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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Shop Around: Living La Vida Goo Goo Muck: Monster Art Studio’s Jeff Riggan Whips up a Surreal Visual Sideshow for the Rock n Roll Monster Bash at the Starlight Drive-In

Posted on: Jun 1st, 2013 By:

Just another reason Atlanta has become Halloween-Town, USA is the Rock and Roll Monster Bash  Sun. June 2 at the Starlight Six Drive-In. Hosted by the Silver Scream Spookshow‘s Professor Morte, the fiendishly fun festival of macabre music and movies is now in its 11th year. Highlights include MONSTROSITY CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING, live music by six bands, a souped-up hearse show, and two classic horror features in 35 mm majesty, THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975), starring William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine and John Travolta, as well as Sam Raimi‘s EVIL DEAD 2 (1987), starring Bruce Campbell‘s chin and a chainsaw. [Read our Retro Reviews for THE DEVIL’s RAIN here and EVIL DEAD 2 here].

Another big reason to come is a vicious vendors market, featuring a wide variety of cool monster-themed and Retro-inspired merchandise from vintage cult movie ephemera to vintage clothes, Gothic jewelry to BBQ and booze. One of our favorite discoveries last year was artist Jeff Riggan, who had just moved himself and his Monster Art Studio up to Atlanta from Florida. We’ve been running into him at various street festival art markets, and his work has never ceased to impress us, from stuffed sideshow freaks Slugmo and Squidboy to gigantic tiki/tropical-themed works or a mega-painting of Lux Interior of The Cramps!

A professional artist for nearly 30 years, Jeff has painted approximately 30 murals for Orlando-based Tijuana Flats Tex-Mex restaurants, as well as created sets, sculptures, murals and large scale artwork for the Universal theme parks, Six Flags, WonderWorksNickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and more. He and his work has been featured in many publications, local and national news, as well as several television shows.

Needless to say, Jeff’s tent will be one of our first stops at the Bash this year, but ATLRetro also is horrifically happy to report that’s just one of his nefarious plots to do his part in making Atlanta the official monster capital of America!

ATLRetro: You’ve got some big plans for this year’s Rock N Roll Monster Bash, such as a scarily special photo op, I hear! What can you reveal in advance without giving away any spoilers?

Jeff Riggan: There will be blood.

As I recall, last year was either your first Monster Bash and you were pretty excited about being part of it. What’s your personal favorite thing about Monster Bash and why it’s a not-to-be-missed Atlanta event?

Last year Monster Bash was our first festival in Atlanta, and it opened the doors for me.  Monster Bash is a great venue for people with a freaky passion for art,  music, classic horror movies.

How did you first get into painting monsters? Does it go back to when you were a kid? Is there a cool story?

Listening to punk rock, skateboarding. Sid & Marty Krofft polluted my mind, Evel Knievel got me amped and Bob Ross had a painting show. That’s how it all started!

Who was your first favorite monster growing up and why?

[Maurice Sendak‘s] WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. It laid rest on my mind until I started making my stuffed creatures.

You’ve done murals, 3-D art, sides of buildings, all sorts of crazy stuff. What were one or two of your most fun projects and why?

I worked in the theme park production industry for over 15 years, which was an amazing experience. I would have to say the most fun I had was in my own backyard, so to speak, painting murals for a local co-op in Florida, all over the outside of their buildings. They let me have the freedom to express myself. One of my most favorite was painting a three-story high Great Dane. I also enjoyed traveling from the Florida Panhandle to Chicago painting murals for a corporate restaurant – I was given free reign to paint whatever I wanted.

In addition to monsters and murals, you paint music-inspired art such as your recent Cramps and tiki-stuff. How do you describe your art and what are the limits of what you enjoy creating?

I listened to music before I began painting, it was a creative outlet for me until I discovered I was an artist. It’s a tangible way for me to express myself. They are intertwined, art and music. Lux Interior, Unknown Hinson, Hunter S. Thompson – in my own interpretive way.

You used to live in Florida. What brought you to Atlanta and when exactly did you move up here?

I came here as a leap of faith in May 2012. Monster Bash was our very first show here in ATL , so [I and my wife Emily] have been here for one year!  It was an immediate overwhelming sense of belonging – everyone we met said “Welcome to Atlanta.” True Southern Hospitality!

Atlanta has a huge horror scene now. What do you think of it, and how is the local fervor for horror inspiring/affecting your work? 

I think it’s amazing.  It definitely challenges me. I’ve also met some cool people – Tim [Mack] from Imperial Opa Circus, Chris Brown of Macabre Puppets – that have inspired me.

You seem like the kind of guy who must have an amazing studio. Can you describe it and what you keep around to inspire you?

Eyeballs, skulls, torsos,  “souvenirs” from dumpster diving and exploring old buildings, machine parts, trailers, bicycles – Fred G. Sanford would be envious!

Didn’t you some movie work here lately?

I just finished working on THE CIRCLE, an independent horror film, with Beth Marshall, Tripp Rhame, Ben Jacoby and Tom Hamilton. Forrest Hill and I built props, special effects, and build the sets  We worked out at the old prison farm on Key Road, near the Starlight Drive-In.

What else are you up to right now, and what’s the next event at which you’ll be exhibiting/selling your work? 

A featured spread in Stuffed Magazine with my felted circus freak creatures – Slugmo and Squidboy. We’ll be at the Strut [Sept. 21] in East Atlanta and then…..who knows!  My sets/booths are becoming more and more elaborate, and I am always adding new stuff.

What question do you wish someone would ask you but they never do? And what is the answer? 

Hey, can we pay you for your ideas, you just create stuff? The answer is YES!

