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

I suppose Mickey's Christmas Carol (If that featurette exists ITTL) gets to keep it's intended original television release on CBS in 1982 ITTL, considering that Disney only participated in the strike for a week ITTL?
That would be accurate. It'll appear on schedule on World of Magic.
 
Timeline
Chapter 5: A New World of Magic
Post from the Riding with the Mouse Net-log by animator Terrell Little.


Jim Henson changed everything. His energy was ripping through the Animation department, as much a blur as he was himself. Jim was magnetic…that’s the only way that I can describe it. He was taking the time to look at everyone’s contribution with a smile or at least a friendly shrug. We all found ourselves desperate for even that tiny bit of connection to him[1]. The Imagineers, performers, and live action folks would tell me similar stories as he rushed through their sections. A sort of rivalry and jealousy had always existed to some degree between the four groups, but now it flared, leading to ever-increasing games of one-upmanship as we all competed for daddy’s attention and affection[2]. Plus, we all three had to compete with the Muppets in addition to each other.

And Jim seemed to be everywhere at once. While working on his new Muppets movie (eventually called A Muppet Mystery!) on Stage 2, he was simultaneously helping those of us in Animation set The Black Cauldron in motion and work on the Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore Short[3] to play before The Sword in the Stone re-release. He was also supporting work on Tron in the writer’s room and computer lab, and even overseeing and selecting the dozens of little projects that would show up on the TV series, now called Disney’s World of Magic. And to him it was all magic, from the groundbreaking computer effects behind Tron to the little grey Claymation short Tim Burton was doing[4] for World of Magic. He didn’t make any one project seem greater or more important than another.

He upended entrenched management and ways of doing business, including the traditional “write as you go” approach that Disney Animation had used since the time of Walt. He favored instead an approach where the production team began by establishing a basic film structure and treatment, if not full-on screenplay, before painting the first cell[5]. The storyboards now had a larger framework to build upon, rather than simply storyboarding individual “scenes” and “gags” and then having us Inbetweeners try and fill in the gaps with as little awkwardness as possible. Henson walked the line between giving in to opposition to these new methods from middle managers and imposing his will, instead subtly gaining consensus for his ideas through a “can we try it?” here and a “but what if we…” there. Little by little, the process for animation was streamlined and wasted cels were minimized or avoided.

And I have no idea how he found the time for it all.

He also brought laughter, I mean, full-body, shaking fits of laughter, everywhere he went. He laughed loudly and easily. He encouraged laughter and the little jokes and friendly pranks we played on each other, or even him. If it took an extra 15 minutes to finish the storyboard meeting because of the laughs, so be it. Many of the middle management were afraid that he was hurting production, but surprisingly the number of cels being produced per day actually started to increase!

It all started to slowly rub off on us. Soon something amazing started to happen in the animation building: people started working after lunch. Little by little, the ball fields and bars became progressively emptier and the desks progressively fuller. The hours flew by because suddenly we felt like we were a part of something magical, not just drones at the draft tables patiently waiting for our number to be called to sketch a mushroom. World of Magic was a big part of this. Demand for animation was increasing with each new Short and us bored inbetweeners and ink-and-paint crew patiently awaiting our turns to fill in gaps between scenes or color cels on Cauldron now got the chance to do real animation work. And best yet, some of this work was of our own creation.

World of Magic was magical to all of us young employees, because it meant that we all got a chance to pitch our own ideas, and Jim would happily take suggestions from literally anyone, even the cleaning ladies[6]. I even pitched Jim a couple. The first was a generic short with a singing flamingo, which earned me what we were all coming to refer to as the “Grunt of Doom” or G.O.D. The G.O.D. meant that he wasn’t impressed, but didn’t want to hurt your feelings by telling you so. The acronym, of course, led to inevitable expressions like “the wrath of G.O.D.” or “smitten by G.O.D.”.

My second suggestion fared much better: Boudreaux’s Kitchen, an animated Short where a Cajun alligator named Boudreaux ran a small café with his wife & partner ‘Laina, a Creole-of-color spoonbill. To do the writing I enlisted Steve Hulett, since he’d written for Ken Anderson a few years earlier on the Catfish Bend project, and so hypothetically he knew something about the Deep South. I based it all on my aunt and uncle. As a kid, I’d always found the way they playfully bantered back and forth at each other in their kitchen down in Mobile endlessly amusing (I like to tell people I’m from L.A.: Lower Alabama). Jim liked the story and the test sequence and he loved the Deep South setting (he’d grown up in Mississippi!) and we soon got the green light!

