Kool Kat of the Week: Growing Up in a World of Pure Imagination: Heather Henson Talks About Her Jim Henson Connection and Sings Along with The MUPPET MOVIE to Celebrate The Center for Puppetry Arts’ 35th Anniversary

Posted on: Sep 19th, 2013 By:

Kermit, Jim Henson and daughter Heather Henson at the grand opening of the Center for Puppetry Arts, 1978. Photo credit: Center for Puppetry Arts.

When Kool Kat of the Week Heather Henson was just seven, she accompanied her famous father, Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppets, to the 1978 ribbon-cutting of The Center for Puppetry Arts. Today the Center is world-renowned, and the youngest of the five Henson children is coming back this Saturday September 21 at 4 p.m. to lead an audience singalong with the original THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979), just one highlight of the Center’s 35th Anniversary Celebration (Sept. 21-23).

A puppeteer extraordinaire in her own right, Heather founded and directs Ibex Puppetry, an Orlando, Florida-based entertainment company which among other activities, produces the annual Orlando Puppet Festival, the HANDMADE PUPPET DREAMS film series, the Puppet Slam Network and original environmental theatre spectacles. In that role, she’ll be teaching a Community Building Through Puppetry Workshop at the Center, too, on Mon. Sept. 23 from 7-9 p.m. She serves on the boards of the Jim Henson Foundation, the Jim Henson Legacy and the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center.

We caught up with Heather to find out what it was like growing up with such a creative dad, her own road to puppetry, why she’s so jazzed about her recent environmental projects and why to really feel that Rainbow Connection, you and your family should consider costuming as Muppets when you come to the Center on Saturday!

ATLRetro: Being the baby of the Henson family sounds like it has to have been a magical experience. Was your father as imaginative in playing with you as he has been in his public creative life, and do you have a favorite memory of that?

Heather Henson: Yes, he was very imaginative as a dad. We grew up in a house with a ton of crafts projects. You know, today you can get just go to Michael’s and find all these crafts projects out of a box, Michael’s didn’t exist when we were kids. We just had all these craft supplies. We had the little rock tumblers, a silk screen, an enameling oven, a weaving station and an animation station so we could do stop-motion animation. The whole basement was like a crafts project laboratory. So that was really, really, really fun.

That playpen downstairs was amazing. I do a little PowerPoint presentation called “A Daughter Remembers,” and I show some pictures from that basement. We had a set of wooden boxes that were numbered one through 10. I think he must have done them around the same time as SESAME STREET because I look at the counting films and they look so much like that. He painted them in this beautiful limited color palate of the ‘60s—I think it was pink, orange and yellow. On one side, it would have a number, and on the other side us kids got to paint whatever they wanted—animals or insects of that number. It was like one elephant, two butterflies, three horses, four cats. They were so cute. I love those boxes. Again no Michael’s, no Hobby Lobby, no IKEA.

Heather Henson promises a carnival sense of fun at THE MUPPET MOVIE singalongs. Photo credit: Ibex Puppetry.

Did you always know that you’d go into puppetry, too? Or did you ever rebel, and say, no, I’m going to be a fill-in-the-blank?!

Well, I went to college for animation. I guess in high school, I wanted to get into politics, not to become a politician but I liked international relations. I actually still do. A big love of mine is the way that different countries, different cultures come together. In high school, I thought that fell under a political science major. That was the only thing I could think of that would allow me to study other cultures other than anthropology. Right now, I do puppet shows internationally, and that’s still my favorite thing—to go into other cultures and see those relationships.

But then I guess I started college studying art. I thought for a while I could be a political cartoonist. Then I went into, no, I’ll do animation and illustrations, and I wound up right back at puppetry. It took a little bit of a roundabout way, but it’s a total circle. My final project I did in college was in animation, and then when I got out of college, I re-told the story with puppets. I actually found it was a much more satisfying process—the build process and especially delivering it to an audience. Having the live feedback of an audience and the communication between performer and audience was much more satisfying. But it came about from a very personal process. It was not like I’m the daughter of a puppeteer, I have to be a puppeteer.

Photo credit: Ibex Puppetry.

You’ve got your hands on the strings of a lot of projects from IBEX Puppetry to the boards of various Henson-related foundations. What’s one thing you’re especially excited about that you’re doing right now?

