Merry Christmas! Celebrating Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas With Editor Frances Gilbert
Ran into these two the other day at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta :
If this duo means anything to you then it could be that you too were raised on one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas. Produced by Jim Henson it was a sweet Gift of the Magi-type story involving lower income otters, nasty 70s rockband vermin, and a washtub, formerly without holes. The piece was actually based on a book by Russell Hoban, illustrated by his then wife Lillian Hoban. This year, Doubleday re-released the book and it looks better than ever before. I had the honor of speaking with editor Frances Gilbert about the book, the Henson production, and what it’s meant to so many of us over the years.
Betsy: So we’re talking about Russell Hoban here. A man best known for such books as Bread and Jam for Frances and the other books in the Frances series. Though I believe at some point it was Garth Williams but I believe Lillian did the work on Emmet.
Frances: Yes… basically it was Russell and Lillian Hoban who were partners on Emmet Otter.
Betsy: Well I spoke to Russell years ago, which was really a thrill, and he said that he always preferred Lillian’s art. And this was long after their divorce and he just said straight out, “I always liked her art more.” So I said, “Okey-dokey!” My question to you then is, your name is Frances . . . is there a connection there or is that a coincidence?
Frances: No, there is a connection AND a coincidence. So I have connections with the books that … I feel that this book has formed the path of my life in really mysterious ways. And it begins with Bread and Jam for Frances. And this is basically the story that begins and ends in a library. This story is going to be bookended in the library. My family immigrated to Canada from England in 1974. We were immigrants, we were poor, and my mom really promoted reading and made sure that we got a good education. So she took me to the library every weekend. And one of the first books I remember signing out of the library in Toronto was Bread and Jam for Frances. I had it out because it had my name in it and I was so excited! And my name is never in anything! We brought it home. The other thing about me at age four was that I was an incredibly picky eater. I barely ate anything. My mom and I read the book and I remember us laughing and laughing and laughing and she said to me, “You know this is you, right?” I said, “I know!” I understood that it was me. And it really was the first book that I remember identifying with and realizing that you could see yourself reflected back in a story. So that book was really was what set me off as a reader.
Of course, at age four I didn’t know or care who the Hobans were. Fast forward a few years to the late 70s when Jim Henson made a film out of Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas. I became obsessed with this movie, because back then if you saw a movie on TV you might never see it again.
Betsy: Oh yeah. We taped it off on VHS.
Frances: Yes, but this was pre-VHS. This was 1977. It was still back in the time when you’d say, “Oh, that was great. I hope that comes back on TV someday. But the movie really spoke to me and one of the reasons was the soundtrack was done by the incredible Paul Williams who is still such a hero of mine. My mom was a huge fan of him and we always had his records playing at home and he did the incredibly soundtrack for this movie and he, of course, eventually went on to do the soundtrack for The Muppet Movie as well as other films of Henson. It really stuck with me but it never came on again because, you know, it was television. And then finally going forward many years to the 90s I finally found a copy again on VHS. And I watched it again, just as I started in publishing, and it was when I was watching the credits that I saw that it was based on a story by Russell and Lillian Hoban. And I went, “WHAT?” That was when I made the connection between Russell and Lillian being the creators of this story. I didn’t even realize it had been a book! And the fact that they had also been the creators of Bread and Jam for Frances which had been such a significant book for me. So this story and the film that it was based on really followed my life.
Betsy: I can relate. I too grew up watching that special, though if you watch it on DVD these days they cut it slightly differently from how it aired on television. Kermit’s gone.
Frances: That’s a Kermit/Muppets/who-owns-what? kind of thing. It was a rights issue with Muppets and Disney or something like that. There are definitely rights issues about why you don’t see Kermit anymore.
Betsy: You’ve just cleared up a mystery that my family has been debating for years. Thank you!
Now what is your connection to the current re-release of the book of Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas?
Frances: This is a continuation of the story that I was telling. When I found out early in my career that this book was based on Russell and Lillian’s book I told myself (and again, this is going back to the very beginning of my career) that at one point in my life I would love to see this book back in print. And it was, of course this was pre-internet days so it wasn’t like you could order an old copy on eBay or go on Google to find out who the agents were or anything. It just stuck around as something that I always wanted to do. So I came to Doubleday in 2012 and I told myself when I got here that I was finally going to get this book back in print. A few years ago I had some time to properly think about it and I basically got online and started Googling who is managing the estates for the Hobans. And I think I recall that I called a lot of lawyers offices and basically did some digging around and eventually found out that there were two different literary agents that were representing Lillian and Russell. So I wrote to them both and basically pitched this to them and told them the story that I told you, which is that this is a book that has such deep and personal meaning to me and we must get it back in print. They both basically said, “Okay, kid. Knock yourself out.” And they were really excited to see it back in print as well.
I acquired the rights for the text and the art and that’s basically how it came to Doubleday. One of the very fun moments for me was that shortly after agreeing on the contact terms Susan Cohen [one of the agents] invited me to a concert at Feinstein’s, a cabaret space below Studio 54 because a few years ago the Goodspeed Opera House had taken the text and the music from the Henson show and had created a stage musical version of the story. The cast of the Goodspeed Opera production were coming to Feinstein’s to do basically a live concert. Like a live reading with all the music. And this was was literally days after Susan and I agreed to the contract terms. So she invited my boyfriend Lance and I to join her and it was one of the best nights of my life. This was in a completely packed cabaret room with obsessive Emmet Otter fans.
Betsy: How did I miss this?
Frances: It was incredible! And if they ever do it again I will let you know and you will fly in.
