When you Wish Upon a Frog
When you Wish Upon a Frog
Book II of Jim Henson’s Amazing Tenure at the Walt Disney Company
Image Source legolas310.deviantart.com
Book II of Jim Henson’s Amazing Tenure at the Walt Disney Company
Image Source legolas310.deviantart.com
HI-ho and welcome once again to the continuing stoooory of a Hippie who went to the Magic Kingdom. This is the continuation of the Jim Henson at Disney saga initiated in Book I: A Hippie in the House of Mouse.
If you haven't yet read that timeline, then I recommend that you start there. Spoilers lie ahead, just sayin'.
Go ahead. We'll wait.
Ready? Not yet? Ok...
You done now? Great! Got a little hairy around 1984 didn't it?
Well, without further ado, here's what happens When you Wish Upon a Frog:
More than “Muppet Moms”; How the Henson Women are Reshaping Hollywood
From Ms. Magazine, October, 1992
(L-R) John, Lisa, Brian, Heather, and Cheryl Henson in the early 1990s (Image source Cathy Crumpler on Pintrest)
They were born, you might say, as emerging entertainment royalty. Their parents, Jim and Jane Nebel Henson, had already begun to make a splash in entertainment thanks to their Muppets when eldest child Lisa was born in 1960. By the time youngest daughter Heather was born a decade later, Sesame Street was rewriting the book on children’s entertainment largely because of their parent’s Muppets. By the time they all came of age, their father was an executive with the Walt Disney Company.
There’s an assumption that the children of powerful, wealthy people will follow one of two paths, the first a path strictly set out for them by demanding parents who insist that they are to inherit the kingdom, and the second a path of idle wealth and mindless hedonism marked by overindulgence from absentee parents and hired caregivers. Typically, the sons are chosen for the former path and the daughters by default fall into the latter. And yet, none of the five Henson children has followed either of these paths. Lisa Henson, of her own volition, became a respected producer at Amblin where she produced two Indiana Jones sequels, the hit Hooked!, and the recent Mask of the Lone Ranger and is now the president of Fox Studios. Brian has become a renowned special effects wizard with the Disney Creatureworks and is reportedly being groomed for a leadership position at Imagineering or the Disney Parks. Cheryl became a respected television producer and cinema art director before making her foray into the fashion world. John has become a beloved philanthropist who operates at the community level alongside big names like former President Jimmy Carter. And Heather has recently cofounded an independent multimedia studio with the modest aim of reimagining entertainment for the 21st century.
All of the Henson children have made their own way in the world, but the three daughters have managed to breakout in areas not typically welcome to woman entrepreneurs, like production, technology start-ups, and studio leadership. Ms. Magazine sat down with the three Henson daughters to discuss their careers, the advantages and limitations of being the daughter of an entertainment Icon, and their own projects as independent women.
Jim and Jane from an ad for Sam & Friends (Image source “teligraph.co.uk”)
All three thank the support that they received and continue to receive from their parents, allowing them the opportunities to go where they have.
Lisa: Both of our parents encouraged us to find our own way in life. They were both from that free-wheeling “make your own way” Beat Generation and the expectation was always that we [the Henson children] would all do the same. I never once asked if mom or dad would approve of my choices, though I of course secretly hoped that they would.
Cheryl: Yea, the same [for me], and the nice thing is that they generally did.
They all in particular spoke about their mother Jane, who broke ground in entertainment herself.
Heather: Mom kicks ass. She always has. She and dad were real partners on the Muppets and he couldn’t have gotten to where he was without her equal partnership. Mom was there with dad on every production. If there were two Muppets on screen then one of them was her. Yorick was her favorite and I’m sure that she found particular delight in eating Kermit or whichever Muppet dad was playing at the time.
Lisa: Traditional gender roles were not exactly sacrosanct in our household. Dad majored in Home Economics in college [at the University of Maryland], which back in the ‘50s was a “girl’s major”. One of those “M-R-S Degrees” for women there to find husbands, or so the stereotypes of the time went. But it was the only major that gave him the combination of skills in sewing, finance, design, and textiles that you needed to make soft puppets for television. Mom and dad met in college and they were business partners before they were romantic partners.
Cheryl: They were apparently dating other people at the time [they founded The Muppets] and – it’s so like mom and dad to think this way – they decided to cut out the “middle men” and date each other. (laughs)
Lisa: And yet while dad is very progressive on gender issues and always was, he’s still a product of his time, so when I came into the picture it was assumed that mom would be the one to drop out of daily production [on The Muppets] while dad brought in Jerry [Nelson] and Frank [Oz] to fill in as Muppet performers and Don [Sahlin] to man the workshop.
