Everyone knows the Muppets. This group of fuzzy, goggle-eyed puppets has been delighting audiences worldwide since even before the debut of the Muppet show in 1976. The Muppets were “born” when Jim and his future wife Jane Nebel created a five minute puppet show on a Washington TV station called “Sam and Friends.” Famous Muppet “Kermit” was conceived from a character on the show, but he nowhere resembled the famous frog we know today.
Jim Henson was much like Walt Disney – a dreamer and a doer. Walt created a magical world of cartoon characters and fairytales, Jim’s magical world consisted of lovable, cuddly puppets. And like Walt, Jim brought out the best in his workers and was an inspiration to all who knew him. Even at home with his five children; Jim was as playful and good-natured as the Muppets he conceived.
Brian Henson, Jim’s son stated…”I think of us a little like a circus family when we were kids” He continues…”It was a very creative, artistic environment” His fathers’ humor was that he would make even the most mundane workings of life fun. “My father used to make sound effects for everything he did” Brian recalls. Taking keys out of his pocket, picking up a pen or even pouring syrup on his pancakes” Brian stated that that’s one of the most endearing memories of his dad.
Jim Henson was born on September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi. His early childhood was spent in Leland, Mississippi, before his family moved to Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington DC. Jim’s interest in puppets began at an early age. He was influenced by the likes of Burr Tillstrom from the early puppet show of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, and radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. He got his first professional job working with puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show called “The Junior Morning Show.”
When Jim started college he was originally thinking about becoming a commercial artist. But when a course was offered on puppetry in the applied arts department. Jim signed up and was introduced to the crafts and textiles courses in home economics. He graduated in 1960 with a B.S. in home economics.
Even before Jim graduated, his knowledge and experience working with puppets was recognized. As a freshman, he was asked to create a puppet show for the TV station WRC, Washington DC. The show was entitled.” Sam and Friends.” This 5 minute puppet show was the precursor of the Muppets and starred an amphibian that eventually would morph into Kermit the frog. It was during the creation of Sam and Friends that Jim met his future wife Jane Nebel, another University of Maryland freshman he asked to assist in the show. It was during the formation of the show that Jim revolutionized the way puppets have been seen on TV. Many of the puppets at the time were made of wood and other such stiff materials, thus limiting their movements on the screen. Jim began making his puppets out of foam rubber and fabric, thus giving them the flexibility to display a wider array of emotions and movements. In addition, his puppets were controlled by rods, giving much greater control of their movements. He also improved the way puppets appeared to speak on the screen. Earlier puppets mouth movements were never synchronized to what was being said. Jim used precise mouth movements, so that his creations appeared to be speaking naturally.
Another major development for television was that Jim realized that you did not need to hide the puppeteers behind any structures during the filming. He had the cameras focus on the puppets themselves, thus keeping the puppeteers out of the frame and allowing the puppets themselves appear more lifelike. Sam and friends was a successful show that ran for six years. After the show Jim ended up primarily working on commercials, children’s projects and talk shows. But the Sam and friends show was the vehicle that led to many guest appearances on network shows. This helped Henson’s characters gain much exposure during the early 60s. It was Jim’s work in commercials that helped launch his Muppets to the limelight. Doing a commercial for the Wilkins coffee company, Jim got a chance to showcase his puppets to a whole new audience. Using slapstick and humor, the 7 second commercial became a hit and Jim ended up producing more than 300 coffee ads.
In 1963 Jim and wife Jane moved to New York City. Jim’s first big-time exposure was on the Jimmy Dean show in 1963, where he created the character of Rowlf the Dog, which is the oldest identifiable character that Henson productions still uses. It was also in 1963 when Don Sahlin and master puppeteer Frank Oz joins Jim’s crew. In 1966 Jim appeared on the Ed Sullivan show where Ed Sullivan introduced him as “Jim Jensen and the Moffits” Jim made many guest appearances on the show until 1971. He also made regular appearances on.” The Hollywood Palace” and “The Mike Douglas Show”. Jim’s star rose when he was approached to use his Muppets on the revolutionary new children’s show, “Sesame Street” on November 11, 1969. It was on Sesame Street the Muppets became a megahit and gathered the whole new legion of new fans. Even as the Muppets were now in the limelight, it cast Jim Henson as only an entertainer for children. Initially Jim tried to disprove this one joining the crew of Saturday Night Live in 1975. But unfortunately his style of humor and that of his crew did not blend well with the humor Saturday Night Live offered.
But it was this mismatch of styles that encouraged Jim to develop a variety show with the sophistication and humor not possible on Sesame Street. This led to the formation of the Muppet show, but this is zany, crazy variety show featuring the Muppets never caught on with any American broadcaster because they believed it would only appeal to a children’s audience. Not to be discouraged, Jim contacted British media Mogul Lew Grade who agreed to finance the show, which would be shot in the United Kingdom and syndicated worldwide. In the first year, it struggled for ratings but in the second season it became a smash hit and eventually became the most widely watched series in television history. All of this began in September, 1976.
It was three years after the debut of the Muppet show, the Jim Henson and his Muppets hit the silver screen. Much like Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, when no one believed that a full-length cartoon feature be popular, Jim defied the popular industry opinion that his characters would never work in a movie. 1979’s “The Muppet Movie” became a financial and critical success. At the time of its release it with the 61st highest grossing film ever made. Additional successful films, “The Great Muppet Caper” in 1981 and 1984’s “The Muppets Take Manhattan” showcases the endearing quality of Jim Henson’s creations.
In addition to the Muppets, Jim also began creating darker and more realistic fantasy films. 1982’s” The Dark Crystal” and in 1986’s “Labyrinth” are examples. He also produced a 80s show called” Fraggle Rock” another children’s puppet show, and the animated” Muppet babies” both extremely successful.
Jim’s involvement with the Walt Disney Company began in late 1989 when he began negotiations to sell his company to Disney for approximately $150 million. During the negotiations he had completed production on a TV special called “The Muppets at Walt Disney World.” He was also involved in the creation of the Walt Disney World attraction and later Disney’s California adventure attraction entitled” Jim Henson’s Muppet vision 3-D” This attraction is sometimes referred to as “Muppet vision 4-D”. But tragedy struck in 1990 when Jim developed flulike symptoms and eventually succumbed to a massive bacterial infection, and passed away on May 16, 1990.
Jim’s legacy continued after his death. The Jim Henson foundation and the Jim Henson Company continue to produce new series and specials. “Jim Henson’s Creature shop” also continues to create creatures for other films and series. On February 17, 2004, the Muppets and the Bear in the Big Blue House properties were sold to the Walt Disney Company by his heirs. The Jim Henson Company still retains rights to the TV library of Farscape, the Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and Fraggle Rock. It also retains the rights to the creature shop. Jim Henson left as an amazing legacy of fun and entertainment. His tributes are many. Among them is he is honored on the Hollywood walk of fame, episode 2880 of Sesame Street was dedicated to his memory, Henson’s college alma mater commissioned a life-size statue of him and Kermit the frog which is displayed outside Maryland’s student union. And the theater in his high school alma mater at Northwestern high school is also named in his honor.
The world lost a wonderfully creative genius with the passing of Jim Henson. But as long as Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy are there to entertain us, Jim will be with us as long as there’s laughter.