Larry Mirkin Remembers Diana Birkenfield & Franz "Faz" Fazakas

Fazakas birkenfield

Producer Larry Mirkin joined The Jim Henson Legacy at the Museum of the Moving Image on Sunday, December 8th, for a tribute screening of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas dedicated to the memory of Diana Birkenfield and Fran "Faz" Fazakas.  Larry agreed to let us share his remarks about Diana and Faz:

Jim Henson had a canny ability to pick the right people for the right project almost all the time, and to pick people who in addition to their necessary “skill sets” also possessed the right kind of personality to work together in a certain way.   Everyone shared something that doesn’t appear on a resume – an inherent belief that we work together in service of ideas that are larger than any one of us.  The best idea wins.  Excellence is demanded from within ourselves, first of all, and you trust everyone else because you know that they operate from the same values.   You could see this “personality” in Jim and you could see it in Diana Birkenfield and Faz Fazakas as well.
Diana Birkenfield made a huge behind-the-scenes contribution to Jim’s success, and personally, I owe so much to her.   Diana, as Executive in Charge of Production for “Fraggle Rock,” was the first “Muppet Person” I met, and had not she and I gotten on so well in that initial meeting, my entire life – not just my professional life – would have been different.   I would never have met great friends like Jerry Juhl, Jocelyn Stevenson, Dave Goelz and so many others who have enriched my life far beyond work for more than 30 years.  

Although sometimes her job demanded that she be very tough, Diana was essentially warm, enthusiastic, funny, with a laugh that could be heard two blocks away, incredibly supportive, smart, protective, and generous.   Anybody who ever ate a meal with Diana had this experience: half the food on her plate would somehow end up on your plate.  She would say it was too much for her to eat, which might have been true, but I think it was her way of making sure the rest of us got enough vitamins and proteins.  If you didn’t finish it, you were somehow letting her down.  Thanks to Diana, I had two Jewish mothers in my life.

Diana took care of all of us.  A prime example is Terry Angus, who was a teenager from a small Nova Scotian town he’d never left till the town raised money for him to fly to Toronto to audition for Fraggle Rock.  He also had Cerebral Palsy.  He began his audition for Jim with his own personally built Kermit who looked at Jim and said, “Hi, Dad.”   Jim cast him, but Diana made sure he had a place to live in a home and Terry has never forgotten she always had an eye out for him.   She also took care of Jim in the ways you would expect from an Executive, but what I think Jim really loved about Diana, even when he didn’t want to hear it, was she spoke her mind to him.  If she thought he was wrong about something, she would tell him.  That’s a whole other level of support.

When I joined Fraggle Rock, I had been a drama producer.  I’d never worked with puppets.  So I had a steep learning curve in the first weeks on the job.   On my first day, Diana took me into her office and spent more than an hour going over every single person in the cast and crew.   I mean EVERY person from directors to the 2nd assistant gaffers  She told me about them personally in addition to whatever professional information I needed.  She knew that I would do my job better if I understood what they were like or if they were going through some personal difficulty or had had a recent personal triumph.    And she was right.

But you will also notice that this was about caring about one another, about seeing one another as human beings, about respecting what all of us would bring to the collaboration that was Fraggle Rock.

We remained friends for all of the years afterwards.  We were able to work together again on The Jim Henson Hour, when she produced the 20th Anniversary of Sesame Street.   We’d see one another once in a while and we’d talk on the phone.  While the conversations were never short, you never talk often enough, something I feel more dearly today.   My last conversation was five days before she died.   Karen Prell and I were organizing the 30th anniversary celebration of Fraggle Rock in Toronto and we wanted to be sure she would come up for it.   Diana was the same as ever on that last call we had – full of life and laughter.  She definitely was going to come and was excited about the prospect.  We signed off with more laughter and with love and excitement that we’d see one another again.

Of course, she wasn’t able to make it to the Fraggle Reunion, except in spirit – and she was certainly there in many ways.  When we were deciding on the menu, we had an opportunity to do a full sit-down dinner or a less expensive buffet.  Karen Prell and I looked at one another and Karen said, if we do the buffet, Diana would never forgive us.

Now, one of the people that Diana told me about on that first day on Fraggle Rock was Faz.   I can’t remember much in any detail, except that she smiled and said words to the effect of “I think you’ll like him.  He’s a genius.”

Well, like him I did.  And he was a genius. He’s one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met.   It’s almost impossible to describe Faz if you didn’t know him yourself.   The best I can do is to say: “Before Google, there was Faz.”

Faz knew just about everything, and if you had a question on any subject, he would not only know the answer; he’d have an opinion.  And he would excitedly share both the knowledge and opinion with you.  He had a twinkle in his eye that I never saw him without.  A model Jerry Juhl used for Doc in Fraggle Rock, he was always curious, industrious, generous, indefatigable, with a stubborn-ness born out of the drive to achieve excellence.  He had a great laugh as well.  He was an inventor, a dreamer who also knew a lot about the limits of reality – which he needed to do the job he performed – but in so doing, he seemed to expand the notion of reality itself.

On Fraggle Rock, Faz and his team took care of all of the radio control puppetry for the Doozers and the Gorgs, and so much more.  Faz said we did a mini-feature film every week, which we did.  A major reason we could was due to Faz’ and his team’s wizardry and constant invention.  In our production meetings, the only time we’d give “instruction” about the Doozers was if there was something very specific in the story we needed to occur.   Most of the time, though, Faz and his team just went about their work and gave us structures and activities that none of us ever asked for but were perfect for the scene.  I didn’t know till many years after production when Tom Newby told me that they had a whole life worked out about the Doozers, consistent with the characters we’d created but in much more detail.  And it was this kind of invention that characterized the whole production.

Duncan Kenworthy once said he felt Faz was the person who transformed the idea of special effects and animatronics from the Ray Harryhausen approach to something that took off with Faz’ inventions of radio-controlled puppetry that would eventually be joined with all of the computer effects that we see today.  I don’t know what Faz would say about this characterization, but I do think so much of what Jim (and later Brian Henson) did in Emmet Otter, the Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, the movies, and many other projects, would never have happened without Faz’ genius, imagination and odd sense of practicality.     And without that, the art of cinema wouldn’t have developed in quite the same way either.

I am extremely grateful to have had both Faz and Diana in my life.  Let me conclude with one other thing common to both of them: When we were doing the Special Features for the Fraggle Rock DVD box sets, these are the two people I really wanted to interview but we couldn’t manage for a number of reasons.  Some of them were logistical and budgetary given where each of them lived.   But the truth is they were both modest.  Diana didn’t understand why we’d ever want to interview her and Faz displayed his modesty in a more deceptive manner.    For two years, I thought I had him committed to an interview, but whenever I’d try to pinpoint a date, it would be “oh, you know, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment then.” Or “Matthew might be coming to visit then.”  So we’d make a different date, but when it came another time to commit, the same kinds of excuses came out of his mouth.  I came to realize that he really didn’t want to do it but he also didn’t want to offend me.  I think the world would have loved a long interview with Faz, but for now, we do have a few clips of him that Craig has put together and you’ll see a glimpse of the genius that was Faz.

© Larry Mirkin


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