Jim Henson, The Biography

The Book of the Week is “Jim Henson, the Biography” by Brian Jay Jones, published in 2013. This large volume describes the life of a super-successful puppeteer who brought innovation to the genre of puppetry.

Born in September 1936, Henson grew up alternately Mississippi and Maryland. He was best known for creating “Muppets”– a cross between puppets and marionettes. Henson took his time about finishing college at the University of Maryland studying set design. Initially, he thought he wanted to develop a behind-the-scenes career in theater. But he was an early adopter of the new medium of television and wanted to do puppet shows on it. In 1955, he made his Muppets TV debut with Jane, the woman who would later become his wife and bear his five children. He fell into a brilliant puppetry career instead.

Henson’s performances extended to the talk-show circuit, during which the early Muppet characters he created, lip-synched to songs and mimed comedic storylines. The skits would usually end with an explosion or one character’s eating another. Very quickly, he became a highly paid entertainer. In the summer of 1958, he went on a research expedition to Europe, where puppetry was much more popular than in the United States. Americans thought of puppet shows as appropriate mostly for children.

Despite Henson’s desire to become known as a respected puppeteer for audiences of all ages, he became famous for creating some major characters that appeared on a groundbreaking children’s TV show– Sesame Street. Nevertheless, the Muppets appeared in some forgettable skits for Saturday Night Live (SNL) in its first season. True story. Union rules required that SNL writers rather than Henson’s, compose said skits. The SNL people didn’t know the Muppets like Henson’s did. After several false starts and many rejections, Henson finally achieved one of his goals. In autumn 1976, a CBS affiliate in England finally gave the Muppets their first weekly TV series.

Read the book to learn of Henson’s cinematic successes and failures, his management style (or lack thereof), the key people in his organization, other major highlights of his career, his marital infidelity, and what transpired just as he was in the thick of difficult negotiations to sell his company to Disney. The reason for the difficulty was that “In show business in particular, where so much depends on the ruthless art of the deal, Jim’s generosity and genuine respect for talent… made for an unconventional way of doing business.”

A Reporter’s Life, Peter Jennings

The Book of the Week is “A Reporter’s Life, Peter Jennings” edited by Kate Darnton, Kayce Freed Jennings & Lynn Sherr, published in 2007. This is a compilation of selected contents of interviews with the late ABC anchorman and documentary writer Peter Jennings, of people who knew him.

Peter Jennings’ father was a famous Canadian radio broadcaster. He mentored and primed his son to be the larger-than-life information provider he became to millions of TV viewers. In 1963, Jennings began to co-anchor a fifteen-minute TV news show at dinner time, but his lack of formal education and experience became apparent after a while. So in November 1967, he went on-location, gathering news globally. In 1970, he began to open the ABC bureau in Beirut, a cosmopolitan city until the start of its civil war in 1975. In the interest of fairness, Jennings got the Palestinian side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He became an expert on the Middle East. This played a large role in why he was able to scoop the story of the hostage crisis at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and get a tremendous career boost.

Jennings was the consummate passionate, professional workaholic perfectionist. He politely cajoled people into answering his questions instead of interrupting them or aggressively pushing for a “gotcha” response. He was into fact-checking– he preferred to get a story right and be second reporting it than get it wrong and report it first. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, which he acquired through reading and talking to everyone, everyone he met. This gave him background on any and all stories he gathered and reported on. In summer 1983, ABC’s ratings caught up to NBC’s and CBS’s, and overtook them for a long time.

In 1994, Jennings made people pay attention to the genocide in Bosnia. He hated tabloid stories. When he was pressured to do them, he would try to educate rather than just gossip. During the O.J. Simpson trial, he showed the race relations aspect of the story. Read the book to learn a wealth of additional information about one of TV’s best journalists of a bygone era.

Chester Alan Arthur

The Book of the Week is “Chester Alan Arthur” by Zachary Karabell published in 2004. This history book describes a little-known president who became so, through the assassination of President James Garfield.

In 1871, Arthur was earning about $10,000 a year as counsel to the New York Tax Commission when the average American earned about $500 annually. Arthur’s pay rose significantly when he assumed the powerful position of collector of the customhouse of the Port of New York. He received a percentage of the revenue collected when smugglers were caught. The numerous conflicts of interest and widespread influence-peddling that was considered standard procedure in New York City politics then, would be considered morally repulsive in this day and age.

In 1880, the Republican Garfield chose Arthur as his running mate. “They had won the ticket, but they lived hundreds of miles apart, barely knew each other, and were hardly friends.” In those days, a new president was inaugurated on March 4. In summer 1881, Arthur became president, an unwanted promotion. Nevertheless, he got to ride in the then-equivalent of Air Force One– a luxury horse-drawn carriage.

