Thank you, Geekhis. So much.... for all of this.Epilogue: A Humble Hillside in New Mexico
Excerpt from Jim Henson: Storyteller, an authorized biography by Jay O’Brian
Travel to New Mexico outside of Santa Fe and you will see some hills. To the casual observer they might not seem special, but on a day in the 1970s while driving with the family, on their way back to New York from California, Jim Henson saw a place of magic. He’d decided that it would be nice to go back there, some day.
Travel there now, and the magic is tangible. There’s a small gravel road blocked by a wrought iron gate that is memorable only because Kermit and Piggy’s faces are on it, your only clue as to where you are, as there are no signs. A small button-box allows one to request entry.
Travelling up the winding road past the rocks and scrub and cactus, one may catch glimpses of the natural crystals found in the soil there, which occasionally shine in the sunlight, or even moonlight, making the natural magic of this place clear.
New Mexico Pueblo-Style home (Image source Deposit Photos)
And when one reaches the scenic crest with its panoramic views, the beauty of the Pueblo-inspired set of buildings amid gorgeous landscaping with native plants reminds some of entering the gates of heaven. Several structures from small cabins to a large theater are arranged in a flowing, meandering campus that follows the natural terrain of the hilltops. A stone statue of Kermit waves hello. No paths are straight. Many wind aimlessly into dead ends, like a lazy maze with no beginning or end. Natural browns and tans are accented with turquoise and reds and greens that are invigorating and life-affirming, and yet ironically calming and relaxing.
You will be asked to relinquish your phones and watches upon entry. Indeed, anything that displays time is discouraged. There are no clocks anywhere, only a single bronze sundial held aloft by Gonzo. Instead of numbers it says “WHATEVER”. This has led to a strange sort of way of speaking about time (“I’ll meet you by the sundial around second-E”).
Small gardens and water-efficient farms produce a majority of the Campus’ food. Solar panels and wind turbines power everything, backed up by a small natural gas generator that only runs periodically, usually for maintenance reasons. Water conservation and energy efficient construction minimize the resource usage, leading the excess energy produced to be used for running a block of servers in order to run complex calculations for various scientific purposes, along with the servers for Hand-Up.net, Henson Arts’ website for sponsoring private creative ventures and the occasional charitable cause. Down the road, allied drug recovery centers, physical and mental therapy centers, and homeless assistance programs run by Bob Forrest help lift the neediest up from the bottom and help them to stand on their own feet.
The Cohen Brothers’ “Dude”, a character allegedly based in part on John Henson, who built many of the structures, would find this to be a place where one could “Abide”.
This is no place to be in a hurry.
Certainly none of the residents, guests, or visitors to this place seem to be in any rush. Even the scheduled classes and shows and demonstrations are scheduled on very rough terms (“mid-morning”) and even then, they have a habit of not starting on time, and nobody cares if you’re fashionably late to any of it. Your curriculum is informal. When you think that you’re ready, you perform your “show”, a sort of thesis-by-production-and-performance, and if you get the thumbs-up, you get a certificate and “graduate”. If you instead receive the dreaded “Grunt of Doom”, well, keep trying. Take however long that you think that you need.
The place is the Henson Center for Puppetry, Marionation, Animation, and Related Arts, and it’s a Mecca for those who dabble or fully immerse themselves in the arts of bringing inanimate objects to uncanny life, be they wood, felt, celluloid, plasticine, pixels, or something else. And its few open student positions are extremely competitive, and usually given to those who display real personal passion combined with natural talent and a unique vision. Fresh new faces and established names in the industry attend as students, intermingling with an egalitarian willingness to learn from one another. The various Whoopass Studios franchises occasionally serve as conduits for such talent.
Many luminaries of the Arts & Performance World, in particular the Puppetry World, can be seen here, some regularly, some on occasion. On the day that I last visited, for example, Frank Oz and Dave Goelz were talking to Phillip Huber and George Lucas as a swarm of students watched and took notes.
But one man is clearly at the center of everything. Tall and hunched, his beard has long since gone to white, his hair receded into a thin widow’s peak. He moves slowly and carefully, shoulders slightly hunched and wracked by arthritis after decades of contortion. A large personal assistant, bodyguard, and longtime friend named Sonny stands ever by his side and occasionally has to help him with physical activities. And yet there is still a youthful energy about him despite having recently passed his 80th birthday.
His name, obviously, is Jim Henson, and the others flock around him still, asking him for a bit of advice or just offering a sincere hello. He’ll teach classes and demonstrate a puppetry technique, apologizing for “being rusty” even though it’s still magic to see him take inanimate felt and make it into a living being. Many come here specifically to see him.
“I have an interview with Molly at ten,” he tells me, referring to an internet star and Muppet enthusiast.