It was the proudest day of my life at the time.

I’d hardly see Jim after that. Occasionally, Steve and I would get a brief, few minutes to catch Jim up on our progress, and receive the blessing of his nods or the curse of G.O.D., and then we’d retreat to make changes. Eventually we screened the rough cut for him. He nodded, smiled, and said, “I like it,” and we were on. Just like that. Boudreaux’s Kitchen aired on World of Magic in late 1982. We got some good reviews and even a few fan letters. I’d hoped to expand it into a series, but it never made it past that one glorious Short.

Of course, putting together that Short on top of working hard on Cauldron meant that Steve and I were working long, exhausting hours. Save for marching a couple of hours a day during a brief 3-or-4-day solidarity strike in August to support our brothers and sisters in other studios, we were in the studio practically 7 days a week. We worked for so long, in fact, that we got in trouble with the Union for putting in free, unauthorized overtime!

We also got in trouble with management for bypassing the chain of command and going straight to Jim. Plenty of other Animators were facing the same heat. Many of the middle generation of animators between the Old Men and the Rat’s Nest felt like we were all cheating. They’d spent years patiently awaiting their chance, and here we were, jumping in front. It was like the lines for the rides at Disneyland where they’d waited their fair turn, and we were cutting. I received a few sharp looks and grumbles from the senior animators after that and soon a new policy came down reinforcing the mandate that new ideas would be shopped through the proper channels. I’d spend months to years repairing the damage of my brief unintentional insubordination.

And yet if given a second chance I would do it all over again[7].




[1] I’ve read or heard countless accounts from former Henson employees who say pretty much the same thing.

[2] A similar thing happened within Henson’s company between the New York (Muppets) workshop and the London (“Creature”) workshop.

[3] In this timeline Henson fought to keep this Short in-house rather than subcontract to Rick Reinert Productions, as happened in our timeline.

[4] Vincent (1982). Greenlit in this timeline as well as our own.

[5] Bluth used a similar method to control costs in his animation and Katzenberg implemented something similar at Disney in the late 1980s.

[6] In Muppet Guys Talking they describe Jim’s openness to new ideas from all, and how this created a real sense of teamwork and collaboration.

[7] Again, all based on actual accounts I hear from the people who worked for him. He apparently really was that magnetic to his employees. The down side of this was jealousy and hurt feelings as they all competed for his increasingly limited time and attention.


Note: Edited for ambiguous grammar.
 
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(This post was in relation to an earlier edit and I hope helped with editing and expressing author intentions)

I hate to say this, but your narrative voice has Jim dead.

I don't know if this is text specific, but it is probably unintended.

I'm a fairly overtrained reader, but you probably wish to know this: it works against your obvious efforts at verisimilitude.
 
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I hate to say this, but your narrative voice has Jim dead.

I don't know if this is text specific, but it is probably unintended.

I'm a fairly overtrained reader, but you probably wish to know this: it works against your obvious efforts at verisimilitude.
Copy, I'm not an English Major by any stretch of the imagination. Can you specify some passages and offer some suggestions so I can edit?
 
This sounds like a fun show once revamped- though it doesn’t sound like something we’d get in the UK Until Satellite TV kicks in anyway.
Possibly not; we never got Wonderful World, after all.

On the other hand, ITV are probably prepared to consider whatever Henson does to be worth a look, Channel 4 will soon be in the market for weird, avant garde stuff, and even the BBC might see it as an alternative to making Disney Time for the school-holidays slot.

his new Muppets movie (eventually called A Muppet Mystery!)
Caper by another name, I assume. And it's just occurred to me that now the Muppets are based at Burbank, there's no particular reason to set it in London. Which probably means we lose Cleese and Sanderson, which is clearly the worst thing that's happened in this timeline so far.:)

On a related note, in OTL it seems like Louise Gold sort of dropped out of the main cast when the Muppets stopped being based in the UK, only returning for productions with a lot of British filming (the two literary adaptatons and Most Wanted). Does the same thing happen here?

Jim would happily take suggestions from literally anyone, even the cleaning ladies
This seems to be a hallmark of some of my favourite creators. Doug Naylor of Red Dwarf once got told off by a BBC executive for getting script advice from the wardrobe department, with the exec saying the wardrobe department wasn't qualified to have opinions on the script. Naylor replied "Yes, they are. They're people, and people make up most of our audience."
 
Possibly not; we never got Wonderful World, after all.

