Sharing Treasures from The Jim Henson Company Archives

This week, we are excited to have Karen Falk guest posting on the blog. Karen is Archives Director at The Jim Henson Company and is the author of Imagination Illustrated. Read on for Karen’s post and click here to check out an excerpt of the book.

Jim Henson at work during the mid-1960s.

When I first came to The Jim Henson Company in 1992 to “do archives” (as the position was described to me) two years after Jim’s passing, I encountered a well-organized room of press clippings, books, licensed product and a selection of Jim’s scripts. There were also some files of artwork featuring Jim’s initial sketched character designs, the blueprints for many of our much loved Muppet friends. This collection, drawn together during the previous decade by Jim’s high school friend and colleague, Bob Payne, and organized by Henson staffer Craig Shemin, became the core of the company archives. There was also a photo library, managed at the time by the fantastically organized Danielle Obinger, sharing the storage area. It was a fascinating group of material, but, as it turns out, the tip of the iceberg in terms of what would be available to add to the historical record.

Jim Henson’s great-grandfather Oscar Hinrichs (on left) during the Civil War.

Jim came from a family that kept records and saved important documents – he had photo albums, scrapbooks, family trees, and there were extensive journals and letters from his great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran, treasured by the extended family. Jim was always looking ahead at the next idea, the next production, or the next technological innovation, but he clearly had a sense that it was important to keep track of what had already happened and to save the evidence. Files, artwork, puppets, toys, books and all of the other products of a creative mind were packed in boxes over the years and stored out of sight. What would turn out to be, perhaps, the most significant item was a small red handwritten journal, otherwise known as Jim’s Red Book, stashed in the desk of his New York office.

Title page and entries from Jim Henson’s journal a.k.a. The Red Book.

Jim had started this journal in 1965, ten years into his career, by recording pretty much everything that had happened to him up until that date – when he first appeared on television, when he met, began working with and eventually married his wife Jane, when he took a vacation or met a network executive, when a character was built, and on and on. Each event, big or small, merited one line in Jim’s loopy handwriting, and the particularly important events were underlined or capitalized or surrounded by stars. Moving forward from 1965, Jim continued for the next twenty-three years to list the people he met, the places he visited and the work he did. Given that his personal life was so intertwined with his professional life, family milestones like births, marriages, and graduations were all recorded in the book, too. Along with the triumphs (he noted that 1979 was “A VERY BIG YEAR!”), he logged the disappointments (in October 1966, he wrote, “Wrote The Cube with Jerry – NBC rejected.”) With Jim’s Red Book as my guide, I was able to start sorting through the boxes and get a sense for just how much there was to discover about its author.

Jim Henson’s design for his Cyclia nightclub, late 1960s.

Little known projects that were briefly mentioned in the journal turned out to have occupied months or even years of effort and resulted in pages of notes and sketches. One of my favorites was Cyclia, a dome-shaped multimedia nightclub that Jim started thinking about in 1966 as a way to integrate music and images in an interactive experience. While the club never opened, architectural renderings, furniture designs, real estate agreements and psychedelic film footage piled up, creating a record of this intriguing project.

Jim’s 1962 commercial for On-Cor Frozen Foods featured Onky, a character designed to be able to pick up products and applaud for them, shouting “Encore! Encore!” Photo by Del Ankers.

It was fascinating to learn about Jim’s advertising work from the 1950s and 1960s, especially when watching Mad Men and period television shows. Hundreds of hand-drawn storyboards demonstrate his immersion in Madison Avenue, and his unique character designs gave a preview of the denizens of The Muppet Show or Sesame Street. Rowlf the Dog sold Purina Dog Chow long before he played the piano, and a ravenous monster sold salty snack foods before he developed an insatiable taste for cookies. Jim never wasted a good idea, and he filed away unrealized designs for later consideration. Among his paperwork related to some mid-1960s public service announcements for the Federal Housing Administration, Jim saved a little sketch of a sinister-looking monster lurking in a trash can, certainly the genesis of Oscar the Grouch. And the idea for a large walk-around character, first built in the form of the La Choy Dragon, actually started in 1963 as a design for a large, goofy bird. Jim filed that drawing away, too, and revived the idea six years later for the premiere of Sesame Street.

Jim Henson’s handwritten script for an FHA public service announcement and his unrealized design for a large bird puppet for a Stouffer’s Frozen Food commercial, early 1960s.

It was such a thrill and a privilege to see all of this material for the first time, but like so much of Jim’s work, sharing it makes it better. A couple of years ago, was launched as an outlet for stories about some of Jim’s lesser-known projects and as a window into the treasures housed in The Jim Henson Company archives. Through posts that are online and on our Facebook and Twitter pages, I share entries from Jim’s journal and include artwork, documents and photographs that reveal the artistic thinking behind his creative output. Compiling this material into a book was another opportunity to invite fans into Jim’s world. I hope that readers of Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal will get the same sense of excitement and wonder that I have felt exploring Jim’s archives over the last twenty years, discovering his sense of humor, his exceptional creativity, and his expansive heart.

Jim Henson and Aughra from The Dark Crystal on a London street corner, c.1981.

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