Read the book to learn of Arthur’s public-service career, and what his administration accomplished despite various unhappy circumstances in his life and times.

inventing late night

The Book of the Week is “inventing late night (sic), Steve Allen and the original tonight show (sic)” by ben alba, published in 2005.  This slightly sloppily edited book tells how Steve Allen created the format for late night talk shows on American television, starting in the early 1950’s.

When television was in its infancy, Allen’s original ad-libbing and off-the-wall physical comedy made audiences laugh through the 1950’s.  However, since history is written by the most prolific propagandists, and Allen was modest and less than aggressive at self-promotion, other entertainment-industry moguls such as Johnny Carson and his ilk, bragged that they were the ones amusing Americans in an unprecedented way on their late-night talk shows. David Letterman was one of the few who attributed his show’s stunts to Allen’s ideas.

In autumn 1954, Pat Weaver, president of NBC, gave Allen free rein to do whatever he wanted on his new, unrehearsed, live (!) program, “Tonight!” What resulted was an unscripted variety show featuring insane stunts, a band, singers, celebrity guests, news and theater reviews. In planning each weeknight’s episode, Allen would loosely specify the number of minutes of each segment– but continue with a segment if it got a great audience response, and cut the next act on the spot. If the show was a bit slow, he would go into the audience to converse with them.  Every minute of airtime was unpredictable. The only segment that was usually predictable, was the music.

Unfortunately, episodes of the taped, live shows were later incinerated due to lack of storage space at the network. Shortly after the airing of the show, the only way for the general public and cast and crew to get a recording was to buy one– a kinescope for $160. The singers made about $300 a week.

Eydie Gorme had this to say: “All of us working singers would go the Brill Building [in Manhattan] and get all the new sheet music, which they gave you free in those days.” Other celebrities who appeared on the show and were interviewed for this book, lamented that of late, performers of recent decades have resorted to obscenity and vulgarity to elicit cheap laughs from the audience, because they lack talent and creativity. Sadly, most audience members are unaware that their intelligence is being insulted. Even so, the younger ones are unaware of how high Steve Allen set the bar for quality entertainment.

Even more impressive– Allen’s show had TWO writers and twenty band members, while nowadays, late-night shows have TWENTY writers and five or six band members.

Read the book to learn the specifics of Allen’s stunts, antics, routines and style, and what changed when he started a second talk show simultaneously with what became “The Tonight Show.”

Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City

The Book of the Week is “Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City” by John Anthony Gilvey, published in 2011. This is a biography of multi-genre actor Jerry Orbach.

In 1985, at 50 years old, Orbach chose to pursue roles in the fickle world of TV and movies to achieve fortune and fame, instead of a secure income on Broadway, where he would have much less fame. Luckily, he hit it big with the surprisingly successful 1987 movie Dirty Dancing. He received 1% of the gross revenue of the movie. After that, he started to play a slew of bit parts on TV. Thus, people recognized his face on the street, but did not know his name. That is, until he became a major character on “Law and Order” in autumn of 1992. Unfortunately, cancer cut his career short.

Read the book to learn more about Orbach’s fabulous career and personal relationships.

Serling, the Rise and Twilight…

The Book of the Week is “Serling, the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man” by Gordon F. Sander, published in 1992. This is a biography of Rodman Serling, the television writer best known for “The Twilight Zone.”

Serling, born in December 1924, had traumatic experiences as a soldier in WWII. Prior to creating “The Twilight Zone” he penned “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” a drama about a professional boxer aired on the TV show, “Playhouse 90” in October1956. By early 1957, Serling had moved his wife and daughter from Westport, Connecticut to a mansion with a swimming pool in Beverly Hills, California.

Serling was a chain smoker. emotionally troubled for various reasons. One reason was that once the TV industry got its financial sea legs, it began churning out a high volume of lowbrow entertainment. That is why, during his writing career, Serling, an intellectual idea man, switched back and forth between television and movies.

Read the book to learn how, through the decades, Serling coped with radical changes in the profit-making structures and popularity of different genres of television.

The Crusader

The Book of the Week is “The Crusader, The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan” by Timothy Stanley, published in 2012.

Born in 1938, Buchanan, a journalist, commentator, conservative-Republican political aide and presidential candidate with sometimes unexpectedly radical, contrarian views, was the third oldest in an eight-child family of Irish descent. They lived in the Catholic Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.

In the 1950’s, the American economy was so good that a man could support a ten-person household, and afford to hire a maid. Buchanan and his brothers would crash keg parties. “The Buchanan boys respected the cops who busted up their parties and chased them into the trees, and the next morning the gang lined up outside the confessional to lay it all before God.” Joe McCarthy was Buchanan’s hero.

Buchanan attended Columbia University School of Journalism in the late 1960’s when there was cultural snobbery– the school didn’t deign to teach TV journalism. He thought the civil rights movement was a Commie front. In 1972, he was horrified when Nixon had the U.S. reopen diplomatic relations with China to contain Soviet expansion, and signed an agreement with Mao Tse Tung saying China included the territory of Taiwan.