On the other hand, ITV are probably prepared to consider whatever Henson does to be worth a look, Channel 4 will soon be in the market for weird, avant garde stuff, and even the BBC might see it as an alternative to making Disney Time for the school-holidays slot.
Channel 4 maybe. Even with Burton shorts it may be too "kid friendly" for BBC 2 which IIRC was wanting more young adult. Wasn't this the era of The Young Ones? Again, Yank here, so no expert on British TV. ITV London might have a go, though ITV Midlands may have some challenges for reasons that will become apparent shortly.

Caper by another name, I assume. And it's just occurred to me that now the Muppets are based at Burbank, there's no particular reason to set it in London. Which probably means we lose Cleese and Sanderson, which is clearly the worst thing that's happened in this timeline so far.:)
Very similar, find out soon.

On a related note, in OTL it seems like Louise Gold sort of dropped out of the main cast when the Muppets stopped being based in the UK, only returning for productions with a lot of British filming (the two literary adaptatons and Most Wanted). Does the same thing happen here?
Hard to say. As a Muppet employee her job has gone to LA. I think that she'd give it a shot at least at first. Maybe when Spitting Image starts up she heads home since it gives her a chance to get into the spotlight and out of the boys' shadow.

This seems to be a hallmark of some of my favourite creators. Doug Naylor of Red Dwarf once got told off by a BBC executive for getting script advice from the wardrobe department, with the exec saying the wardrobe department wasn't qualified to have opinions on the script. Naylor replied "Yes, they are. They're people, and people make up most of our audience."
That's the type of attitude Jim reportedly had as well, even the dry humor to go with it.
 
I just thought of a fun way that Jim could add a little something extra to Fantasyland: the Muppet Musicians of Bremen. It would be fun to include some of Jim's less known works in addition to the main Muppets, and the Musicians of Bremen would fit well with the other fairy tales in Bremen. It could be anything ranging from a small statue of them to animatronics that perform music regularly.


Edit: Alternately, it could go in one of the American areas, since Jim adapted the Muppet version to Louisiana.
 
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Timeline
Chapter 10; Of Mice and Muppets
Excerpt from Renegade Suit, the autobiography of David Lazer (with Jay O’Brian).


The culture of Disney in 1981 was a far cry from the culture of Henson Associates, and yet also a far cry from IBM in the ‘60s and ‘70s. At once it was both as crazy and chaotic as HA and as corporate as IBM, and yet it lacked the freedom of the first and the professionality of the latter. Afternoons off were the norm. A quick peek through the books showed a crushing overhead. Profit margins were marginal. The studios were as inefficient as they were uncreative. Animation was a hotbed of Machiavellian intrigue and tribalism. Imagineering, though extremely creative and hardworking, was inevitably badly over budget and was in Card’s crosshairs for cuts following Epcot’s opening. Outdoor Rec head Richard “Dick” Nunis was openly angling to absorb Imagineering into his group, and Card was starting to listen.

Jim got caught in the middle of all of this. Card and the rest of the conservatives balked at his “hippie” reputation and his nonchalant (they’d say “unprofessional”) attitude, which they mistook for a lack of motivation or caring (which anyone who knows Jim knows is so off the mark as to be slanderous). They also feared his motivations and feared what Jim would do with Walt’s sacred vision as they understood it. Jim got along great with the creative types. The Animators, Performers, Crew, and Imagineers loved him and recognized him as one of their own. However, the management types – Suits like me, yet not like me – saw him as a threat to entrenched interests and personal advancement.


Richard “Dick” Nunis, President of Disney Outdoor Recreation (image source “progresscityusa.com”)

Take Dick Nunis, who at first saw Jim as a threat. Dick was openly ambitious and was angling for an executive position. They’d recently elevated him to the board and to the Executive Committee in recognition of his growing influence and bald ambition. Jim, an outsider, had jumped above him and he was not pleased. Though one of Ron Miller’s old football pals, unlike the gentle and modest Ron, Dick was one of those guys from the Robert Ringer school of Winning Through Intimidation. While most of the guys on the construction site at Epcot had their first names on their construction helmets, Dick had “SOB1” on his[1]. He tried to intimidate Jim right from the start. It worked to a point. Certainly, Jim wasn’t holding his piercing gaze and turned and walked away when voices got raised. However, if Dick had hoped it would browbeat Jim into submission or undermine his influence with the Disney team, it failed. Jim simply refused to engage and refused to be rattled. He had things to do and no time for dick-measuring contests, no pun intended. In the end Dick just looked like a guy abusing a puppy, a bully rather than a leader. He ended up weakening his own hand.