And he has no plans to go anywhere else. “I guess I’ll still be here when I turn 110,” he says. “I already have that rocking chair, but can’t stand sitting in it for very long,” he adds, referring to his lifelong joke about “when I’m 110 and sitting in a rocking chair on the porch.”
His wife and Muppets co-founder Jane passed away a few years back after a long battle with Cancer. She’d moved to the New Mexico Campus in the mid-2000s, the two having largely reconciled following a long and heartfelt repentance on Jim’s part. They’d never formally divorced. With her final years, Jane had worked to bring Children’s Television Workshop into the 21st century, eventually merging it into Henson Arts. The combined company practically “runs” PBS between Sesame Street, the many Craig Bartlett co-productions, and the Bob Ross legacy.
Lisa has recently retired from her position as the Chairwoman of Walt Disney Entertainment after 15 years, handing the Chair to Walt Disney Miller and retaining her seat on the board as the family representative while also serving as the CEO of Henson Arts and Productions, Incorporated, or “HAPI”. She moved the headquarters of HAPI into the old Charlie Chaplin Studios lot on La Brea Avenue in LA and still works to make original productions or partners with Snee-Oosh or Whoopass or Disney.
Brian recently became the Chairman and CEO of Imagineering and stays very busy, as much the workaholic as his dad, but still makes time for his own family. “I hope to give [my kids] the same opportunities for inspiration that dad gave us,” referring to his siblings and himself. Imagineering, in partnership with Imagine, Inc., has aggressively expanded into machine learning and neural networks using the funds derived from spinning off Genie and other home computer businesses, whose margins were becoming increasingly marginal in a highly competitive field. “We plan to develop ways to give animatronics and computer effects more organic realism in their movement and interactions,” he told me. Their recent advances in vector-driven CG hair have allowed for hyper-realistic bounce, coil, and even frizz, opening up scores of different hair styles and types.
Cheryl is still working with Skeleton Crew Productions, with a new Dark Crystal series in planning for Disney Direct. She spends time with her own family and makes occasional visits out to New Mexico. One of her kids created a small stir in the press when she was frequently seen with a Disney great grandson, but rumors of romance were ill-founded for reasons that are obvious in hindsight. Cheryl has also become the Chair of the Henson Foundation charity and expects to retire from the Skeleton Crew soon. She has no idea what to do next, but says that she’ll “figure it out”.
John still wanders the Puppetry Center, doing the maintenance or spending time with his wife and kids. He’s slowed down a bit after a “health scare” a couple of years ago, but remains engaged. He was busy looking over the blueprints for his latest building project, a non-denominational chapel and center for interfaith relations. He hopes to promote interfaith understanding. “God is love, so why do we keep fighting and killing in His name?” The divine seems to have delivered a way to make it happen: two vans full of a “League” of Dudists showed up the other day from St. Louis. At first, John was visibly annoyed, as he’s had mixed experiences with such pilgrims. “You know that scene in The Life of Brian where Brian says ‘You've got to think for yourselves! You're ALL individuals!’ and they all chant as one ‘yes, we are all individuals?’” he once told me when I asked about the Dudists.
But then he noticed that this League came with tools for woodworking and stone and plaster work. “Ah, they can learn,” he said with a happy grunt.
And Heather is still at Whoopass Studios, most recently supervising the launch of a Whoopass Studios franchise in St. Petersburg, Florida. The studio continues to expand, or more accurately franchise, across the world. She and Abigail “Dr. Diz” Disney have worked hard to ensure that each franchise is locally-run and supportive of the local community and remains true to the “Principles of Whoopass” and the “Whoopass Can” attitude.
“The last thing that we need is the Whoopass name in the press next to some embezzlement scheme or sweat shop or pollution scandal,” she said. On this last part, she’s also increasingly taking up her father’s environmentalist mantle, working to promote environmental awareness and eco-friendly policies, and has been approached by Frank Wells about an executive position at his Green Tomorrow Fund.
Jim remains proud of all of them, making daily entries into what is probably his fourth or fifth “Red Book”, the latest one being light blue.
Jim mostly spends his time working with the students or consulting with John on the design of the chapel. Or he’s on the phone talking with Bill Ackman about their continued activist investment in Exxon, which has proven an ongoing challenge in the face of an entrenched anti-climate corporate culture.
“It’s a long game,” said Henson, “Possibly a long con.” He noted the recent milestone announcement that renewable energy is now cheaper per Watt-hour than even coal, which he cited as “essentially the death-knell” of fossil fuels.
“For all of the time and money they wasted on climate denial and political campaigns over the last decade, they could have invested in less destructive rare earth mineral harvesting technologies or alternate ways of producing renewable tech without them and claimed valuable IP. Instead, they let GE and BP beat them to the punch and they are struggling to play catch-up. Bill likes to remind them about that whenever he can,” he added with a laugh.
