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.”

The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue

The Book of the Week is “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue” by Robert Klein, published in 1991. This is a compilation of the moments most memorable to the author during the first 25 years of his existence.

The author grew up in the Bronx in the 1940’s and 50’s. He attended P.S. 94 and DeWitt Clinton High School. His first college year was spent trying to fulfill his parents’ dream of having a doctor for a son. However, he possessed much greater talent in the performing arts.

In 1967, after he had been “discovered,” Klein, doing standup comedy, was mentored by Rodney Dangerfield at the Improvisation Club in Manhattan.

Read the book to learn of the author’s career success, of his many sexual encounters, and one during which “She wanted it from every conceivable position, and with such passion and ferocity that I feared the occupants of the adjacent room would call the police or an ambulance.”

Act One

The Book of the Week is “Act One” by Moss Hart, published in 1959.

In his teen years in the 1920’s, the author had a passionate desire to work in the theater on Broadway in some capacity. However, his childhood of dire poverty, limited formal education and dysfunctional family were hardships he had to overcome to achieve his dream.

It was a major triumph for him to snag the position of office boy for a booking agent by a random twist of fate. However, he tempted fate too early. He then tried his hand at acting. He was an eighteen-year-old playing the role of a sixty-year-old man. When that gig ended, another chance occurrence with an acquaintance led him to directing plays in the evenings, and slaving away as a social director at various summer camps for several years, while plugging away at the part of aspiring playwright.

Read the book to learn all the sordid tribulations Hart endured in order to find fortune and fame, as well as the secret to how he fixed the third act of his first Broadway play, and how he came to be assisted by one of the great playwrights of his generation.

Up Late With Joe Franklin

The Book of the Week is “Up Late With Joe Franklin” by Joe Franklin with R.J. Marx, published in 1995. This is the career memoir of an entertainment jockey.

Franklin started his career in radio, playing old records. He was a compulsive hoarder of them. When he moved to television, he introduced old movies. Then he became a late, late night talk show host. Although Franklin had popular shows that ran for years and years, fewer people have heard of him than of other talk show hosts because his shows ran at 1am or later.

Read the book to learn how Franklin achieved his entertainment success, and a little trivia about tens (out of hundreds) of the celebrity-guests Franklin had on his shows, which ones he interviewed before they were famous, and the ones he claims he made famous.

CNN, The Inside Story

The Book of the Week is “CNN, The Inside Story” by Hank Whittemore, published in 1990. This volume tells the history of CNN, Cable News Network. The point of CNN was to create an alternative to the then-three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, that monopolized American TV.

In 1976, Ted Turner owned a company that provided cable TV via satellite, consisting of games of the professional sports teams owned by him, and movies. By the end of the 1970’s his goal was to start a 24-hour cable network of just news. He was like the American president Donald Trump in that “…Turner had set the goal and the deadline and the sense of mission; and now, as he always did, he was putting together the people who knew how to make it happen.” However, the entertainment industry in the United States is a completely different animal from the federal government.

Nevertheless, a headquarters– a previously decrepit structure, gutted and created from scratch– for the new cable channel in Atlanta, had been readied sufficiently to provide minimal functionality in six months. The secretary of Reese Schonfeld, a high executive in the venture, had this to say, “… they had sketched out the whole newsroom one night on the back of a grocery bag…”

Launched in mid-1980, CNN evolved into a “revolving door” station (viewers tuned in periodically to see whether there was breaking news; they didn’t watch it every second) because it had to do things on the cheap and fill 24 hours of airtime every 24 hours. The big three networks practiced cartelizing behavior in order to shut CNN out of information-sharing. So CNN sued all parties involved, not just the networks.

Read the book to learn of what became of CNN, up until the book’s writing.

The Jew in American Sports

The Book of the Week is “The Jew in American Sports” by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow, originally published in 1952, revised most recently in 1985.

The authors contended that the achievements of the athletes who were perceived to be Jewish, were all the more remarkable, considering that they had to overcome religious discrimination in addition to the fierce competition, rigors of training and harsh traveling conditions they had to endure in their generations. That is why the authors compiled this specific list of athletes.

The authors said Hank Greenberg might have been better than Babe Ruth in the 1930’s. “… Ruth was left handed and aimed at a 296 foot wall at Yankee Stadium most of the time. The park was built for him. Greenberg, right handed, aimed at a fence 340 feet away… he fell only two [homeruns] shy of Ruth’s record!” Later ballplayers had more opportunities to break records with lengthier seasons, stadiums easier to hit in, not to mention performance-enhancing drugs. Other baseball standouts included Al Rosen, Moe Berg and Sandy Koufax.

Jews became proficient in professional boxing in the early 20th century due to abuses they suffered at the hands of local neighborhood thugs of rival ethnicities, such as Irish and Italian. The New York City law against boxing was relaxed when Mayor Jimmy Walker saw the appeal of the sport among World War I veterans.

Benny Leonard was a Jewish boxer who benefited from that. He became rich and famous and from the mid-1920’s into the 1930’s, used his fame to purchase a hockey team, act in Vaudeville, write about sports and teach a course on pugilism at City College, New York. After his failed comeback, he tried his hand at refereeing, Zionism and helping to sponsor a Jewish Olympics in Tel Aviv.

Harry Newman, like Benny Friedman before him, played exceptionally great college football in the early 1930’s at the University of Michigan. In 1932, the team was undefeated and untied. “He had a hand in every winning play in every single game.” Benny Friedman, who played with the (professional) New York Giants, was popular with Jewish fans. The Giants saw Newman’s potential to keep up the good work, so they agreed to an irregular contractual provision that gave Newman a percentage of home attendance revenue.

In 1928, Irving Jaffee competed as a speed skater in the Olympics. When a Norwegian judge committed religious discrimination against Jaffee, a tremendous hue and cry erupted from athletes and the International Olympic Committee to award Jaffee a deserved gold medal. The American media picked up the story so the athlete became more famous than otherwise.

Read the book to learn about many other American athletes perceived to be Jewish, who overcame hardships and prejudice to rock the sports world with their feats.

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.”