Jim and Jane Henson legally separated in 1983 and Jane returned to the New York area with Heather. Jane ran Henson Associates, East, while Jim, simultaneously the Creative Chief for Disney, ran Henson Associates, West. But when Disney absorbed Henson Associates in 1984, Jane stayed out, instead dropping out of the company she co-founded and accepting her share of the stock as an outside investor. She instead became the de facto CEO of Henson Arts Holdings (HAH), a privately-held holding company that manages the Sesame Street Muppets and other former HA property that didn’t follow over into Disney. Furthermore, she is now the president for the Children’s Television Workshop, allegedly at the insistence of Joan Ganz Cooney herself. She has worked with Disney and her estranged husband, particularly on their forays into theater on and off Broadway. But she maintains her independence.
Jane Henson c1990 (Image source “disney.fandom.com”)
Heather: [the separation] was hard on mom and me. She and he had so much history together, both good and…less good. She’d borne the brunt of being the “mom at home” while he played breadwinner, and I know she’s still a little bitter about the company she cofounded being absorbed into Disney. The Muppets are her “other children” and now they’re with his “new wife” Mickey.
Lisa: Mom’s resilience shines through for me. She’s still The Boss. Go to the Muppet Workshop in New York [City] and she’s calling the shots. She took over for Joan [Ganz-Cooney] as head of [the Children’s Television Workshop]. She was and is my inspiration.
And if anyone knows how to be a Boss, it is Lisa. She’d worked since childhood on her parent’s projects, including The Muppets and The Dark Crystal. After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard and interning at Lucasfilm, she went to work as a producer at Amblin Entertainment where she produced such classic films as Mask of the Monkey King, The Judgement of Anubis, The Land Before Time, Hooked!, and most recently Mask of the Lone Ranger. She has since taken an executive position as Chairwoman and President of Fox Studios, split off from 20th Century and rebranded a few years ago by Triad Entertainment as a family-friendly studio. One job conspicuously not on her impressive C.V. is an official position at Disney, her father’s company. We asked her about this.
Lisa with Father Jim in 1983 after accepting the job with Amblin (Image source “themeparktourist.com”; image credit Jim Henson Productions)
Lisa: Honestly, I felt like I needed to find my own way. I could have taken a job with HA or Disney, no problem, but, call it ego, I had to be a success on my own, not as ‘daddy’s girl’. When George Lucas offered me an internship I jumped at the opportunity. I could tell that it was a real offer, not a favor to dad, because George was constantly asking me about the things I learned as a student of folklore and mythology, a subject that he was and is obsessed with. I knew that Steve Spielberg and Kathy Kennedy were sincere in their offer [for a production billet at Amblin] because I’d worked with them already at Lucasfilm on Indiana Jones. Things went very well with Amblin and I feel blessed for my opportunity to work there, but it was clear that there was no real future there with Steve, Kathy, and Frank [Marshall] being the three “partners” who owned everything. So, when my old college friend Mira Velimirovic, who was working at Warner [Brothers], alerted me to the new position opening up at Fox I jumped on it.
Lisa expects to be quite busy at Fox between managing children’s programming for PFN and greenlighting movies under the Fox Films label. She’ll also be ultimately in charge of the animation company Filmation, now a subsidiary of Fox. Her most recent greenlight was for the upcoming Macauley Culkin, Catharine O’Hara, and Joe Pesci film Wicked Stepfather, written and directed by Chris Columbus.
Lisa: I’m starting to gain a real appreciation for what Dad and Steve [Spielberg] do on a daily basis. When you’re a producer you typically manage a couple of films at a time. As an executive you’re juggling a hundred balls. It takes constant multitasking and a willingness to choose your battles, an ability to make split-second decisions and then be willing to stand by them, and a flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Amblin prepared me there as we always had a dozen floating ideas out there that Steve, Kathy, and I juggled, and as the New Kid I ended up doing a lot of the dull but necessary paperwork, budget, and management stuff, which ironically prepared me for my current position better than the more glamorous production work.
We asked her if her gender or last name ever gave her issues.
Lisa: Well, duh, really. (laughs) It’s a challenging job for anyone. When you’re the child of a big name in Hollywood there’s this ironic assumption that on one hand you’ve inherited talent as though it was genetic and on the other hand that you’re only there because of your parents’ legacy. You’re expected to be a genius and held to a higher standard while simultaneously they’re expecting you to fail, and possibly rooting for it to happen. And if you’re a woman facing the engrained “boy’s club” of Hollywood you’d better have one hell of a good left cross because your right hand is tied behind your back.
