Inside the Making and Botched Initial Release of ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’

Brian Henson, Dave Goelz and Paul Williams tell TheWrap about the missing song “When Love Is Gone,” how it was found and what it means that it’s back


On December 11, 1992, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” was released to theaters. In his three-star review, Roger Ebert said that the movie “could have done with a few more songs than it has.” And he was right – up until the very last minute, there was an extra song (“When Love Is Gone”) that was removed at the insistence of a pushy Disney executive. Now, all these years later (and after one very close call), the song has been reinstated. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is finally whole.

This is the story of how the movie came to be, how it lost a song and how that song eventually was found again.

Uncertain Times

On May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died following a short illness. He was only 53. (It was ultimately ruled toxic shock syndrome caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.)

At the time of his death, Henson was in negotiations to sell his company (and most of his characters) to the Walt Disney Company. Announced in 1989 (the New York Times headline read: “Muppets Join Disney Menagerie”), the deal was for all of Henson’s characters besides the ”Sesame Street” characters and rumored to be north of $150 million. Disney CEO and chairman Michael Eisner had a long history; they first met in 1967 when Eisner was an executive at ABC and Henson was working on the prototype of what would ultimately become “The Muppet Show.” The deal was announced at Disney-MGM Studios, a new theme park where a new attraction called Muppet*Vision 3D, was set to open soon.

After Jim died, the deal with Disney, which was essentially a handshake deal, failed. There were a number of complications, stemming from estate taxes as well as Disney’s lowered asking price following Henson’s death (since part of them was for him to stay on and act as a creative consultant). On December 13, after more than 18 months of negotiating, the deal was called off.

“We truly regret we could not come to terms,” Eisner said in a prepared statement. The relationship between the Henson family and Disney remained contentious; they threatened to pull Muppet*Vision 3D, the last project Jim personally worked on, from the parks. It was bad.

“The day after he died, we were all gathered in New York, everybody had come from all over the world to be in the same place together. We were just sobbing. You know, we just couldn’t believe that this guy who seemed to be able to do anything had succumbed. And at the end of that day, at five o’clock, Brian asked us to come to the apartment, us at Jim’s apartment,” Dave Goelz, the longtime Muppet performer perhaps most famous for Gonzo, told TheWrap. “And he said, ‘The press has been asking me all day, what what’s going to happen to the Muppets now,’ and he said, ‘I don’t know what to tell them. I wanted to talk to you guys and see if you felt like going on and how you see the future.’ And we all felt that it had been our life’s work and it was part of us. Our answer unanimously was, ‘Well, if it’s possible to keep doing this, it feels like we should, we’d like to.’”

In the crossfire was Brian Henson, son of Jim and Jane, then-26 and forced by fate and happenstance into running a company he never thought he would be put in charge of. “It was a lot. I was very young. It was a lot running the company and the fight with Disney. I was also making ‘Dinosaurs’ with them at the same time as the fight,” Brian Henson said, referring to the groundbreaking sitcom that featured anthropomorphic dinosaurs brought to life via the wizardry of Henson’s Creature Shop. “I had figured out a way to have a relationship that was okay, even with Michael Eisner, even though there was fighting going on over here.”

And what about the Muppets? The last theatrically released Muppet movie was 1984’s “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” directed and co-written by Muppet performer Frank Oz, who in the years since had established himself as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand filmmakers having directed “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “What About Bob?”

“We knew that we needed to do something with the Muppets fast after my dad died and that we couldn’t get it wrong. That was the pressure,” Henson said. At the suggestion of Henson’s agent (and the co-founder of CAA) Bill Haber, they started looking at doing Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with the Muppets. “I was worried that it was so heavily adapted, that it would just be hard to be original. I was concerned,” Henson said. But he re-read the book, as did Jerry Juhl, the legendary writer and Muppet performer. “And we thought, Oh, no, this really is great. It pointed us towards a whole different approach with the Muppets and using them as an ensemble group of performers, much like Monty Python, like a troupe, and not as them being themselves.”

But even after they had landed on the idea, Brian Henson shied away from actually making it. “Obviously, I didn’t want to direct the movie. I wanted Frank Oz or someone else to do to direct the movie, but Frank very much wanted me to direct it,” Henson admitted. “And Frank was on set with me throughout when we were shooting, which was enormously helpful. Without that support, it would have been really, really hard. But I was very nervous.”

“When we finally got this movie organized, it just seemed like a fitting tribute to Jim,” Goelz said. “It was very soulful piece of literature, it was the first time we’ve done a piece that major with the characters playing other characters. And, you know, we all felt it from the script, we could just see that this was going to be special.”

