Category Archives: In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Jane Henson, Lover, Dreamer

Yesterday the Jim Henson Company announced the passing of Jane Henson, widow of Jim Henson and, perhaps more importantly, his longtime professional partner. We vividly recall as a third grader reading a biography of Jim Henson, a slim paperback with a green cover (naturally aimed at young readers, and being captivated by black-and-white photos of a fresh-faced, clean-shaven Jim Henson. At his side in many of these photos was another young puppeteer by the name of Jane Nebel, and it wasn’t long before the two began dating in addition to collaborating professionally. We still remember finding these photos particularly striking, something classic and timeless about their look, and something special in the way they turned their passion for their work into passion for each other. 

jane & Jim Henson

Jane worked with Jim on many commercials and helped him produce the local Washington, DC program Sam and Friends, which featured a very young, embryonic Kermit the Frog. Through their early work Jane assisted Jim in the creation of the Muppets, becoming a key architect in their development. Eventually Jim and Jane married and gave birth to five young Hensons, and Jane focused more on raising the brood while Jim found other professional partners like Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, lovers and dreamers who shared the unique Henson vision. While Jane’s contribution could no longer tangibly be seen on-screen, her influence is undeniable and impact unquestionable. And even though she and Jim separated in 1986 she remained an important part of the Henson family, and continued to carry on the Henson spirit after Jim’s untimely death in 1993.

We always found it moving and significant he called her to his side when he fell ill, and she was with him in his last hours. It showed to us, even at ten-years-old, that Jane and Jim were bound by something other than romantic love for each other, perhaps something even greater than that. In that moment, and in her commitment to the Jim Henson Legacy, both literally and figuratively, she showed that whether or not they were in love she and Jim were eternally bound by a shared vision and a desire to bring good into the world. It wasn’t really Jim’s legacy that Jane had been working to preserve and promote all these years. It was their legacy.

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Filed under Brilliance, In Memoriam, Muppets

In Memoriam: Ed Koch; Cool Old Guy First, NYC Mayor Second

Mayors, and politicians in general, usually possess the stereotype of being buttoned up, polished, careful with their words and actions. They’re not usually schlubby Jews with thick Noo Yawk accents and the kind of appearance that more resembles the Uncle at your Bar Matzvah who drinks too much Kiddush wine, commandeers the microphone and tells hackneyed jokes than the leader of the most influential city in the world. But former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who died early this morning, defied those stereotypes, and many others. Indeed, had you presented a four-year-old me with a photo of our Uncle Morty side-by-side with one of Koch we would have been hard-pressed to tell the difference, and that, perhaps, speaks to his appeal and to his legacy.

There are two real cornerstones that shaped our youth and who we are today: The Mets and the Muppets. And Koch had a history with both of them. Before we every really knew Ed Koch as the outspoken Mayor of New York City, we knew him as a Mets fan, an old guy in a Mets hat who seemed to be of some import but we weren’t really certain what. Our first memory of the late Mayor is probably his brief appearance in the 1986 Mets music video “Let’s Go Mets Go,” popping up next to NYC luminaries such as Robert Klein, Howard Stern, Twisted Sister and Gene Shalit, seeming more like a crazy, die-hard fan than a political heavyweight. But Koch proved you could be both simultaneously, and few reveled in the Mets World Series victory more than Koch. You can accuse some politicians of feigning allegiance to their local teams, especially in times of triumph, but you can’t say that about Koch and the ’86 Mets.

Our other early memory of Koch – and something of a rite of passage for NYC Mayors – was his work with the Muppets, offering a cameo in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Certainly, a Muppet film taking place in the country’s largest city would require an appearance from its leader. But that much, a rote cameo, was somewhat perfunctory. What was special about this particular cameo was that Koch felt right with the Muppets, that his off-kilter brand of governing was somehow complimentary to the bizarre, left-of-center sensibility of the Muppets. They were, in a way, a natural match, with Koch even appearing in “The Great Muppet Look-Alike Contest,” a feature in a 1983 issue of Muppet Magazine, paired up with Gonzo naturally. And he was right at home sparring with Gonzo again in Muppets Take Manhattan. 

Twins.

We’re too young to have really understand Koch’s impact as Mayor of New York City. We think he generally did a good job, but that might be because we like him, because he remained a visible, outspoken presence in NY life. We’re not even familiar with his hosting turn on SNLthe third piece of the triptych that helped define our personality along with Mets and the Muppets. But we know that he was a fan of and a part of two things that we love, that are a part of our very makeup. And he’s also an integral part of another strand of our DNA, New York City. We’ve come to love this city the way that Koch did for so many decades. He was a quintessential New Yorker, a wise-cracking, tough-talking, bald-headed Jew who became Mayor.

