On Muppets & Merchandise: How Jim Henson Turned His Art into a Business

“He viewed money as energy, the energy that makes concrete things happen out of worthy ideas.”

Elizabeth Hyde Stevens | Make Art Make Money | September 2013 | 17 minutes (4,102 words)

 

In 2011, Longreads highlighted an essay called “Weekend at Kermie’s,” by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, published by The Awl. Stevens is now back with a new Muppet-inspired Kindle Serial called “Make Art Make Money,” part how-to, part Jim Henson history. Below is the opening chapter. Our thanks to Stevens and Amazon Publishing for sharing this with the Longreads community.

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The Artist’s Problem: Art vs. Money

In 1968, Jim Henson performed a skit on The Ed Sullivan Show called “Business, Business,” which he cowrote with Jerry Juhl. In it, there are two kinds of creatures, and they are locked in conflict.

On one side, the creatures make sounds like a cash register and a slot machine. They recite a poem written in business-ese: “Corporate profits, exculpates, mutual fund, interest rates.”

On the other side, the creatures have naïve voices and lightbulb heads. They ask, “Love? Beauty? Joy?”

Ca-ching! The battle is on.

“Brotherhood, hope, peace!” says one side.

“Option, market, possibility, eight-point-one over counter utility,” says the other.

It’s a war of ideologies.

“Friendship!”

“Income!”

“Beauty!”

“Money!”

Business opens fire. The idealists fire back. Business explodes! Then disappears. Silence.

Cautiously, the idealists look around. They have won. “Peace?” says one. “Success!” says the other. Their lightbulbs go off.

“Victory? Opportunity! Comfort … security …” The lightbulbs flash faster. “Benefits, growth, wealth, diversity, dividends, profit, capital, economy, business, business, BUSINESS, BUSINESS!”

Ed Sullivan’s adult audience laughs at Henson’s goofy puppets. One man in a suit turns to his wife and raises an eyebrow.

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If you’re an artist, an innovator, or a creative person, this scenario should sound familiar to you. We may go into a career because of our values, our ideals, our art, but the reality of capitalism opposes us. Our dreams just don’t pay the bills. So what exactly is an artist to do?

In The Gift, poet-professor Lewis Hyde writes that “There are three primary ways in which modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood: they have taken second jobs, they have found patrons to support them, or they have managed to place the work itself on the market and pay the rent with fees and royalties.” Hyde’s book is an amazing exploration of the problem of money in art. In my book, I propose a solution, the path less traveled, the dimly lit third avenue, Jim Henson’s Muppety “shoot-the-moon” route. In a word—entrepreneurship, a very uncommon entrepreneurship.

Henson’s Solution: Make Art Make Money

In “Business, Business,” Jim Henson’s idealists fight back and beat the business-heads, but when they do, they turn into capitalists. Its irony may seem fatalistic. Yet it’s not that Henson was pessimistic or perverse; it’s just that he saw things from a different perspective. It may seem sad to young idealists, but this seemingly contradictory evolution is actually the solution to the artist’s problem.

“Business, Business” was a comment on the times. In 1968—the year of this sketch—a generation was coming of age that outnumbered its parents. It was tuning in—to free love, drugs, rock music, and youth collectives. The children of 1968 were rejecting the old order and trying to live more authentic lives. The lightbulb idealists in “Business, Business” were flower children, baby boomers, hippies.

But Henson was not. In 1968, he was thirty-one—placed just in between the boomers and their parents. In generation theory, Henson was a member of the Silent Generation, Americans born in the hardship of depression and raised in war, and yet paradoxically this time produced many of the creative visionaries who would inspire the boomers to mass hippiedom. The popular musicians of the sixties—the Beatles and the Stones—were ten years older than the boomers. They weren’t the flower children of the sixties; they were more like the babysitters, the gurus. In America, Grace Slick and John Fogerty were both born before the 1946 baby boom. It is to these Silent Generation pied pipers that we should rightly attribute much of the sixties’ cultural change, more so than the generation who followed their song.