The braver workers and managers at the time came to Jim’s defense. The HA team came to Jim's defense. In particular, Frank Oz came to Jim’s defense. Don’t let the High School English Teacher look fool you: Frank can be intense and even intimidating himself. He has the most rock-solid self-confidence of anyone I know, built upon the full self-awareness of his own faults and limitations and thus can’t be insulted or belittled. Jim’s kids were a little bit scared of him growing up[2]. Frank can just smile, arms crossed, and look at you, unblinking. This was as much the case back in '81 as it is now. When Dick hit him with a barrage of disparaging comments, Frank just kept on smiling, interrupting him with the occasional snide quip or sarcastic observation. It was like watching a mighty hurricane battering against a solid rock already worn smooth through years of such assaults. It would take far longer than the course of the storm to alter that stone. Ultimately, Dick’s resolve just wore out.

Dick and Jim ultimately became friends. It’s hard for anyone to hold a grudge against Jim, and holding grudges is not in Jim’s nature at all. Still, though, those early conflicts complicated Jim’s working relationships as he fought to overcome the inertia of ingrained thinking.

Rarely, if ever, did the conflict manifest directly. Instead, it took the form of a series of small battles, usually over the most mundane and asinine of things. For example, one of the first issues between Jim and Disney was with regards to Sesame Place, a theme park near Philadelphia based upon Sesame Street. It had just opened in 1980 after breaking ground the year before. It was done in partnership with Busch Gardens, the Sesame Street Muppets ironically being sponsored by a beer company. Sesame Place was no competition for Disney. It was a tiny, four-ride thing back then (if you consider a jungle gym a ride). It was a thousand miles from Disney World and two-and-a-half thousand from Disneyland. I doubt if it ever took any business from nearby Hershey Park! Still, its very existence offended many at Disney and on the board in principle, with rumors persisting that Roy Disney’s business partner Stanley Gold was outraged at its very existence. Perhaps they were afraid that Busch Gardens Tampa Bay would open up a Sesame Place, who knows?


The majesty of early ‘80s Sesame Place (Image source “www.henson.com/jimsredbook”)

It amused me endlessly that the owners of the grandest and most popular parks in the world, with millions of visitors every year, would be jealous of a 3-acre park outside of Philly that supported a PBS show for toddlers. It spoke of hubris, entitlement, and, yes, fear and weakness. Like the old saw about the giant elephant being afraid of a mouse, though that’s probably not the best simile for this situation.

Sesame Place wasn’t bringing in a fortune, and most of what it did earn was going to the Children’s Television Workshop to support Sesame Street, which, even with government and corporate support, was always living on margins. Ultimately, the solution was just for Disney to buy up the partnership from Busch entirely. Since the tiny new park wasn’t yet generating much revenue and since the threat of costly lawsuits loomed both ways given Kermit’s ambiguous status within both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, the negotiations were fairly quick and simple. It was easier and cheaper for all sides just to make the deal. Sesame Place ended up being duplicated as an ancillary part of the Muppet Land attraction in Walt Disney World that went up in the mid ‘80s, around the same time the small Musicians of Bremen push-button audio-animatronic went in [3]. The Philly site, of course, became the seeds of something new.

It still amazes me to this day that the Disney management could focus on piddling details and ignore bigger systemic issues. Corporate myopia at its finest. Here Epcot and Disneyland Tokyo were badly over budget and rushing to meet their arbitrary opening schedules and the Disney stock price was low enough that a small fry like Jim could take a bite out of the Disney whale, and yet they were focused on the perceived slight of a tiny park in Philly.

Stan Kinsey and I had many a lunch discussion about this. He had big plans for reducing all of the Disney overhead and streamlining management, but he needed backup. He even had some creative ideas involving emerging technologies. I promised him that if anyone could find order in chaos it was Jim Henson, who managed performers the way Charlie Parker[4] played sax. The good news was that the core of the company was good. Walt’s sense of customer service and attention to detail were alive and well and imagination remained a common feature among the rank and file. The biggest obstacles to change were entrenched middle managers and a hyper-conservative, risk-adverse leadership. These could be overcome, but it would take time.

The parks were pretty solid (full credit to Dick), if not making the returns that they could. The hotels were always packed, but we needed more of them. Disneyland and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom were seeing millions of visitors every year. But Stan wanted to increase ticket prices and parking fees, build more hotels, and cut costs in general. He was working on a plan to do so. I got him and Al Gottesman in the same room and we all three talked. Stan later brought some likeminded Disney managers that he knew into our working group/conspiracy. A phased plan for increasing profitability was developed, and the obstacles to that plan were identified.