Jim stays engaged in quasi-retirement, but ever since the Campus became largely self-sufficient, he’s found himself, for the first time in his life, with “nothing to do.” It’s been “strange” for a man known for his workaholic ways and an ongoing rush to “fit it all in”.
(Image source Flickr)
“For most of my life time was the enemy,” he told me one evening as we watched the sun set over the New Mexico hills. “I feared it, not because I feared death per se, but because I feared not having the time to do everything that I wanted. Over time, with the help of my family and friends, I’ve learned to live more in the moment, but still, there was that itch in the background. Now I’ve reached the point where I still have a thousand ideas buzzing through my head, even as I know that I’ll never have time to see even a tenth of them through. So, in a weird way, it’s kind of liberating. It doesn’t matter if I finish or not. There’s a beauty in the Unfinished Symphony that no complete work could ever have. That empty space left only to the imagination. I jot down ideas. Maybe someone will pick them up and run with them. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. That’s up to them.”
He spends much of his time “in the hills” as he calls it, communing and meditating and jotting down notes. “Maybe one day I’ll compile all of these wacky cosmological thoughts together,” he told me, “Or more likely just ask John to.
“John and I talk about the power of the empty bowl or the blank page. He quotes the Tao Te Ching about the hole at the center of the wheel being the thing that makes it work as a wheel. Brian talks about things rushing in to fill a vacuum and that there has to be space to go for there to be motion. Lisa talks of the mystery [of life] being the thing that drives the stories. Maybe life’s the same way? Maybe it’s that impending absence of life that’s the hole in the wheel or that vacuum at the end that pulls life forward, and gives it meaning? It’s all kind of metaphysical, but it makes a good deal of sense, at least to me.
“When I’m gone, others will flood in to the space that I left. And that, in the end, is enough.”
For all of his wistfulness on the subject, I could still see how his legacy still holds a loose grip on him. He’s spending a lot of time with people, with his family and friends. He’s spent a lot of time with me as I work on this Biography. The Campus is just one part of Jim Henson’s long legacy. From the Muppets to Sesame Street to the hundreds of productions under Disney, Jim Henson and his family have reshaped entertainment and the entertainment business alike.
“Disney after Jim is exactly what you’d think that working for Disney should be,” said new CCO Terrell Little. “Before Jim, it was a stratified and acrimonious place to work. Management and the union worked harder to undermine each other than they did to help either the business or the workers. ‘Good old boys’ got special perks and the rest got used and discarded. Now, well, it’s not perfect, nothing ever is, but you can’t help but be proud and happy to say ‘I work for Disney’ or ‘I worked with Jim Henson.’”
“Henson changed Hollywood,” said Sue Susudio with The Hollywood Reporter. “Disney-MGM and later Fox and Columbia worked hard to break up the old ‘culture of use’ and instill a ‘culture of decency’. Is it perfect in Tinsel Town? Far from it. Ask an employee at Warner Brothers or Universal about life there. Even Disney has its share of minor scandals with an occasional firing or courtroom drama. Put humans together in a room and conflict is inevitable. But Henson made an impact by demonstrating that there were alternate ways to the old ‘management by domination’, ‘culture of theft’, and ‘blind pursuit of profit’ paradigms. Ones that improved innovation and employee morale while remaining profitable and expanding the market share.”
“We’ve worked our asses off to stay relevant,” said ILM CCO Rob Bredow. “[Leo] Tramiel and [Brian] Henson keep pushing the envelope, as do we, and then you have Thunderbird and WETA and Dreamcatcher and all taking advantage of Imagine, Inc., tech, and you have no choice but to keep innovating. Every time that we win an effects award over the competition it’s like a small victory and reminder that ‘we’ve still got it.’”
“Jim changed everything,” Susudio continued, “but he left behind a cadre of people able to fill in his shoes, at least to some degree. Henson Arts goes on, even with Jim largely removed from its operations. Disney goes on without a Henson at the helm. Jim himself put it perfectly when he said, ‘I’ve worked hard to engineer my own redundancy.’”
Just as Mickey Mouse lives on decades after Walt’s death, so has Kermit lived on well past Jim’s time being the “hand in the frog.” He worked hard specifically to make that happen. “Jim is immortal,” said Steve Whitmire, the current “Kermit” who is in turn training his replacement as Kermit as he in turn contemplates retirement, “because Kermit is immortal.”
Considering these things, I asked the people at the Campus what they’d do without Jim when the inevitable happens. The answers were all the same: Jim will always be here.
“As long as these hills exist, as long as there are people bringing life to the inanimate and joy and comfort to those around them, then Jim will still be with us,” one told me.
“Love never dies as long as there is a heart big enough to contain it.”
 Bittersweet moment: in our timeline it was where Jim’s family scattered his ashes.
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