Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones

Nine stars

Embarking on my third biography penned by Brian Jay Jones, I had high hopes as I sought to learn much about Jim Henson. A man who was as complex as he was innovative, Jones depicts Henson as a man worth the attention of the curious reader. Born in Mississippi, James ‘Jim’ Henson and his family were not long dwellers of the South. Moving to the Washington, D.C. area not long after Jim’s birth in 1936, this allowed Jim’s father to work in government. While young Jim was always able to use his imagination, he had a passion for entertaining and engaging with others. When it came time to make his way to post-secondary, Henson was sure that he wanted to get into the new medium of televising, eager to use some of his artistic flair to create sets that could dazzle the home viewer. However, somewhere along the way, puppeteering caught his attention and he became enthralled with the art. The entire realm came naturally to Henson, as Jones describes throughout the early chapters of the book, and characters appeared to come together at the oddest times. At a period when much of the television was local, Henson was out to score a spot on DC networks to show off his trade. He was successful in landing a spot with a children’s television show in the last 1950s, bringing education and enjoyment to youngsters, while making a name for himself. His colourful characters caught the attention of many, so much so that some of these puppets soon won spots as guests on highly popular programs, offering a national spotlight to the young Henson and whetting his appetite for more. Henson was happy, but his ambitions could not be ignored.

As Jones discusses at some length, while Henson was happy with his work, he fought a constant uphill battle about his place in television. Having dubbed his own type of puppets as ‘Muppets’, Henson sought to ensure that they were not labelled as “children’s entertainment”, but rather something that everyone could enjoy. Muppets may be highly entertaining to those who could suspend reality to a degree, but this did not mean that they were only for children. Henson sought to hone his skills and show the world that Muppets could be highly useful in entertaining the adult mind, with humour and banter that would appeal to the older audience. Henson continued to create new and exciting Muppet characters, names that would one day become synonymous with the Jim Henson name. While networks were slow to jump onto the bandwagon, Henson never stopped expanding his ideas or connections in the world of puppetry. When the Children’s Television Workshop approached him in the late 1960s about a new and innovative children’s program, Henson was highly interested, as this might be an ideal platform to help bring some of his Muppets to life, even though it was back in the realm of children’s entertainment. What came of these discussions soon developed into the juggernaut Sesame Street, allowing Henson to always look ahead to new and exciting projects. Jones depicts not only the development of Sesame Street in this biography, but some of the early successes and struggles that Henson and his fellow members faced. Very interesting to the curious reader, particularly if this was one of their staple shows as a child.

Jim Henson was nothing if not a workaholic. His ideas were almost infinite and he was happy to pursue every lead to see if it led to a pot of gold. This would put a definite strain on Henson and his young family, but Jim could not let that deter him. Seeking a prime time platform for his Muppets, Henson began trying to come up wth a variety show of sorts that would feature a great deal of Muppet-based skits aimed at a larger family audience. He stumbled, as executives were not yet sold on the idea, eventually turning to some funding in the United Kingdom to get things off the ground. When The Muppet Show debuted in the mid-1970s, it soon had a massive following and Henson knew he had a winner. He continued to produce and write for the series, wooing big name stars to come for their respective guest appearances. This spawned new Muppets and greater interest in all things that Henson had to offer. The show’s success eventually turned into a major market, with movies, animated shows, and merchandise that would keep Henson financially stable for years to come. Jones illustrates some of the major projects that Henson tried to fit between taping his television shows, always looking past what had been done and where he could go next. His success was balanced out with tight deadlines and, at times, some highly difficult negotiations. Into the 1980s, Henson’s ideas continued, though so did the interest for outside groups to make a bid to own his legacy. Jones explores some of the decisions that Henson had to make as he grew older, wanting to ensure his Muppets were not lost in an era of network restructuring, turning to Disney to protect all that he held dear. The negotiations were tough, but Henson held firm and negotiated with Disney to ensure a safe place. In the last portion of the book, Jones explores a rapid illness that took hold of Henson, which led to a spiral in his health and dead in May 1990. As septic shock was attributed as the cause, the world mourned the loss of this man. Jones spends the last chapter exploring the outpouring of grief and joy in equal measure for a man who touched the lives of so many, myself included.

