Muppets Gone Missing: Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow
Josh Green: Welcome back to “Muppets Gone Missing”. This column focuses on the hidden treasures of The Muppets, Sesame Street, as well as any projects involving Jim Henson. Examples of this will consist of segments or characters that wound up on the cutting room floor, or were used, but not to their fullest extent. For this column, we are going to focus on The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow. The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow was intended to be a Thanksgiving special, written by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, but the 13-page script treatment was as far as the project had gone. That is, until it was rediscovered several years ago. Last year it was adapted as an original graphic novel, and now as a TV movie called Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow, set to air on Lifetime this coming Saturday, November 21st at 8 P.M. We’ll be interviewing Karen Falk, the Archives Director at the Jim Henson Company, Roger Langridge, the acclaimed cartoonist behind the graphic novel adaptation, and Peter Brooke, the Creative Supervisor of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and discuss the origins of the project’s history from past to present.
Josh Green: Can you please talk about the origins of the conception of The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow 12-page script treatment written by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl?
Karen Falk: The mid-1960s was an especially productive period for Jim Henson and his writing partner Jerry Juhl; their Muppet characters were popular guests on dozens of television variety shows, and they developed numerous concepts for longer-form shows with starring roles for their creations. Along with adaptations of various fairy tales and stories about extraterrestrials, they imagined a series of holiday-themed specials including one for Thanksgiving called The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow. The 13-page typed treatment written in 1968 details the story of two children living in the country with their aunt who encounter a group of monsters that communicate using a range of musical tones harmonizing into one voice. The plot focuses on their efforts to diffuse a plan by a neighboring turkey farmer to take over their aunt’s property.
During this time, an abstract monster named Snerf with sneaky eyes and a head that popped up and down was a regular member of the repertory company of characters that Jim performed on television variety shows. Jim and Jerry wrote out several concepts with this character in mind (including one called “The Snerf-Poof from Planet Snee”). At the same time, Jim and master puppet builder Don Sahlin were experimenting with various puppet designs. The idea for Turkey Hollow included, for the first time, a plan to take the puppets out of the studio and film in the real world. That inspired him and puppet builder Don Sahlin to try a slightly more realistic style with glass eyes and an organic, mossy green fur, creating a group that had not only a harmonious sound but also a harmonious look. So, the concept developed from a combination of the story ideas that Jim and Jerry were discussing as well as Jim and Don Sahlin’s design experiments.
JG: Why wasn’t The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow made into Thanksgiving special by Jim Henson as they had been planning? If the project did get off the ground as originally planned, would Jim have directed?
KF: Jim showed his concept to his representative Bernie Brillstein at the start of the summer in 1968, but within a month, Jim was drawn into the development of what would become Sesame Street. He was still making numerous commercials and variety show appearances, and followed his April 1968 program Youth ’68 for NBC’s Experiment in Television series with another writing collaboration with Juhl, The Cube, taping in early 1969. It was a very busy time, particularly as work with Children’s Television Workshop ramped up, and the Musical Monsters idea got set aside. Had the special been made, I’m sure Jim would have been happy to have the opportunity to direct.
JG: There have been stills released of Jim’s daughters, Lisa and Cheryl, with the monsters from Turkey Hollow that were shot in 1968. What were the purpose of these photos? Was there any video footage of the monsters that was shot around that time? If so, does that footage still exist?
KF: Jim was eager to take his creatures out into the real world for the first time. In 1965, he had shot footage of his daughters, Lisa and Cheryl, running through the woods behind his Connecticut home among the fall foliage. The effect was delightful and would have lodged in his imagination. Then, in 1966, he shot some Southern Bread commercials out of doors and the puppet blended well with his environment. Clearly, some combination of these experiences fed into the idea behind the introductory note with the Turkey Hollow concept which describes a New England location that would “take full advantage of the fall colors” and puppetry techniques that allow the characters to be seen, “scampering across the country side, just as a real animal would.”
