"Many people think of work as something to avoid," he says. "I think of work as something to seek." After five years and 124 segments, The Muppet Show has retired into internationally syndicated reruns, and a crop of new Muppet species has surfaced. Inhabitants of the new half-hour series Fraggle Rock will debut this week on the Home Box Office cable network and will air in foreign markets later this year. "There is a great need for quality children's programming," says Henson, "and I love to go into fresh places and create a world you can believe in."
The Fraggles, easily identified by their Ping-Pong-ball eyes, pink felt tongues and tufts of feathery hair, are carefree sybarites who live in caves carved out of Fraggle Rock. They share their subterranean universe with two other species: Gorgs—shaggy, seven-foot autocrats who regard themselves as the little realm's rightful rulers—and Doozers—compulsive carpenters, six inches high, who habitually build modular crystal structures that the Fraggles habitually gobble up. (Architecture, the Fraggles reason, is meant to be enjoyed.) The show chronicles the misadventures of five Fraggles—Gobo, Wembley, Red, Mokey and Boober—as they try to live harmoniously among the Gorgs and the Doozers. "We don't want to preach," says Henson. "If it's not entertaining, we better forget about it. But it should have substance and not be a piece of shallow fluff."
Fraggle Rock evolved from three years of collaboration at Henson Associates' London and Manhattan workshops and took shape before the cameras last summer in Toronto. A cavernous studio was transformed into a maze of blowfoam stalagmites and featherweight boulders. While technicians adjusted a tangle of 2,000-watt lights, maneuvered cameras and worked on the audio, a wardrobe girl festooned with safety pins carefully eased a small orange Fraggle hand into a raspberry-pink sleeve. In one corner, Marjory the talking Trash Heap lay silent. At center stage, a young mime stood forlornly in the bottom half of a Gorg suit, waiting to be fitted with his 15-pound head.
Amid the tumult loomed the bearded, pencil-thin Henson, calm as Kermit, wearing a flowered shirt and skinny designer jeans. "When Jim directs, there is an excitement and a delight," says producer Duncan Kenworthy. "He draws the best from everyone. He keeps track of the small things that are so key to all puppet work on television. The audience should never be aware of the difficulty."
The performers, of course, never forget. Though the tiny Doozers are run by remote control and the Gorgs are, like Big Bird, simply performers in body suits, manipulating the Fraggles requires awesome dexterity. Each Muppeteer wears a Fraggle on his arm like an ultralong sleeve, controlling facial expressions with one hand while maneuvering the Muppet's arms by wires with the other. During rehearsals and tapings, the Muppeteers extend the characters over their heads, while keeping track of the action on a small monitor. A complicated group scene can force them into bizarre pretzel shapes, but the Muppets themselves seem to interact with miraculous grace. "The only way the magic works is by hard work," says Henson.
Off-duty Fraggles are hung on pegs next to a sign reading "Please Don't Fondle the Stars." The products of six months' labor by 30 puppet makers, they were cut from patterns in foam and fleece, then sewn, glued, hand-dyed and Scotchgarded. Their appendages snap on and off. Between engagements, Fraggles travel comfortably four to a box.
Their Mississippi-born creator is almost as flexible. His colleagues are continually amazed by his even temper, his unflagging energy and his willingness to take adventurous risks. "The most astonishing thing about him," says Henson Associates Vice-President Michael Frith, "is his total lack of interest in the status quo. You're not supposed to stop something that's successful, like The Muppet Show. You're supposed to milk it for all it's got. But every time he reaches a plateau, he rumbles around and comes up with something new."
Low-key and reserved, except when he skateboards or flies kites with his crew on location, Henson meditates and neither smokes nor eats meat. His most exuberant exclamation is "Neat." "Everything about him is special," says puppet maker Amy Van Gilder. "Sometimes I think he's from another planet." Married for 23 years to his former partner in puppetry, Jane Nebel, he is the affectionate father of five children, 12 to 22. All the while he keeps a shrewd eye on an expanding business empire. Included therein are his filmmaking enterprises, like the current The Dark Crystal, TV specials, music and publishing ventures, and a tightly controlled licensing operation.
Fantasy is Henson's business, but he is not the type to lose touch with reality. "I've never thought of the Muppets as human," he muses. "They are certainly real within the world they are a part of, but when you finish a taping, you throw them in a box." Still, they command a certain respect. On the workshop door of Henson Associates' Manhattan headquarters is tacked a bold-lettered sign: "Please do not annoy, torment, pester, plague, molest, worry, badger, harry, harass, heckle, persecute, irk, bully, rag, vex, disquiet, grate, beset, bother, tease, nettle, tantalize or ruffle: THE MUPPETS." If you do, you'll have to deal with Miss Piggy.
In the beginning, Jim Henson created Kermit. That success begot Rowlf the Dog, then came all the others, from Oscar the Grouch to the divine Miss P. At 46, chief Muppeteer Henson has been dispensing oddball enchantment for nearly three decades, and there is no sign he is ready to rest.