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Jim Henson

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Jim Henson with some of the Muppets from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock.
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Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog.
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Henson refurbishing the first incarnation of Kermit (not yet a frog).
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Jim Henson with the cast of Sam and Friends.
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Henson sitting during a rehearsal of The Jimmy Dean Show in 1964.
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Henson with his puppet lookalike.

Jim Henson (September 24, 1936 - May 16, 1990) was the creator of the Muppets, and the performer behind many of the troupe's most famous characters, including Kermit the Frog, Ernie, and Rowlf the Dog.

Early Years

James Maury Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi in 1936. Ten years later, in 1946, Henson moved with his family to Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb near Washington, D.C.. While growing up, he loved watching Disney films and movies with comic legends like Bob Hope and George Burns, and enjoyed listening to such radio acts as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. He would grow up to pay tribute to—and work with—many of these same legends. Henson graduated as a member of the National Honor Society from Northwestern Senior High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, on June 14, 1954.[1]

Sam and Friends

Henson made his earliest foray into television puppetry with friend and first puppeteering partner Russell Wall in the summer of 1954. The two created and performed the puppets Pierre the French Rat and Longhorn and Shorthorn for The Junior Morning Show on local station WTOP.[2] Although the show lasted only three weeks before being cancelled, Henson quickly landed a puppeteering job on the show Aftertnoon at NBC affiliate WRC-TV.[3]

In 1955, while a college student at the University of Maryland, WRC-TV offered Henson his own show, resulting in the creation of Sam and Friends. The five-minute shows aired live twice a day after the news, and often involved the puppets lip-synching to a comedy or novelty record. Henson's co-puppeteer was the woman who would later become his wife, Jane Nebel. The two wed on May 28, 1959.[4] Of the cast of characters created for this series, only Kermit would remain as a major figure with Jim Henson for later productions.

Jim Henson made several important innovations in terms of how puppets were used on TV. The first is that he did away with tiny one-hand puppets whose heads only bobbed when they talked, preferring instead to use puppets with moving mouths and often real hands. The second innovation was to get rid of the stage that all puppets on TV hid behind, just as they did in conventional theater. He wisely realized that the TV screen itself is the stage. Freeing the puppets from the constrictions of the past, Henson found that the characters were able to move around their environment in a much more imaginative and exciting way.

Beginning in the late 1950s, while still producing Sam and Friends, Henson kept his fledging company afloat by using his puppets in TV commercials. Early forays included Wilkins and Wontkins and other characters for local companies, under the name "Muppets Inc.", formed in 1958. By the 1960s, the burgeoning Muppets Inc. had expanded to national campaigns, and one of the characters created for these commercials was Rowlf the Dog. Rowlf helped Henson get nationwide attention for the first time by appearing in regular comedy bits on The Jimmy Dean Show. This led to increased appearances by the Muppets on variety shows and talk shows, including Today and The Ed Sullivan Show.

During this time, Jim Henson met and hired two more people who would become enormously important to his work: Frank Oz, who Henson once called "absolutely the greatest puppeteer in the world"[5] and Jerry Juhl, who would have a hand in writing nearly every Muppet production for 35 years. In 1962, Don Sahlin also joined the Muppets, building Rowlf and laying the foundations for the Muppet Workshop. Apart from puppetry, Henson also experimented as an animator and filmmaker, with such films as the 1965 Academy Award nominated short Time Piece (which he wrote, directed, and starred in), several comedic industrial films (paving the way for the Muppet Meeting Films), the documentary Youth '68, and the hour-long experimental drama The Cube in 1969.

Sesame Street

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Jim and Kermit filming the Sesame Street pitch reel from 1969. By using the television medium, Henson found that puppets could be more expressive and close to the audience. The most significant example of this idea is Kermit the Frog.
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Henson and Jon Stone on set of one of Kermit's lecture sketches.
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Jim Henson with Ernie.
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Henson with Guy Smiley during the taping of "Beat The Time."

That same year, Joan Ganz Cooney and the newly-formed Children's Television Workshop approached Henson about creating and performing puppets on a new show aimed at pre-schoolers. The show would become Sesame Street, and it introduced viewers to such memorable characters as Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Count von Count, Cookie Monster, Grover, and eventually Elmo as well.

Jim Henson was initially reluctant to use his characters on an educational kids' series, for fear of being typecast as a children's entertainer.[6] However, Joan Ganz Cooney, once remarked that while the show's creative team had a collective brilliance, Henson was the only "individual genius.": "He was our era's Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers," Cooney said, "and indeed he drew from all of them to create a new art form that influenced popular culture around the world."[7]

On Sesame Street, Jim Henson performed Kermit the Frog, the only major established Muppet to appear regularly on the new series (although Rowlf made one cameo). He also performed such new characters as Ernie and game show host Guy Smiley. Continuing his penchant for animation and live film-making, Henson produced, wrote, and directed such inserts as the quiet and gentle Doll House film, and the Number Song Series that always ended with a baker falling down the stairs (Henson dubbed the voice, even though a different actor portrayed the baker) and several animated shorts, including "King of 8", "Queen of 6", and "Eleven Cheer." According to season two research studies found in CTW Archives files, "All of the Henson films are extremely effective in getting the children to watch and to participate. The involvement of children viewing these films is remarkable."

Although increasingly individuals like Don Sahlin, Kermit Love, and other Muppet Workshop employees gained greater responsibility for character development, Henson still supplied the initial sketches for many of the key characters, including Ernie, Bert, and The Amazing Mumford. As evidenced in Jim Henson's Designs and Doodles, while Love and Sahlin built Big Bird, Henson devised the initial concept of a full bodied character, and supplied sketches showing how he would be performed.

By the late 1970s/early 1980s, he became more involved with other projects, and therefore mainly just performed his characters in inserts rather than in the main street plots. However, he was still involved in related productions, performing his characters in the first Sesame Street movie, Follow That Bird, performing his characters' voices in various Sesame Street Live shows, and also performing in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, Big Bird in China, Don't Eat the Pictures, The Sesame Street Special, and Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting. In the last production mentioned, Henson also appeared as himself in two scenes. He was also interviewed on The Sesame Street Experiment and Sing! Sesame Street Remembers Joe Raposo and His Music.

Jim Henson's last segments for the show were taped on November 21, 1989. Henson's later performances include "The Bird Family," a Sesame Street News Flash segment in which Kermit interviews a bird whose parents live in different trees, Kermit's song "I Wonder 'Bout the World Above Up There," and Ernie's song "Don't Throw That Trash on the Ground."[8]

The Muppet Show

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Henson performing Kermit
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Jim Henson headshot, circa 1987.
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Jim Henson with Kermit, filming The Muppet Movie.

Henson always felt that puppetry should be for all ages, including adults, and he was frustrated that Sesame Street, even with its appeal to adults, was still children's programming. The Muppets were labeled "kiddie entertainment" by network executives. [2] His agent Bernie Brillstein got him as an act on the first season of the groundbreaking Saturday Night Live with the Land of Gorch, but with the content not written by his staff and with certain cast members annoyed of sharing the show with puppets, Henson never felt right there. Fortunately, he received another break when Lord Lew Grade invited him to produce a proposed half-hour show in England. The resulting Muppet Show became one of the most successful TV shows of all time. In addition to Kermit as the host, the show featured characters that would quickly become household names, such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

Performers who joined Henson's ever-growing team during this period include Dave Goelz, Louise Gold, and Steve Whitmire.

Henson created another innovation starting with The Muppet Show: from now on, all productions would be platformed up, so that humans could move about freely and interact convincingly with the puppets, while the puppeteers could remain easily hidden, and move about their environment with even greater fluidity than before.

In 1979, Jerry Juhl described Henson's unique working style in an article about the making of The Muppets Go Hollywood special: "The [production assistants] are running around screaming, 'How are we ever going to do all this?' And Jim is wandering around in the middle of it all, perfectly calm, perfectly content. You go to him and ask, 'How's it going?' And he says, 'Oh, fine. There were hardly any airplanes overhead when we filmed Miss Piggy by the pool.' He's just like Kermit -- if The Muppet Show had a basketball team, the score would always be Frog 99, Chaos 98." [9]

The Muppet Show was so successful that it spawned three movies during Henson's lifetime (and more since): The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Each film provided Henson with further opportunities to break technological barriers, including allowing Kermit to ride a bike.

Fantasy Films

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Henson with some of The Dark Crystal puppets.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Henson moved on to an even more ambitious project. With the help of fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, he created a Tolkien-like world for the film The Dark Crystal. This production was entirely populated by extremely detailed, realistic-looking puppets -- a major breakthrough and change from the (intended) cartoony look of the earlier Muppets. Though an initial box-office failure, The Dark Crystal later developed a following as a widely respected cult film.

Based on what he and his team learned from their experiences on The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson founded the Creature Shop to create new characters both for Henson movies and for outside productions. In-house productions during his lifetime included Labyrinth and The StoryTeller, while outside productions included Dreamchild, The Bear, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Witches.

Fraggle Rock

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Henson with Junior Gorg.
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Henson poses in front of a mural by Coulter Watt that was displayed for years in the Henson Townhouse in NYC.

In 1983, Henson introduced a new show for children called Fraggle Rock. The show was concerned with promoting understanding across cultures and around the world, a subject that was very important to him. Henson was the guiding force in developing the concept for the series, which began with his own notes for "The Woozle World" scribbled on a small pad. Later, in collaboration with such team members as Jerry Juhl and Jocelyn Stevenson, this extended to specific personality details coining and character names (with Boober named after a cow encountered by Henson's daughters). As Henson defined the series' purpose in that first draft, "What the show is really about is people getting along with other people, and understanding the delicate balance of the natural world. These are topics that can be dealt with in a symbolic way, which is what puppets basically do all the time." From the beginning, Henson also insisted that the show be tailored for different countries, so that the message about brotherhood and understanding conflicting cultures could be spread to as many nations as possible. This led to co-productions, with involvements ranging from completely new frame sequences tailored to each nation to unique Uncle Traveling Matt postcard inserts, to simple dialogue dubs.

Although very much involved in the series as a creator, and serving as a director on several episodes, by this point Jim Henson was becoming increasingly "hands-off" as a performer and beginning to look at ambitious "realistic" puppet projects, instead assigning the regular roles to The Muppet Show veterans as well as up-and-comers and Canadian talent. However, his very occasional appearances on Fraggle Rock showcased two scene-stealing characters, the enigmatic, "implacably calm" Cantus the Minstrel, who represented Henson's Zen-like beliefs and musical interests, and the flamboyant, fast-talking Convincing John, representing Henson's more frenetic, showman qualities.

The Jim Henson Hour

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Jim Henson and the Thought Lion hosting The Jim Henson Hour.

Jim Henson continued to innovate with the creation of the computer-generated puppet character Waldo C. Graphic for The Jim Henson Hour in 1989. Years before the widespread use of CGI and the rise of Pixar Animation Studios, Henson had a computerized character interacting with Muppets on a weekly TV show. A puppeteer could perform the character in real time with the other Muppets, thanks to the Henson Performance Control System. Waldo would later have a prominent role in Muppet*Vision 3D.

On The Jim Henson Hour, Jim Henson appeared as himself in introductions and closings for the show. He hosted Jim Henson Hour pitch tape and The Secrets of the Muppets. Jim Henson also won an emmy for directing one special featured in this series, Dog City. Although most of his major characters from The Muppet Show made at least one appearance on The Jim Henson Hour, Henson did not perform any new recurring characters in the series.

Henson's Legacy

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The Henson family at their Bedford, New York home in 1977, as published in the July 1990 issue of Life magazine: (from left) Cheryl, Jane, Brian, Jim, Heather (on her father's shoulders), John and Lisa.
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The Muppet Babies mourn the loss of their creator.
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Jim's Muppet characters

In late 1989, Henson made a radical change in his career. Wanting to become less of a businessman and focus more on the creative side of the production, he entered into talks with Michael Eisner to sell his company and characters (minus Sesame Street) to The Walt Disney Company. After Henson's sudden and untimely death, negotiations went awry, and Disney would not acquire The Muppets until February 2004, which it now controls through the wholly-owned subsidiary The Muppets Studio.

Henson became infected with an extremely rare bacterium called Group A streptococcus [10] [11] in May 1990 that was discovered too late for him to receive proper treatment. He died at 1:21 a.m. on Wednesday, May 16, 1990, approximately 20 hours after checking himself into the emergency room at New York Hospital, not realizing how sick he really was.

According to various sources, Henson was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at his ranch outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.[12][13]

Today, Jim Henson's legacy is carried on in different forms. Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children's Television Workshop) now owns all of the Sesame Street characters and continues to experiment with its format. As noted, The Walt Disney Company owns The Muppets characters and continues to use them in new productions. And The Jim Henson Company itself, under the guidance of Henson's children Brian, Lisa, and Cheryl, John, and Heather, continues to release new material, including Creature Shop films and original content such as Sid the Science Kid, Pajanimals, and Henson Alternative.

Muppeteer Credits

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Henson and The Muppets in 1979.
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Clockwise from top left: Richard Hunt, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Dave Goelz on the staircase of the Henson Townhouse.
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Directing Credits

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Jim directs
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Writing Credits

Songwriting Credits

Producer Credits

Executive Producer Credits

Trivia

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Henson as "Man on Phone" in Into the Night.
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The Muppet Theater's curtain rail system, installed on Jim Henson's day of birth.
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Jim Henson US Postage Stamp released in 2005.

See also

Sources

  1. Program of Graduation Exercises, 1954, Northwestern Senior High School, Hyattsville, MD.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jim Henson: The Works by Christopher Finch, 1993
  3. Inches, Alison Jim Henson's Designs and Doodles
  4. Inventors and Creators: Jim Henson, 2002.
  5. Gale Research Company. Something about the Author. Volume 43. 1986
  6. Borgenicht, David. Sesame Street Unpaved. New York: Hyperion, 1998. p. 183.
  7. Collins, James. "The TV Creator." TIME, 100 issue. June 8, 1998.
  8. Sesame Street: A Celebration of Forty Years of Life on the Street, sample pages shown at www.toughpigs.com
  9. The New York Times Magazine, "Muppets in Movieland" by John Culhane, June 10, 1979.
  10. People Weekly, "Legacy of a Gentle Genius" by Susan Schindehette, June 18, 1990
  11. Illinois Department of Public Health - Group A Streptococcus
  12. findagrave.com
  13. Where Are They Buried? by Tod Benoit, 2003, ISBN 1579122876

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