The environmental spectacle shows and trying to do them internationally. I do shows without words. We just came back from a puppet festival in Indonesia where we performed CELEBRATION OF FLIGHT, and I’m most excited to do this for an international audience in ways that are also helpful and are of benefit for the community that we go into. I try to make our shows informative about the environment but not going into someone else’s culture and being preachy.

I like to do that for my own community, too. Right now I am in Milwaukee because we are going to be presenting CELEBRATION OF FLIGHT at the International Crane Foundation gala next week. This group does a lot of education about cranes and wetlands. Crane education is really about habitat restoration because cranes need wetlands and the wetlands are being destroyed. They are advocates for the cranes, but they are really advocates for the environment. So I am presenting this show to them and to a school. That’s the work I’m really excited about—trying to do stuff that is being an advocate for the environment. If it’s at all possible that I can use my energies in that direction, that’s exciting to me.

As a child, you attended the ribbon-cutting of the Center for Puppetry Arts.

I know!

Jim, Heather and Jane Henson at the Center for Puppetry Arts opening, 1978. Photo credit: Center for Puppetry Arts.

What do you recall about that day and how does the Center fit into preserving your father’s legacy today and into the future?

I cannot recall anything about that day. I look at that photograph, and I remember the Snoopy sweatshirt that I was wearing. It was one of my favorite sweatshirts. I look at that picture, and I can see that I am wearing SESAME STREET Big Bird corduroy pants, and I remember those pants. I look at that picture and I can remember my clothes.

September 24 was my dad’s birthday. What was amazing about this story was that my dad was in the middle of shooting THE MUPPET MOVIE in LA, which was the first movie that they had. This was like his company’s ultimate creative success at this point. My dad had worked so hard pitching the Muppets to an adult audience for so long, and [THE MUPPET SHOW (1976-81)] was finally picked up in London, and as soon as it was on the air, it became a huge hit. Now he got that opportunity to make THE MUPPET MOVIE. The movie is not about THE MUPPET SHOW, which was based on vaudeville theater in London; it is about the Muppets coming together to make millions of people happy. They all find each other, and they say we’re going to work together, and at the end, they make it to Hollywood. It’s so beautiful.

So my dad was in the middle of making that movie, and that’s when the Center for Puppetry Arts opened. My dad left that movie to come to the opening on his birthday. He didn’t even tell Vince [Anthony, founding executive director of the Center for Puppetry Arts] it was his birthday.

So he thought the Center was pretty cool; it was a sure sign that he thought that something special was happening here?

Yes, he thought it was worth coming to. It’s like, oh, my God, he’s in the culmination, in such a peak in his creative career, and he stops what he’s doing and comes to Atlantato open the Center. It means he really believe the Center was an important place.

The grande finale of THE MUPPET MOVIE. Photo credit: Jim Henson Company/Walt Disney.

Coming back to THE MUPPET MOVIE, what’s your favorite part or scene and why?

It’s such a beautiful movie, by far my favorite of the lot of them. All of them have a special place in my heart, but that one I love just because how pure the message is, how clean the story is. It’s just all these amazing, idealistic people that came together, such as Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher who wrote some amazing music.

My favorite part is the ending, “The Rainbow Connection.” [The Muppets] are so excited, they’ve made it to Hollywood and they’re finally getting a chance to their movie. It all crashes down and then the rainbow comes through. It’s so beautiful.

Can you share a little bit about what’s happening on Saturday and why folks who grew up with the Muppets should attend and bring their children?

And dress up! We’ve got to tell people that they can dress up! Come dressed up as Muppets, and we’ll bring you up on stage.

We’ve found the show works so well for all audiences because the kids like it, the adults like it. We’re getting a lot of kids that are seeing it for the first time. I can’t tell you how many times people say they loved the movie as kids, and now they are bringing their kids. Sometimes the kids know SESAME STREET but don’t really know the rest of the Muppet gang. Or sometimes the parents will show the kids the movie before coming, so the kids will already know all the movie and the lyrics. It’s really funny. The parents and kids can enjoy it together. It’s a big party. It’s a big laugh. We have a really good time. We’re really loud. It’s just like a big carnival for a couple of hours. We sing and dance and just revel in the joy.

You’re also doing a workshop on Monday.

Yeah, it’s a webinar, and it’s on community engagement. Megan Boye and I are doing it together. I don’t just like making shows that are one-sided. I like doing things that are interactive. We are giving audiences things to do, to dance and sing and play. It all started with THE MUPPET MOVIE singalong, and then the LABYRINTH singalong. We’ve added this interactive element to a lot of our [IBEX’s] shows.