Cheryl, the middle daughter, has an impressive C.V. on her own. Like Lisa, she began as a child working in the family business and went on to receive a degree in History from Yale in 1984. Unlike Lisa, she returned to the “family business” of HA just in time for it to be absorbed into Disney. She went on at Disney to produce the popular Tale of the Bunny Picnic and other productions in the Benny Bunny franchise that spun off from it, as well as other TV productions such as Song of the Cloud Forest, The Storyteller, Dog City, and the upcoming Tales of the Dark Crystal. She also recently served as Art Director for The Dark Crystal: Return to Thraa. But working with the lush and amazing fabrics on these series enchanted her, and so with a recommendation from Disney Board Member Emeritus Caroline Ahmanson, she attended the prestigious Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, graduating with an Advanced Associates Degree in Theatrical Design in 1989.
Cheryl Henson modelling fashions inspired by The Dark Crystal, 1981 (Image source “darkcrystal.com”)
Cheryl: I guess I’ve always been the girliest of my sisters. Lisa was always outgoing and Heather always finding her own way like some modern-day hippie, but I liked dolls and makeup and playing dress-up. Benny Bunny was as much about designing the cute little costumes as it was building a fantasy world for me. One of my earliest “jobs” as an adult with HA was modelling some of the Dark Crystal inspired clothing lines back in ’81. Getting a degree from FIDM was kind of the next logical step.
She has since returned to Disney and taken a Costume Design billet at MGM Studios and its semi-independent subsidiary Skeleton Crew Productions. Her most recent production has been costuming for her sister’s Mask of the Lone Ranger along with the fabulous costumes for the Tales from the Crypt movie Death Becomes Her, which are already getting Oscar buzz. She is currently doing the ‘50s-inspired costume design for Jurassic Park. Of course, the one area where Cheryl moves out of that traditional “girly” sphere is in her deep, abiding love for her father’s The Dark Crystal.
Cheryl: [Our family] all worked on it, of course, but I like to think of myself as dad’s first superfan…We were snowed in at a hotel near the airport in Newark when he put his amorphous thoughts on a dualistic [Brian] Froud-inspired fantasy world to paper for the first time. He was most interested in the split between the urRu and what were to become Skeksis: the divided nature of the ruling species. I hung on his every word as he described his thoughts.
Youngest daughter Heather, meanwhile, has gone in her own direction entirely, skipping the Hollywood system and setting up shop with fellow Hollywood Royal Leslie Iwerks (granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney’s original partner and Mickey Mouse artist). Heather skipped the four-year college route and got a 2-year film degree from the California Institute of Arts where she met, and partnered with, fellow CalArts alumni Leslie Iwerks, Craig McCracken, Rob Renzetti, and Genndy Tartakovsky. Together they founded Whoopass Studios, a multimedia collective and studio in Van Nuys, California, that has been getting into everything from animation to puppetry to computer repairs to automotive repair and customization.
Heather with Father Jim in 1989 (Image source “Muppet.fandom.com”)
Heather: Yea, Whoopass Studios is kind of in an “anything goes” mode at the moment. I brought in an old friend of mine, Jeri Ellsworth, whom I worked with at Nintendo doing sound for a Dark Crystal game. Frankly, she’s keeping the studios afloat at the moment by restoring, upgrading, and flipping old computers on the side. That said, Craig, Rob, and Genndy have a literally kick-ass animated series in the works called “Whoopass Stew”, and your readers will be happy to know that it takes Girl Power to a whole new level.
Heather has worked in a variety of areas, studying film production, direction, and cinematography at CalArts, but has worked with everything from building Muppets to doing art design and animatronics for The Land Before Time to programming in the sound and color for videogames. Her love has always been bigger-picture, and she loves to operate in that interstitial space where several media such as sound, light, motion, and user experience converge to tell a story.
Heather: As a young teen I remember checking out Disneyland behind the scenes, whether that was the animatronics behind Pirates of the Caribbean or the lights and pyrotechnics behind a Halyx show. And I remember seeing this old medieval Japanese temple where they made magic using the acoustics of the building. Clap two wooden blocks together and hear the dragon “sing”. It fascinated me how you could achieve such a sensory experience with just a few well-placed effects. I’m hoping to find the ways in which the senses best work together to tell a story and I have plans for an interactive walk-through experience.
