FRIDAY FUNNY: Without Sesame Street, Jim Henson Might Have Ended Up Running Studio 54

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By Heidi Schwartz
Imagine a world without Miss Piggy or Kermit. Pretty tough. Now think about Sesame Street without Big Bird or Grover, and Jimmy Fallon without this incredibly cute video. Darn near impossible, right?

Annotated photo of mocked-up Cyclia nightclub ceiling portion, c.1967. (Source: Jim's Red Book.)

Annotated photo of mocked-up Cyclia nightclub ceiling portion, c.1967. (Source: Jim’s Red Book.)

Anyone who lived through the last four or five decades would probably have a mighty difficult time imagining a Muppet-free world. But if Jim Henson’s career as a nightclub owner had taken off, that’s very well what might have happened.

According to a new biography by Brian Jay Jones, Henson spent from 1967 to 1970 concentrating his artistic energies on Cyclia, a trippy, multi-media “experience” that would combine music with images and dance. Henson’s sales brochure describes it in the following terms:

CYCLIA is pure theater in a revolutionary new form: A perfectly controlled, unified environment of movement, images and sound.

CYCLIA is an experience both powerful and exquisite, poetically simple and brilliantly abstract. It is cyclonic tornadoes of color, exploding images and torrents of flashing impressions.

CYCLIA is a sensational glimpse into the inner contents of our times – 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.

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In his book, Jim Henson: The BiographyJones explains that Henson was inspired by a Jefferson Airplane concert and imagined that the “wall, floor, and ceiling of his nightclub would be broken into faceted, crystal-like shapes onto which films would be projected” onto a faceted ceiling and body-suit clad dancers, timed to correspond with specific musical tracks and lighting effects.

Henson had a deep passion for the project and became personally involved in many of the operational details. He designed the furniture, lighting, and flooring (he wanted a see-through floor, much like the discos that would appear on the night club scene 10 years later)—he even worked with architects on the blueprints.

The multimedia aspect was extremely important as well. From Jim Henson’s Red Book:

Jim and his colleagues, Frank Oz (aka “Miss Piggy”), Jerry Juhl, and Jerry Nelson, filmed hours of material for Cyclia. When any of them had some free time, he would go out with a 16 mm camera and shoot film or, back at the studio, experiment with projection techniques. Jerry Nelson remembers, “…riding on the back of [Frank's] motorcycle, shooting.” He and Frank attended a Beatles concert at Shea Stadium and got permission to film the audience. The images of ecstatic fans were to be part of Cyclia’s entertainment.

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(Does anyone else remember the Land of Gorch on Saturday Night Live circa 1975-1976?)

Again, from the Red Book, “By 1969, the vision had not been realized, and those involved were ready to move onto other projects, most importantly for Jim, Sesame Street, which premiered that November. In 1970,  four years of work on Cyclia were shelved as Jim Henson focused on a series of new projects for the coming decade.”

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