Only six short months after 1967’s Summer of Love in San Francisco, Jim Henson made “Business, Business.” It clearly reflects the events of its time, but from the perspective of someone living halfway between both worlds. Not a boomer at all, he lived in New York City with his wife and a few kids and made a good living. Having made hundreds of television ads, Henson was already a capitalist when he made “Business, Business.” And we could even conclude that the skit describes his own conversion from idealism to capitalism. In 1968, he had an agent who got him TV appearances on Ed Sullivan and freelance commercial gigs hawking products as unhippielike as IBM computers and Getty Oil.

Yet Jim Henson’s business wasn’t oil—it was art. While today, most artists are too timid to admit it, Henson freely referred to himself as an “artist,” and his agent went even further, calling him “artsy-craftsy.” Henson may have worked in show business, but he’d also traveled in Europe as a young man, sketching pictures of its architecture. He owned a business, but his business rested on the ideas the idealists were shouting—brotherhood, joy, and love. He wore a beard. Biographers would say it was to cover acne scars, but in the context of the late sixties, it aligns Henson with a category of people that is unmistakable. Though a capitalist, he was also a staunch artist.

Growing up in the 1940s, Henson was a self-described Mississippi Tom Sawyer who played in the swamp, often went shoeless, and loved to sketch. He joined a puppetry club at his high school in Hyattsville, Maryland, and in 1954, at the age of eighteen, made his first puppet for a television audition. Henson had fallen in love with TV when his family bought their first set only four years earlier. His show Sam and Friends aired on Washington’s WRC-TV from 1956 to 1961, when he also made humorous, tongue-in-cheek commercials. At the age of twenty-seven, Henson moved his family to New York City, where in the 1960s he did many variety appearances on Ed Sullivan and The Jimmy Dean Show and made experimental films, pilots, and projects like Time Piece and The Cube.

In 1969, at the age of thirty-three, Henson collaborated with Children’s Television Workshop to make Sesame Street, the first nonprofit children’s show on television, which made him a worldwide star. In the early 1970s, he used this success to make The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, The Frog Prince, and other TV specials as well as recurring characters for the first year of Saturday Night Live. After Henson spent years pitching, British entertainment mogul Lew Grade funded Henson’s Muppet Show series, which ran from 1976 to 1981 all around the world. After an HBO movie called Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, Henson made his first Hollywood film, the 1979 hit The Muppet Movie. In the 1980s, Henson became a mogul himself, making two more Muppet movies, the elaborate fantasy films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, classic TV specials like The Christmas Toy, The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, and A Muppet Family Christmas, and lush TV series like the Toronto-based Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller. Henson’s spin-off series Muppet Babies ran for eight years, encouraging creativity to a new generation on Saturday mornings.

The artist was creating the Disney World attraction Muppet*Vision 3D when he died suddenly in 1990 from a rare infection. When you think of leaving an artistic legacy of lasting good, I don’t think you can aim much higher than Henson’s—the work he created is beloved by so many, twenty-three years after his death, in more than a hundred different countries.

So let us return now to “Business, Business.” If art and money are at odds, which side was Jim Henson really on? If you watch the skit, the clue is in the characters’ voices. Of the Slinky-necked business-heads and idealist-heads, Henson was really both and neither, because in “Business, Business,” he parodies both. Locked in conflict, they sound like blowhards and twerps, respectively, but they were both facets of his life. As an employer to two other men, Henson was the boss man—the suit, cash register, and slot machine—who wrote the checks. But he also got together with his friends to sing, laugh, and play with puppets in the kind of collectivism that hippies celebrated.

In the same month that Henson performed “Business, Business” on Ed Sullivan, he was working on a documentary called Youth 68 that aired as part of the NBC Experiment in Television series. In it, Henson interviews both street hippies out in LA and weary grandparents in Omaha with smoking pipes. Musicians slurred poetic about revolution and old folks complained, “They don’t have respect for their parents like they used to.” It took someone like Henson—living forever in between them—to give us the full picture. There is a saying that goes like this: “Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous.” In order for Henson’s art to have the universal power it did, this mixing had to include “the establishment”—what we could call “the business class.”

