by Tara Street, Brand Creator/Consultant
Blog: Kind of a Sideshow
Biz: Braid Creative
On a Wednesday night that I can’t believe was already one whole month ago, I was watching TV in the living room with my two young boys and my husband, and he looked up from his iPad (just like the president noted how so many of us ironically first heard about Steve Jobs’ death) and told me Steve Jobs had died. Since then, Jobs’ passing has certainly been one of the defining moments of the year in the minds of so many. But at first I had sort of a disconnected feeling about it, like I often do when a public figure dies. Far away news, right?
Then another five minutes past, I couldn’t focus on the show I was watching, probably because my two boys were horsing around in front of the television anyway, and I looked back at my husband and could tell he was really sad.
He’s typically a stoic fellow, but this was obviously distressing him, I could tell because his jaw was even more rigidly set than usual, but the look in his eyes was very far away. It was just a big deal. Especially for him. He’s always been fascinated by Howard Hughes, and I felt a little bit at that moment like Jobs was the Hughes of our generation. I mean, maybe not as extremely eccentric in his later days, but Jobs did do that thing where he wore only the same exact outfit to work every day to be a more efficient genius and all.
See, both my husband and I are creative professionals and have only ever used Macs for our livelihoods. Then on top of that, when we tried to count for our seven-year old Charlie all the Apple devices we’ve had in our home and lives over the years, we lost count.
Just a couple days later when Charlie had to dress up as what he wanted to be when he grew up for school, he chose to be a designer like his dad. We slapped a white Apple logo sticker on his black t-shirt (my husband has a drawer of them), and I found him a pair of fake black horn-rimmed “art director” glasses (I have a drawer of costume props for these exact kind of spontaneous moments) and he became our mini Steve Jobs.
Before we sent him off to the bus stop my husband asked, “do you think this is in bad taste?” And I said “No. It’s great.”
So as October breezed by, and November has arrived, I’ve been thinking a lot about if I ever felt so broken up about a person I didn’t know passing away. A famous person, I mean. And it was easy to recall, because I realize now, just like Jobs, he brought their own unique ideas to the living rooms of my entire generation, and similarly inspired a whole subset of yet-to-be creative professionals. Actually, Apple recognized this person, too, as a one of the kindred “crazy ones” in my favorite of their commercials.
It was Jim Henson.
I was 14 when Henson passed away so unexpectedly, and also so young from a runaway internal infection, cause by pneumonia or strep or something really flukey like that. When I heard about it I was stopped in my tracks. I just couldn’t believe it. Even as I type now, I get so choked up about it. I guess this is how some people of my generation feel about Princess Di or Michael Jackson, and for our Boomer parents, perhaps John F. Kennedy or John Lennon.
So how does a puppeteer even rank among princesses and presidents?
Because if you stop and think about it, just like counting the Apple devices I’ve used, I started to count all the ways Jim Henson’s creations have become staples of my heart and mind, and really from such a young age.
1. Sesame Street.
Okay, this is the no brainer, and I don’t mean to minimize it here, but what can I say? I mean everyone knows that Sesame Street taught practically everyone my age, from all walks of life, how to read. But if I had to focus in on one detail for me personally, except for that huge, you know, being literate thing – it brought the city to small town and suburban kids like me. Sesame Street introduced us to brownstone walkups and streetlights and stoops and tin garbage cans on the corner, to the point when I finally visited New York City as a teenager it wasn’t the least bit unfamiliar – in fact, it was a little like coming home.
2. The Muppets.
Surprisingly enough I was never a big fan of the actual variety show, but honestly I was a little young for it. The guest appearances from stars like John Denver never really rang my bell. I think really it was more geared toward my Boomer parents, and good thing it was, because they were the consumer audience behind The Muppet Movie getting made. And the movies were where the really lasting stuff came from. For example, the Academy Award Nominated song, Rainbow Connection, has been covered by recording artists from Michael Bublé to Willie Nelson. It’s was my go-to lullaby when my boys were babies, and I can still recite every lyric to this day.
I won’t even go into the scenes from that film that have forever haunted and move me – from an abandoned monster at a used car lot to the bittersweet song of the eternal misfit, Gonzo (but I will go into it here.)
That’s right, Y-O-D-A, Yoda. I’m not talking the computer animated Yoda my kids have to watch today. I’m talking the P-U-P-P-E-T. Puppet Yoda, with droopy eyelids that blinked, and perfectly articulated movements of someone very old but also full of personality to the points of his floppy ears. Like Big Bird or Mickey Mouse, Yoda is the kind of iconic character you can’t remember ever not existing – completely original but so comfortably familiar. He didn’t even get introduced until smack dab in the middle of the original Star Wars trilogy and kind of took it all to the next level at that point. Like, “how can this whole Star Wars thing possibly get any better? Oh, meet Yoda.” Changed forever, your life is.
Now, this is where I gotta give Frank Oz some props. Obviously just like Steve Jobs, Jim Henson surrounded himself with an amazing team, like the songwriters Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams quoted below. And Frank Oz, the voice of Grover, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear to name a few – and of course, Yoda – is right up there.
4. The Dark Crystal.
This is where Jim Henson, I believe completely, well – completed me. This film full of fantastical creatures is considered his advanced puppetry. It was a departure from the Muppets and Sesame Street, and even Yoda who still carried some of the lovable Muppet-like characteristics with him. The Dark Crystal instead transported us into a beautiful, kind of scary and highly-crafted world. And the characters! My dad who typically only went to horror movies with us, pretended to be an evil birdlike Skeksis at the dinner table, creepily crooning and drooling for a week. For our mom who would only rent sci-fi and barbarian movies anyway (think Conan before the remake) well, this was right up her alley. Until Labyrinth came out, that is. Then David Bowie in tights trumped Dark Crystal for her. But Labyrinth was actually Henson production, too, if you didn’t know.
My siblings and I were into both films, hook line and sinker. I really think the art direction of Henson’s world shaped how I draw (I was the illustrator of the family) how we perform (my brother went on to be a sideshow performer with a flair for dark humor) and how we dress a little even (my sister still has no problem styling herself like a modern day runway version of a forest Gelfling).
So needless to say, if I had to come to work tomorrow as who I want to be when I “grow up” it would be Jim Henson. I’m sure I have a fake beard and a bandana I can fashion as a headband in that costume drawer of mine. But fortunately, for all of us, there were people who really did more than play dress up. There are more television shows, movies, books, songs, plays – more than we can even know – that look and feel the way they do because their creators were inspired by the work of Jim Henson as children and young adults.
As for me, I know my lullabies wouldn’t be the same, or my love of characters. My spontaneous costume prop drawer probably wouldn’t even exist. And wouldn’t that be boring?
Jennifer has been introducing her posts lately with lyrics from songs and poems. So as a guest blogger (thanks Jen, who was probably unsuspecting I could get so passionate about puppets on a blog about generations) I thought I’d end on a similar note. Like I said, I’ve badly but earnestly sung this song “too many times to ignore it.” But the voices of Jobs and Henson – now a month without one and a decade without the other – are still too ingrained for any of us really to ever forget – or possibly ignore.
Have you been half asleep?
And have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound,
that calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.
–The Rainbow Connection, by Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams.
Tara Street is a brand creator and consultant for Braid Creative that she runs with her sister, Kathleen. Her personal blog, Kind Of A Sideshow is a recollection of her suburban-raised siblings turned creative forces (and freaks) of nature.