We the old HA alumni and partners, meanwhile, organized ourselves. In addition to Al and Frank, I got Bernie Brillstein involved. Officially, Bernie Brillstein was a Producer. He took over my duties as Show Runner for The Muppet Show as I transitioned to leadership. However, he also started working with Stan and I to straighten out the studios. He was bringing in new talent or motivating old talent indirectly through the work of his daughter Leigh, who’d taken over management of The Brillstein Company, which managed or represented some of America’s biggest stars. It was the type of borderline conflict of interest that only Hollywood, Wall Street, and Washington DC seem to get away with, but it worked for us. Through Bernie, we soon had a grassroots bottom-up strategy to complement Stan and my middle-out strategy and Al Gottesman’s top-down strategy.

Though Jim didn’t know it, he had friends in high, medium, and low places.




[1] Marty Sklar describes Nunis in this manner in Dream It! Do It! Admittedly he may be biased as Dick was out for his job. As a general disclaimer, I’m making educated guesses on who Jim would get along with, and who he wouldn’t here, based upon their personalities as I’ve seen them in footage or as I’ve seen them described.

[2] Recounted in Jim Henson: The Biography.

[3] Immediate hat-tip to Cataquack Warrior.

[4] It’s my opinion that Charlie Parker and the other Be-Bop stars of the ‘50s and ‘60s beat Mandelbrot to the punch on Chaos Theory by over a decade.
 
This 80's Disney sounds like a quagmire of management structures and politics ripe for that 90's wave of Corporate streamlining that came from aping Japanese practices.

That Jim is at the heart of this and seems to survive this and turn round Disney with help is amazing. I just hope it does not cost him his health.
 
Timeline, Meta-Discussion
Meta Commentary: Setting the Stage 2: The Eye of the Tiger


1982. Two years into the ‘80s. The decade is starting to “feel” like the ‘80s and the last vestiges of the 1970s are fading away. The Eye of the Tiger will be the last disco-inspired song to be deemed unironically “cool” for a generation thanks to its appearance in Rocky III, a movie that introduces the world to a man in a mohawk and gold chains known simply as Mr. T.

The gender-bending Tootsie is the breakout comedy of the year and An Officer and a Gentleman the breakout drama, but one movie so utterly dominates the box office, crushing all who oppose its rule, that numerous groundbreaking films like Blade Runner are “lost” beneath its massive feet, only to be discovered later on video and cable. That movie is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial.


I have become Death, Destroyer of Worlds…

Knight Rider staring David Hasselhoff debuts on TV as does the William Shatner cop drama T.J. Hooker. Prime time soaps like Dallas and Knot’s Landing remain popular. CHiPs and Diff'rent Strokes are still going strong. Fat Albert and The Jeffersons are also popular. All four are bringing non-white perspectives to television. Happy Days is still limping along, five seasons after literally Jumping the Shark.

In addition to Eye of the Tiger, which blares regularly from the speakers at your local roller-skating rink, the radios play Stevie Wonder, in particular his duet with Paul McCartney Ebony and Ivory. Culture Club featuring Boy George makes its big appearance. And, that December, Michael Jackson will release the album Thriller. In January of 1983, during a live TV performance of Billy Jean, among other innovative choreography he will seem to magically glide backwards and change pop music forever.

MTV debuts to low expectations, but soon captures the hearts and minds of the youth of America and the world with its innovative and diverse schedule of music videos, more music videos, and, on occasion, even more music videos. Except for Sundays, when it plays music videos. Between videos are hip, modern animated effects and an occasional short dialog from, or interviews with, a “VJ” host. Over the years their animation and design will be increasingly influenced by the work of a small Italian interior design firm founded in 1981 that calls itself the Memphis Group. Their style will become the unofficial “look of the ‘80s”:


Memphis Design, The Look of the ‘80s (image source “spacestor.com”)

Fashions include baggy shirts with big belts over spandex and leg warmers for women, Member’s Only windbreaker jackets or vests without shirts and head bands for men. All the better to hold back or complement that increasingly feathered hair. Colors are getting brighter with the “span” running from pastel to neon. “Stone washed” and “acid washed” jeans and other pre-worn fashions make their debuts, and before long people will be paying high prices for jeans that are “professionally” shredded.

The amazing 8-bit ColecoVision home console will go up against the venerable Atari Video Computer System (not yet called the 2600) for the home videogame market. The Commodore 64 home PC is beginning its slow but unstoppable domination of the growing home computer market. Unlimited growth without end seems certain for them all. Home video rental stores are popping up in strip malls across America with an ever-growing VHS section and an ever-shrinking Betamax section. A 15-year-old programmer named Rich Skrenta releases the Elk Cloner, the first “wild” computer virus, upon the world. It infects the Apple II computers via infected 5 ¼ inch floppy disks.