Betsy: I will fly in!
Frances: Well you’re one of us! People who love this movie love it with such a passion. So the room is packed, these incredible singers from the Goodspeed Opera Company come on space and then live muppeteers with full sized Emmet Otter and cast Muppets get on stage. Like enormous Muppets get on stage. And then … Paul Williams gets on stage! And they went through the entire show. They did spoken word and all the songs and at the end when they were singing When the River Meets the Sea I started crying so hard that I actually started laughing because I realized how insane I looked. And Lance looked across the table and said to me later, “I basically watched you lose your mind. You were kind of sobbing and shaking but also laughing hysterically and I wasn’t really sure what was going on.” It was so magical and the love of this show in that room made me realize that we were really on to something in terms of reissuing this book because there is a real love there. And I know that the Goodspeed Opera Company has been diligently been trying to bring this show to New York so we hope at some point it will end up on Broadway.
Betsy: That is great! Oh man. I hope we get to see that. That would be amazing.
Frances: Now the last detail of this is that I told you that this all began in a library. It began in a library with me checking out Bread and Jam for Frances and it ends in a library because just this past January we had scanned a copy of a first edition that I had. We scanned the artwork. And when I got the proofs I went up to the Beinecke Library up in Yale where I knew they had the original artwork. Not all the original artwork, mind you, but a few pieces. So I called ahead and ordered up the art and went up there to see if I could take a look at it because I wanted to compare our proofs to the originals to make sure we had gotten scans that were good enough. And to my delight they were, they were great. But what was really exciting was how enormous the art was. I was expecting the archivist to come back with a regular sized box but she came back with these like three by four foot pieces of art. So that was incredible to have the artwork there but also in the box, attached to these huge pieces of art, was the original sketch dummy where I basically had Russell and Lillian’s sketches and their type scripts sort of taped together. And there it was, it was a total surprise. I didn’t realize it was going to be in the archives and I got to slip through and see where it all began. And that was incredible.
Betsy: I had no idea they worked at such large formats. You look at it and you do not assume that it is large art at all.
Frances: No, you’d assume diminutive!
Betsy: Were any changes made to the original book in your reprint?
Frances: No changes were made to their artwork or to the text. All we did was redesign the jacket and put it in a slightly different format. We had a lovely cloth bound spine with a beautiful decoration on it. We have a more contemporary looking cover but it still has the original artwork on the front. We were very respectful of what they had created. We didn’t change anything.
Betsy: In terms of convincing people to re-release this I assume that one of the arguments for it would be that there are a lot of parents of kids that grew up watching the Jim Henson special. I feel like that would have been a huge factor in getting this book out.
Frances: Certainly whenever I talk about this book in a large room there are always people who will start nodding and smiling and holding up their hands saying, “Oh my goodness. My family watches this every Thanksgiving or every Christmas. My colleague Michelle Nagler who is one of our Associate Publishing Directors, when I presented this she put up her head and said, “When my brother was in college he was in a band called The Riverbottom Nightmare Band.” So I’ve always presented this in-house at Random House to a great deal of enthusiasm but there are always a lot of people in the room that will say, “Oh my gosh, yes. I love this.” I do think that Millennial parents will be very excited. And also I think there will be legions of grown-up Muppet fans. We’ll be targeting them via social media because there are some really active, really committed fans sites and we want to be sure that we reach them.
Betsy: All right. So here’s a hard question. Which do you love more . . . the book or the Jim Henson version?
Frances: Oh, my goodness. Why would you make me choose, Betsy? Well, gosh, I’ll say that I love the book because it started it all. And it’s also interesting to see how faithful Henson was to the book.
Betsy: Shockingly faithful!
Frances: He was very inspired by it. When you see the illustrations, you see the characters from the Henson film. He was very very faithful.
Betsy: Yeah. With the sole exception of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band. And I approve of the changes made to that! I like the glam-rock/80s/whatever-it-is that they’re going for there. Like, live fish on stage. That thing is awesome.
Frances: A few years ago, around the time when I was trying to get the rights to this, I walked into the Random House building and we share the company with a number of other companies, one of which is BMG Music Group. Occasionally you’ll see celebrities in the building. So I walk through the lobby on morning and Paul Williams is sitting there, on a bench, minding his own business, waiting for someone to come down to take him up to his appointment. And I walked by him. I’ve always been so respectful of celebrities. I’ve never gone over to them to say hello to anybody. And I walk by him and I went upstairs and I call my boyfriend and I say, “Paul Williams is in the lobby.” And I start freaking out thinking about how much I’d like to tell him that we’re putting this book out and what his music has meant to me. He says, “You’ve got to get downstairs right now and tell him.” I went flying down the elevator, running into the lobby to see if he was still there and he was GONE. I missed my opportunity. But we’re definitely going to try to reach out to him through our publicity department and through the estates of Russell and Lillian who would have some connection to him to see if we can at least make him aware of the fact that the book is back.
Betsy: There was a copy of the book at the Donnell Central Children’s Library, where I used to work, and that’s where I first encountered it. That book is now underneath Bryant Park, since that’s where the reference children’s collection ended up. But they do have a copy there too. FYI if anybody wants to see an original that’s where I saw it. And when I spoke to Russell Hoban years ago we were talking about adaptations of his books. And he couldn’t stand The Mouse and His Child animated film, which is a weird idea to begin with. But he loved the Jim Henson. Absolutely loved it. Thought it was a great adaptation. Loved the music, loved the whole thing. He was a big fan.
Many many thanks to Frances Gilbert for this peek behind the curtain. Thanks to Doubleday for producing the
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