There is nothing new under the sun. In the presidential campaign of 1972, “The [media] made a genuine attempt in open democracy look like a freak show.” By the late 1970’s, Buchanan co-hosted political talk radio and TV shows. He specialized in ad-libs and putdowns — the kind where he loudly and obnoxiously interrupted callers and guests if he didn’t like what they were saying, or if he was losing an argument.

 In early 1990, Buchanan was a panelist at a forum of The National Interest magazine, which consisted of neoconservatives– people who felt that all countries of the world should adopt the American way– politically, economically, culturally and socially, etc. Buchanan disagreed with doing this, opining that democracy was right for the United States, but not for all nations of the world.

Buchanan wanted to help form a political group to protest the First Gulf War. It was theorized that three different groups conspired to push for war in the Middle East: the military industrial complex, neoconservatives, and the religious right.

 When Buchanan ran for president in 1996, he had changed his stand on certain issues. “Buchanan once saw public enemy number one as the socialists in Washington. Now, it was the corporations on Wall Street.” He asserted that America faced moral, social, economic and spiritual problems, and not only an income tax issue, as 1996 presidential candidate Steve Forbes contended. In Louisiana, Buchanan assumed an anti-vice stance, denouncing gambling, prostitution, drugs and the corruption they caused. He also wanted to blur the lines of separation of Church and State, and was pro-NRA. He was accused of palling around with racists. His communications method to achieve maximum voter reach was doing interviews on radio shows. Candidate Bob Dole went to shopping malls.

In late 1999, Buchanan switched to the Reform Party and traded fighting words with Donald Trump. The former appealed to the far left and the far right who agreed on “… war, trade, the slow decline of American capitalism into a kind of Walmart communism– materialist, greedy, heartless.” The Reform party attracted voters who were neo-hippies, people who believed in meditation, aliens and religious fundamentalism (took the Christian Bible literally) and gun enthusiasts. Buchanan “shot himself in the foot” by choosing a black female running mate.

In 2003, Buchanan opposed the war against Iraq and said the 9/11 attack on America was due to the nation’s meddling in the Middle East.

Read the book to learn more details of Buchanan’s decades-long political consulting, publishing and commentating activities, and their historical backdrop.

An Irishman in China

The Book of the Week is “An Irishman in China” by Zhao Changtian; Yang Shuhui and Yunqin, translators, published in 2014. This is the career story of Robert Hart.

Hart, originally from Northern Ireland, visited various ports of the world via ship before settling in Shanghai, China in autumn 1854 as an interpreter, a non-official member of the British consular service. In his early twenties, he started at a time of anti-government rebellion by two groups, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and Small Sword Society. British merchants– angry about having to pay taxes when other nations’ traders, such as France, America and Portugal didn’t– were supplying the rebels with arms. Coastal cities produced ample rice, silk and tea. Unsurprisingly, there was corruption at the customs house.

Hart stayed at the British Consulate in Ningbo. He hired a cleaning boy, cook and an English tutor who taught him the Chinese language. Employed by the Chinese government, he moved up through the ranks serving Western merchants in the customs department. In March 1858, he was transferred to Guangzhou because Anglo-French forces attacked the city. He was skilled in diplomacy, and through the years, made friends in high places in the Chinese government. As for his social life, a colleague told him he could get a mail-order bride of sorts, a non-prostitute who was “…trained in music, chess, calligraphy and painting.” Nevertheless, he met someone on his own, and started a family.

Read the book to learn of Hart’s personal and professional relationships over the course of half a century; how he protected British interests in China and had an impact on China’s foreign policy, especially during armed conflicts among its own peoples and other nations.

Extreme Measures

The Book of the Week is “Extreme Measures” by Martin Brookes. This is a biography of Francis Galton.

Galton was born in Birmingham in 1822, the youngest of seven children of a wealthy, prominent family in the Victorian Era. During his third year at Cambridge University, Galton had a mental breakdown. Ironically, he wrote, “…life seemed a game, played for the benefit of a select few, and from which he had been excluded…”

Galton had two major passions in his life:  a) exploring Africa, specifically Namibia– where he reported on navigation, land formations, climate, flora, fauna and its tribes– at the time, territory uncharted by Europeans; and b) collecting data on humans and what made them tick. He coined the expression “nature” or “nurture” to describe the roles played by genetics or the environment on people’s behavior and circumstances. He also labeled the statistical concepts of “regression” and “correlation.”

“Eugenics, his socio-scientific philosophy of the future would be built, according to Galton, on a solid foundation of knowledge, and exercised through a ruthless system of competitive examinations.”

Through the decades, other science projects of Galton’s included but were not limited to tea brewing, and a fingerprints database for law enforcement. Read the book to learn of the contents of the resulting publications, and how Galton seized upon the intellectual ideas of his generation, in a way that allowed him to achieve a minor footnote in the history books.