'Jim Henson: The Biography,' by Brian Jay Jones (Ballantine Books)
"Jim Henson: The Biography" by Brian Jay Jones; Ballantine (608 pages, $35)
No entertainer had more influence over those of us of a certain age — and biographer Brian Jay Jones and I are of that age — than Jim Henson.
In preschool, we learned the ABCs with Kermit the Frog and how to play a joke with Ernie. In grade school, we laughed, sang, heckled and had the time of our lives watching "The Muppet Show" and the random hilarity whipped up by Henson and his handpicked associates.
When he died of a rampant bacterial infection in 1990, part of our souls died, too. What I remember most of that day is how people just a few years older than I was, who had not grown up with "Sesame Street" or quoting "The Muppet Movie," were baffled. They didn't understand just how much those Muppets, and the man behind them, meant to us.
If they read Jones' "Jim Henson," they still probably won't.
Which is not to call this a bad book. This is a biography that earns the label definitive. Jones quotes from Henson's private diaries, pulls details from the private archives of the Jim Henson Co., and seems to have reached just about everyone who knew the man.
The problem might be in that label ofbiography. Despite all the details, Henson doesn't emerge as a flesh-and-blood human. We get glimpses into the roots of his art — he had a grandmother who could paint, draw and sew and encouraged his fondness for puns and practical jokes. And we learn that the 1956 death of his brother in a car crash might have been both the source of his art's "sublime, sweet melancholy" (as his wife, Jane, put it) and the relentless drive that enabled him to accomplish so much.
The Henson painted in these pages is beloved, sweetly mystical and almost flawless. He works countless hours away from his family, but his kids still consider him a devoted father. He drifts away from Jane, who created the Muppets with him, and has relationships with other women but remains close enough to her that she's the one comforting him in his dying hours.
It's interesting, but Jones never quite exposes the soul of his subject, the way a great biography should.
What Jones has done, quite marvelously at times, is tell the story of how Henson brought the Muppets to life through frenetic work, gentle leadership and creative genius. For that reason alone, true fans will find this book worth the investment.
Henson was still in high school in 1954 when he answered a call for youths to work marionettes for a morning TV show. Jones notes that Henson's puppets were "born in and made for the television generation." Having been a fan of TV pioneer Ernie Kovacs, Henson "was intuitively aware that he could use the eye of the camera — and the four sides of a home viewer's television screen — to create his own reality."
The Muppets went on to serve as coffee pitchmen (they were quite good) and got national exposure from Jimmy Dean, who sought the Muppets out for his ABC program.
Fans will thrill to learn the genesis stories of their favorite characters and routines — Kermit, initially blue and made of fabric from Henson's mother's old felt coat — came to life while Henson was tending to his dying grandfather. Rowlf came into being to do Purina Dog Chow commercials. Henson perfected the voice of the Swedish Chef by listening to mock language tapes in his car. And he discovered that great Muppet earworm "Mahna Mahna" in an Italian sexploitation film.
Jones manages to cover a vast amount of technical and business details without getting bogged down. We learn about all of Henson's successes, from the short film "Time Piece," which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966, to the 1980s series "Fraggle Rock." We get equal background about his failures, such as the 1986 film "Labyrinth."
A blunt, sometimes profane and ferociously loving Frank Oz is quoted extensively. So is Muppeteer Jerry Nelson, who died in 2012. So is Jane Henson, who died in April.
Jones movingly recounts Henson's death, while dismissing rumors that Henson's Christian Science upbringing had a role in his avoiding treatment until it was too late. This part of the story was almost too sad for me to bear.
But the Muppets did not end with Henson's death, of course. In fact, I am pleased to report that quite incidentally, while I was scribbling notes for this review, my third-grade son pulled out my DVDs of "The Muppet Show." They are as zany, corny and irresistible as ever; even a guest host as time-stamped as disco-suited Leo "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" Sayer looks somehow timeless when surrounded with human-size bird creatures in formal wear.
A decade or two from now, maybe my kid will turn to"Jim Henson"for insight on how it happened. He might wish that somehow, the secret fuel to Henson's creative fire had been better revealed. But he'll be able to do what I did — watch the shows again with renewed appreciation and laugh as hard as ever.