But today—especially with Generation X and Millennials—serious artists often refuse contact with business. Large numbers of liberal arts graduates bristle when presented with the corporate world, rejecting its values to protect their ideals. Devoted artists move home to a parent’s basement to complete their masterpieces, while the more pragmatic artists live in cloistered “Neverland” artist collectives, grant-funded arts colonies, and university faculty lounges. Youth 68 still feels contemporary, because we never solved this conflict. The clothing choices of suits and hipsters still mean what they did in 1968. In 99 percent of cases, you can tell if a man on the street works in finance or acrylic—not because these are mutually exclusive professions, but because we wear our battle colors to show we have chosen a side. It is as if the 1960s opened up a rift in American culture that was never healed. It’s 2013—more than forty
years on—and if you squint your eyes, the flamboyant artist culture in Brooklyn’s coffee shops could be Haight-Ashbury in the Summer of Love.

Yet Henson’s work suggests that it is possible to heal America’s split personality. At the end of the Dark Crystal, the gentle race known as “the Mystics” leave their quaint reservation with its sand paintings and wooden bowls and return to the castle. They don’t displace the power-obsessed Skeksis, they do something strange—they merge with them. This occurs at the same time the missing piece fits into the Crystal, which itself is “healed.” The peaceful artists return to the castle, join with the cruel lords who are its current occupants, and the race returns to its proper form; they are whole.

What is a human being? Complex to the point of absurdity, a whole person is both greedy and generous. It is foolish to think we can’t be both artists and entrepreneurs, especially when Henson was so wildly successful in both categories.

Since he was in college, Jim Henson was a natural capitalist. He owned a printmaking business and made commercials for lunchmeats. In the 1970s, he became a merchandizing millionaire and made Hollywood movies. By 1987, he had shows on all three major networks plus HBO and PBS. Though he didn’t like to discuss his net worth, the price tag was revealed when he sold most of his characters to Disney for “nearly 150 million.” Of course, Henson was not just another Trump. Believe the beard.

The Dark Crystal, released in 1982, is an artistic masterpiece, which Henson himself described as “a rich fruitcake, full of different ingredients, and every bite you discover something new and delicious.” Its art-for-art’s-sake–ness is undeniable. Muppets may at times be made of hardware-store items and discount-priced eyes, but when it came to creating the world of the Dark Crystal, it was impossible to do on the cheap. Henson was “notorious for going over budget,” because he made it a point to hire and retain good artists. Unlike fur or doll eyes, that cost can’t be skimped. If Jim Henson were only a shrewd businessman seeking nothing but licensing profits, he would have spent all his time and energy on the profitable Muppet toy lines. A businessman would never have made The Dark Crystal, a film that cost more to create than it made back in over a decade. Such is the definition of a gift.

When Henson joined on to the experimental PBS show Sesame Street in 1968, he was underpaid for his services creating Big Bird and Oscar. Yet he spent his free nights in his basement, shooting stop-motion films that taught kids to count. If you watch these counting films, the spirit of Henson’s gift shines through. I think any struggling artist today could count Henson among their ilk. He had all the makings of a tragic starving artist. The only difference between him and us is that he made peace with money. He found a way to make art and money dance.

“How,” Hyde asks, “if art is essentially a gift, is the artist to survive in a society dominated by the market?” It is a dance of timing, he answers:

First, the artist allows himself to step outside the gift economy that is the primary commerce of his art and make some peace with the market…. The artist who wishes neither to lose his gift nor to starve his belly reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the work is created, but once the work is made he allows himself some contact with the market. And then—the necessary second phase—if he is successful in the marketplace, he converts market wealth into gift wealth: he contributes his earnings to the support of his art.

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The dance involves art and money, but not at the same time. In the first stage, it is paramount that the artist “reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the art is created.” He keeps money out of it. But in the next two phases, they can dance. The way I see it, Hyde’s dance steps go a little something like this:

1. Make art.
2. Make art make money.
3. Make money make art.

It is the last step that turns this dance into a waltz—something cyclical so that the money is not the real end. Truly, for Jim Henson, money was a fuel that fed art. According to Fraggle Rock producer Larry Mirkin:

He viewed money as energy, the energy that makes concrete things happen out of worthy ideas. Money was not an end in itself. It could provide physical infrastructure or it could help him hire other artists and technicians to realize a nascent idea. I don’t ever recall him being the least bit concerned or afraid of money or obsessed by it, which many people are. It just wasn’t what drove him—at all.

In Henson’s creation mode—step 1—money was not a driving force. And once he had money, he used it to make more art—step 3. But step 2 is the hardest one for artists to negotiate, since it requires you make money without destroying your art.

Participation in the market is tricky, and Henson once told a Canadian reporter:

Maintaining a balance between art and business has always been a part of what I do. You operate with as much honesty and integrity as you can afford. Success has brought the ability to pick and choose what we do.

This balance is difficult to maintain. Yet, as Henson suggests, if you have no money, you cannot afford to be honest. Without step 2, you run out of money, and then you can’t do step 1. Henson’s legacy proves that there is such a thing as making an honest buck, and though it isn’t easy, it gives an artist the ability to control his own destiny.

We may not want to run a business like Henson’s, but we can take Henson’s approach to money as far as we want—starting a video game company or simply selling more sketches—becoming the most successful version of yourself. Whatever art you make, the first step to making money is an emotional one—to “make some peace,” as Hyde says, “with the market.” There is a time to eschew the market, and there is a time to join with it. There is no list of steps that can accomplish “making peace.” But know that Henson did accomplish it, and because he did, you felt inspired by art throughout your childhood and perhaps through your children’s as well. You know Jim Henson by name because he made peace with money.

You may not work in show business, but whatever your art, there is some business in which you participate. Scientists, inventors, and teachers all in some way resemble Henson in that they are professions of “the gift,” of working for the benefit of others. If you simply want to do work of higher quality than business-as-usual seems to allow, you know the spirit of the gift, and you are not alone. It may be crazy to take turkey feathers, make them supple, cut their spines in half, bleach and clean them, dye the tips bright yellow, dye the bases golden yellow, adjust the tones so they look “gorgeous” on both the US and British electron-firing color systems, separate them into five grades, take the top three grades, and have them ready at every shoot to replace anything that falls off of Big Bird. It might seem crazy, but to an artist like Henson, those are all necessary steps. And if you are reading this, you probably don’t think it’s crazy at all—intuitively we know that the magic of Big Bird depends on the spirit of the gift—in a careful dance with the market. It is the goal of this book to illustrate that dance. By closely examining Jim Henson’s relationship with money, we can derive a philosophy that will serve us in our own careers—no matter what they may be.

In his office, Henson hung a “Shrine to the Almighty Dollar”—a comically-large dollar bill with a small pyre at its feet. Decorated with paint and pennies, it may have been “tongue-in-cheek” as the Henson Archivist writes, but what is a shrine? It is a place—a physical object—upon which to focus one’s thoughts. Like the restaurant owner who frames his first taste of success, Henson must have meditated on that shrine, thanked the dollar for its generosity, and hoped for more of its abundance. The dollar meant something to Henson—it meant more art. How might you make a shrine to the money that will fuel your art? A shrine may not actually do anything, but as artists, you know the value of focusing one’s thoughts.

And what is a hero but a person upon whom to focus one’s thoughts—to imagine one’s dreams? I would not have written this book if I did not believe that a Henson-like path is possible for today’s artists. In search of that path—for myself and all the artists I know—I’ve read everything I can find about Henson and money.

For simplicity’s sake, here are ten Muppety lessons. Use them to develop your own ideas, to notice new ways to look at your own career and jot down things that you might like to try. Use this book as an object to focus your thoughts about art and money. And then go beyond it.