The three sisters followed different pathways, and yet all three are making impacts, subtle and profound, on the roles for and perceptions of women in Hollywood. Lisa’s executive leadership role at Fox represents a significant step towards improving gender representation among Hollywood executive leadership, though so much more needs to be done to reach true gender parity. Long a “boy’s only” job, Lisa’s ascension to the upper echelons of studio leadership marks a significant step and one that generations of women fought for before her. It’s an inheritance that she takes seriously.
Lisa: Oh, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here, no doubt, my mom among them. So many women have fought to break out of traditional job roles and overcome the roadblocks that were built up over the centuries of Western culture to exclude us from participation. I’m indebted to those like my friend Dawn Steel who fought before so that I could get where I am today, and I owe it to the women who come after me to keep up the fight.
Cheryl’s path into costume design, by contrast, may seem a step back to some, and yet as we enter into a third wave of feminism where personal choice becomes the rallying cry, the fact that she chose on her own, not under external pressure, to leave the more glorious world of production in favor of following her bliss in costuming marks a significant step in self-empowerment.
Cheryl: The irony is that I felt a certain degree of pressure to stay in the world of production. Some of the older women in particular were a bit disappointed in me. I was supposed to be making a big statement for women everywhere by becoming a big Hollywood producer like Lisa, and they felt that by going into a traditionally feminine field like costuming that I was betraying the battles they fought in order to give me the opportunity to get into the male-dominated field of production. Instead, I decided “what’s the point of having the power to make your own choices if you end up doing what others want from you anyway?” I guess that’s mom & dad’s old hippie-beatnik values shining through.
Lisa: And as that “Hollywood Executive Female” myself, I stand by her decision. Anyone who gives my sister grief for doing what she wants can kiss my ass, to be blunt.
Heather, it seems, has taken the whole concept of female empowerment to a whole new level, not only striking out into the challenging world of the corporate startup, funded entirely with her own money, but is, as previously mentioned, attempting to redefine art itself.
Heather: At CalArts, Les [Iwerks] and I ran into a lot of ingrained sexism. It was subtle, but it was there. Rob and Genndy got complemented on their “bold vision” and “storytelling”, for example, while Les and I got complimented on our “color choices” and “gentle touch”. Pretty lame, really. (laughs) I’m glad that Jeri [Ellsworth] wasn’t there with us at the time, or she’d have been kicked out for assaulting the professor! We knew right away that trying to find a place in the wacky world of the Hollywood studio system was a non-starter for us. And while it’s true that money can’t buy you happiness, what it can do is drastically reduce the risk of pursuing your own happiness.
Whoopass Studios is a co-equal partnership between three women and three men, and any preconceptions on who should do what according to his or her gender seem to be absent from the discussion.
Heather: Jeri runs the garage and rebuilds computers and does roller derby on the side. She’s equally likely to have grease under her fingernails as nail polish on them, but she still has a beautiful fashion sense with the cutest dresses. Les is doing all the duties of CEO and is working on an MBA on the side, not that we have a formal CEO billet or anything that lame. In fact (laughs), we like to call her “boss” or put fake “CEO” signs on her desk because we know it irritates her! Craig says that he’s basing his Whoopass Girls on us. Meanwhile, Genndy helps me stitch together the puppets for the immersive show I’m building and he and Craig have a really excellent sense of color and a gentle touch. (laughs)
The three women, like their brothers, have made successful individual lives, all following their own paths using the skills and attitudes they inherited from their parents. And how do their parents feel?
Lisa: They’re ecstatic, really. Mom and dad tell me that they are both very proud of my sisters and me, and it feels good to hear that. Dad likes to jokingly call me “the competition” now, but I know that he’d hire me back in a second if I let him.
Cheryl: Well, I still work with them both, so it still feels like I’m a part of the family business. Whether I join the “competition” or not, I know mom and dad will support me wherever I go.
Heather: Are you kidding? Dad freaking loves it when he comes to visit Whoopass Studios. “It reminds me of HA back in the day!” he said, and that’s a big compliment, since I know how much he loved that small company atmosphere. He said to me “if this Disney thing doesn’t work out for me, let me know if you’re interested in hiring an old Muppet guy.”
 Recall that in our timeline on Lisa’s advice, Jim Henson hired Mira Velimirovic, Lisa’s college friend, as his Creative Assistant at HA in 1983 in our timeline. Here he had plenty of help already at Disney, so Mira instead takes the job at Warner Brothers that Lisa took in our timeline when Lisa went to Amblin in this timeline.
 These last two lines are real Cheryl Henson quotes from our timeline. Read them (and others) here.
 In our timeline she rose high into the production ranks at Warner Brothers before ultimately becoming President of Columbia Pictures before retiring to become CEO of Jim Henson Productions.