alien Space Bats?

Jim Henson buying Disney.

On the surface the idea seems ludicrous. Disney is the Megalith of media companies, the all-consuming giant who gobbles up creative IP like Galactus at an all-you-can-eat planetary buffet. If you love it, Disney probably owns it, or at least controls its distribution rights. From the biggest of franchises like Marvel and Star Wars down to small but beloved classics like The Wind in the Willows and Rocky & Bullwinkle, the Mouse has eaten them all.

Among these many properties consumed by Disney over the years is The Muppets, an eclectic group of expressive puppets first created in the 1950s by Jim and Jane Henson. They’ve seen a bit of a renaissance of late following Disney’s acquisition of them in 2004, with a couple of movies (the first of which did quite well), a TV series (that tanked after half a season), and some online viral videos, but they have never come close to their peak of success in the late 1970s. As seems all too common today with old franchises, the modern Muppets run mostly on nostalgia and fanservice, with many (Frank Oz included) feeling like the original magic has been lost. Still, better than being lost to the ages, in my opinion.

But 1980 was a different world. Jim Henson’s Muppets were a global phenomenon. The Muppet Show was an international success in its 5th season. The Muppet Movie was a titanic blockbuster, grossing $76.7 million on an $8 million budget in 1979 dollars. Sesame Street had redefined children’s television. Jim had followed success with success and redefined what you could do with puppetry, an artform normally consigned to the children’s ghetto.

By contrast, Disney at the time was treading water. Following Walt’s death in 1966, the company struggled to go on without his guiding vision. E. Cardon “Card” Walker, the CEO and Chairman, who had worked his way up from the mailroom, considered Walt a second father and was very protective of the property. Perhaps a little too protective. Asking “What Would Walt Do?” they produced a decade and a half worth of play-it-safe retreads of the exact same kinds of pictures that Walt would have greenlit in the early 1960s. The problem, of course, was that what Walt would have done is to be innovative and take risks, changing with the times. While other studios were redefining cinema with movies like Jaws, Star Wars, and The Godfather, Disney was producing cornball comedies about a sentient Volkswagen. 1980 would see the box office disaster of The Watcher in the Woods, which bombed so hard they pulled it from the theaters after a few days for costly reshoots. Upcoming films like Tron would, despite great promise and groundbreaking technical achievement, underperform.

In 1984 disaster struck: corporate raider Saul Steinberg, emboldened by the low stock price, attempted a hostile takeover. Despite a Hail Mary buy of Arvida to dilute Steinberg’s stocks, Disney ended up having to pay Steinberg over $325.5 million in “greenmail” to save the company from getting broken up and sold off in parts for a quick profit. A shareholder lawsuit cost the company another $45 million. Roy E. Disney led his first shareholder revolt, resulting in the expulsion of Card Walker and President Ron Miller (Roy’s personal nemesis) and bringing in Frank Wells as President/COO and Michael Eisner as CEO/Chairman.

Eisner and Well’s tenure marked a watershed change in the company. The focus was no longer on “What Would Walt Do?” or “customer experience”, but on efficiency, profits, and share prices. For some, Wells and Eisner are the Great Saviors who took a beloved but failing company and gave it new life and glorious success, paving the way for its future industry dominance. For others, they represented the end of the Magic Kingdom and the beginning of a soulless cash-machine that turned Mickey into a corporate mascot devoid of personality and the parks into overpriced postmodern hellscapes of Fun™ and Magic™. In truth, it’s been a little bit of both.

A good example of this dichotomy in miniature is Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, specifically the second version at Disney World. In this ride there is a double track with an “A” and “B” side. The ride was specifically “Imagineered” such that if the A and B cars enter the ride at the same time it sets up a climactic “near miss” scenario where the two cars barrel towards each other in an impending head-on collision, only to veer abruptly away at the last second. For many it was the best part of the ride. Eisner’s drive towards efficiency at the parks translated in part to improving the line time vs. ride time ratios. This meant putting cars in motion as soon as possible. On one hand this reduced line wait times, including for Mr. Toad. On the other hand, this translated into the A and B cars inevitably entering the ride at different times, resulting in the loss of the thrilling near miss. I leave it to the reader to determine if the cost was worth the gain.