On the subject of viruses, outbreaks of rare forms of opportunistic pneumonia infections and sarcomas are growing in frequency among small patient clusters, primarily among homosexual men. It becomes colloquially known as the “gay cancer”. Few pay it much attention. It isn’t their problem. It soon will be.

Great Britain and Argentina go to war over the Falkland Islands. Spain, emerging as a constitutional monarchy following decades under Franco, joins NATO. War begins in Lebanon and will last nearly a decade. Some say it never really ends. Anti-nuclear protests gain momentum in the west.

The US Space Shuttle Columbia has begun its orbital flights.

China’s population crosses the 1 billion mark.


(Image source: “Ripleys.com”)

And most monumental of all, “Lawnchair Larry” attaches a bunch of weather balloons to a lawn chair and flies 16,000 feet (4,900 m) above Long Beach, California.

The ‘80s will only get weirder.
 
Nice overview of the year there.

Be great to see how the Henson stone in the Disney pond spreads it’s ripples across the year and decade.
 
Timeline
Chapter 12: Bold New Directions (Cont’d)
Excerpt from Jim Henson: Storyteller, an authorized biography by Jay O’Brian.


1982 brought new challenges and exciting opportunities for Jim Henson, but it also brought setbacks. While the critical and audience ambivalence towards The Dark Crystal had proven to be a sore spot, he was determined to keep going forward and not waste time on moping or complaining.

Disney’s World of Magic offered an interesting distraction. The multi-Short format allowed time for him and the other creative artists to experiment with new techniques, new visions, and new subjects. And while it took several episodes before Jim felt comfortable in front of the camera, he soon learned to appreciate the role of host, settling into a calm, fatherly presentation that he based on how he spoke to his own children when they were younger: relaxed, attentive, and respectful without baby talk or the usual subtle condescension that most adults inadvertently give to kids.

Soon, World of Magic was a minor hit. While it never reached the heights of The Muppet Show at its peak or even Wonderful World in the 1960s, it quickly found a diverse and appreciative audience that kept the Nielsen ratings respectable, though rarely spectacular. The show ultimately received numerous awards, including Emmys, and made Jim Henson’s face as famous in America as it had been in England in the late ‘70s. Soon, somewhat to Card Walker’s and Ron Miller’s dismay, Jim Henson was now the “face of Disney” in many people’s mind, with some incorrectly assuming that Henson was the President and CEO!

Similarly, Epcot was set to open that fall, and while most of the major design work had already been completed by that point, Jim, along with his son Brian and lead engineer Faz Fazakas, helped steer the design of the upcoming Imagination Pavilion and its “Journey into the Imagination” ride.

But for Jim, the next big thing on the plate was the Muppets sequel. He wanted Frank Oz to direct and he wanted it to be big: big musical numbers, grandiose effects, more of those “how did they do that?” moments of incredible puppetry. If Kermit riding a bicycle had amazed audiences in The Muppet Movie, then what would they think of several Muppets on bicycles, all riding down the sidewalk at Venice Beach? What about a Miss Piggy water ballet scene in the Busby Berkley vein? What if everyone ends the movie parachuting to the ground?

Jim made some quick sketches while on a flight back to New York and took them to the Muppet workshop. There, Muppet designers Kermit Love[1] and Caroly Wilcox took the designs and started researching options. Of all the sequences, Wilcox told Jim, Piggy’s water ballet would be the most challenging. Traditional materials would soak up the water and expand, so she needed to find waterproof fabrics that still looked right and yet were still flexible enough to perform without tearing. Jim expressed his certainty that they’d find something.

Henson was pleased with their initial ideas and proposed flying the team out to LA to work directly with the “LA shop”, but was surprised to receive some mild resistance. Shockingly for Jim, the two workshops had developed an increasing rivalry with one another that went back to the early days of The Muppet Show. Back then, Henson Associates had been divided between the original New York shop, which mostly served Sesame Street, and the London shop that managed The Muppet Show, then still filming at Elstree. The London shop, known also as the Henson Organization (HO[2]), had moved with The Muppet Show to Los Angeles, where they filmed the final seasons. HO had performed most of the work on The Dark Crystal and had, as a result, received the majority of Jim’s attention over the last couple of years. The New York shop and its performers and designers were feeling left out and increasingly forgotten while the LA shop was feeling increasingly glib and superior, increasingly telling everyone that they built “Creatures”, not simply “Muppets.”