I have always found it refreshing to explore people and events that shaped my life, even if I do not know much about them. In each of the biographies I have read by Brian Jay Jones, I took much away fro the experience, particularly when I could ‘peek behind the curtain’ to see the inner workings of things. This Jim Henson biography was the first written of the three I have read, which offered me a unique perspective into the writing style Jones has. While it is hard to compare the three, as they all offer insightful explorations into their subjects, Jones definitely offered a massive exploration into the life and times of Jim Henson. There was so much detail on which the reader can feast, as well as a strong narrative that ties things together wonderfully. The story flowed so well and the pace between chapters kept the reader wanting to know a little more. Jim Henson was surely a man of many pursuits, forcing Jones to look under many a (Fraggle) rock to get the true story of this man, but it was done with such ease. I learned so much and just wish I had to time to check out each of the areas covered in this book to learn more. The balance of personal and professional life is masterful, tying things together nicely while always making Henson out to look like a reasonable man.. Jones does so well that the reader will surely be shunned at some parts and enthralled by others, but never lose their intrigue into what drove the man throughout. Anyone who has even a passing interest in all things Sesame Street, Muppet Show, or even Jim Henson will take something away from this book. It surely helped me relive my oft-forgotten childhood years and the warmth that I can now pass along to Neo, who missed out on some wonderful and truly intriguing television.

Kudos, Mr. Jones, for helping me bring my childhood back to life, as well as shedding much light on the life of Jim Henson. He will be missed and television is nowhere nearly as exciting without him. The Henson footprint lives on and you do well to help in that regard.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

George Lucas: A Life

Nine stars

After reading one of the other biographies he penned, I knew it was only a matter of time before I returned to tackle another piece by Brian Jay Jones. In this thoroughly explored piece, Jones tackles the life and times of George Lucas, who was the man behind the lens of many iconic films, most notably six of the Star Wars saga and Indiana Jones, that iconic hero. Jones offers a comprehensive look into the man’s life and a great deal of behind the scenes to exemplify why the reader ought to take note of what Lucas did and the impact he had on others. Born a scrawny kid in California, George Lucas just wanted to have fun, though he seemed to be out of his element. The brunt of many attacks by bullies, young George sought to carve out his own niche and lost himself in the world of comics whenever possible. The new medium of television astonished him, as he could see the stories from his books and comics come to life on the screen, something he imagined that he could do. When he failed at an early newspaper career as a teen, Lucas needed something to occupy his time and school did not seem to be the answer, though his need for fast cars was a means by which to feed his adrenaline rush as well. His grades were poor and his attention wavered at every turn. When George refused to enter the family stationary business, his father refused to bankroll anything in the arts at college, leaving the younger Lucas to turn to something that interested him and yet could still pass muster with his father. George chose film school, not realizing how ‘artistic’ it could be, and thrived from the get-go. Jones explores how Lucas came into his own when taught some of the basics of film, turning a young man with little ambition into a powerhouse. Lucas sought to push the boundaries and challenge everything, all to make a point. His medium was the screen, where he could bring any idea to life and captivate the world, or at least anyone with enough patience to sit through what was playing before them.

It was while in film school at the University of Southern California that Lucas rubbed elbows with a few other up and comers, namely Francis Ford Coppola and a wiry young student, Steven Spielberg. Lucas admired the former and was taken under his wing for a time, while the latter was seen idolising Lucas (which would lead to a life-long friendship, competitive streak, and some collaborative efforts). All three would work together alongside one another throughout Lucas’ career in film, as Jones shows repeatedly. With the education behind him, Lucas made his way out into the world to make movies and influence others. His ideas were bountiful and he sought to create something meaningful from the outset, but financial limitations were always going to be an issue. Jones explores the struggles to get backing as a new kid on the block, though Lucas was never short of ideas. He penned many a proposal and turned out a blockbuster hit in American Graffiti, though it was anything but guaranteed. Lucas continues to search for something better and turned to some of his ideas of a superhero series set in space, which gave birth to perhaps some of the most iconic movie making in the latter part of the 1970s and spawned an ‘empire’ that has become a cult classic. Jones thoroughly discusses and explores the time and effort Lucas spent in writing, directing, and producing the first Star Wars trilogy, which was highly stressful and would cost Lucas a marriage. Jones argues throughout that Lucas had a passion for film that surpassed anything else, leaving others to either join him or wait for it to be convenient for the icon. With an unknown cast and vastly expensive ideas for the time, Lucas sought to bring his dreams to life. Money was the central object and yet things seemed to come together, as the doubters were forced to eat crow and Lucas made a name for himself, while padding his bank account at the same time. Interspersing his work on all things Jedi, Lucas also created another of his life-long ambitions, a more down to earth adventure series with one Indiana Jones in the title role, headed by his Star Wars leading man, Harrison Ford.