There is little dispute, however, that from a business perspective it worked. The Wells/Eisner years laid the foundation for the spectacular growth that led Disney to its current beloved/feared/hated place at the top of the entertainment industry.

For Henson, however, the future did not hold such promise. The Great Muppet Caper, though technically innovative, underperformed at the box office. The Dark Crystal, his passion project, experienced a troubled production, failed to reach an audience, and also underperformed. He found success with Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, and a few made-for-TV specials throughout the ‘80s, but the silver screen continued to elude him. The Muppets Take Manhattan also underperformed, though it did spawn the highly profitable Muppet Babies. Labyrinth, a second attempt to bring Brian Froud’s artwork to the masses, bombed. Both it and Crystal went on to become cult classics (and David Bowie’s “little Goblin King” a meme in its own right), but that was little solace in the ‘80s when it meant struggling to stay solvent. Henson pushed into new territory on TV with The Jim Henson Hour and the Emmy-winning The Storyteller, but neither recaptured the Muppet magic with audiences.

Tragedy struck in 1990 when, immersed in his work, Henson ignored a worsening illness[1]. The illness, a simple streptococcus infection, continued to worsen, leading to toxic shock and an early death at 53 years of age. Sadly, had he made it to the emergency room a few hours earlier they would likely have saved his life. He was in the process of attempting to sell the non-Sesame Street Muppets to Disney at the time. This led to the popular Muppet*Vision 3D, but the overall sale fell through with his passing when Disney tried to callously renegotiate the deal with Jim’s family still in mourning[2]. The Muppets would remain a small cult franchise of underperforming movies and a couple of failed TV reboots until the Disney purchase in 2004.

The true legacy of Jim Henson, though, was his animatronics work. His Creature Workshop would become a bantam-weight powerhouse in the special effects industry, doing the effects for such movies as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 101 Dalmatians (1996 live-action), the Harry Potter franchise, and many others. His family would go forward with the company he built, producing beloved television shows like Dinosaurs, Farscape, Sid the Science Kid, Thomas and Friends, Fireman Sam, and Dinosaur Train (which is freaking genius, I must add[3]). Henson’s genius, belatedly recognized, is getting a new lease on life. But we can only wonder what he might have done in his life had he lived longer.

That’s what did happen, of course, but what if it had been different? Could a small frog eat a giant mouse, even at the relative peak and nadir of their respective successes? That’s what I will explore in the following alternate history.

I can only hope that it’s even a fraction as magical and imaginative as the men and women whose creativity inspired it.

Not Easy Bein’ Green

This timeline is a labor of love and a chance to explore the Art of the Possible had the winds of time blown slightly differently. Unlike other timelines I’ve explored, this is one that exists within my own life’s experiences, and as such I can bring my own personal familiarity with the history to the timeline rather than rely on the recorded experiences of others. As such, this timeline gives me a chance to directly inject my own passions and memories and, with luck, recapture the zeitgeist of the times.

But first off, let me tell you what this timeline is not:

It is not a “Henson-wank”. The intention is not to make Jim Henson the greatest, most successful entertainer in history. Nor does it attempt to make Jim Henson into a god or a saint. I love Jim Henson’s creations and all of my research indicates that he truly was a loving, kind, and generous person – a good man, a good father, and a good boss – who wanted to make a positive impact on the world. But he wasn’t perfect. Like a lot of creative visionaries, he could get so caught up in his grand vision that he put his family’s financial welfare at risk on creative gambles. He was a workaholic. He avoided conflict and thus ignored lingering interpersonal issues within his company. He made mistakes and misjudgments. He drank and he gambled, though not to excess on either. He cheated on his wife. The frog, it appears, was not without a few warts[4].