In a move to increase unity, Jim and David Lazer devised a rebranding scheme whereby the New York offices would become Henson Associates, East (HAE) and the LA offices Henson Associates, West (HAW). This did little to smooth ruffled feathers, though it did lead to an amusing and mostly friendly “pronunciation war”. While all could agree that the LA side was pronounced like “haw”, there was a disagreement on how to pronounce HAE. “Hey” was the favorite of many, including Jim, while others preferred “hee”, making the two groups together “hee-haw”. This latter option was championed in particular by Bernie Brillstein, who’d created the country-themed Laugh-In clone Hee-Haw, but it was also increasingly favored by HAE staff since it made clear which side came first.

Yet, rivalries aside, the two aspects of HA came together for what had become known as A Muppet Mystery! The movie, a salute to (and friendly skewering of) all of the old Hollywood tropes, was ironically set mostly in San Francisco, as Jim felt they’d already “done LA” in the last movie. Written by Jerry Juhl and Directed by Frank Oz, the movie began with the impressive multiple-bike ride down Venice Beach, which required an impressive overhead crane rig designed by Brian Henson[3]. This song-and-set piece lead straight into the plot: the Muppets, now living a successful life in Hollywood following the events of the last movie, are desperate to keep up with the increasing demands of stardom—and the increasing demands from their new Studio Head for bigger spectacles. Like with the last movie, this was a case of the art imitating the lives of the HA team themselves.


To meet the demands of their greedy and obnoxious Australian studio head Bobby Caracas (Jonathan Pryce), who had replaced Lew Lord (Raymond Burr) from the previous movie after a corporate buyout (an obvious reference to Lew Grade’s ouster by corporate raider Robert Holmes à Court earlier that year) the Muppets host a huge gala publicity event where Piggy performs her spectacular water number. This in turn sets up the “mystery” where Fozzie gets falsely accused stealing the glorious “baseball diamond”. Following the clues left by the real thief to San Francisco, the Muppet team is pulled into a French style farce, full of old Hollywood sight gags and clichés, all sardonically pointed out to the audience by an increasingly exasperated Kermit, as they finally catch the real crook (it was Caracas all along!) and escape with the diamond and proof of Caracas’s guilt…by parachuting out of Caracas’s ludicrously huge private jet in a final spectacular scene[4].

A Muppet Mystery! was originally intended for an early June release date, but Chairman Card Walker, hoping to directly compete with (and take revenge against) Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, released it on July 9th, 1982. The timing was catastrophic. This move had the unfortunate result of placing the movie in direct competition with two major releases, Star Trek II and, more disastrously, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s mega-blockbuster, released only two days later[5]. A Muppet Mystery! premiered in second place after Star Trek, only slightly edging out Poltergeist and Rocky III, both of which were already weeks into their run at that point, and then quickly dropped to a distant third when E.T. came out, creating lines that stretched around the block [6].

A Muppet Mystery! would receive mostly positive reviews, with critics and audiences delighting in the catchy songs and dazzling effects, but ambivalent about the “derivative” and “uninspired” plot. Many felt it lacked the charm of the original movie. It would go on to gross $28 million on a $14 million budget[7], far less than the blockbuster success Henson and Disney had hoped for. Some blamed the script for the disappointment and others blamed it on an audience growing somewhat blasé about the Muppets after 6 seasons, a four-year-old movie, and countless TV specials.

Frank Oz was typically blunt about the cause of the underperformance as he saw it: “The fucking alien ate us alive.”

Oz and many on the HA team further blamed the disappointment directly on Card Walker’s decision to delay the movie’s release, which was done out of spite against Don Bluth rather than based on any sound marketing logic. There was no competing against E.T., particularly in the family market. E.T. was one of those Star Wars level blockbuster instant classics. Oz felt that A Muppet Mystery! could have broken $50 million easy had they released it earlier that summer, perhaps if they’d gone up against Poltergeist, which had a completely different target audience.

Thankfully for Oz, though, he escaped the blame that might otherwise had come to a novice director at the helm of an underperforming movie in a hit franchise. Most in the industry recognized that while the script was less than inspired and the release timing disastrous, the direction and visuals were widely agreed to be quite amazing for a first-time director. He’d get the chance to direct again.

