Muppets™, Music & Magic: Jim Henson’s Legacy is a week-long retrospective of Muppets creator Jim Henson featuring films, documentaries and commercials at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Mon 18 – Sun 24 Apr. Martin Baker, producer of many Muppets films and personal friend of Henson, spoke to us about the project, working with Jim and some of the projects which took place after Henson’s passing in 1990.
How did you first come to work with Jim Henson?
Well, in the late 60s I was working on a production with Tom Jones, who had a big variety show at the time called This Is Tom Jones, produced in London but was primarily for the United States. So I was working on the show and one week along came an act called The Muppets who nobody really knew and nobody had really seen before. And that was my first meeting with Jim Henson.
Then a few years later I was working on another show where they came back and guested – and so it went over the next few years really, they ended up coming back a few times over the course of some different productions. I did a big Julie Andrews special in the early 70s called Julie on Sesame Street and when we recreated Sesame Street for the stage in London, the Muppets were involved with that as well. So when The Muppet Show eventually came along in 1975, Jim had got to know a handful of people at the studio, myself amongst them, and he asked if we could be part of the production team.
Then I worked with the Muppets for about five years, and Jim asked if I’d be interested in joining his company which he was going to start up in London and would I be interested in joining him as a production manager. And at first I didn’t jump up and down and say “yes when do I start?!” – I was a bit more cautious – as much as I loved Jim, I was employed at ATV Television for fourteen years, the network that produced The Muppet Show, so I had to think about it, but thank goodness my wife who is a lot smarter than I said “how can you not take up that offer?!” So I took the leap and went to work with Jim, and I always remember this: I shook hands with him on a one year contract, but that one year turned into a twenty year relationship.
I say working with Jim was a lot like going to work with your best friend every day
What do you think it was that made Jim Henson so unique and so successful?
Well with Jim you didn’t know what was going to happen next; there was always something exciting around the corner. And that’s how it was, he was an amazing man, he was everything you wanted him to be. First and foremost he was extraordinarily creative, but the other side of him was that he was a very gentle man and a wonderful collaborator. People say to me “what was it like working for Jim Henson” and I always correct them and say “you don’t work for Jim Henson, you work with Jim Henson” – and it was that subtle difference which made him who he was. He was one of those people, unique in many ways, yes he was clearly the boss and you were the employee, but he never made you feel that way. I say working with Jim was a lot like going to work with your best friend every day.
And he brought together an amazing group of people who jumped on board with his vision and saw what he was trying to do. People always say to me “how have you managed in the years since Jim passed away” and my answer is always that you can’t replace someone like that – he was true one off – you don’t replace them. And what I believe has kept us going with Henson and the Muppets is that there’s a little bit of Jim in all of us, which we’ve taken away and nurtured over the years. And that’s what he could do – he was just an extraordinary man.
Over your time spent working with Henson and the company, what are one or two of your more memorable moments?
Wow, I mean there are so many but I can’t really think of any over any other. It was always exciting going to work with Jim, you never really knew what was going to happen next. He loved stretching the medium whether it was television, show or film, he always had some crazy idea which everyone would say “what?! You’ve gotta be joking” to, but of course we all jumped on board and made it happen. And it was just an amazing adventure working with him.
We shouldn’t also forget in his passing we were left in a bit of a mess; at the time we were partly being sold to the Walt Disney Company, and his son Brian played a huge part in keeping the company going. And then two years after Jim’s passing, we made Christmas Carol which, in some circles, people have said is there favourite Muppets movie which is a lovely tribute to both Jim and Brian.
Why is this festival coming to Edinburgh now?
You know that’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. This particular retrospect I know has been touring in the United States and for me it’s exciting and I’m delighted that it is happening. I was part of an event about five or six years ago in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where they first launched this Jim Henson retrospect and I was blown away by the attendance, I couldn’t believe it. I had no concept of the fan base which Jim meant so much to, so it was wonderful to see. And this festival is an opportunity to show a side of Jim which people perhaps didn’t know or understand – for instance some people don’t know he made Dark Crystal which is clearly in contrast to The Muppets.
Could you tell us a little about why there’s a new Muppets film in production?
Well this is the first movie we’ve made in about twelve years, and the Muppets were ready to make a movie if you know what I mean; it was time to do it under Disney’s tutelage and ownership. The Muppets have been with the Disney Company for around five years or so and up until now we’ve made a bunch of television movies but not a feature – so it was the right time.
What kind of influence has working with Henson had on you and your work after leaving the company?
Oh, no question, it had a huge influence on me. I always say he got more out of people in his own gentle way than a million screamers and shouters over the years; he just had a graciousness about how he treated people. And that’s something I’ve certainly carried with me; how you treat people and how you work with others in a collaborative forum. And in this business you do meet a lot of egos and I always say to those people what are you trying to achieve? Generally, screaming and shouting comes from a place of insecurity and with Jim, he just had a unique gift for getting the very best out of people, and it meant he was a man you would go to the end of the world for.