Before the Muppets, Jim Henson Tried to Build a Futuristic Nightclub

A new biography sheds light on the many careers of the late artist, including his live-action experimental filmmaking.

Jim Henson poses in his 69th Street office in New York City on Dec. 30, 1985. (AP / Burnett)

When Jim Henson died in 1990 from a bacterial infection, the obituaries unsurprisingly focused on his Muppets-related work. The New York Times, for example, summarized his early career as a linear progression through the Muppets projects that brought him increasing national acclaim: commercials in the late 1950s, variety show appearances in the 1960s, and Sesame Street in 1969. What this timeline misses is that during this same period, Henson received his sole Oscar nomination for the 1965 short, Time Piece. This live-action film is a reminder of the many parallel identities that Henson juggled in the '60s, the most eclectic and uncertain decade of his career.

In his illuminating new book, Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones explores the ways that Henson expanded beyond the Muppets in the 1960s. With varying degrees of success, he tried his hand at documentaries, experimental films, animation, acting, music, corporate promotional videos, and even nightclub ownership. Jones portrays Henson during this period as a restlessly inventive artist whose career path, far from leading unswervingly to television superstardom with the Muppets, could have forked in many different directions. Even though they’re frequently overshadowed by his masterworks from subsequent decades, the wide-ranging projects that Henson developed in the '60s highlight the nature of the particular, imaginative genius that all of his works—popular or not—shared.

Henson didn’t set out to become a puppeteer. In a 1982 interview with the journalist Judy Harris, Henson said that he auditioned for a puppeteer position at a local Washington, D.C., television station in the hopes of accomplishing a larger goal: “When I was a kid, I never saw a puppet show, I never played with puppets or had any interest in them. I really did that whole thing in order to get on television because my enthusiasm was television and film.” A quick learner, Henson soon landed his own TV show, Sam and Friends, and then parlayed its popularity into profitable advertising campaigns with his Muppet characters. In the early 1960s, the Muppets gained national exposure through recurring appearances on the Today show and The Jimmy Dean Show, where Henson’s first breakout star, Rowlf, bantered weekly with the country music star.

Even with this success, the ambitious Henson was concerned about his ability to grow artistically in this new medium. Henson’s wife, Jane, noted that the commercials and variety show appearances, with the exception of Rowlf’s weekly spots, were somewhat “frustrating because they provided no opportunity for character development … Nobody was prepared to give the Muppets a show of their own, and Jim began to feel that maybe he should be looking in another direction.” Henson never stopped trying to secure a television series for the Muppets—he went so far as to film a Muppet-y pilot based on Johnny Hart’s comic strip The Wizard of Id—but as the decade progressed he increasingly pursued projects unrelated to puppetry.

Time Piece, Henson’s most renowned live-action film, explores the alienation and desperation that an Everyman (played by a deadpan Henson) experiences as time slips past him. Exactingly paced to a percussive soundtrack that mimics a ticking clock, this eight-and-a-half minute film intercuts sequences of everyday life with surreal scenes that include a gorilla jumping on a pogo stick, a skeleton marionette, a Tarzan figure sprinting through the desert, and bursts of colorful animation. Nearly dialogue-free, Time Piece showcases Henson’s burgeoning expertise in conveying emotions and thought processes through incongruous images and strong sound effects.

Two subsequent projects, The Cube and Tale of Sand, saw Henson dip further into experimental filmmaking. Scripted in 1966 with his lifelong writing partner Jerry Juhl and produced in 1969, The Cube centers on an unnamed man confined to a floor-to-ceiling tiled room who has a series of bizarre interactions with incoming strangers. The press materials state that the film dramatizes “the complex, baffling problems of reality versus illusion,” but it also attests to Henson’s fascination with the mysterious, sometimes nightmarish workings of the subconscious.

Along similar lines, Tale of Sand, an unproduced screenplay that Henson and Juhl labored on for years, concerns a silent Everyman who is enlisted in an enigmatic race across the Southwestern desert. As with The Cube, the protagonist is stuck in an absurd situation that he doesn’t comprehend and has little control over. The vast desert backdrops through which he runs seem to represent the constantly morphing landscape of the mind. Green Bay Packers football players, a lion, and used car salesmen appear out of nowhere and then fade away again. With little dialogue and no easy explanation at the end, it’s unsurprising that Hollywood passed on the project; the screenplay was recently adapted into a graphic novel by Ramón K. Pérez.

