Jim Henson: From Kermit the Frog to Ultimate Puppet Master
by Brandon Engel
September 24th would have been Jim Henson’s 77th birthday. With Sesame Street entering into its 44th season, and with The Muppets having become an extremely lucrative Disney franchise regularly churning out new products and films, Henson’s legacy is very much alive and well today. Not only did he have an extremely fertile imagination, but he also ascribed to a philosophy of love and nurturance, and was passionate about producing creative works which have stimulated the hearts and minds of children and adults all over the world.
The Henson brand is still synonymous with tolerance, respect, and love. Just think a few years back, when Jim’s daughter Lisa Henson (CEO of the Jim Henson Company) announced that toys modelled after Henson company characters would be pulled from Chik-Fil-A restaurants after the restaurant chain’s CEO Dan Cathy made public statements against gay marriage. And one wonders how Jim would feel about Bert and Ernie (characters who were reportedly modeled after him and longtime collaborator Frank Oz) being appropriated by the LGBT community in their struggle for equality. There are indeed some unconventional characters living on Sesame Street. Although, Henson’s career itself was anything but conventional.
“It’s certainly not a career that one would plan,” Henson said in one of the last interviews he gave. “You wouldn’t decide to become a puppeteer, I don’t think…I was interested in television, and film, and art, and actually, when I went into puppetry, I found that I could combine all of this stuff.”
He was born to Betty and Paul Henson in Greenville, Mississippi in 1936. When Henson was a young boy, the family moved to Hyattsville, Maryland where Henson would spend most of his upbringing. Henson was raised as a Christian Scientist ( a religion which doesn’t condone modern medical practices) and fell in love with his television set at a young age, taking particular interest in the work of puppeteers Bill Tillstrom and Bil and Cora Baird.
Henson got his start in TV at the age of 18, when he saw an ad for new talent for WTOP-TV, a local station in Maryland. Henson had the idea to use puppets. He went to the local library, found a book on puppet construction, went home, and fashioned his first puppet (which was also perhaps the first iteration of Kermit the Frog) using material from one of his mother’s old coats and a couple of ping pong balls for eyes. Henson got the job, and began performing with his puppets on The Junior Morning Show, one of WTOP-TV’s children shows which aired on Saturday mornings. Henson continued to work in television and refine his craft when he enrolled in the University of Maryland’s art department, where he began taking classes in puppetry and textiles. It was around this time that Henson began work on his show Sam and Friends for WRC-TV. It was also during this time that he started collaborating with Jane Nebel, who was a schoolmate of Henson. Nebel and Henson would eventually get married.
Henson began to make significant formal innovations in his field even early in his career, effectively changing the way the world looked at both the media of puppetry and television. One of the things that made Henson’s approach distinct, was that the performer is kept out of the frame entirely. The programs are shot so that the puppets inhabit a self-contained world where they seem to function with complete autonomy. Henson also pioneered an ingenious technique for executing this trick: the puppeteers watch television monitors at their feet in real-time when performing. The monitors show the performer a real-time feed of how the camera’s are picking up footage of the puppet being manipulated. This methodology is still used by the Jim Henson Company to this day.
Henson secured work making TV commercials for various clients. Among his most notable early commercial work are these spots shot for clients such as Wilkins Coffee. Henson’s TV ads were extremely popular among viewers, and Henson was invited to appear on several popular talk shows throughout the 60’s, including The Ed Sullivan Show and a Christmas special hosted by Perry Como. The visibility was terrific, and it all helped to secure more advertising work for Henson.
He would be approached by PBS in the late sixties to do a children’s TV show. The project was the brainchild of Carnegie Foundation president Lloyd Morrisett and TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney. The program was called Sesame Street. It premiered in November of 1969, and the rest, as they say, is history… Sesame Street was an instant hit with parents and children alike.
In the years that followed, Henson and company would contribute sketches to Saturday Night Live, and would make special appearances on TV. This paved the way for The Muppet Show, which gave Henson creative license over his material, and he could afford to take more liberties than he had been permitted to with Sesame Street, as the program was targeting adult viewers. The show was initially shot in England, and it became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic .
This gave Henson license to leave the advertising business (which he was all-too-happy to do) and pursue his wildest creative ambitions throughout the seventies and the eighties. And we all know what that yielded: Muppet films, including The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and The Great Muppet Caper (which you can now watch online through directstartv.com) and darker fantasy films, which were a tonal departure from his earlier work, such as The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. He would produce several popular and critically acclaimed shows, including The Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, and The Jim Henson Hour.
In early May of 1990, Henson had complained of a sore throat to his publicist, but expected to get over it quickly. It turned out that he had a streptococcal infection, and he had put off going to the hospital until it was too late. Some speculate about the degree to which Henson’s upbringing as a Christian Scientist deterred him from seeking medical help earlier. Some members of his family have come forward saying that it was unlikely that Jim waited because of the church, as he had renounced his connection to the church many years prior to his death. His wife Jane was unsure, as she thought that his upbringing might have played into his decision to not seek help earlier.
Henson passed away while in the hospital on May 16, 1990. In many ways, the world is still in mourning. The initial outpour of love and support from around the globe was tremendous. There were two large funeral services held: one in New York City, and one in London.
The company has continued on in his absence, with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in Queens, NY still constructing puppets for Sesame Street and other special contracts. The Muppets, as a branded entity, is now the intellectual property of Disney, so Kermit and Piggy and company have since moved to California.
What would Henson think if he could see the degree to which his creativity permanently affected the rest of the world? And what other formal innovations and bits of genius might he have realized if he was still with us today?
He might have been taken from us well before his time, but there’s no disputing that he left the world a much better place than he found it.
Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger with a keen interest in puppetry, painting, vintage television, and midnight movies. If he were a Muppet, he would be somewhere between Gonzo and Dr. Teeth of the Electric Mayhem Band. Brandon lives and works in Chicago.