It is also not a Disney-wank[5]. Or a Disney-bash. Or an Eisner-bash, a Walker-bash, or a Miller-bash. Disney has had its share of controversies, no doubt (enough said about that). But if you were hoping to see Michael Eisner eviscerated in this timeline, you’ll be disappointed. The truth is that Eisner, like all people, is a complicated man who made both good and bad choices and I choose to neither lionize nor demonize him. While he and Frank Wells don’t deserve all the credit for saving Disney (Ron Miller’s role in setting up the foundations for the company’s ‘80s rebound deserves more recognition), they do deserve a lot of it. Even beyond Disney, Eisner is in part responsible for so many of the great movies and shows that I and so many others love. He was behind the return of Star Trek in the 1980s. He greenlit The Muppets Valentine’s Special in ’74, which helped set the stage for The Muppet Show (no Eisner, no Muppet Show?). Even since his fall from grace at Disney he’s been quietly producing some great things: his Tornante Television Company produced the ingenious BoJack Horseman. For those three things alone, he earns my gratitude.

Now for what I do hope for this timeline to be:

I want it to be a plausible exploration of what Walt Disney productions and theme parks would look like in a world where Jim Henson was a central part of the company. I want to explore what ideas Jim and his family and employees would bring to the table and how the resources of Disney would affect Henson productions.
I also want to explore how this would affect non-Disney, non-Henson productions. How will George Lucas and Steven Spielberg respond to this world? How will Michael Eisner? How will the Oscars and Emmys?

I will also give some attention to the wider world beyond Hollywood, though only by way of how it affects the culture (I don’t want to get caught up in the weeds). This means I plan to mostly explore first-order butterflies within the entertainment industry and only tangentially touch on the second- and higher-order ones. I could, for example, find some third- or fourth-order excuse to butterfly away 9-11 entirely[6], but then the timeline would inevitably be consumed by that major divergence. Big cultural and political things will make themselves known (Presidential elections, major world events, economic booms and recessions), but the details will be limited and mostly to do with how they affect the primary entertainment industry focus or the people involved.

To develop this timeline, I have done extensive research into publicly-available sources (Bibliography forthcoming) and I am confident about my conclusions, but I do openly welcome constructive feedback and new information. Please comment, like, and subscribe, and ring the bell to get notifications. And have you heard about Squarespace?
Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Also, if there’s a specific movie, TV show, actor, character, theme park ride, or franchise you want me to explore in this alternate timeline please let me know and I’ll try to accommodate.

So, Who Was Jim Henson?

On the surface that seems like an easy question to answer: the guy who made the Muppets, right? Yes, but also far more than that. Jim Henson was a creative visionary who saw the potential in technologies long before anyone else. He pushed technological boundaries in television, movies, special effects, and even computer graphics. He was a natural leader and a “ridiculous optimist” who inspired others to achieve great things themselves.
And it all started with a dream and a passion.

As a young man Jim Henson had one overarching passion, one that he pursued from an early age until he became the master of the medium. And that passion was not puppetry, but television. From the time he and his family first arrived in a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC, in the late 1940s, he fell immediately in love with television and badgered his parents to get him a set (quite an expensive luxury at the time). He saw the future in that tiny black & white screen. When a local CBS station placed adds looking for young puppet performers, Jim, who’d never worked with puppets before, checked a book on puppetry out of the school library and set to work.

The results were, ultimately, the Muppets, first in the form of a local TV show called Sam & Friends. Partnering with former classmate Jane Nebel, who would eventually become his wife, the Muppets were a smash local hit that revolutionized the art of puppetry. As it turns out, having no prior experience with puppetry was an advantage: he had no conception of what puppets were “supposed” to be, so he did whatever came to his mind. And that meant three groundbreaking innovations: 1) rather than the standard hard, wooden-headed puppets that were the norm for centuries, the Muppets were soft and flexible felt and cardboard, allowing the performer to give them amazing new ranges of expression, emotion, reaction, and lip-synch[7]; 2) rather than follow the tradition of simply pointing the TV camera at a traditional puppet box, Henson realized that the TV screen itself was the puppet box, and used the medium (camera angles, perspective, different lenses) to allow never before seen possibilities in puppetry, and which allowed the performers to watch a hidden screen to see from the audience’s perspective, and to adjust their performance on the fly; and 3) inspired by Walt Kelley’s subversive Pogo comic and Edgar Bergen’s subversive puppetry, he realized that puppets and cartoons could do, and say, things no human performer could ever get away with. The results were spectacular, chaotic, subversive, and very, very original and memorable.

