Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Keep your distance...

I just finished a biography about Jim Henson. When I was much younger I actually entertained the idea of being a puppeteer. Our youth group had a touring group that did music and puppets. Random right? But it was a big deal. We learned puppeteering and toured. I went to Puppet Music Camp every summer for a stretch and worked on puppets more. I built one from scratch. I learned how to operate single puppeteer puppets and the human hand style that take two puppeteers. And I have to say I was actually good. Shouldn't be too shocking really, I have always liked to perform. For an introvert I am extremely comfortable on a stage. Just don't make me talk to you socially...

I am also the exact right age for growing up with the Muppets. Sesame Street started when I was a year old. The Muppet Show debuted when I was 8, The Muppet Movie when I was 11. So it wasn't an odd thing for me to think this could actually be something fun to do for a living. Then things fell apart with the youth group, I've talked about it before, and I had no other place to practice and really no urge to pick one up for a long time. But I kept the skill for awhile, I remember picking up a simple puppet in a store to play with a friend's daughter when we were living in San Diego and the woman who ran the shop asked me to show her how to get the mouth to work so realistically. People always make the mistake of moving the fingers, it's all about the thumb, you don't talk by tilting your head back but by lowering your jaw right? was fun to do. And for a long time I thought I might do it for real.

Which, of course, meant Jim Henson. Anything I could find on him I read (which wasn't much at the time), anything he did I watched. Frank Oz was a close second in my world of "How freaking cool!" people. And when he died I was so sad. Even though I had long abandoned any thought of doing that for a living, I still watched all that they did. I still thought it was so much fun. And watching the outpouring of love and loss from people when he died I thought he was a good hero to have had, what an impact he made on people's lives. And then to see what his family did to honor his legacy. The grants and donations. The promotion of the arts and other social programs. Just amazing. So when this book was published I put it on my wish list and couldn't wait to dive in.

I think the old Hollywood studio system had it right. They would keep their stars out of the news unless it was a very controlled story. You knew very little about their private lives. The feeling being that it was easier to believe the character they were playing if you weren't distracted by who the actor really was. There was also a large dose of hiding the sexuality of some of their male stars, but I prefer to not think about those reasons right now.

You can see where this took a turn right?

First off, let me say that the book did nothing to change my mind about what a huge talent he was. In fact it made me even more impressed. He did a lot more than just Muppets. And the technologies that he actually designed? Amazing. He was also extremely well thought of and loved by the people he worked with. And the author of the biography was obviously a bit smitten with him as well. But as I was reading the book and I kept getting to passages like, "all of the female co-stars were very fond of Jim." And  every time he talked about tensions in the work shop with some employees feeling as though he was favoring others a little too much I thought, uh oh.

And yes, eventually the author let us all in on the cagey language. He was a rover. His wife Jane, they never got divorced though they did finally legally separate, said he just couldn't ever be alone. And since he worked in LA and in New York and in London what was he supposed to do really? I mean it's not his fault. And he was just so gosh darned charming. Not his fault at all. Then there was the lists of things he bought, the cars, the houses, the clothes. The man was a huge success and he should enjoy the fruits of his labors but it didn't mesh with the hippy, free love (well maybe the free love part), environmental activist image. If you are jetting between coasts and across the ocean and have multiple cars and buy a lot more than you need you don't really fit that mold right?

And maybe I am just looking at an 80s lifestyle through 2014 lenses. Maybe we didn't really think of someone using so much jet fuel as an anathema to conservation back then.

And maybe I had just filled in the parts of his personality I wanted him to have.

I knew he was married to Jane when he died. I knew he was extremely close to his kids. I knew they felt strongly about carrying on in his footsteps and kept up with the company for years. I knew how much everyone he worked with had loved him. I knew how talented he was. And I meshed it all into "Jim Henson"

Now I know more and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Because now I know he was just human after all. Lots of personality faults. Non-confrontational to the detriment of actually getting things done. Fickle. A little self centered. Huge ego, though the author tried really hard never to say this, you got it from stories about him and people around him. He was pretty sure he was right. All of the time. That level of confidence only comes with a huge ego.

Now I'm left with a childhood hero who was just a guy. And possibly not even a guy I would have liked had I pursued my young dream and actually gotten to work with him. Though according to all of the interviews everyone else he worked with liked him a lot. Like flowers to a sunbeam people turned toward him.

Maybe the lesson here is that childhood heroes have to be put aside once you are no longer a child. And you have to come to the cold hard truth that nobody is perfect. Everybody has their faults. But in our imperfections we can still create amazing things. Have amazing impacts on people's lives. Inspire others. Even if we don't live up to their unrealistic expectations. Which we really can't control anyway.

So maybe he was a good hero to have after all. Just for different reasons than I originally thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment