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Walt Disney and Jim Henson: So similar, so different

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by Greg Ehrbar
September 20, 2013 1:59 PM
5 Comments
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Henson bio

Brian Jay Jones' towering new tome, Jim Henson: The Biography, released this past week. It offers the first and most comprehensive portrait of a man who is one of the most important figures in popular culture of the latter part of the 20th century. While reading the book (which despite its length, is brisk and detailed with virtually no fat or pretentious armchair analysis) there’s no escaping the comparison of Jim to Walt Disney, who might claim the same title for roughly the first half of the century.

But as Jim Henson himself was quick to point out, while he greatly admired Walt Disney (and would only trust the Walt Disney Company with The Muppets), he and Walt had different goals. 

Well, yes and no. After reading the book, it's astonishing to consider what they had, and did not have, in common:

They had a childhood home that influenced the rest of their lives. For Walt, it was Marceline, Missouri, a small town that was part of the inspiration for Main Street, U.S.A. in the Disney Parks. Jim Henson cherished memories of Leland, Mississippi. His childhood was not as impoverished as Walt's, but they both spent a short yet pivotal time in their respective towns and through them gained a love and respect for nature, the common citizen and life’s simple pleasures.

Fairy tales were a significant influence. Walt saw a silent version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; Jim saw MGM's The Wizard of Oz in its first release. Both created works that took place in lands of boundless fantasy that were grounded in emotional reality that made them unforgettable. Walt’s vision of fairytales tended to be straightforward and sentimental while Jim’s was satirical and/or socially relevant. Walt's fairy tales had dark elements; Jim’s were even darker.

Both cared about children's entertainment but resisted being labeled. When a reporter referred to Walt’s Snow White feature as a "cartoon," Walt said, "It's no more cartoon than a painting by Whistler is a cartoon." Jim Henson never liked to be pigeonholed only as a "puppeteer." Both thought of themselves as filmmakers first - and as time went on, they ventured into projects that held the promise of a better world. Fraggle Rock has more in common with Epcot than you might think. In fact, Jim loved Epcot and all the Disney Parks.

Walt had Roy, Jim had Jane. Most visionaries need a sensible, centering person or persons to help them realize their dreams and to keep them in check when needed. With Walt as the front man, Roy was content to stay out of the limelight and ingeniously handle business. Jane focused her considerable talents into helping Jim develop The Muppets in the early days, then nurtured her family and home life. Personal and business differences occurred but there were lifelong bonds.

Walt was Ward Cleaver, Jim was James Bond. Walt was not a big partygoer and, from all accounts, liked to go home after long hours of work. Jim loved cars, fine dining and pretty much all the other Bond items except international intrigue. Though he didn't have shootouts with villains, he loved to blow up Muppets. Both were very committed to spending time with their beloved children, no matter how time challenged them. (One cool thing I learned from the new book: Jim Henson not only created the Sesame Street short film, "Dollhouse," he also built the house for his kids. Along the same lines, Walt Disney built the miniature farmhouse you can see on display at Disney's Hollywood Studios.)

Mickey was Walt, Kermit was Jim. Protecting the integrity of all the characters was extremely important to both, but none more than Mickey and Kermit. Walt had to contend with the fact that Mickey's success made it necessary to lessen his rascally nature, resulting in other characters often taking center stage. Jim limited Kermit's Sesame Street appearances after a critic accused him of using Kermit to shill advertised products. Both characters are essentially rural in nature, each the calm anchor around which wackiness ensues.

Walt welcomed expansion, Jim had a small company mindset. Jim makes a comment to this effect in the book, even though the growth of his company made some personal attention a challenge. His company grew from a New York workshop to an international company with well over 100 employees. While he continued on overseeing merchandise to assure quality and performed Muppets every year for Sesame Street, he could not be expected to have quality time with every member of his team. Walt’s relationship with his employees also changed as his company grew. Though Walt struggled with staff issues over the years—especially during the 1941 strike—Henson seemed to be especially uncomfortable with internal issues (particularly a rivalry between the New York and London staffs) and called in consultants for team building.

Neither was particularly generous with praise, yet inspired their people to accomplish amazing things.More than a few people have recalled that, when Walt Disney said, "That'll work" to them, it was extravagant praise. Jim Henson believed that if he didn't need pats on the back, why should his employees? Each seemed to believe that being part of the excitement of their projects was in itself a stamp of approval. Both had an almost supernatural gift for bringing out an extraordinary level of talent in their people. 

Their opposing coasts and historical eras both defined and differentiated them. Both loved silliness in their humor, but California's sunshine and show business flair weaves through Walt's works, while the intellectual, ecological and sarcastic New York state of mind flourished in Jim's work. Walt Disney was a product of the Horatio Alger/Henry Ford era and became more conservative over time, Jim Henson grew up and thrived in the midst of counterculture and rebellion. 

Disney and Henson embraced gadgets and technology likes kids in a toy store. Walt Disney’s famous quote was "We can ill afford to rest on our laurels." Throughout Jim Henson: The Biography, you’ll find variations on the phrase, "Unlike anything that has ever been done before." Walt experimented in raising the profile of animation and created the theme park, Jim embraced new forms of making puppets believable and helped revolutionize children’s TV. Both used animatronics, special effects and thrived on the next big thing - and both were personally affected when the public occasionally did not respond favorably.

Each was attached to iconic, signature songs. Walt Disney's theme song became "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio. The same might be said for "The Rainbow Connection" from Jim Henson’s The Muppet Movie. However, the songs with the most personal resonance for each were "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins for Walt and "Just One Person" from Snoopy The Musical for Jim. If you were to pick a project that was personal to Walt and Jim, respectively, it might be So Dear to My Heart and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.

They raced against time to maximize every second of their lives. Each seemed to know that they had to cram every dream they could into a limited life span. But (and this is a big "but") Walt’s time came when he was 65 and a lifetime chain smoker. Jim was 53 and was never really sick. The book sets the record straight about the rare, bizarre bacteria that took him. Both deaths came as a shock to their families, their co-workers and all of us. I remember where I was when I found out they were gone, both in 1966 and in 1990. And of course, both will never really leave us. 

The new Henson biography also gives long-deserved attention to those who helped Jim in his dreams: puppeteers like the brilliant but brittle Frank Oz, hyper enthusiastic Richard Hunt, sensitive singer Jerry Nelson, Sesame Street-centric Caroll Spinney and many other performers and artists who came along just when they seemed to be the right person for the dream to be realized. (I apologize for leaving anyone out because they’re all artists unto themselves.)

Jim Henson: The Biography is as close as we’ve ever been able to get to the man behind The Muppets—though most of us have felt close to what he created as long as we can remember.


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5 Comments

  • Floyd Norman | September 24, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    We loved him because he was one of us and not another empty suit. Far too many arrived to make a name for themselves at the Walt Disney Studio. Jim Henson invited us into his office space and made us all feel welcome. We lost Walt, Jim and Steve way too soon. Why do all the good guys leave us?

  • DarylT | September 21, 2013 3:18 AMReply

    Very well done. An excellent comparison.

  • Elizabeth Hyde Stevens | September 20, 2013 7:41 PMReply

    Nice analysis, Mr. Ehrbar! I've been pondering this comparison myself - I teach "Muppets, Mickey, and Money" at Boston University. I agree with most of what you've written, but I think Henson gave praise more than you'd think. His collaborators recall him laughing to the point of tears when someone made a scene really funny. It's something I discuss in the later chapters of my book, Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling your Creative Career. If you're interested, check it out!
    Thanks again for the great read!

  • ILDC | September 20, 2013 7:29 PMReply

    The special "The Muppets at Walt Disney World" probably best sums it up in the most entertaining way.

  • Kenny | September 20, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    Well done.

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