We have this whole show called ENDANGERED SPECIES PARADE. We book it like a show, but it’s more like we bring a whole presence to your event. We set up a musical station where kids can play instruments. We set up a tableau of all of our puppets, a display where you can walk around and see them. We set up workshops where you can make puppets. And every hour or couple of hours, depending on how often the venue wants us to do it, we do a parade where we pick up a puppet and we parade around. That type of engagement is something we now do in a lot of our shows, so we’ll talk about how we do that.

Finally, in a world of CGI, where do you see the future of puppetry as an art form? Do you have concerns or do you think it has a special quality that will keep it vibrant and sought-after?

I deal with some film and video, but right now only in my HANDMADE PUPPET DREAMS film series, which is another project of mine that I bring to Atlanta to the Center for Puppetry Arts every year. In my personal work, I don’t do much film work, but when I do film it’s all about practical objects. CGI has been beautiful in a lot of areas, and my brother Brian [Henson] is really into it. I know the Jim Henson Company has invested a lot of time and money and energy into it.

I’m not that scared of [CGI] because I think also the pendulums will always swing. People are interested in new technology, but at the same time, they’re interested in real things, too. Lately I’ve been into live things, so I guess CGI has a place there, too—I guess I have seen live events with CGI creatures—but it really hasn’t come into my world that much yet. But no, I don’t have concerns. I think people are always going to want the craftsmanship of the built physical thing. There’s always a place for that because you want something real in front of you.

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PLANET OF THE APES-piration: Or Why You’re a Damn Dirty Idiot If You Don’t Make It to Rock N Roll Monster Bash 2012 at the Starlight Drive-In

Posted on: Jun 1st, 2012 By:

by Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
Guest Contributing Writer

PLANET OF THE APES (1968); Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner; Writer: Michael Wilson and Rod Serling; Starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans; 10th annual Rock N Roll Monster Bash 2012, Starlight Drive-In, Sun. June 3; gates at 10 a.m. and movies at dusk; trailer herean all-day, all-night horror festival featuring Monstrosity Championship Wrestling hosted by the Silver Scream Spookshow‘s Professor Morte. Bands include X-ImpossiblesBigfootDead Elvisand more. Also playing: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)

I can barely remember a time when I did not know about PLANET OF THE APES (1968).

Watching the PLANET OF THE APES movies was a ritual for me when I was a boy in the early-to-mid 1970s. WVTV Channel 18, Milwaukee’s independent TV station, used to run POTA marathons at least once a year, it seemed; every Friday for five weeks in a row we’d get another installment, and I was always riveted to the screen, beginning, of course, with the original film directed by Franklin Schaffner and originally released in 1968.

After all, the idea of astronauts from Earth discovering a world ruled by talking animals is tailor-made for a child who has outgrown (for the time being) fairy tales but is fascinated by (1) the space program (we were still going the moon back then) and (2) dinosaurs and other monsters. The action was intense, the apes looked wonderful (some noble, others menacing), and the ideas were mind-expanding, thanks in no small part to script work by Rod Serling of THE TWILIGHT ZONE fame.

Was there ever a more effective introduction of menace into a film than the attack by the gorillas in the cornfield? The mute fear of the humans; the shots of the whips above the corn; Jerry Goldsmith’s harsh, urgent soundtrack; and the ultimate reveal of the gorillas on horseback, with the zoom-in on a gorilla’s face? It was breathtaking at the time, and it’s still a powerful moment today.

The famous Statue of Liberty scene in PLANET OF THE APES (20th Century Fox, 1968).

I wish I could tell you how shocked and stunned I was the first time that I, along with Taylor (Charlton Heston), discovered the half-buried Statue of Liberty and realized that the Planet of the Apes was, in fictional-fact, our own planet Earth. I wish I could, but I can’t; because I can’t remember ever not knowing this fact. I’m sure I was awestruck the first time around—how could a child not have been, after witnessing such a brutal, unfamiliar world? All I can remember is enjoying the ride each and every time I watched the movie—any of the movies, even the less-than-stellar BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973). (And that Statue of Liberty moment has, rightly, become one of the most famous in movie history – in fact, it was even included in a film better-known as being an adaptation of HAMLET )

Taylor (Charlton Heston), Zira (Kim Hunter) and the body of dead astronaut Stewart (Diane Stanley). PLANET OF THE APES (20th Century Fox, 1968)