In the latter half of the '60s, Henson became more and more influenced by that decade’s countercultural movements. His experimental documentary, Youth ’68: Everything’s Changing…Or Maybe It Isn’t, spliced together interviews, rock music, and trippy dance sequences to create a sort of filmic collage of youth culture. But Henson’s most beguiling project involved a dome-shaped nightclub called Cyclia that would immerse its patrons into a perfectly synchronized environment of music, images, and dance. In the sales brochures, Henson asserted that Cyclia would be “a sensational glimpse into the inner contents of our time—a vital, living, expanding experience that consumes its audience. It is total involvement, total communication … Cyclia is the entertainment experience of the future—theater of the year 2000.”

Brian Jay Jones provides a vividly descriptive section on Cyclia in his Henson biography. Inspired by a Jefferson Airplane concert that he attended, Henson imagined that the “wall, floor, and ceiling of his nightclub would be broken into faceted, crystal-like shapes onto which films would be projected” that were perfectly timed to the club’s music. The surviving snippets of film, which Henson called “Cataclysm,” show that the images were to match the tone and mood of the music: soothing shots of trees and water for a Simon and Garfunkel ballad; colorful spurts of animation for a hard-driving Rolling Stones tune.

Henson sketched furniture designs and blueprints for Cyclia, quizzed lighting companies about building a translucent floor, and nearly purchased ABZ Studios on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1966 for $200,000, which Jones deems an “astronomical sum for a company that could barely afford to keep five full-time employees on its payroll.” While it eventually fell through, the deal undoubtedly would have disrupted Henson’s career trajectory, diverting his energies into the thorny challenges of constructing and launching an elaborate nightclub. But it raises an interesting question: Could one of the creative visionaries behind Sesame Street also have been the proprietor of a psychedelic nightclub that showcased shimmying go-go dancers?

Looking back on the '60s, Henson divided his work into separate camps: “I used to think in terms of having two careers going ... One was accepted by the audience and was successful, and that was Muppets. The other [experimental films] was something I was very interested in and enjoyed. It didn’t have that commercial success, but that didn’t particularly frustrate me because I enjoyed it.” These statements, however, aren’t entirely accurate. For one, Henson’s experimental films weren’t all commercially unsuccessful: Two debuted on NBC, and another ran for 18 continuous months in a New York City cinema. What’s more, the separation between the two careers wasn’t as absolute as Henson imagined it to be.

Starting with the popular "Visual Thinking" skit from Sam and Friends and continuing through his high-concept Limbo character, Henson repeatedly used Muppets to explore mental processes, just as he did in his experimental works. In addition, Henson’s countercultural sensibility from Youth ’68 and Cyclia is evident in many Muppet characters, whether Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem or the hepcat puppet that riffs on the “Mahna Mahna” song. Nowhere is it more apparent than in a proposal from 1969 entitled Johnny Carson and the Muppet Machine. In this unproduced special, the Tonight Show host wanders through a cave with talking stalagmites and stalactites, converses with a boulder donning the likeness of Ed McMahon, interacts with a shaggy Muppet who sells him strange items like yak butter and hubcaps, and nearly gets eaten by villainous Fearzogs. It’s one part acid-trip-gone-bad, one part subconscious dreamscape.

But the project that most knowingly bridged Henson’s parallel identities was a humorous corporate video made in 1965 for Wilson’s Meats. In mock-documentary style, the video shows Henson and his real-life colleagues struggling to come up with an advertising campaign that will please the Wilson’s Meats executives. The four fake commercials that they produce are representative of Henson’s experimental films. The first depicts a stylish woman who frolics through the Southwestern desert and then inexplicably plugs the company's bacon, bringing to mind the surrealism of latter projects like Tale of Sand and The Cube. The second employs the same quick-cut edits and visual mash-ups of Time Piece, and the last features frantic stop-motion animation (poorly) synced to music. Henson and his coworkers applaud their efforts, but by the end the executives are so dissatisfied they threaten Henson with violence. He’s saved only when his colleagues offer to use Muppets in the commercials instead. While clearly tongue-in-cheek, this video nonetheless hints at the audience rejection that Henson risked by straying too far from the Muppets.

With the triumph of Sesame Street in the '70s and his renewed efforts to land a primetime show for the Muppets, Henson rarely found time afterward to engage in non-puppet-related works. But his creative wanderlust never abated. As Jones expertly shows, Henson remained throughout his life an artist who was continuously in motion, conceiving, pitching, and managing multiple projects at once. Henson himself admitted that by the time he’d convinced skeptical executives to green-light one of his outlandish ideas, “part of my creative mind is already somewhere else, doing something quite different ... By the time I’m actually producing something, part of me is wanting to do something else.”