Still, utilizing the Muppets as characters rather than themselves (starring in an adaptation of a literary classic, no less!) was far from a sure thing – even to Brian Henson. “Putting the dramatic story first and the comedy very much as a much lower second was a little scary for us, because Disney and everybody wanted ‘The Muppet Movie’ formula of jokes per page and keep the audience laughing out loud. And this was not that movie,” Henson said. “And you could hear a pin drop through most of the movie in a movie theater. I mean, there were funny moments certainly where the audience would laugh, but it was a different kind of humor. It’s a dramatic storytelling with wonderful light moments that are heartfelt throughout. But it’s not a laugh out loud movie. All of that made me nervous. I knew we were doing something special and something new. But I also didn’t know. I didn’t know if it would work.”

One thing was sure – if it was going to work, it would need the right music. And they would recruit someone who had been a huge part of Muppet history.

Paul Williams Returns

Paul Williams is one of America’s most beloved songwriters who, in the 1970s, made waves for his colorful talk show appearances, ability to write unforgettable songs for bands like The Carpenters and for movies like “Phantom of the Paradise,” “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” and “The Day of the Locust.” He crossed paths with Jim Henson and the Muppets several times – he starred on a 1976 episode of “The Muppet Show” and wrote the songs for holiday classic “Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas.” According to Williams, his work on “Emmet Otter” was an audition for writing the songs for “The Muppet Movie.” He must have passed the audition since Williams wrote the songs (with Kenny Ascher) for that classic.

“I wasn’t doing musicals, I was doing ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘The Storyteller’ and ‘Dinosaurs.’” Brian Henson said. “Song and dance was an area I was comfortable in. I had a very strong feeling as to when I thought the Muppets and singing work the best. And that was Paul Williams and John Denver. That was when Muppet songs work, you know, most delightfully to me.”

Of course, in the years since “The Muppet Movie,” Williams had a very public battle with drug and alcohol addiction. “The degree of responsibility I brought the jobs before I got sober meant that the phone was not ringing off the hook,” Williams said. When Brian Henson called about “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” Williams described it as a “treat.”


“I’m going to a place in my life where I have just misplaced a decade,” Williams said. “When the phone rang, I’m in the middle of a spiritual awakening. For the first time in my life, I’m waking up, I feel connected to the world around me, I’m not having cravings. And then I’m asked to write the songs for a story about a man who’s having a spiritual awakening, who has been relieved of his addiction for greed. It’s really just an amazing alignment to work on something that was just the essence of who I was at that moment.”

“Paul had just been through a very dark period and hadn’t worked in years and years because of his self-destructive period of addiction,” Henson said. “And he really wanted to do this piece. And it’s a piece about redemption, you know, it’s the redemption of Scrooge. And not that Paul Williams was this Scrooge-type person, but he had come out of a spirit of being self-destructive and therefore destructive. And it was his redemption as well to write the songs for this movie. And so I think it really brought the very best of his lyrical ability, his brilliance with lyrics really resonated in the songs.”

Williams found himself in a new place of feeling, not just because of the newfound sobriety but in the position that returning to the Muppets put him in, emotionally. “It’s what size can opener do you want to open your heart with?” Williams said. “We can go with you being brand new, sober, and loving and feeling everything. Or we can go with the fact that you’re back at work on something that is emotional and deeply connected to your Muppet family. Or you can go with the big one, which is Jim’s spirit is overhead.” Williams paused. “I don’t think anybody has ever come up with a worse metaphor of opening somebody’s art than what size can opener.”

Williams’ recovery and his injection of the songs with that journey resonated for Goelz, who had just gone through major therapy and who has always been deeply linked with Williams thanks to “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” one of the best, most heartbreaking moments from “The Muppet Movie.” (Williams absolutely adores Gonzo.) “How can you work in the arts and not use your experience? That’s the beauty of being in the arts,” Goelz said. “And it definitely came from Paul. And it definitely resonated with both of us.”

One of the songs that Williams wrote, “When Love Is Gone,” is one of his favorites. “It’s the best example of me doing what I’m paid to do, which is write a song that that advances the story and exposes to the listener and the viewer to the inner life of the character,” Williams said. “And what that song does is it shows you what he lost. It shows you the addiction to greed and addiction to earning money and in the performance of the song, you get to see this master actor observe this horrific loss in his life at this moment. It’s heartbreaking to watch him. I’m really, really proud of that song.”

And while there is a reprise version of the song and it appeared on the soundtrack album, when “The Muppet Christmas Carol” was released into theaters 30 years ago, “When Love Is Gone” was gone.

