All in the (Muppet) family. Brian Henson - former hater of children's favorite puppets - now coordinator of his father's Muppet productions in London
`AT school everybody would say, `Talk like Kermit!' ``I wanted to slap them, and I never did it!'' jokes Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson, puppeteer and creator of Kermit the frog and thousands of other Muppet characters.
Mr. Henson is a ground-breaking puppeteer himself. He works with computerized puppets in London.
But he didn't take to puppets at all when he was a kid: ``It was those... FELT-PUPPETS-WITH-PING-PONG-BALL EYES, you know? I learned to genuinely HATE that.''
He laughed again. Henson laughs a lot - in fact, he's a downright cheerful fellow. ``But I love it now, and it was just a phase in my life - a short-lived phase.''
Before Henson entered that phase - at about age 17 - he felt a little kindlier toward his father's now-famous Muppets.
He and his sisters and brother lived outside Manhattan, and father Jim Henson kept a studio in the city.
``What most people expect is that I grew up in a house filled with puppets and so forth - and I actually didn't. The business was the business. The Muppets stayed at work and didn't actually come home.
``But we were always in and out of the workshop. It was like a little fantasy land for us kids - there were always boxes full of eyes, and things like that. It was great!''
But Henson admits that it was a little tricky growing up in America with a famous puppeteer for a father.
``It's really strange having a father who's a celebrity to kids when you're a kid. It's one thing, I'm sure, to have a father like Paul Newman. When you're eight years old, it probably doesn't affect your life terribly much.
``But for me it was real odd ... right from the age of 7 or 8 you had people who were asking for your father's autograph and things like that, and it starts to drive you a bit nutty!''
So by the time Henson was ready to attend college, he had already turned his back on the Muppets and decided to become an astrophysicist. ``I went off to Colorado to the University of Colorado and hated it.''
It was right around that time that Henson did a turnaround and started to appreciate his father's work. ``I had really put a label on his work - it was ``The Muppet Show'' or it was ``Sesame Street.''
``But when he came out with [the film] `Dark Crystal,' and it was so realistic and so different, I no longer could hate it. And I think at that point I could kick myself and realize that it was all brilliant.''
So Henson ultimately left college and took a job in Jim Henson's workshop in Manhattan, working in special effects as a mechanic.
Soon he became employed by other people as a free-lancer. He went to London to work on films - still on the mechanical end of puppetry, which was and is his special interest.
``Then I started as a performer, and it came out to be a nice mixture, because it meant that I could be the performer who understands the workings behind it all.''
Henson has been living in London for the past four years. Just recently he completed work on a new segment for Jim Henson's TV series, ``The Storyteller'' - a Russian folk tale entitled ``The Luck Child.'' It was filmed entirely in London, as many of the Muppet productions have been.
In the story, as in some of the previous segments, the storyteller, played by John Hurt, tells his tale to a talking dog, created by the younger Henson.
Henson not only operates the animal, but he also worked on the design of the computer that controls its incredibly lifelike facial expressions.
Henson also helps animate another puppet in the story, a gigantic, 14-foot-tall griffin - worked from the inside.
It's the computerization of puppets that interests him the most. He believes the new techniques will revolutionize puppetry.
``We use floppy disks to store a character. It's very good, and it pulls down a lot of walls.
``The puppeteers hate the idea of the computer coming in, naturally, but this is a system that has been designed by puppeteers for puppeteers - it's very much made as a tool to allow the puppeteer to do more.''
Today Brian Henson, former puppet hater, is coordinator of all the productions for the Henson organization in London.
``But I need to break out every now and then,'' he says. ``I have to go back out to pasture and stock up my brain.''
Kids around the world won't begrudge him that. Each time he'll return to bring them more delight.