THE HENSON KIDS CARRY ON
Ask Jim Henson's children to describe their relationship with Walt Disney Co., and the answer is unwavering: Relations are friendly, they say. But recent visitors to the late puppeteer's Muppet Workshop might have chosen another word. Atop a Christmas tree sat an evil-looking "Rickey Mouse," whip in one hand, a fistful of dollars in the other. Nearby sat a puppet resembling Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner. It was to star in an in-house musical number called It's a Swell Deal After All. But now that Disney's plan to buy the Muppets is off, the Eisner look-alike occasionally finds his arm thrust into the mouth of an ugly Muppet monster. The fizzled deal, concedes Henson's son Brian, "boiled a little blood."
Or maybe a lot. When they announced their agreement, widely valued at $150 million to $200 million, Henson expected a quick, amicable closing. This was back in August, 1989. Instead, his children say, negotiations were fraught with argument and became increasingly tortured after their father's death from pneumonia last May. The deal finally fell apart in November.
Now, the children are trying to carry on. Brian, 27, is president of Jim Henson Productions, and Cheryl, 29, is vice-president for creative affairs, focusing on Sesame Street. Lisa, 30, is a producer at Warner Brothers Inc. and is not involved in operations. But she plays a key role in making decisions about the company's future. The two youngest siblings, John, 25, and Heather, 20, are not with the business, but own equal shares. Henson bought out their mother, Jane, when they separated several years ago.
MANY VOICES. The Hensons are in for a rough ride. The company was on hold for 18 months prior to November, with almost all non-Disney creative work suspended while the merger talks dragged on. Legal complications arising from the failed Disney deal will make it difficult for them to enter serious talks with another partner. And staggering estate taxes come due as early as February.
But most daunting will be proving that the Muppets have a life beyond Jim. Besides dreaming up the funny-looking puppets, he produced all the Muppet TV shows and movies, often directing and acting in them himself. He was the voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie on Sesame Street, among others. And it was Jim's artistic dynamism that drew talented writers, puppeteers, and designers together. Jerry Juhl, head writer for the Muppets, confesses that insiders worried terribly about Henson without Henson. "It seemed inconceivable to go on without Jim," he says. But numerous creative meetings in recent weeks have made him optimistic. "We're chomping at the bit," he says.
Creating new work is the No. 1 priority. "We want to take the next six months and get ourselves strong and positive and do some good productions to really prove ourselves--to show that we really are worth something," says Cheryl. In recent brainstorming sessions, a core creative group of around 20 people has begun developing ideas for television shows, movies, and videos that will keep the classic Muppet characters alive. There is talk of producing live Muppet theater, perhaps for Broadway. And they're already lining up sponsors for a TV version of Gulliver's Travels.
DEEPER POCKETS. Creative work under way, they'll start thinking about finding another partner. The siblings argue that Jim Henson Productions could go on indefinitely without help, but there are pressing reasons for them to seek an alliance. Chief among them are deeper pockets to finance new projects and distribution channels for Henson's many feature films and home videos. Following the Disney washout, overtures from potential partners have been "overwhelming," Brian says. He considers a half-dozen of them serious but declines to name them.
MCA Inc., which operates two Universal Studios theme parks and is said to have approached Henson before, seems a possibility. It declined to comment. Sony Corp., parent of Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc., would also make sense. Sony already operates 200 Sesame Street merchandise stores throughout Japan under license from Children's Television Workshop, the show's producer. Sony's Columbia unit may open theme parks in the U. S., which would seem a perfect setting for characters such as the Muppets. Columbia declined to comment. Brian says only that "Sony has always been a great company for us to work with," adding: "They have a lot of their principles in the right places."
Although Jim Henson's genius will never be replaced, he trained his kids well. He worked constantly, so to be near him, all five children spent most weekends, vacations, and summers with him on the set. "He always had us puppeteering or doing something in the background," says Brian.
Their talents developed along fairly different lines. Brian has concentrated on special-effects puppetry. Most of his work over the past 10 years has been in the Creature Shop in London, which his father created to build technologically sophisticated creatures both for his own movies and for other producers. The shop built the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Gold Harvest Productions. Cheryl favored design. As a child, she spent summers building puppets and making costumes. In 1979, she put off college for a year to work on the production of The Dark Crystal, a mythological fantasy film she and Jim dreamed up while stranded at an airport Howard Johnson's for 72 hours in a blizzard. Besides a BA in history from Yale, she has a degree in textile design from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
Lisa is a self-described idea person. As a youth, she read and critiqued many of the Muppet scripts before production, and her study of mythology at Harvard led her to suggest the "Storyteller" series of folktales that Henson began producing in 1987. Lisa was president of the Harvard Lampoon in her senior year. By amusing coincidence, a parody of Newsweek published under her reign includes a spoof of Walt Disney Co., entitled "Nightmare in the Magic Kingdom." It tells of a slave laborers' rebellion quelled by Walt Disney, who emerges from cryogenic freezing to impose martial law.
Unlike her siblings, Lisa was always intrigued by the business side of the company. She represented the family in negotiations with Disney after Henson died. At Warner, where she is a senior vice-president, she has helped develop scripts and assemble creative teams for such movies as Batman and Lethal Weapon.
CULTURE CLASH. The Hensons speak of a culture clash between their 115-person private company and the giant Disney, but the parties differ on just why talks foundered. A Disney spokesman says the children wanted the price raised to help them pay estate taxes, and he maintains Disney did increase it "by tens of millions of dollars." Brian contends there was "never any price adjustment" for estate taxes, and says the groups remained apart on many issues. For example, Cheryl says, Disney sought to restrict how the Sesame Street characters were used--even though Disney knew that Jim had given the nonprofit Children's Television Workshop licensing control for the characters. The failure of the talks didn't completely free Henson from Disney. Last June, a Muppet stage show began running at Disney's Florida theme park. Though the merger is off, Disney maintains it has the right to continue running the show and advertising the Muppets on TV. Henson also worked with Disney to create a 3-D Muppet movie, which Disney says it plans to begin showing in late spring. Lawyers for both parties are currently negotiating the status of those shows as well as that of a planned line of Muppet books.
Meanwhile, Henson's New York townhouse is busy with almost continual meetings on creative projects. Brian has moved to Los Angeles where Henson is now based, but when in New York he occupies his father's old office, a spacious room adorned with crafts--including a light-up papier mache moosehead over the mantle. With that for inspiration, Brian will try to breathe new life into the world Jim Henson fathered.
MUPPETS, FRAGGLES, AND SCARY CREATURES
An overview of Jim Henson Productions
TELEVISION Produces series and specials including The Muppet Show, Fraggle
Rock, Muppet Babies. Supplies Muppets for Sesame Street
FILM AND VIDEO Made six feature films, including The Muppets Take Manhattan
and adult fantasy film Labyrinth. Also, play-along video series for children
and videos for corporate meetings
CREATURE SHOP London workshop builds monsters and other fantastical
characters for movies, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
LICENSING Markets Muppet and Fraggle characters for use in toys, clothing,
housewares, and promotions for companies such as McDonald's
DATA: JIM HENSON PRODUCTIONSAndrea Rothman in New York, with bureau reports