I must admit that, to my young mind, one of the most mysterious and terrifying parts of the the movie came early on with the death of Stewart (an uncredited Diane Stanley), the female astronaut who doesn’t survive suspended animation. When Taylor discovers her corpse, it all happens so fast that I was never sure what was going on. In hindsight, it’s clear that her cryogenic capsule failed, and that her body mummified during the other astronauts’ long sleep. But when I was a child, I couldn’t understand why she looked the way she did. We only see her corpse for a second, so that added to the mystery. For the longest time, I thought that perhaps she had somehow been turned into an ape as some sort of warning. Now, I realize that doesn’t make any sense; but when you’re eight years old, sense is a precious, elusive quantity. Seeing her corpse as a warning of what was to come made perfect, terrible sense to me back then.

Watching these movies on TV also gave me my first taste of behind-the-scenes promotional films. Sometimes Channel 18 would pad out the movies to three hours, but even with commercials there would still be time left over before the 10 o’clock news. So they occasionally filled the extra minutes with “making-of” documentaries about either the POTA films or the short-lived live-action PLANET OF THE APES television series (1974). Here was my first glimpse into “movie magic,” and in particular, the fascinating world of prosthetic makeups. Nerdy kid that I was, I found myself amazed at the skill and ingenuity that makeup creator John Chambers and his crew demonstrated in slowly, slowly building up appliances onto the actors’ faces, transforming them into incredibly believable simians.

Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius in PLANET OF THE APES (20th Century Fox, 1968)

I was so taken with the makeup process that I decided to try it myself. However, being eight years old (or so) and without access to latex and yak fur, I made do with what I had available: paper, crayons, scissors, and tape. Building upon what I’d seen in the documentaries, I made articulate ape masks for my younger brother John and myself. (I got to be a chimpanzee, natch; my brother became an orangutan. And when a cousin would visit, he or she’d have to settle with being a gorilla.)

First I’d create a somewhat triangular piece that surrounded the eyes and came down to create a nose. That was the easy part. The hard part was the mouth. I wanted it to look like the muzzles the apes had in the movies: That meant a mouth in two pieces, top and bottom, each a sort of quarter-sphere. I’d color a piece of paper “ape flesh” color (depending upon the type of ape) and then cut notches along the edges so that I could mold it into the proper hollow shape, securing the seams with tape, until they were (approximately) the right shape.

Finally came the miles of tape needed to attach the paper appliances to our faces. The only way to allow the mouths to open and close as we spoke was to affix the two pieces separately to our skin. This took a lot of tape (and made the eventual removal of the masks a little uncomfortable – but hey, this was art). Once the mouths were in place, then came the eye/nose pieces, with the descending noses laid atop the upper mouthpiece. (I remember that one time when I was feeling particularly ambitious, I added a third piece to the mouths: A piece of paper crayoned as black as I could make it, to cover our real mouths behind the muzzles; this way, when we spoke, you couldn’t see our real mouths inside the masks.)

The hair was trickier, but I had a solution. We had winter hats that covered our whole heads, with just a hole cut out in the front for our faces. Perfect! The fact that my hat was blue and my brother’s was green kind of spoiled the verisimilitude, but hey, that’s what imagination was for. The final touch was a triangular piece of paper on each side of our faces to approximate the facial cheek-hair that crept under the eyes and wrapped around the muzzles.

Taylor (Charlton Heston) and Zira (Kim Hunter) exchange a kiss in PLANET OF THE APES (20th Century Fox,1968).

Lord, how I wish I had photos of us in these masks. I’m sure they looked mostly ridiculous, but we loved them, and we would jump around the house, howling like apes.

But anyway, the Apes movies made a huge impression on me as a child. They instilled in me a love of science fiction, a love of movies, and a healthy dose of cynicism with regards to official structures of power. They were all “of their time,” that time being the late 1960s/early 1970s, and issues of discrimination were inescapable cultural touchstones, even for a young child. And the Apes films were, in their way, statements against discrimination and pleas for tolerance and understanding. (For more on this topic, see Eric Greene’s book PLANET OF THE APES AS AMERICAN MYTH: RACE, POLITICS, AND POPULAR CULTURE.)

Of course, the apes movies are also a whole lot of fun. Some of it might seem a bit campy nowadays, and of course, some of the lines have become cultural touchstones in their own right (“Get your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!”). But the films, the first in particular, still represent some of the best movie-making magic there ever was. I envy you Atlantans the chance to experience it on the big drive-in screen. Now, watch like Apes!

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