Jim wanted to demonstrate how these monster puppets, designed with glass eyes and naturalistically colored fur, would look in the wooded environment where his story would be set. Shooting them outside was easy and inexpensive and having his children stand in for those in the treatment could give him a good idea of how the puppets looked with actual humans. On top of that, Lisa and Cheryl provided a second service as production assistants, posing and holding the characters in place. No moving images were shot so no footage exists from that day.
JG: While I did read that Don Sahlin created the monsters for these footage, but were they based on his own design or designs from Jim? Are there any plans to restore these original puppets so that they can be presented on display?
KF: Don and Jim started working together in 1962. Jim provided rough sketches of the characters he had in mind (starting with Rowlf the Dog), and Don honed in on the central design elements and, with a lot of latitude, built a puppet. During the process, Jim, who worked in close proximity, would watch the progress, make suggestions and, in some cases, do some sewing or painting. They built several monsters together in the 1960s, including one that would become Cookie Monster, and they would have created the Turkey Hollow characters in a similar fashion. Sketches only exist for the Snerfs, but most likely Jim would have used his pencil or his words to share his visual ideas with Don.
Several of the original puppets have been restored and are on exhibit at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The small exhibit, Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow: Rediscovering Monsters and Magic, includes photos, designs from both Jim and Peter Brooke, current Creative Supervisor of our LA Creature Shop, the old puppets and the new ones from our television special along with some props.
JG: Can you please tell me the story of how this script was discovered? Can you please talk about the creation of the graphic novel with Roger Langridge? Why was the graphic novel produced before the upcoming TV movie? And who was the biggest champion behind getting the upcoming TV movie created?
KF: We have had a very productive partnership over the last 6 years with Archaia, the graphic novel/comic book publishing company, starting with our Fraggle Rock books. The editor there at the time, Stephen Christy, was enthusiastic about the overall Henson body of work and with the strong response to the first efforts, was eager to create additional titles with us. He approached Lisa Henson and Jim Formanek in our licensing department and asked about other projects, with a particular focus on lesser known things that had not been produced but had a close connection to Jim. Lisa asked me to pull materials that could potentially be transformed into the graphic novel format. I went through my database and then the files themselves and found a group of treatments, outlines and scripts that were somewhat fully realized and were long enough to stand on their own. (We have also have a lot of little script bits for brief comedy sketches that would be too short to translate into a book.) Lisa suggested the Tale of Sand script first, and Archaia began work there, collaborating with Lisa to choose the artist Ramon Perez and working with me to gather images and other archival material – with great success. The other project that intrigued Lisa was The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow.
When Lisa expressed interest in the project, I remembered having seen related images in our photo library and pulled those as well. That sparked memories of her dad working on the idea with Jerry Juhl and Don Sahlin. She saw the charm in the story and characters and recommended Turkey Hollow as the second archive project for Archaia. Archaia brought in Roger Langridge who had worked with them before and done wonderful work on the Muppets. Lisa is a film and television producer, so it was natural that she, at the same time, began exploring possibilities for producing Turkey Hollow for television. The two projects progressed simultaneously, but a decision was made to let the Archaia book hew closely to the story and graphics of the original while the TV special was expanded to movie length. The monsters, represented close to their original designs in the graphic novel, were remade for the film to take advantage of the enhanced capabilities of our Creature Shop and technical innovations that were not available to Jim in the late 1960s.
Josh Green: After finding such success with your acclaimed run on The Muppet Show comic book and your story for Jim Henson’s Storyteller, what made you want to work on another Jim Henson property with The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow?
Roger Langridge: Like most things in my career, it wasn’t so much something I sought out as something I was offered; I had time in my schedule to fit it in, so I said yes. But it was nice to come back to a Henson property, since, as you kindly pointed out, my previous Henson-related work had been quite well-received. I enjoyed having another opportunity to see the world through Jim Henson’s eyes for a little while; it’s a much nicer place.
JG: The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow is a decidedly different genre than your vaudeville-influenced Muppet Show comics. As a creator, what different set of creative muscles did you feel you needed to use for this project?