Sam & Friends led to ads, starting with the utterly insane Wilkins Coffee ads of the ‘50s (seriously, look these up on YouTube!). The ads led to TV appearances, which led to more ads and more TV appearances, and a regular gig playing Rowlf on the Jimmy Dean Show. Eventually, Henson was ready to move beyond the Muppets and did some experimental short films, including the Oscar-nominated Timepiece. But the Muppets kept calling and soon Sesame Street brought them to the world. In addition to Bert, Ernie, and Big Bird, Jim experimented with new editing techniques and even early computer animation[8] and sound effects. The show revolutionized children’s television in general and educational TV specifically. There’s a reason it’s still around after (ohmygodhazitbeen) 50 years.

The Muppets marched further. Eventually, the Muppet Show became an international hit, spawning a movie and additional groundbreaking effects. Henson and his company made cutting edge advances in remote control puppetry (the “waldo” hand-rig), animatronics, and even experimented with some early chromakey (i.e. “green screen”) effects. Their advances in the field of animatronics would become the state of the art. Later, they’d even create the first all-digital Muppet, Waldo C. Graphic, who was controlled by a waldo hand controller input – not to a radio-controlled animatroinic puppet, but to a computer, allowing real time control of the digital figure on the screen.

Henson was also a very skilled businessman (becoming a multi-millionaire), a skilled marketer, a conscientious merchandiser, and a respected producer and director. His company rose to about 150 employees total, yet managed to hold its own against major studios with thousands on the payrolls and billions in assets. He served on international puppetry association director’s boards, sometimes as president and chairman. He was also extremely generous with his wealth, giving high pay, bonuses, and benefits to his employees, with generous health insurance and family support structures. Yet he also spent freely on himself, loving fine foods, fast cars, fancy décor, and exotic vacations.

As a boss, his employees were almost magnetically drawn to him, scrambling to gain just a small bit of his attention and praise, which he alas had little of either to give out (to Jim, simply working with a person was a sign that he respected and appreciated them). He never criticized anyone’s ideas either, with his employees soon learning that if he didn’t like something, he wouldn’t say anything, but would simply grunt. They soon learned to decipher his reactions based on the tone, depth, and length of the grunt or “hmm”. He loved acts of kindness, but feared conflict, avoiding fights, and never criticizing or admonishing bad employee actions, even when necessary. He obsessively avoided any confrontations or arguments, which put a strain on both his business and personal relationships.

His desire not to be a bother to others may even have proven fatal when he ignored his own worsening illness until it was too late.

He was a workaholic, often working deep into, or completely through, the night. He’d fly between New York and London several times a week, working the entire flight. He did this time and time again because, to him, it wasn’t work, it was fun! While his workaholic tendencies put further strain on his already strained marriage, he still found time for each of his five children. He spent his vacations and days off with all of them, all of whom said that he always made them feel special. He was proud of their many accomplishments and raised each to be creative and successful in their own ways.

Politically he was liberal/progressive, but not partisan (he may have never voted!) and was an avid environmentalist, doing PSAs for conservationist and environmentalist causes. He was generous, as stated, to his employees and seemed to tolerate the frustrating “lights out” rules of the British TV unions that so infuriated George Lucas, even though it cost him time and money, though I don’t know his thoughts on organized labor in general. He hated war and promoted peaceful coexistence. He valued diversity and tolerance and worked with people of all races, religions, ethnicities, and sexualities[9], and worked closely with powerful female producers (and even raised one in Lisa!). He pursued a film project about androgyny and gender identify (Moki) in the 1960s. However, he also had a “weakness” for young women, who in turn had a weakness for him, and he frequently dated his younger female employees. At the time, such relationships were considered so normal in a boss as to be cliché (the whole issue of “power dynamics” was decades away from acknowledgement). I have no idea how #metoo would have affected Jim Henson and I hate to speculate.