Only in New York.

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Filed under Checks & Balances, In Memoriam, Intersection of the venn diagram of things that I love, Local Flavor, Matt Christopher Books

In Memoriam: Michael Clarke Duncan AKA The Club is Closed

When word broke late Monday night that Michael Clarke Duncan had passed away at the far too early age of fifty-four we were not quite surprised, having known that he suffered a heart attack in mid-July and was in serious condition ever since. But even before he was hospitalized he seemed like the kind of gentle giant who might be taken away from us too soon. With such a massive, powerful, outsized frame, accompanied by such a soft, kind touch, it would not have been illogical to wonder if his heart could support such a large figure, even though through his charm and personality appeared to have a big heart.

He’s most remembered for his Academy Award Nominated performance in The Green Mile, his breakout role, and, indeed, this is the primary credit noted in his obituaries. But we couldn’t help but feel like we knew him before that, in a lighter, less somber role, in a movie that was very close to our own hearts. And in studying his filmography, we realized what we were thinking of, what made us fond of Duncan all these years: A Night at the Roxbury. Yes, this is an exceedingly dumb movie, even by SNL movie standards, but we were enamored with it as teenagers, and you only need to take one look at Will Ferrell’s lifetime box office to know that it featured a future star. But it also had a small role for Duncan as a bouncer, a vocation that he was not unfamiliar with. It wasn’t anything significant, but with his bowling ball biceps, Barry White-like bass, and obvious warmth in spite of the nature of his role, Duncan left an indelible impression on us.

In the end, perhaps, he was literally larger than life.

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Filed under In Memoriam, Saturday Night Live

In Memorium: Tony Scott AKA ‘Top Gun’ and the Need for More Than Speed

Ask us what our three favorite movies are. Go ahead. Ask us.

Number one would probably be Wayne’s World. That’s just our movie. The one of which we know every word. The one we would just play over and over again the background, as if it was our Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The third movie we’d list would probably be Tombstone or Rushmore, depending on what kind of mood we were in or the audience we were with or if there was someone we were trying to impress; Tombstone if we wanted to seem more original, more honest, more badassRushmore if we wanted to seem more intellectual, more sophisticated, more melancholy. But the second movie on our list would no doubt be Top Gun, the Tony Scott film that was played on repeat during our childhood and pretty much taught us what an action movie should be: adrenaline-fueled, testosterone-soaked, hyperactive, supercharged, bombastic, loud, and frenetic, a visceral thrill ride. It essentially defined 80s popcorn blockbusters. In fact, it kinda defines the 80s. And maybe that’s why it’s so significant to us, why we still hold on so dearly to Scott’s definitive film (with all apologies to Crimson Tide and True Romance, and no apologies to anything from Scott’s later collaborations with Denzel Washington).

But it’s more than that. Maybe ‘Top Gun’ is just good.

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Filed under Crucial Taunt, In Memoriam, Nostalgia Corner, The Big Screen

In Memorium: Ron Palillo; AKA When We Welcomed Kotter

If you asked us which television character we most resemble, many suggestions would rapidly come to mind. Zack Morris for his blonde hair good looks and cunning. Mike Seaver for his teenage heartthrob good looks and mischievous charm. Cousin Cody for his laid-back surfer dude good looks and martial arts skills.  But while those are all great contenders, we have to admit that there’s another character in the television pantheon with whom we most identify: Arnold Horshack, played so brilliantly and honestly by Ron Palillo, who passed away yesterday at sixty-three.