RL: The main difference was sustaining a narrative that builds logically and seems to be moving forward. With the Muppet Show comics, the format was such that digressions and non-sequiturs were not only tolerated, but in some ways were the whole point of the book. Not so with Musical Monsters, which, apart from being one continuous narrative, is tonally a more reflective and lyrical work; there was room for a bit of manic slapstick from time to time, but too much of that could have undermined the whole atmosphere of the story. So I had to tread carefully.
Another difference was that I wanted this book to have a folksy, hand-made kind of quality to it, as it just felt to me like that sort of story. I chose to hand-letter the book in order to enhance this aspect, as I was afraid a digital font might make the pages feel too cold and mechanical. A lot of drawing decisions were made with similar reasoning behind them; directness and honesty were my goals. Probably nobody noticed, which is as it should be; if you were consciously aware of these aspects instead of becoming immersed in the story, I was doing it wrong.
JG: The script treatment for Turkey Hollow was only 8 pages long. How much of the dialogue did you have to create from scratch?
RL: All of it! I think there may have been a line or two of direct dialogue in the treatment (I don’t recall now), but if there were, I took them more as tonal cues than as lines to be literally transcribed. That said, the treatment offered enough of the essential characterizations that I felt I could “hear” everyone’s voices pretty clearly, so it wasn’t too much of a struggle.
JG: The creatures that you had drawn The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow original graphic novel are portrayed more with a typical “Jim Henson” feel as opposed to emulating darker look of the original puppet designs. Why did you go this route? Did you think using the original look of the monsters would have altered the way you approached your take on the story?
RL: Actually, my original sketches stuck extremely faithfully to the original puppet designs, but I received a note from Lisa Henson during the development stage encouraging me to break out from that a little more, to take advantage of the fact that characters on a comic book page could run around and express themselves in ways that puppets would have more difficulty in doing. So I added limbs and made the facial expressions more elastic and all those things that would make them more like cartoon characters and less like puppets. Even after that, if you compare the photos of the original puppets to my versions, the main difference is in the colours; the puppets were all of a similar dingy hue, but we were afraid that wouldn’t stand out on the comic page, so Ian Herring, our fabulous colourist, tweaked that aspect a bit. Facially, my Monsters are still pretty faithful to the originals.
JG: The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow is about to finally air as a TV movie on Lifetime. Without seeing it, what do you think they need to do to properly capture the charm of Jim and Jerry’s original script?
RL: I have no experience in television or film of any kind, so I can only speak to what I did, which is to do your best to listen to what’s on the page. I think capturing the tone is far more important than getting all of the literal details right; that, and making sure the characters stay true to themselves. Above all, try to find the joy in it; if there’s a defining word that should be your guide in adapting this story, “joy” would be that word.
Josh Green: Given the history behind the creation of Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow, what was it like coming onto a project a highly anticipated as this?
JG: When creating the monsters for Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow, were your designs similar to the original puppets that were created in the 1960’s?
PB: I would say that the new creatures were inspired by Jim’s original puppets. They don’t look exactly the same as the originals but I did try and keep the shapes similar. One creature is somewhat “owl-faced” like one of the originals. One has a long neck and pointy nose like one of the original puppets and so on.
JG: Other than the creatures, what else did you create for the upcoming movie?
PB: We created the Hoodoo masks and helped the Art Department with the wooden Hoodoo statue.
JG: You’ve worked with director Kirk Thatcher on many projects. What is it about you and Kirk that brings out the best out in each other?
PB: Mutual respect. I’ve known Kirk for many years and he is wildly creative and he certainly knows how to design and create creatures. He also has integrity as an artist and that is something I admire. I hope I get to work with Kirk many more times!
JG: If Jim were alive today, do you think that the final result of Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow skews to what would have been his original vision?
PB: My impression of Jim was that he never looked back – always looked forward to the next great thing. I think he would have loved this version of Turkey Hollow.
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Josh Green lives in Philadelphia, PA with his lovely wife Lauren. Having worked at Dynamite Entertainment and TV Guide, Josh is now a freelance writer for Graphic Policy and the creator of the “Muppets Gone Missing” column, so that he can still dabble in pop culture. While he is not dabbling, Josh lives a simple life, where his main enjoyment is spending as much time possible with his wife, whose very existence gives Josh purpose for everything.