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The Next Muppetmeister? : With Jim Henson's death, his creative empire was thrown into disarray; now his elder son is trying to lead the company back

August 19, 1990|DAVID GRITTEN

LONDON — The workshop floor and benches are strewn with turtle masks, body parts and green latex suits in various stages of preparation. A furry creature's head sits on a desk, its features contorted into a perpetual snarl. In the corner two mice, each a foot high, look on unblinkingly, their mouths slightly open in expressions of wonder.

This is the Creature Shop, one of two creative engine rooms in the late Jim Henson's puppet empire. Today is a Saturday, but a fair number of employees are at work--painting, trimming, fiddling with electronic circuits and bringing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle puppets to something resembling life.

The mice, Luke and Bruno, are from an earlier exercise in animatronics--the art of making remote controlled puppets move and change expressions. They star in a British-made film "The Witches," adapted from Roald Dahl's best-selling children's book. Anjelica Huston leads the human faction in the cast. Distributed by Warner Bros., it opens across the country on Friday.

The brisk work generates a businesslike atmosphere that almost makes one forget that this is a company only just recovering from a deep shock.

Henson died suddenly of pneumonia in May at age 53. His death came as a sorrowful blow to his colleagues and to his company.

He had, after all, given the world Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the other Muppets, along with "Sesame Street" and Muppet Babies--not to mention lesser achievements like "The Storyteller" and "Fraggle Rock" which others in Jim Henson's line of work would be proud to call their masterpieces.

Now his elder son Brian surveys from a balcony the work being done on this day at the Creature Shop. Brian Henson, like the mice in the corner, does not blink.

"There was a drop in morale when my father died," he says quietly. "A large percentage of the company was crying about it two weeks later.

"Everyone was in emotional turmoil. But that period also hardened their drive, and their feelings for what he wanted. Now they're probably more motivated to keep the dream alive than ever before."

Brian Henson reminds one inevitably of his father. The same shy, lopsided grin is in evidence, as is a slightly diffident manner and a soft Canadian burr. Though Brian is clean-shaven, he too has a long face with an aquiline profile, framed by masses of hair.

He is being spoken of as the keeper of the flame, the man who, at 26, will carry Jim Henson's vision into the 21st Century. But will it happen?

Brian Henson pauses a long time. "It's too early to say," he says finally. "I'd been working with my father for eight or nine years--in production, direction and here at the shop as performance head.

"I have the same kind of background that he had by this age, but to a lesser degree. I've developed an interest in performance, in directing and in (puppet) characters. And I'll also get involved in the company, because . . ." and he pauses again for a long time, "I have been his apprentice."

Doesn't all that constitute assuming his father's mantle? "To a degree, yes," says Henson. "Which is a slightly scary prospect. But it's exciting at the same time.

"You know, that mantle is not quite as big as people think. People know of my father's creative work, but what they don't know is the way he chose people to work with him.

"He wanted the company to run itself so he could still be a performer and a director. It meant he could be a father figure and not a boss.

"So he chose creative, self-motivated people. He tended to pick people who were still young, a lot of them under 20, and they'd stick with him. That's how we're managing to carry on right now, because everyone's so motivated. Here, we're currently going through our heaviest amount of production ever."

Henson sold many of his Muppet characters and the New York-based Henson Associates Inc. to Walt Disney Co. last year for an estimated $150-200 million. But Jim Henson Productions, which runs the Creature Shops here and in New York, has stayed within the family and functions like an independent production company, pitching its expertise to would-be collaborators.

The bulk of the London shop's work is being taken up by the sequel to "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." The huge success of the first movie, also done at the shop, prompted a decision to mine the same ore quickly, and Creature Shop craftsmen are working against tight deadlines to ready their creations for the second movie.

The Henson contingent admit to reservations about the first Turtles film, feeling it veered uneasily between harmless cartoon-style entertainment for children and a hard-edged assault on the senses with violent overtones.

"The Witches," says Brian Henson, was a far more challenging and complex task. Dahl's story is of a boy who uncovers a plot by witches to rid England of small children by turning them into mice with a specially concocted magic potion.

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