The 11th annual Rock and Roll Monster Bash kicks off at 10 a.m. Sunday June 2 and runs all day and night at the Starlight Six Drive-In. Get their early to stake out the best parking spots. Bands include Alice Cooper tribute group Black Juju, Baby Baby, a reunion of The Butchers, Dracula (singing the hits as only he can!), Spooky Partridge and Metal Gaga (the lovechild of Lady Gaga and Iron Maiden!). Advance tickets are available at http://www.ticketalternative.com.

To purchase artwork year-round or contact Jeff about custom paintings, set design and more, visit Monster Art Studio online.

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Retro Review: MIAMI CONNECTION: Congratulations, The Plaza Got You Motorcycle Ninjas for Christmas

Posted on: Dec 8th, 2012 By:

MIAMI CONNECTION (1987); Dirs: Y.K. Kim & Woo-sang Park; Starring Y.K. Kim, Vincent Hirsch; Plaza Theatre, HELD OVER for second week through Dec. 13; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

The first thing you need to know is that MIAMI CONNECTION takes place not in Miami, but on or around the beaches of landlocked Orlando.

Still listening? Then the other thing to know is that MIAMI CONNECTION is a movie out of time, a gift from the past that you didn’t even know you wanted. Congratulations, The Plaza got you motorcycle ninjas for Christmas, but you have to go this week to pick them up.

The history of MIAMI CONNECTION is so unbelievable that it’s already a movie legend. In 1987, Korean immigrant and self-described “modern philosopher” Y.K. Kim collected a modest budget and a gang of amateur actors and taekwondo students to craft a martial arts epic about a black-belt rock band’s struggle against drug-dealing ninjas, starring Kim, of course, as the improbable college student hero, Mark. After failing to find distribution, the movie disappeared into obscurity, never officially released.

Twenty-five years later, an employee of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, stumbled upon the last remaining film print on an online auction site. The Drafthouse is a kind of national church for movie fans, and they’ve been aggressively searching out and stockpiling 35mm film prints for years, defying the conventional wisdom that film is dead. After negotiating a $50 price for the MIAMI CONNECTION print—sight unseen—the Drafthouse decided to show the film as a random oddity for their midnight crowd. The audience erupted and, somehow, MIAMI CONNECTION became a hit. Now, the Drafthouse has made the movie an official release for their distribution arm, remastering it and shipping it to theaters nationwide. They’ve even mounted a tongue-in-cheek Oscar campaign and produced a new trailer, cut by Jason Eisener, director of CONNECTION’s spiritual soulmate, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011).

For decades, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) was the king of ironic entertainment, beloved for being bad long enough to become an institution, but today’s audiences have been seeking new guilty pleasures. First, we had SHOWGIRLS (1995) and its silly drinking game, and then TROLL 2 (1990) became popular enough to spawn its own documentary. Most recently, crowds pack the Plaza for regular showings of THE ROOM (2003), bringing forks and costumes to make themselves part of the experience.

And now, for these folks, MIAMI CONNECTION feels almost like a culmination. It’s an honest-to-godawful classic, something that’s normally found and championed by the few, now delivered by a major theater entity in a pristine presentation. It’s a movie literally plucked off the scrap heap, polished and mass-produced. Ready-made cult movies tend to flop because audiences are savvy and they know when they’re being pandered to (REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA, anyone?), but the vibe around MIAMI CONNECTION is completely different. This is one group of movie-fanatics speaking to others and saying “you have GOT to see this,” just as they’ve done for years, but never before on this scale.

Part of the film’s charm is that it’s so damn sincere. Y.K. Kim’s college student is just one member of the band Dragon Sound, all of whom are badass taekwondo students/total dorks. For some reason, Dragon Sound’s very existence seems to be standing in the way of a growing drug cartel based out of Miami, but doing business through the band’s club in Orlando. This thin premise kicks off an escalating series of martial arts battles between the band and the cartel’s thugs and, yes, eventually leads to a confrontation with motorcycle-riding, cocaine-dealing ninjas.

In between attacks, the band hangs out at their favorite eateries, spars on campus and fails to score with chicks at the beach. Oh, and one member of the band has about three scenes dealing with the search for his long-lost father, handled entirely via mailbox. Did I mention that the band also writes and performs a song about friendship? That song shares stage time with a ditty about fighting ninjas, which they sing before any member of the band has encountered even a single one.

But no plot synopsis can completely capture MIAMI CONNECTION’s charms. Sure, there are laughs to be found in the schlocky gore effects, bizarre plot twists and bad dialogue (“…because of that stupid cocaine…”), but people don’t go to these movies again and again to simply sit and make fun of them. That’s a mean-spirited reaction, and the crowd with whom I watched MIAMI CONNECTION showered it with love. No, what makes the movie resonate with people is that it’s an endearing reflection of the types of movies it wants to be. When you watch MIAMI CONNECTION, you can recognize the notes the film is trying to play, even if it comes off more than a bit tone deaf. Film is a language, and this is an American urban action movie made by someone who doesn’t quite speak that language, but who was passionate enough to try anyway. This is true, too, of the Italian ambition behind TROLL 2 or, um, wherever the hell Tommy Wiseau came from to produce THE ROOM. If any of these filmmakers had managed to make the movie they attempted, the result would have been a magnitude less interesting. Are these movies bad in the strictest sense? Sure, but they’re also minor miracles. In a sea of low-budget mediocrity, it takes a special spark of passion to fail this spectacularly and entertainingly.

MIAMI CONNECTION doesn’t make much sense as a story, but the action is fun and for real, and it’s a blast to watch the random plot threads bang together and make noise. Most of all, it’s a reminder that films inspire and speak to all of us, even those who don’t quite know the words. Come for the irony and the motorcycle-ninjas, but don’t be surprised if you get caught up in the fun of going to the movies.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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