Lesson 1: Find a Good Reason to Sell Out

The real breakthrough in Henson’s career—the thing that would make him a mogul—was Sesame Street. It debuted in 1969, a good fifteen years into Henson’s television career. Because it taught children across the country, Henson became a household name, and through Sesame Street toys, Henson became a millionaire. In short, merchandizing is the “secret” to Henson’s success. However, licensing toys, to Henson, felt like selling out. Before he became a mogul, he had to find a good reason to do so.

For Henson—like any artist—finding funding had always been a problem. From 1957 until 1969, Henson funded his workshop, his experimental television, and his films with commercials. This had been a “second job” as catering is to actors and teaching is to many poets. One of the virtues of the second job is that Hyde says it makes it easy for artists to “mark the boundary between their art and the market.” Henson didn’t confuse his commercials with his shows—there was a clear boundary. And the money from these commercials insulated him from the market to a great extent. He could spend as much money as he wanted on his projects, using this second job for income. Similarly, Hyde notes that for many years Edward Hopper did commercial drafting for magazines before his real work became profitable. In the meantime, the magazine money allowed him to keep painting.

But with commercials, there were drawbacks. No matter how reputable the product or how honest the company, some part of Henson’s content was always dictated by the sponsor. Later, he would look back on commercials and say, “It was a pleasure to get out of that world. If you’ve ever worked in commercials, it’s a world of compromise and a world of…” He trailed off mid-sentence in this interview, suggesting a kind of self-censorship—commercials were more than a compromise for Henson. They were something he didn’t want to describe on record. Even when he was highly respected in the industry, he said, “The whole process is really not easy on a creative person.”

So, in 1969, Jim Henson decided to stop making commercials. He had a good excuse—he felt it was confusing to the impressionable viewers of Sesame Street to use his characters to both sell snacks and teach the alphabet. Artistically, this was a good decision, giving Henson more time to focus on Sesame Street. The only trouble was that Henson no longer had the buffer of commercial pay to keep his projects funded. Henson essentially cut a deal for the nonprofit Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) for his first-rate services on Sesame Street. As Sesame profiler Mike Davis wrote, his pay was “modest by show-business standards.”

To keep funding his high-quality work, Henson needed another option to emerge, and almost like karma, one did—merchandizing. Davis writes that “within weeks of Sesame Street’s debut there was no shortage of opportunities… [Co-creator Joan Ganz] Cooney began fielding cold calls from marketers eager to attach the likenesses of Muppet characters on to products, in exchange for a licensing fee.” Like commercials, toy merchandizing offered Henson a way to be his own bankroller, and it would be better than commercials, because there would be no boss above his own creative vision; however, at first, Henson refused.

In 1970, two years into Sesame Street’s production, Jim Henson argued the issue with his agent, Bernie Brillstein. In his memoir, Where Did I Go Right?, Brillstein wrote:

Jim Henson and his wife, Jane, dropped by my house at 1240 Loma Vista. Soon we were pacing around the kitchen, arguing. If it was 110 degrees outside, it was definitely hotter inside.

This was the problem: I wanted Jim and Jane to make a merchandizing deal for the Sesame Street characters. They thought it was a bad idea. The Children’s Television Workshop needed the deal because the revenue would ensure continued independent support for what had become a huge public television hit. But Jim and Jane owned half the rights, and both sides had to approve any arrangement.

“You have to merchandise,” I said.

“No,” said Jim and Jane at the same time. Jim hated the idea of selling out…

The Hensons were artsy-craftsy. They always wanted to do things for the right reasons. God bless them. They thought educating kids on public TV and then selling them toys based on the characters didn’t mix… [T]he whole idea of merchandising made them feel like sell-outs. As artists, they couldn’t live with that perception.

Despite his vehemence, Henson came around. In 1970, he started merchandizing the Sesame Street characters, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jim Henson sold out—by his own standards.

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From Make Art Make Money, by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens. Purchase the full Kindle Serial here.

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