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A tribute to Jim Henson

Thu 3rd Jun 2021

Jim Henson was a gentle dreamer, who revolutionised the presentation of puppets on television, an animator, cartoonist, actor, inventor, composer, filmmaker and screenwriter. He had an amazing talent for reaching any audience, making them laugh and bring out their inner child.


Jim Henson with his Muppet's Kermit and Ernie. Creative Commons image care of Maryland Pride.
Jim Henson with his Muppet's Kermit and Ernie. Creative Commons image care of Maryland Pride.

Early Years

James Maury Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi on September 24, 1936 and moved to Maryland near Washington, D.C. with his family when he was ten.

Henson grew up mesmerised by Disney films and movies showcasing comedic legends Bob Hope and George Burns. He remembered the arrival of the family's first television as "the biggest event of his adolescence".  He was fascinated by early television puppets Burr Tillstrom on Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Bil and Cora Baird, and was drawn to radio acts like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Henson's love of puppets blossomed in high school and when he was a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park he created the five-minute comedy puppet show, Sam and Friends which aired from 1955 to 1961. The characters on the popular live-action show were forerunners of the Muppets, and included a prototype of Henson's most famous and loved character, Kermit the Frog.

During this time, Henson really began exploring puppetry techniques on television. He utilised the camera frame to showcase the puppet only which allowed the puppet performer to work off-camera. He believed television puppets needed to have "life and sensitivity".

Television and Muppets

The popularity of Sam and Friends grew in the late 1950s and led to guest appearances on The Steve Allen Show, The Jack Paar Program, and The Ed Sullivan Show. The increased exposure led to hundreds of commercial appearances by Henson characters. His first for Wilkins coffee was a huge hit and was syndicated by many other coffee companies - more than 300 coffee ads in the end.

The characters were so successful in selling coffee that other companies jumped on board wanting the Muppets to promote their products. Henson tapped into a market not yet explored explaining that, "... advertising agencies believed that the hard sell was the only way to get their message over on television. We took a very different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh."

By 1963, Henson and his wife Jane lived in New York where the newly formed Muppets, Inc. resided. Henson's talk show appearances peaked when he introduced Rowlf the piano-playing dog - the first Muppet to have regular appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show.

From 1963 to 1966, Henson began exploring filmmaking and produced a series of experimental films but continued to work with companies who sought his Muppets for advertising purposes. Among his clients were Frito-Lay which featured an early version of Cookie Monster to promote a line of potato snacks.

The cast of the first series of Sesame Street, which debuted in 1969.
The cast of the first series of Sesame Street, which debuted in 1969.

Sesame Street

In 1969, Henson's unique group of misfit Muppets made their television debut on a new educational show for kids called Sesame Street.  The show wanted to combine education and entertainment with a series of funny, colorful puppet characters living on Sesame Street.

The characters brought to life included Grover, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird. Henson performed characters: Ernie, game-show host Guy Smiley, and the self-assured little green frog, Kermit.

Some of Jim Henson's beloved Muppet creations.
Some of Jim Henson's beloved Muppet creations.

Television producer Joan Ganz Cooney frequently praised Henson's work, and PBS called him "the spark that ignited our fledgling broadcast service." The success of Sesame Street allowed Henson to leave the commercial space which he said "was a pleasure to get out of that world".

Expansion of audience

Concerned he was becoming pigeonholed in children's entertainment, Henson targeted adult audiences with a series of Land of Gorch sketches on Saturday Night Live. Eleven sketches aired on SNL between October 1975 and January 1976 but writers admitted they weren't comfortable writing for Henson's creations; Michael O'Donoghue quipped, "I won't write for felt."

Henson went on to develop a Broadway show and a weekly television series featuring the Muppets in 1976 which American networks rejected, believing his puppets were for children audiences only. He found success with the British and moved to England to tape the beginning of The Muppet Show. The show featured Kermit as host and a variety of other characters, notably Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, and Fozzie Bear, alongside many other famous Muppets.

Jim Henson (centre) with Bert and Ernie puppets on Sesame Street.
Jim Henson (centre) with Bert and Ernie puppets on Sesame Street.

Henson's colleagues compared him to Kermit: a shy, gentle boss with "a whim of steel". Henson admitted Kermit was kind of an alter ego, but thought Kermit was bolder than he; "He can say things I hold back."

The Muppets hit the big screen in their first feature film, The Muppet Movie in 1979 which grossed $65.2 million domestically. Henson as Kermit sang "The Rainbow Connection", which reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to develop and encourage puppetry art to grow in the United States. During this time Henson explored darker, more realistic fantasy films not featuring the Muppets. He co-directed The Dark Crystal in 1982 with Frank Oz, "trying to go toward a sense of realism-toward a reality of creatures that are actually alive".

1986 saw the release of the cult classic Labyrinth, a fantasy that Henson directed by himself, and George Lucas produced. Despite The New York Times calling it "a fabulous film" - it failed commercially, demoralising Henson. Over the years however it gained a very large cult following.

Final years

Henson continued creating children's television masterpieces with Fraggle Rock and the Muppet Babies animation and explored more darker, mythology shows with The Storyteller in 1988, which won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. The Jim Henson Hour earned him another Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program.

Henson's all-too-brief life sadly came to an end on May 16, 1990 - he was 53. Tributes poured out and his talented life was celebrated with waves of acclaim. A star was honoured to him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991 and he was named a Disney Legend in 2011.

"When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there." Jim Henson.

And that you did Jim Henson, that you did. Rest in peace 'gentle dreamer'.

Jim Henson with Kermit
Jim Henson with Kermit

By Kirsten Jakubenko


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