A Major Cut

According to Brian Henson, it boiled down to this: former Disney president Jeffrey Katzenberg hated ballads. “And I have heard since that he had put pressure on other very famous Disney movies with very famous ballads that maybe they should be cut from the movie,” Henson added. “But he had a very real reason, which is kids under the age of six or so really, really don’t respond to ballads. It just doesn’t hook them and they get antsy and bored.” (“It was deleted for marketing reasons and to not make children bored,” said Goelz.)

Henson saw the reaction first-hand; during test screenings of “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” when “When Love Is Gone” would play, kids would leave to go to the bathroom, get restless and start running up and down the aisles, missing this part of the movie. Henson is quick to point out that Katzenberg didn’t force Henson to cut the sequence. “But he said, ‘I can see what’s happening with the little kids during the song.’ And he thought it would play better without it,” Henson said. “And I said, ‘But I love it. And I feel like the story is a better story with it in.’”

“I handled the fact that they pulled it out of there relatively calmly,” Williams said. “I didn’t stand on anybody’s desk or come in and poke them in the chest and say, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’ Part of what we’re made familiar with in early recovery is the thought of acceptance to comfortably accept something that is just unacceptable and go that’s what it is. So it’s what it is without that … and it’s gone.”

Goelz too mourned its removal. “It was such a beautiful song. And it certainly upped the stakes in the film tremendously to see Scrooge suffering like this,” Goelz said. “It’s one of the signs he gets in his life – he’s not living his life well, going back and seeing himself in childhood and how he was so hurt him so abandoned and yet tried to be strong as a defense. And then he blew up with his girlfriend and just made a series of terrible mistakes that hardened him.”

Still, the song was only meant to be removed temporarily. Henson and Katzenberg compromised and agreed that it would simply be removed for the initial theatrical engagement and “it will be back in the movie for always and forever.” “That was so that was the agreement,” Henson said. “And so it was cut out … but then Disney lost the negative.” Oh.

“When Love Is Gone,” Found

The initial release of “The Muppet Christmas Carol” was somewhat frustrating for Henson. “Disney wanted the movie to come out just before Christmas and thought that it would play through January and I was saying it’s not going play through January. Everybody loves Christmas until the day after Christmas and then they’re all completely done with it,” Henson remembered. “That’s exactly what happened and had a great couple of weeks. And it was done it. It was done in two weeks.”

In fact, the film opened at #6 at the box office, to just $5 million on opening weekend. It would end up grossing a mere $27 million worldwide.

And there was, of course, the missing song, which did appear on the 1993 VHS release of the movie and, again, was a staple for anybody who bought the album and listened to it incessantly.

Disney losing the negative meant that the highest quality version of the song was on a British home video release. The song couldn’t be reinstated until Disney could find the negative. “I’d harass them constantly,” Henson said. And they never did find the negative.

“Technicolor would have said to me, ‘Are you really sure you want to cut the scene because we’re going to destroy the negative.’ Because you destroy one frame. When you cut the negative, you can never put a cut piece of negative back into a negative without now cutting off another frame right side. They made an inter-positive of that reel of the film as a safety before they cut it,” Henson said.

This is what they found a couple of years ago (as late as 2018 Henson was saying there’s no way a complete version of the film would be seen). And this is even better than the negative, because they’d always have those holes to the right and left of it.

And now the extended, uncut version of “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is available – right now! – on Disney+ in beautiful 4K.

“The first time when that song is sung, it does what a song is supposed to do with that moment, it lets you experience the emotions of the loss. And it lets you understand what happened to the character. Oh, that’s what happened to do it. That’s where he lost it,” Williams said.

As far as Henson is concerned, this is the definitive version of “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (even though you annoyingly have to go to the movie’s special features on Disney+ to find this version). “It’s the full-length version. It is the movie and it was only ever meant to be without that song for that initial theatrical release,” Henson said. “And then it was always meant to be in from then.”

When we asked Goelz what he felt about the movie 30 years later, he reflected on the experience and the legacy of the project and what it meant to him personally.

“It’s just an honor to work in that kind of creative environment. You know, everybody was serving this central idea. And it was a worthwhile idea to put out in the world. It wasn’t just funny. It meant something. It still means so much to me. It’s one of my favorite film that we’ve done. this one just meant so much,” Goelz said.

“Imagine you’re an artist and you’re working and you’d like to do deeper work. But your job is to just be funny. Not that our work isn’t deep, it does resonate. A lot of our work resonates on a deeper level, for sure. But this one was profound. And it was a gift to be able to do something of that gravitas. You know, that sounds pretentious. But just something that was that important and meaningful and affecting.”

It doesn’t sound pretentious. It sounds just right.

“The Muppet Christmas Carol,” fully uncut, is on Disney+ now.