By the time the first Star Wars trilogy was done in 1983, Lucas was exhausted and yet still making a name for himself. His work was far from over and with a production company bearing his name, George Lucas was not about to rest on his own laurels. He had been working on Indiana Jones films and set about to keep doing so, trying to keep the series running and the public hungering for his work. As Jones intimates throughout this portion of the biography, Lucas faced many questions about the future of Star Wars, as well as whether he had any ideas. While Lucas would rebuff much of this, he had a few things simmering and chose to tackle the prequel trilogy, helping to explain how things evolved. Jones describes the struggles and the new technology that Lucas had at his fingertips to reinvigorate the original trilogy and how to make this new one even better. Juggling that and some other projects, Lucas also had family obligations and ended up dating to keep himself happy. Jones mentions that he may have finally come out of his shell enough to allow a second person to share his passion, while not choosing moviemaking as his sole mistress. With the success of his movies, Lucas chose to step away from the limelight, though did not want his legacy buried. His sale of Lucasfilms to Disney turned him a massive profit, but also ensured that the <i>Star Wars</i> films would receive their stardom in perpetuity. Finally happy, Lucas could let others worry about the nitty-gritty, as the Force left him to enjoy some form of retirement.

I was so intrigued with how Brian Jay Jones handled another biography I read recently that I knew I would be coming back for this one. While I was just a wee lad when Star Wars was popular, I have seen some of the Lucas-made films and wanted to know more about the man behind them. Jones takes the reader on an amazing journey through the life of George Lucas, showing not only his dazzling moments, but also the pitfalls that he was forced to overcome. From his wimpy childhood days to his battling with others to fund his massive film projects, Lucas was never one to back away from adversity, seeing himself as having reason for his actions. Jones depicts this well throughout, choosing not to deify the man, but also not making him out to be completely out of touch with those around him. While many have said that George Lucas could not relate to his actors, the biography shows a man keenly interested in connecting to those who breathed life into his ideas, though the director/producer always had a vision and god help anyone who stood in his way. There is also a wonderful theme running throughout of the friendships that Lucas made early in his career (Coppola, Spielberg, etc) and how they could come together at times, complementing their respective rise to stardom. Jones uses the three parts of the book to effectively divide Lucas’ life, showing how he rose to notoriety, lived the intense life that was Star Wars and then settled into a career that continued to earn him much fame. I did take a great deal away from this book and hope to learn more about the man, as Jones has paved the way and offered a few interesting pathways worth following. Anyone eager to know the man behind the George Lucas persona need look no further than this book, as Brian Jay Jones has penned yet another powerful biography of someone who was able to wiggle his way into the daily lexicon of those who understand the basics of pop culture. I was so thoroughly impressed and cannot wait to see what else Jones has uncovered on other iconic figures.