Henson was, like Walt Disney, to whom he was frequently compared in his lifetime, a technological visionary who foresaw the potential for new technologies. He loved multimedia experiences and had plans for a crazy, psychedelic multimedia nightclub called “Cyclia” back in the mid ‘60s. He anticipated the disruptive power that home video equipment (camcorders at the time) could have on the entertainment industry, once the technology caught up (it just didn’t have the distribution platforms yet!). He foresaw the power that digital effects would have on the industry and was an early adopter of computer graphics in the 1980s. He and his “Creature Shop” team revolutionized animatronics. He even owned a cellular phone back when they were the size of a brick and only worked in major cities.

In general, Jim Henson was a pioneer and a visionary in the entertainment industry, foreseeing the possibilities of new technologies long before his contemporaries. He pushed boundaries and took real risks, both creative and financial, not all of which succeeded. He accomplished great things, but also made some bad mistakes. He was, to put it mildly, far more than just “the Muppet guy”.

Which answers who he was professionally, but who was Jim Henson at his core?

Jim Henson was an eternal idealist and a “ridiculous optimist”. He was obsessed with time and feared he’d never have enough time to do all the things that he wanted to do in his life. He honestly wanted to leave the world a better place in which he left it. He was spiritual without being overtly religious. He believed in, and practiced, love, grace, acceptance, and kindness. He was enthusiastic with life and, as Frank Oz once pointed out, able to truly appreciate everything in life, big and small. And his enthusiasm was so infectious that it inspired similar thinking in others. Even die-hard cynics like Oz were inspired to optimism and motivated to take risks and try harder to do things not just successfully, or well, but right. His charisma caused people to flock to him, desperate for even a tiny share of his limited time and attention. And he led not through force, but by inspiration and infectious enthusiasm.

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

All of this, combined with the sheer subversive joy of the culture clash it will create by bringing him into the conservative Disney organization, was like catnip to an alternate historian like me!

Writing Approach and Disclaimers

In my earlier timelines, I generally dealt with times far enough in the past that the real-life people who filled the pages were long since dead. This timeline is different. Many of the people I “quote” are alive, kicking, and may hypothetically read the words and actions I counterfactually assign to them. This creates a challenge. It’s one thing to have a long-dead person like Italo Balbo take an action or speak, particularly anything controversial. It’s quite another to have a living person, such as Michael Eisner or Lisa Henson, make such an action or say such a phrase.

So, Disclaimer 1: this is a work of fiction. Actions taken by people in this work, living or dead, are entirely of my invention and should not be construed as actions taken by that person in real life, nor as actions they would take. Any errors or misrepresentations are mine and mine alone, and represent a mistake on my part.
I’ve worked hard to stay true to the people’s natures and personalities, or at least what parts of those natures I can deduce through written descriptions, reports, interviews, or other publicly available media. I have made every effort to have the people act in a manner consistent with these publicly available sources. I’ve tried where possible to use the perspectives of fictional people or public figures who have left a long and established record of their personalities and opinion (such as Bernie Brillstein[10]), rather than put words in the mouths of the living and less-public (such as Cheryl Henson). I’ve also tried to stick to using those who have passed on, and who thus can’t get personally offended (though I hope not to offend their family). Still, sometimes there’s no plausible choice but to use a living, less-famous, and less-public person’s point of view, such as producer David Lazer, simply because of the critical perspective his position at the time would bring to the story.

However, people are far more complicated than their external image, and if I inadvertently mischaracterize anybody, I extend my apologies in advance. If you know of any places where I have made such an error, please alert me and I’ll endeavor to correct it. If you’re on of the people I “quote” or portray in this timeline, or the relative thereof, and want me to stop the portrayal altogether, please let me know and I’ll stop immediately.

Disclaimer 2: Unreliable Narrators abound, trust nothing of what you read. Everyone here has their inbuilt biases and incomplete picture. This is by design, in part to mitigate the risks associated with Disclaimer 1, in part to add dramatic tension and humanity to the narrative.

I’ve done my best to stay true to the people I portray, but don’t assume the “facts” stated are true even in-universe. Most of my sources exhibit limited perspective or bias in one form or another. Many openly contradict each other. Bernie Brillstein seems to be a repeat offender in this area, which even he acknowledged in his book (he makes no attempt to deny his negative opinions of and bias against rival Michael Ovitz). Brian Jay Jones, in his biography on Jim Henson, openly contradicted Mr. Brillstein’s assertation in his autobiography that he and Jim never had a written contract, for example.

Expect the same here. Expect accounts to vary and to conflict. Expect one person’s perspective to be quite different from another’s. Some will cite openly unreliable sources, such as rumor, and I’ve tried to alert the reader to the fact (“rumor had it”) when such is the case.

In the end, this timeline is meant to not just entertain and inform, but also to honor the creative people whose counterfactual lives I explore. I have no desire to cause pain or discomfort, to smear, or to spread malicious rumors. I have no desire to cynically slander anyone for entertainment value. Instead, I have made a real effort to find the humanity and positivity in every person I portray and to stay away from reductive or stereotyped portrayals.

In the end, I want this timeline to be a thing of love, sincerity, and beauty in a world where hate, cynicism, and ugliness abound. And I hope my readers get to share in this.
Oh, and Obligatory Disclaimer 3: The following work of alternate history is a work of Fan Fiction created under Fair Use standards. I have neither sought, been offered, nor received compensation for this effort and have no intention to do so. The rights for the Muppets and all the rest of the characters, worlds, and IP presented counterfactually here reside wholly with their current owners, typically either the Walt Disney Company or Jim Henson Productions.

So, with all that said (cue dramatic organ music), we return once again to the continuing stooory of A Frog, who’s gone to the Mice:

[1] Some blame his Christian Science upbringing, but in truth the real culprit was his desire not to bother other people with his problems.

[2] The negotiations had been long and increasingly acrimonious with Disney arguing over every tiny clause and point and, worse yet, apparently thinking that Jim’s absolute refusal to put the Sesame Street Muppets on the table was some weird negotiating tactic, and constantly angling for them. Disney apparently also saw Jim’s death as cause for lowering their agreed-upon amount for the buy since it no longer came with Jim Henson’s creative services.

[3] It’s dinosaurs! On a train! Why did it take so freakin’ long for someone to come up with this?!? Where was this show when I was a kid?!? Thankfully I get to enjoy it with my own kid.

[4] The alleged link between frogs and warts is, of course, a myth. (Yeth?)

[5] Can Disney really be wanked more than it was in our timeline?!? It’d go blind!

[6] I honestly have no idea what to do with this one at this point. With 22 years of butterflies, the details will most certainly change to some level, though many of the geopolitical trends that set it in motion are already in place.

[7] Given that every puppet now seems to follow the soft-headed Henson method, it’s hard to realize just how game-changing this simple innovation was at the time.

[8] Yes, computer animation, first used by Jim in 1970 for Season 2 of Sesame Street, specifically the analog Scanimate system from Computer Image Corporation. He was one of the first adopters.

[9] This was at a time when LGBTQ+ people themselves were generally not acknowledged (except as the target of comedy writers), none the less their civil rights!

[10] Who I assume based on his own words would be glad to simply have people talking about him.
 
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With regards to #MeToo, IMO, it might have had somewhat of a negative effect on Henson's reputation but, then again, this is an industry where others did far worse than anything Henson did (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, etc.)...
 
With regards to #MeToo, IMO, it might have had somewhat of a negative effect on Henson's reputation but, then again, this is an industry where others did far worse than anything Henson did (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, etc.)...
And don't forget...

John Kricfalusi
Chris Savino
John Lasseter
Bryan Singer
Brett Ratner
James Toback

...need I go on?
 
I'm very interested in this.

Question: am I a fool who's missed something obvious, or did you post both entries as broken hyperlinks by mistake?
 
Animator's Perspective I
Chapter 2: Settling In

Post from the Riding with the Mouse Net-log by animator Terrell Little[1].


