Jim Henson's Red Book
"Usually I would start with drawings and then turn them into puppets."
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To celebrate, let’s take a look at Jim Henson’s notes!
Growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Sesame Street and The Muppets were a staple of my childhood. According to my mother, I actually saw Jim Henson (1936-1990) at a Muppets performance in NYC. He was in a nearby seat, delighted with how much joy his characters brought to us. I couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6 years old, but I wish I could remember that moment.
Exploring Henson’s notebooks brought back magical childhood memories. I’d forgotten how much I loved, Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Big Bird. So, I loved watching these characters take form in Henson’s notebooks. I hope you enjoy this exploration of one of the 20th-Century’s most creative minds! As Jim said:
The most sophisticated people I’ve ever known have just one thing in common: they were all in touch with their inner children.
The Red Book
In 1965, a 28-year-old Jim Henson began a diary. He filled it with single line notices of important events. He would continue to add single line entries until 1988, two years before his death in 1990.It is called the Red Book simply because it is red.
This modest diary would go on to chronicle the career of one of the 20th-century’s most creative minds. Throughout his life, Henson tried to start longer-form diaries, but always abandoned them for the Red diary’s simple entries.
From the start, Henson imagined it as a journal of the Muppets—a word he coined by combining puppet and marionette.
Entries would be short records of important events in Henson’s family-life or career. In 1965, for example, he records his son, John Paul’s birth. (Henson would have 5 children.)
For context, here is a page that covers October 1974 to February 1975:
He marked each new year with large bubble letters or a different colored pen. Notice how, in the top right corner, Henson has marked the year for easy reference: “1974-5.”
In particular, I enjoyed Henson’s creative sketches within his diary. For example, check out when he gets “glasses for the first time”:
In 1977, he sketches a little van to document buying a Ford (on the same day that he appeared on the Today Show for the 45th time).
FYI: Jim loved cars. He even bought a Lotus in Kermit-green. In 1976, Henson documents one of the first airings of The Muppet Show (with star Rita Moreno). A well-placed sticker helps him out:
Among his final diary entries, Henson records a VTR (video tape recording—remember those?!) of himself “skipping stones in Central P[ar]k for Neat Stuff Home Video” in 1988:
I love the modest goals of Henson’s diary. He was a busy guy, but he still wanted to document his life. If you’d like to learn more about Henson’s diary, you can watch a 3-minute CBS segment on it here.
How Jim Became a Puppeteer
Henson didn’t set out to be a puppeteer; for him, it was simply a way into television. Jim was obsessed with the new technology and later explained, “I badgered my family into buying a set.” It was expensive, but in 1950 the Henson family got a television, which the young Jim watched “religiously.”
He was so captivated by the new medium that when a local t.v. station came to his high school to recruit puppeteers, Henson jumped at the chance, thereby launching his puppetry career. Moreover, because Henson loved television, he saw an opportunity for puppetry to evolve beyond the classic stage. Now, the video could cut out the performer, leaving only the puppet on screen. Zooming out would reveal something like this:
Notice how all three puppeteers are looking down in the same direction—they are watching a video of their actions. This was another Henson-innovation. Henson learned that he needed to see a video of his puppet as he was recording to get a sense for what the audience would see. All his puppetry was performed with the puppeteers watching their movements on a screen.
When Henson joined the local television station, he already had a proclivity for the visual arts. He was fascinated with set-design and considered becoming a professional comic illustrator. Later, he explained:
I came to puppetry more through the art side of it. Usually I would start with drawings and then turn them into puppets.
As a visual artist, Jim would sketch out his ideas as they developed.
It all began with simple pencil sketches. Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Big Bird got their start in the pages of Henson’s sketchbook. Early on, they were different creatures, but Henson continued to revise them into the iconic characters we know and love (more on those three characters in a bit).
Originally, Henson did not want to be associated with children’s shows. In fact, in the 1950s and 1960s, puppeteers fought to be seen as adult entertainers. Accordingly, his first full puppet show, Sam and Friends aired at 11:25 at night. Later, in 1975, he would create The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence in which Joan Rivers interviews Kermit about his sex life. Before all that, though, Jim made a career out of puppetry by creating advertisements for adult products like coffee.
The first of Henson’s commercials, in 1957, was for Wilkins coffee. He created a series of 6 second ads featuring his puppets Wilkins and Wontkins. One of them won’t drink the coffee. Here is one of Jim’s early sketches of Wilkins, followed by his story board for the “Foot Down” commercial:
You can watch all the ways that Wilkins destroys Wontkins (because he won’t drink coffee) here.
Now, let’s take a look at some of Henson’s most loved characters and how they developed in his sketchbooks.
I was undoubtedly a great deal more comfortable with a puppet on stage and me not being seen.—Henson
Jim Henson was always a shy, mild-mannered guy. He admits that he found himself boring in interviews. But this was decidedly not the case when Kermit had the stage. Kermit was endearing and hilarious. In this 40-second clip from 1971, Dick Cavett interviews both of them about how Kermit has changed over the years:
Kermit made his debut in 1955 and has the distinction of being one of Henson’s very first puppets. Henson made the first version of Kermit out of his mother’s old turquoise spring coat and ping pong balls (cut in half) for the eyes. He wasn’t a frog yet because, according to Jim, “all the characters were abstract in those days.” Henson crafted abstract puppets because he thought they offered a more interesting experience. He explained:
If you take a character and you call him a frog…you immediately give the audience a handle. You're assisting the audience to understand; you're giving them a bridge or an access. And if you don't give them that, if you keep it more abstract, it's almost more pure. It's a cooler thing.
Kermit first appeared as a vaguely amphibious creature in Henson’s Sam and Friends (1955-1961). In this clip, Kermit learns how his friend is selling the weather.
Considering that Henson named his diary “The Life and Times of the Muppets,” it’s not surprising that one of them became his alter ego. Henson admitted, “There’s a bit of me in Kermit.”
Henson created Rowlf for a Canadian Purina Dog Chow commercial in 1962. These are a few of Henson’s early sketches:
Rowlf was the first puppet that Henson didn’t make himself. Instead, he handed over his sketches to Don Sahlin. The two had a good relationship as Henson explains:
I would generally do a little scribble on a scrap of paper, which Don would regard with a certain reverence as being the ‘essence’ which he was working toward…
Of course, this allowed Henson to create more complex designs, moving beyond Kermit’s endearing simplicity.
For the dog lovers out there, I highly recommend checking out Rowlf’s first appearance on The Jimmy Dean Show. Here, Rowlf explains his concern for humanity: “The only hope for the human race is for every man to have a dog.” Here’s a 2-minute clip:
I was shocked to learn that Henson originally designed Miss Piggy as a minor character — and a background dancer, at that.
She made her first appearance as “Piggy Lee” in 1975 along with her smarmy agent, Hamilton Pigg. This is Jim’s original conception of Piggy Lee, named in honor of the singer Peggy Lee:
Life size—Piggy Lee and Hamilton Pigg. She is delicate and lovely—He is cigar smoking—epitome of grossness.
You can watch Piggy Lee and Hamilton Pigg in this 2-minute clip:
While Piggy Lee was sweet and demure, Miss Piggy is spunky. We owe her character to Henson’s longtime collaborator, Frank Oz. Jim recalls how
Oz gave her such a strong personality that she immediately became one of the principles.
And with that, Miss Piggy became embroiled in a torrid love affair with Kermit. Here are Jim’s delightful sketches of the two love birds riding bicycles in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper.
You can watch the bicycle scene here.
Planning for The Great Muppet Caper
Like any good writer, Henson planned out the plot points for his shows. Here are his ideas for The Great Muppet Caper:
Kermit—reporter/detective—chasing a story runs into characters in each place—come together somewhere
Piggy a glamorous heiress / a fashion trend setter / head of a cosmetic company—beauty aids
Piggy: Isn’t this a wonderful part for me? I wrote most of my own lines.
Some very good looking dashing leading man type to be Kermit’s rival—Robert Redford? / Chris Reeve?
He’s totally in love with Piggy—she treats him like dirt
Piggy works for older woman she worships. Turns out to be a criminal
I love how Henson adds in a bit of Piggy’s personality with dialogue. You can almost hear her saying those lines. As a side note, this recalled for me some of Agatha Christie’s plans for her novels from last week’s edition.
Henson also made notes on what the “film should have.” Notice how these two pages of notes work together as the plot lines match many of Henson’s goals for the film stated here:
Film should have
happy—a joyful—fun film—positive attitude toward life
Funny—have several hilarious sequences—big laughs-
Substance—some real emotions/relationships—heart—showing inner good of characters. Family-ties—brotherhood—caring—tender—touching—lump in throat scene
Adventure/danger—excitement—real threat—suspense—someone in real trouble
Music—of course—not to stop for song—music to move the story along—tell something new—show new side of someone
Effects—something new—something to talk about / how did they do that. Puppet effects—not normal special effects
When it comes to “effects,” that bicycle scene mentioned above was something unheard of before Henson did it through a combination of marionettes and close ups of hand puppets. It was a scene designed to make people think: “how did they do that.”
Finally, this 17-second clip from the movie demonstrates a lot of the qualities Henson laid out: it’s joyful, funny, there’s a musical number that is integral to the plot, and it shows a dashing Charles Grodin falling in love with Miss Piggy.
Finally, I can’t end this edition without a look at Big Bird’s development through the 1960s.
Like Rowlf, Big Bird began as part of an advertising campaign. Jim sketched a 7ft bird for a Stouffer’s frozen food commercial in 1963:
In 1966, the bird had transformed into “Nutty-Bird,” a character that sold Royal Crown Cola. You can see the drink in his hand below:
By 1969, the yellow bird began to settle into his more familiar form:
Notice how the puppeteer is looking down at his hand. Carroll Spinney, who played Big Bird, held a small screen in his hand so he could see what the audience saw.
Notes on Henson’s Notes
Diary entries need not be long. Sometimes a single sentence sums up a day.
Note the year in your diary. I’m not as diligent as Henson, which is why I have been keeping the same diary since 2004. I never think to add the year to entries, which ends up being very confusing for a diary that covers such a large time-span.
Just like authors, artists often begin with hazy ideas that sharpen through continued drafting and re-drafting. I love how Kermit started out as an abstract turquoise creature.
Henson’s notes demonstrate something that comes up again and again in creative people’s notebooks: a huge amount of work goes into entertainment we consume in a matter of hours, minutes, or seconds.
Overall, the lesson I’m taking away from Jim’s notes is the value of simplicity. His plot-notes are precise and focused, his character sketches are remarkably simple compared to what they become through live performance. Kermit is a case in point: Henson turned what was basically a sock-puppet into one of the world’s most lovable characters.
I hope this post brought a bit of joy to your Monday! Let me know by hitting the heart below. You can also support this newsletter by subscribing, commenting, and sharing!
Till next week,
I watched so many clips for this post and couldn’t include them all. But if you’re up for one more, check out this “Change of Face” video from The Ed Sullivan Show (1969). It’s a great demonstration of Henson’s brilliance.
Jim Henson Quotes, Cited in Jones, Brian Jay. Jim Henson: The Biography. Random House Publishing Group, 2013, p. 160.
Falk, Karen. Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal. Chronicle Books, 2012.
Jones. Jim Henson: The Biography, p.25.
Harris, Judy. Jim Henson Interview. 21 Sept. 1982, http://users.bestweb.net/~foosie/henson.htm.
Marks, Cordell. “The Muppet Men,” TV Times (undated).
Inches, Alison. Jim Henson’s Designs and Doodles: A Muppet Sketchbook. Harry N. Abrams, 2001, p.50
"Henson Muppets Bridge even Barriers of Language,” Greencastle Banner Graphic (Indiana), February 3, 1978.
Charles Grodin got the honor of challenging Kermit for Miss Piggy’s affection.
This did bring me joy--especially seeing Kermit. It made we wonder if Charles Schulz left notebooks?
What a delight! Brings me right back. Thank you!