Almost like a consolation prize, the movie got several awards nominations, including Oscar nominations for Best Original Song and Best Visual Effects, though it lost out to "Up Where We Belong" from An Officer and a Gentleman on the former and to E.T. on the latter[8]. Furthermore, the awards ceremony was a bittersweet time marred by the recent death of Jerry Nelson’s daughter Christine at 22 from complications associated with cystic fibrosis[9]. The film, however, would immortalize her in the “Look, dad, a bear!” “No, Christine, that’s a frog. Bears wear hats,” scene. A Muppet Mystery! would go on to become a cult classic and see a new life in TV and video release, ultimately being vindicated. For the moment, however, its underperformance was a bitter pill for both Disney and the Henson team to swallow.
The film also had a dangerous unintended consequence: among the people who saw the film was Robert Holmes à Court, the obvious inspiration for the sleazy, villainous Bobby Caracas. Holmes à Court was not amused. Already annoyed that ACC had lost the profitable Muppets to Disney before he could acquire the company[10], he now had his attention drawn to the struggling studio.

For Jim Henson, though, there was a new passion project to keep his attention and let the disappointment slide off his back: an innovative new Disney effects film called Tron.



[1] His actual name! Scary-appropriate, yes?

[2] Jim Henson’s love for bad puns extended to his company acronyms. In this case think “ho-ho-ho!”, not…street slang. The trend continues today with Henson International Television (HIT).

[3] As he did for the similar scene in The Great Muppet Caper.

[4] This follows many of the story beats and set pieces from The Great Muppet Caper, but makes it a true sequel rather than an unrelated follow-up. Sorry, Cataquack Warrior! At least it remains a self-aware spoof of Hollywood.

[5] In our timeline this happened with Tron, originally planned for a December release, which was rushed through post-production as a result.

[6] My family and I were some of those folks standing in that line. To this day I don’t know why we went to see E.T. on opening night, as we weren’t that family. I guess it shows just how strangely magnetic the movie was at the time.

[7] Performs worse than The Great Muppet Caper ($33 million gross) for all of the reasons stated above.

[8] Our timeline’s winners as well.

[9] As sadly happened in our timeline.

[10] In this timeline Grade selling the Muppet rights to Disney brought ACC’s weak position to Holmes à Court’s eyes sooner, and he acquired the company and betrayed and ousted Grade months sooner than in our timeline.
 
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Jim Henson was now the “face of Disney” in many people’s mind, with some incorrectly assuming that Henson was the President and CEO!
[Insert evil villain laughter here]
criticallaughter.gif


Shame about Mystery! but Frank had it right: you couldn't hope to compete against E.T. Maybe this will humble Walker a bit and avoid some future scheduling mistakes.
 
Muppet Mystery sounds amazing- I might have sent it before ET, but otherwise I’m in the other queue I’m afraid.

Blame falls 100% on Walker here.

know what Is like to see ITTL- Leonard Nimoy directing a Muppet movie.
 
IOTL it was Tron that suffered for Card's vengence-scheme. They rushed Tron through post in order to go head-to-head against NIMH, which is part of why Tron underperformed so badly IOTL. Here A Muppet Mystery! pays this price. IOTL ET was part of the reason why The Dark Crystal underperformed. Jim "won" with TDC ITTL since it was bumped up to 1981 and faced no major competition. But now AMM! pays the piper.
 
It's almost amusingly ironic how if Walker had released Muppet Mystery! as planned he would have been able to laugh at Bleuth drowning under ET's success after 'his' movie already had a few weeks profit instead of drowning together.
Before this thread (consistently amazing work, Geekhis Khan!) I hadn't realized how petty the Disney Old Guard could be and were, both to each other and outsiders, to the point that I'm wondering what sequence of events would have lead to Disney folding or being bought outright by someone else if not for the restructuring in OTL. "The Long Death of Disney" would be an interesting timeline, but not one I'm prepared to try.
 
IOTL it was Tron that suffered for Card's vengence-scheme. They rushed Tron through post in order to go head-to-head against NIMH, which is part of why Tron underperformed so badly IOTL. Here A Muppet Mystery! pays this price. IOTL ET was part of the reason why The Dark Crystal underperformed. Jim "won" with TDC ITTL since it was bumped up to 1981 and faced no major competition. But now AMM! pays the piper.
On the plus side, Tron now has a better chance of becoming an 80s classic. Not a cult classic like IOTL, but an overall classic, up there with ET, Indiana Jones, Neverending Story, Rocky III and others.
 
On the plus side, Tron now has a better chance of becoming an 80s classic. Not a cult classic like IOTL, but an overall classic, up there with ET, Indiana Jones, Neverending Story, Rocky III and others.
We could actually get a good sequel in the late 80's or early 90's if it is a massive success.
 
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