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Wednesday, November 04, 2015

A Jim Henson Thanksgiving, 47 Years in the Making

From The New York Times

In 1968, a pre-famous Jim Henson and his frequent writing partner, Jerry Juhl, collaborated on a treatment for a one-hour Thanksgiving special called “The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow.” The outline called for Mr. Henson’s puppets to exist in real-world environs, shot on location in and around an unspecified New England town. The title characters, “small, shaggy monsters” of extraterrestrial origin, would communicate via “a rather unique musical sound” — to be created on an electronic synthesizer by the pioneering musician Raymond Scott.

Mr. Henson designed a small gang of creatures, which were built using lifelike fur and glass eyes, for the project. That summer he took test photographs of them in the woods behind his Greenwich, Conn., farmhouse — including one in which his young daughters Lisa and Cheryl help position the puppets atop a pile of rocks.

And that’s where “The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow” development process appeared to end. As far as anyone can tell, Mr. Henson and Mr. Juhl never shopped the project around. In a recent phone interview from her office in Los Angeles, Lisa Henson, now 55 and chief executive of the Jim Henson Company, proffered a theory: “It’s fair to say it didn’t get made because they got absorbed in ‘Sesame Street,’ ” the landmark series that began in 1969 and made Mr. Henson and his Muppets household names.

But now, 47 years after its inception and 25 years after Mr. Henson’s death, the special is coming to television. “Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow,” a two-hour family movie starring Mary Steenburgen, with on-screen narration by the rapper and actor Chris Bridges (better known as Ludacris), will appear on Lifetime on Nov. 21. It is the first Thanksgiving-specific special for Lifetime, which has been shaking up its programming in recent years. The real stars of the special are a quartet of new woodland monster puppets, each with a name more nonsensical than the last: Burble, Squonk, Thwring and Zorp.

The release comes amid renewed nostalgia for Mr. Henson’s creative endeavors. In September, the Muppets (the characters have been owned by Walt Disney Studios since 2004) returned to prime time with a mockumentary-style series on ABC. Earlier this year, the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt said he would produce and star in a movie version of Mr. Henson’s 1980s subterranean puppet series, “Fraggle Rock.” Two new permanent spaces dedicated to Mr. Henson’s life and work are also on the way: a museum at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts will open Nov. 14, and a gallery at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens follows in 2016.

Since it was catalogued in 1995, the original “Turkey Hollow” treatment had sat, forgotten, in the company’s New York City archive. (“Jim saved everything,” Karen Falk, the Jim Henson Company’s archive director, mentioned more than once during a recent interview.) Then, in 2009, the company entered into a partnership with Archaia (now an imprint of BOOM! Studios), which granted the comics publisher access to unproduced archive materials. Archaia released “Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand” — a graphic novel adaptation of an unproduced, feature-length screenplay by Mr. Henson and Mr. Juhl — in late 2011, then zeroed in on “The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow.” That treatment became the basis for a graphic novel released last year.

Before the partnership, Ms. Henson had been unaware that a “Turkey Hollow” treatment even existed. (“It was just delightful, and it feels like vintage Henson,” she said of her reaction upon reading it for the first time.) She also said she had forgotten about her backyard shoot with the puppets until those pictures — discovered separately, in the company’s photo library — were presented to her. It was then that the memories came flooding back.

“I remember just trying to get it to look like the puppets were seated on those rocks,” she said. Ms. Henson also recalled that at the time her father had expressed “a desire to make the puppets more like animals, more real,” adding that he “put that aspect of puppet-making aside until many years later, when he did ‘The Dark Crystal,’ ” a 1982 fantasy film that Mr. Henson and Frank Oz directed.

What Ms. Henson calls “a nice little archaeological story” culminated with the discovery of the original “Turkey Hollow” creatures. The puppets, she said, were found “in poor repair — not even labeled, in a box — but we immediately recognized them from those photographs.” (They have since been restored.)

Initially, Ms. Henson said, the idea was to make the special a period piece, set in 1968, employing Mr. Henson’s original puppets and electronic-synthesizer sound concept. That approach was deemed too limiting, she explained. The version on Lifetime is set in the modern day, with the town of Turkey Hollow relocated to the Pacific Northwest. (The film was shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, this summer.) The new monsters, created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, are outfitted with animatronic elements like blinking eyes and moving eyebrows. The critters’ speech is a digital blend of puppeteer vocalizations and sound effects like bird cries.

The special’s director, Kirk R. Thatcher, a protégé of both Mr. Henson and Mr. Juhl, added a town legend not in the initial treatment, a Sasquatchian creature called the Howling Hoodoo. The plot was given a contemporary spin by including a factory-like turkey farm. “I know that Jim and Jerry would love that,” Mr. Thatcher said of the movie’s go-organic message. “They were hippies, too.”

Mr. Thatcher, whose first full-time job with Mr. Henson was as a designer on “The Jim Henson Hour,” a short-lived 1989 anthology show, recalled his boss as “a lovely, interesting guy who had no pretensions about him whatsoever.”

Mr. Thatcher later worked with Mr. Juhl as a co-writer on the 1996 feature film “Muppet Treasure Island.” He credited Mr. Juhl, who died in 2005, with imbuing him “with a sense of how to be funny but not sacrifice the charm and the warmth of these characters, whether they’re Muppets or humans.”

Ms. Steenburgen — who plays Aunt Cly, an outspoken vegan — found the gibberish-speaking monster characters particularly charming. “I knew I would be enchanted, and knew I would love them and I would be fascinated by their artistry, but what I didn’t really expect was that when it was all over, I actually missed the little creatures,” she said.

She added that Mr. Henson’s presence was felt on the set throughout the film’s shoot: “Hardly an hour would go past without someone invoking his name or telling a story about him or something that he invented.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Mr. Thatcher. “I like to say that Jim and Jerry were helping from beyond, making it happen,” he said.

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