We recall very clearly the summer in which we first fell in love with Welcome Back Kotter.  No, it was not the Summer of ’77, but almost twenty years later when the show was in syndication on Nick at Niteas that network began to shift its designation of “classic TV” from the black & white oldies like The Donna Reed Show and Mr. Ed to the grainy full color ’70s shows like Kotter and The Bob Newhart Show. Nick at Nite would run marathons of Kotter once a week, as part of their “Block Party Summer” programming gambit, and watching those episodes back-to-back-to-back was just about the best block party we ever went to. But we also remember the show airing nightly at 11pm, perhaps the following summer or the one after that.  This sticks with us vividly because we recollect having to make a tough decision, a Sophie’s choice: Seinfeld, airing every night in syndication as still does to this day, the undisputed sitcom champ of its time and perhaps anytime, or Welcome Back Kotter, the over the hill has-been who was also the new kid on the block. Even though Kotter was about fifteen years older, and had achieved lunch box-level success, it felt very much like a wily up-and-comer taking on the unbeatable stalwart. But while our head told us that we should choose Seinfeld, that it was the superior show, the one that was not only plugged into the zeitgeist but was driving it, we felt this tug towards the Mr. Kotter and his Sweathogs.  Did the latter show have hugs and heart while the former swore off that sort of sentimentality as its guiding principle? Certainly. But we weren’t quite the cynics we are now, not quite submerged in snark-infested waters. And despite the magnetic north of Nielsen ratings and cultural relevance pointing towards Jerry and the gang, and despite our unconditional love for that show then, now and forever, we followed our hearts further up the dial, further into the hinterlands of cable, towards Gabe and the gang.

More: And in Arnold Horshack we found a kindred spirit…

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Filed under Count Bleh, Good Humor, In Memoriam, Nostalgia Corner

Belated In Memorium: Donald J. Sobol AKA a Requiem for Encyclopedia Brown

We like to fancy ourself as an amateur detective.  If someone loses their keys, we’re on the case.  If someone is being evasive about whom they went to dinner with last Sunday night, we get to the bottom of it.  If there’s an email address to be found by scouring pages of Google results, we’re going to find it.  If we spend a week in Aruba, we fully believe that we’re going to solve a high-profile, lingering unsolved murder.  In many cases we’re successful, in some cases we’re not (the latter, in particular, which is still keeping us up nights).  But that inquisitive, investigator spirit stays with us, and it’s been with us since childhood.  If you asked us at eight-years-old what we wanted to be when we grew up we’d say “baseball player” or “movie writer.”  Definitely one of those two.  But “detective” would have won the bronze, which is why in 9th grade we did a future career report on “FBI Agent” and nearly began working part-time for a private investigator a few months after college (it occurs to us now that we would be especially unsuited for that role, our small bladder no doubt serving as a hinderance during long stakeouts).  It’s perhaps why we fell so in love with Veronica Mars (the show and the character), and spent so many hours as a child in our grandma’s basement using her office supplies and copy machine (or “photostat,” as she so adorably referred to it) to assemble fake case files, pretending that stamping a folder “PAID” was equivalent to “CASE CLOSED,” and  fabricating evidence out of Xerox copies of our tiny hands and face and randomly scribbling with mechanical pencils.  We were a junior Sam Spade, a soft-boiled detective, solving the case of the missing ping-pong paddle with a Bachman’s pretzel rod dangling casually from our lips instead of a lean Marlboro, a tumbler of Pepsi with crushed ice instead of a stiff whiskey on the rocks.

And what does any of this have to do with Encyclopedia Brown? Read on for the solution…

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Filed under In Memoriam, Literarally, Mars Investigations, Nostalgia Corner

In Memorium: Ernest Borgnine; AKA The Importance of Being Ernest

As they say, these things come in thirties, and yesterday Ernest Borgnine joined the ranks of the many actors, celebrities and famous figures to leave us this year, passing away at ninety-five less than a week after Nora Ephron and less than two weeks after Andy Griffith.  Borgnine was one of those life-time, living legend actors, sort of a male Betty White, a performer whose career spanned more decades than most marriages, a half-century of a work on his resume.  By the time we knew who he was, or at least knew his name, he was already into the golden age of his career, a silver-headed silver back.  And we came know him best – for better or worse – as Manny the doorman on NBC’s The Single Guy.  Certainly, this is not the crowning achievement of his career, that would be his Oscar for 1955’s Marty, and the NBC sitcom is more of a footnote on his illustrious filmography, but it is the role with which we most associate him.  We didn’t choose to be twelve-years-old when The Single Guy came on the air, it choose us.  And how were we not supposed to watch the show between Friends and Seinfeld?  But that’s where The Single Guy was, 8:30pm on Thursday nights, the cushiest spot for any fledgling sitcom in all of television, and there on that show was an adorable, bushy-haired old man.  And that’s how we remember Ernest Borgnine.

In lieu of any choice excerpts from The Single Guy (if such a thing exists), here’s Borgnine talking about that show and its rapid demise.  His quiet bemusement over the show’s sudden cancellation and the questionable machinations of showbiz indicates that Borgnine the person was not so unlike the Borgnine characters: upbeat, gentle, and genuine.

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Filed under Count Bleh, In Memoriam, Must See TV