Before Muppet master Jim Henson died on May 16, he saw footage of "Jim Henson's Mother Goose Stories," which premieres Saturday at 8:30 a.m. on the Disney Channel. The 13-part series, produced by Henson's production company, marks the directorial debut of Henson's 26-year-old son, Brian.
"He got to see most of them," Henson said softly. "He loved them. They're real sweet. I think they are wonderful for the preschool audience for whom they are for."
Growing up in a household populated by Kermit and the other Muppets, Henson said, "I thought puppetry was a much bigger thing that everybody knew about." His father's forte was glove puppets but Brian Henson was drawn to marionettes. "I loved the work of Bill Baird's Marionettes," he said. "We used to go to see his shows in New York City."
Jim Henson was only peripherally involved with "Jim Henson's Mother Goose Stories," even though it bares his name (the series features Jim Henson Productions' puppets).
The series is based on "Mother Goose in Prose," written by "The Wizard of Oz" creator L. Frank Baum. It's a fanciful look at the stories behind the beloved rhymes, with Mother Goose introducing the tales to her three goslings. The puppets, which interact with human performers, are designed after Maxfield Parrish's illustrations in the Baum book.
The half-hour episodes consist of three stories featuring such characters as Peter Pumpkin Eater, Queen of Hearts, Miss Muffet, Humpty Dumpty and Bo Peep. Miss Muffet, for example, is a city girl who wants to go to the country, so she runs away. "While out in the country," Henson said, "she meets a farmer and he gives her curds and whey. She ends up on the tuffet and then the spider comes down."
Each story was produced in one day. "We were shooting quite quickly," Henson said. "We were trying to get through three sets for every show. The show is a mixture of illustrations and real sets."
Henson first began working with his father on the film "The Great Muppet Caper." His marionette expertise is on view in the scene where Kermit and Miss Piggy bike around a London park.
"That was quite a complicated marionette effect," he said. "It was a marionette from a crane. We had a rig hanging from a crane and the crane was rolling along the road."
A few years later, Henson did the marionette work in "The Muppets Take Manhattan" in the scene where rats cook food in a diner.
"Then I started being the puppeteer who worked out complicated effects, which brought me to more complicated characters," Henson said.
He performed the puppetry for the role of Jack Pumpkinhead in "The Return to Oz" and for the reindeer Donner in "Santa Claus: The Movie."
Henson was one of 30 people who animated the plant Audrey II in "The Little Shop of Horrors." Four four months, he and his fellow puppeteers rehearsed every scene in the musical.
"We would work on a scene for three weeks," he said. "When you have all of those people and a really dexterous puppet like Audrey, it's great fun. The character can do so much."
In charge of the performance department at the Henson Creature Shop in London, Henson has worked with designers to create puppets that require fewer puppeteers. "Now we use a lot of computers with a control device so a puppeteer can control a lot more," he said. The dog in Jim Henson's short-lived NBC series "The Storyteller" was the prototype. "The dog is a hand puppet, but on my left hand is a complicated hand control," said Henson.
Before "Mother Goose," Henson had done second-unit directing on several projects including "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." "It takes a lot of preproduction (directing) puppets," he said. "You have to work out the blocking and where the characters are going to be. The idea is to imagine the best action you would want, how you would want it to play, and then you design the sets."
Henson has put his puppet and directing duties on the back burner since his father's death. "I have been very involved in the company a long time," he said somberly. "I am taking on an executive position; my job has changed. But it's too difficult to define it right now."