When I first arrived at Disney in early 1980 it was a place haunted by two ghosts. The first ghost was Don Bluth. He’d left the studio less than a year earlier, taking some of the best animators with him. I recall the feeling of impending doom that flowed through the animators when we screened The Secret of NIHM a couple of years later. It was magical, amazingly drawn, and done on a shoestring budget.

“We’re screwed,” I heard someone say.

The second ghost was, of course, Walt himself. I noticed how his haunting manifested in both Tradition and Division. On the Tradition side, for one, you had the “What Would Walt Do?” mindset that seemed to rule every decision they made up the chain. That meant doing things the way Walt did them back in the day. That was why Bluth left in the first place. Any attempts by animators to push the boundaries would be were quashed. Disney was, essentially, frozen in 1966.

For example, my first job was as an Inbetweener on The Fox and the Hound. Woolie Reitherman, the director and one of the last of the Nine Old Men, loved it, though enthusiasm was more tampered with the rest of us. It was basically Bambi meets Lady and the Tramp. NIHM was something new and exciting by comparison.

As for Division, well, that was another legacy of Walt. The Old Timers who’d worked with him fell into one of two camps: those who loved him and those who hated him. In most cases these two groups aligned to who was one of “Walt’s Boys” back in the day (the privileged few who got access to the penthouse spa and other perks) and who were the rest. This divide also tended to align with who was a Union Commie and who was a Goddamn Scab. The Strike of ’41 remained a controversial topic even 40 years later, as if it had just happened yesterday.

But time had added even more divides. You had the Old Timers vs. the “Rat’s Nest”, the group of new animators out of Cal Arts (folks like John Lassiter, Joe Ranft, and Tim Burton) that wanted to experiment with computers and plasticine. They also didn’t feel like they should have to slowly climb the corporate ladder if they wanted to make a movie now (Lassiter was relentless in this regard). Also, each lead animator and director in Disney ran his own little fiefdom with his own writers and artists, none of whom cooperated with the others. They all were competing over limited resources and fighting for limited opportunities to produce and advance in what was a very hierarchical structure at the time. As a new Inbetweener, I was constantly pulled between these competing centers of gravity, working with one team or another, as the funding and management attention ebbed and flowed.

Honestly it was a mess. No team spoke to any others lest that team somehow leverage that information to gain an advantage. Gossip and rumors flew. People played practical jokes on each other and goofed around when the management was away, and then doubled-down on previously ignored work when they returned…at least up until noon when all the execs retreated up to the private spa and all the animators headed outside to play ball and screw off.

Seriously, nothing got done after lunch. Anyone still working in the office after 2 pm was investigated by security[2]. I couldn’t imagine how anything ever got done. I wondered how long I could ride this wave before it crashed.

Of course, in a short time everything was about to change in ways we didn’t even begin to suspect.



[1] Fictional character, but his experiences are based on the accounts of other Disney writers and animators from the time, in particular writer Steve Hulett’s Mouse in Transition and Mike Peraza’s Memories of the House of Mouse blog (the name is a coincidence).

[2] James B. Stewart describes this laissez faire culture in Disney War. Disney’s corporate overhead was reportedly twice that of other studios at the time.

 
One thing's for sure. When Henson buys the company, a fuck ton of the ''What would Walt do?'' guys and maybe even a few of the old-timers are gonna walk. Not to Bluth though. He'd never let them past reception. Maybe to Warner Bros? Filmation? Hanna-Barbera? Ruby-Spears? Any one of them could provide employment to the more conservative-minded animators who might feel that Walt's legacy is being stepped on.
 
I cannot wait to see your solution for how Jim Henson buys Disney, when the Florida real estate was worth ~five times the Muppets. I have a couple ideas, I’m just hoping you don’t use my favourite!:p

Seriously though this is a lovely POD, a great central character, and a fun time period. I also think the real world backgrounding information, setting expectations, and outlining of goals is a fantastic idea more timelines should do. I’m very intrigued to see more.
 
One thing's for sure. When Henson buys the company, a fuck ton of the ''What would Walt do?'' guys and maybe even a few of the old-timers are gonna walk. Not to Bluth though. He'd never let them past reception. Maybe to Warner Bros? Filmation? Hanna-Barbera? Ruby-Spears? Any one of them could provide employment to the more conservative-minded animators who might feel that Walt's legacy is being stepped on.
The WWWD crowd will be interesting for Henson, but mostly in the form of the management and leadership rather than the animators, who were more open to new ideas than you think. Still, there's a major culture clash within the company going forward.

I cannot wait to see your solution for how Jim Henson buys Disney, when the Florida real estate was worth ~five times the Muppets. I have a couple ideas, I’m just hoping you don’t use my favourite!:p
You are absolutely, completely, 100% correct. It will take about $1.5 billion to buy Disney outright in 1980 and Henson doesn't have that. So how does a frog eat a mouse? Or does he? Stay tuned.

Seriously though this is a lovely POD, a great central character, and a fun time period. I also think the real world backgrounding information, setting expectations, and outlining of goals is a fantastic idea more timelines should do. I’m very intrigued to see more.
Thank you, I plan to post more.
 
Maybe Henson to talk to the Disney heirs though and that could help?

And Eisner did a lot of good before he turned heel on us
 
You're back! And you're working on a pop culture timeline! I'm absolutely delighted! Consider me subscribed.

I happen to have a soft spot for underrated visionaries in charge of studios ;)

It’s one thing to have a long-dead person like Italo Balbo take an action or speak, particularly anything controversial.
You know I promised myself I wasn't going to ask The Inevitable Question, but when you refer to him in your new timeline, you aren't making it easy for me... :p
 
Maybe Henson to talk to the Disney heirs though and that could help?

And Eisner did a lot of good before he turned heel on us
If he and the Disney heirs pool their resources, they could buy Disney lock, stock and barrel by, at least, late 1981/early 1982, oust the old order and then run the company together. Jim might not be the head, but he could always run the Live-Action department, maybe even bring along some of his old Muppet and CTW co-workers to help run things. Maybe have Roy Disney as Executive Chairman, Ron Miller as CEO? I personally think that, given his own history with experimental filmmaking, Jim would openly campaign for Tim Burton and Joe Ranft to be brought on to help lead the Animation Dep. Neither may be as experienced at this time, but it seems like the kinda thing Jim would do if the stories about him are to be believed.
 
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Maybe Henson to talk to the Disney heirs though and that could help?

And Eisner did a lot of good before he turned heel on us
The Disney heirs will make an appearance, I guarantee. And yes, Eisner did quite a lot of good things, particularly when he had Frank Wells to balance out his more outrageous impulses.

You're back! And you're working on a pop culture timeline! I'm absolutely delighted! Consider me subscribed.

I happen to have a soft spot for underrated visionaries in charge of studios ;)

You know I promised myself I wasn't going to ask The Inevitable Question, but when you refer to him in your new timeline, you aren't making it easy for me... :p
I'm back. :cool: Good to see you again too, Brain (why did my voice sound like Pinky in my head when I wrote that?).

As to Viva Balbo, I do hope to relaunch that some day. Alas, a family health emergency required my sudden and extended exit from AH.com. Things have settled down somewhat there. For VB, I'd need to essentially start from scratch at this point since I've totally lost my storyline and forgotten all of my research.

If he and the Disney heirs pool their resources, they could buy Disney lock, stock and barrel by, at least, late 1981/early 1982, oust the old order and then run the company together. Jim might not be the head, but he could always run the Live-Action department, maybe even bring along some of his old Muppet and CTW co-workers to help run things. Maybe have Roy Disney as Executive Chairman, Ron Miller as CEO? I personally think that, given his own history with experimental filmmaking, Jim would openly campaign for Tim Burton and Joe Ranft to be brought on to help lead the Animation Dep. Neither may be as experienced at this time, but it seems like the kinda thing Jim would do if the stories about him are to be believed.
Clever ideas, Igeo. I wonder which of them will align to what I've come up with and which will not? Stay tuned!

I just want him to live twenty plus more years. so much more he could of done
Amen, devil.
 
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