Kudos, Mr. Jones, for shining a much-needed light on another wonderful figure. You handle these subjects so well, no wonder people turn to you to tell their lives in print.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, by Brian Jay Jones

Nine stars

Always keen to learn a little something about others, I eagerly reached out for Brian Jay Jones’ biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, to see what I could learn about this most inspirational man. Geisel, who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, was from strong German stock and born in the early years of the 20th century. Accepting an anglicized version of his name, ‘Ted’ spent much of his youth as a dedicated young boy with a handful of friends, but was also keenly aware that his heritage would see him ridiculed and mocked, particularly during the Great War. Always ready with a joke, Geisel found a spot at post-secondary with ease and began writing for his college publication, using his imagination to liven up the stories and articles with some of his early ‘Seussian’ comments on life around him. It was only when he attended Oxford for a year of post-graduate studies—earning a spot through his father’s money, rather than academic prowess—that someone noticed his ability to sketch out drawings that could catch the eye. Geisel used this to his advantage, though he had little else on which to rely, as his academics were anything but stellar. Geisel used quirky drawings and punchy lines to get into the advertising business, landing a national campaign for an insecticide that lasted for years. All the while, he worked on a children’s book, with limited success until an old college chum pulled some strings. The gamble paid off, though not as successfully as Geisel might have hoped. Geisel had an idea about how to make things work for the intended audience and not just the publisher.

Working as an editorial cartoonist allowed Geisel to stretch his wings and dabble into the world of political satire. Geisel excelled here, but found that some of his opinions rubbed readers the wrong way. He used these strong opinions to pave the way into the US Army for the Second World War, serving to educate the troops on a number of topics. Brian Jay Jones offers a lengthy discussion of this time, which proved highly important in his overall success.

It was in a post-war era that Geisel found some success as he continued to espouse the importance of writing for and not at children. He was becoming a name in the publishing industry and his work was begin circulated as he taught up and comers how to secure their audience. Geisel’s successes began to appear at this time, including The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Jones describes the ongoing successes from there, including how Geisel created a type of early reader genre that would allow young readers to find their footing before progressing. Geisel was a tyrant when it came to this and his cut-throat antics are depicted repeatedly throughout the tome. However, his successes continued, as Geisel was able to find new and exciting ways to interest his readers, as well as their families. Juggling personal tragedy throughout, this childless man proved to be the father of modern children’s books and his successes continued, taking simply concepts and imbuing themes that spoke to all ages to promote some of his ideas.

Towards the latter portion of the book, Jay explores an older Geisel, whose successes continued as he refused to give up. Health concerns slowed him down, but Geisel wanted to keep working to appease the children. His books began to offer up some persona sentiments, layered in a children’s story, which left some to wonder if Geisel might be using his fame to peddle a specific agenda. As Geisel’s health deteriorated, he had to accept ahis limitations and was recognized for many of his key accomplishments. Jones explores how all this weighed on Geisel, as well as the decades of fans he acquired. By the final stages, Geisel’s legacy was firmly rooted in children’s literature, as well as his passion to ensure children loved to read. Even after his death, the Seuss legacy is strong and his impact resonates with generations, even today!

I cannot say enough about this piece, other than to admit that Dr. Seuss was much more complex than I first imagined. His life was full of the ups and downs one would expect from a man with such talent, something that Brian Jay Jones captured with great talent throughout. Geisel seemed to meander around, trying to find his niche, with a supportive wife there to keep him pointing forward, though even that did not always work to his advantage. While he always appeared to have wonderfully addictive story ideas and drawings, Jones depicts Geisel as being a man who was his own harshest critic and who could, at times, stumble as he fell into an abyss of his own making. Most astounding of all, Geisel had no formal training in writing for children and no little ones of his own, so this self-developed skill is even more astounding, as Jones depicts all his successes. Geisel could be harsh to those around him, though he always saw the benefit of the child and cherished their desire to learn. Geisel would never lose this passion, wanting perfection to advance the learning ability of children as they discovered books. Jones does not shy away from the darker side to Ted Geisel, showing that he was simply human and suffered defeat, loss, and even weaknesses, but the man also had boundless amounts of humour that helped him get through the valleys on his way to new peaks. The book paces itself so well, with a strong narrative that is full of information. I could not go more than a page or two without learning something that stuck with me. Jones uses detailed chapters, without drowning the reader in minutiae, to project a strong set of characteristics that made Ted Geisel the man he became. Extensive research surely went into this piece and anyone who takes the time to read it will bask in Geisel’s accomplishments. The world lost a legend when he passed on, but the Seuss legacy remains strong for children—and adults—of all ages!

Kudos, Mr. Jones, for this stunning biography. I will be looking into some of your other work in short order.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons