The Case of Jim Henson

All month, we have been talking about Jim Henson projects. This week, we’re wrapping up the month with an episode about the man himself; the one and only Jim Henson. 

It was 1954 and the start of the fall semester at the University of Maryland. The Home Economics curriculum had recently added a brand new course: puppetry. The professor was a talented silversmith, who had very little experience with the medium. This wasn’t a problem, considering the fact that the class was mostly made up of seniors that were inexperienced in puppetry, and trying to get their last college credits. It wasn’t a problem, of course, until a tall lanky 18-year-old man named Jim Henson walked in. 

For the last couple years, Henson had been working as a puppeteer on local network shows. Although he didn’t consider himself an expert puppeteer, he had more experience than anyone else in the room, and quickly took over the class. One of his fellow students stood out to Jim, a dry-witted 20-year-old named Jane Nebel. Together, Jim and Jane formed a partnership that would lead to the creation of some of the world’s warmest, funniest, and most familiar characters: The Muppets. 

This was only the beginning. Eventually the two of them would marry, and create a family of five children. Jane would take on more of a familial role, as Jim would carry on his career to new and more exciting ventures. He was a visionary, a true genius that never stopped working. Jim Henson constantly pushed the boundaries of his craft to reach the far corners of his limitless imagination. And when he found roadblocks, he broke through them with boundless creativity. 

Jim Henson’s friends referred to him as a “harvester of people,” a soft-spoken leader that hand-picked his team of collaborators. Everyone on set felt they could approach him. He was mild-mannered, and believed in others–he felt that everyone should love each other for their differences, not their similarities. He touched countless lives with his love of family, friends, and a good story. We still talk about Jim Henson because he made the world a brighter place, and he still continues to do so, 31 years after his death. 

So we felt it was only fitting to end June with an episode celebrating the magic of Jim Henson, and learning the impact that just one person can have. 

FAMILY/YOUNG LIFE

  • On September 24th, 1936, James Maury Henson (or Jimmy) was born in the Mississippi Delta. Shortly after, the Hensons moved to Maryland. This is where Jim Henson spent the first five years of his life. Throughout these years, he learned to talk, developing a slightly nasal and soft-spoken voice; one that generations of children and adults would one-day associate with a certain famous frog. It was also during this time when he saw his favorite film, “The Wizard of Oz.” 
  • When he was in first grade, Jim Henson’s parents, Betty and Paul, moved the family back to Mississippi. Betty was a loving mother with a jovial sense of humor. Paul was a quiet man, but known for his ability to tell a good story. Jim grew up along the swamps, going on adventures with his friends, gathering nuts for his mother to bake into pies. He was interested in animals, birds particularly, and created his own field guide to help identify them. 
  • Jim joined the Cub Scouts and formed a solid group of comrades. On Sundays, he went to church, and on Saturdays, he went to the movies. Jim Henson and his friends loved to soak up whatever on-screen adventures played at the local theatre, known to locals as, “The Temple.” It was these experiences that inspired him to dress up with his friends, building props out of household items. For every game, he discovered a new way to play, a skill he would perfect for years to come. 
    • Gordon Jones, one of Jim’s childhood friend said, “[Jim] had something the rest of us didn’t have–an unusual degree of originality.” 
  • Jim was incredibly close to his grandmother, a supportive and loving woman that everyone knew simply as, “Dear.” Dear often traveled over 1000 miles to see her daughter Betty and her family. She was a talented seamstress, able to sew with any material. She cultivated Jim’s interest in art and reading, and was his best audience when he told funny stories or acted out games. All of these things were instrumental in who Jim Henson would become, and what he would create. But, there was another aspect of Dear’s personality that Jim adopted. It was possibly one of the most important aspects of his life, and it helped him launch his career; it was the unwavering belief that Jim could be anything. Jim Henson always knew he would be successful, because Dear told him so. 
  • Of course books and films had a major impact on Jim Henson’s imagination, but it was the radio that got him interested in comedy. On Sunday nights, he would listen to Edgar Bergen, a ventriloquist act that performed on the radio. Bergen was a special kind of ventriloquist. He didn’t focus as much on the art of speaking without using his mouth, but rather he took great care in developing his characters. To even the most dedicated listeners, Bergen’s puppets seemed like real people. For the rest of his life, Bergen would be one of Henson’s idols. It was Bergen that first introduced him to the magic of puppetry, and the freedom of speaking through something else. As Jim Henson would later put it, “things were said that couldn’t be said by ordinary people.” 
  • Eventually, the Henson’s returned to Maryland. Jim spent his teenage years obsessed with a new technology that was changing the world: television. Watching the few channels available in the Washington DC area, Jim knew for certain that TV was his calling. He fell in love with variety shows, a format he would parody several years later with his own puppet creations. 
  • Jim also loved comic strips, and even had one published at the age of 13. Pogo was his favorite, a strip that took place in a swamp, filled with bright and silly animals. Pogo was the level-headed “normal” character that tried to reign in the wacky personalities around him. The strip also tackled social and political commentary. Henson happily referred to Pogo as one of his biggest influences in creating the Muppet characters. 
  • As Jim Henson approached his high school graduation, an opportunity to work in TV presented itself. The local network WTOP was looking for puppeteers. It might sound a little weird to us, but Jim didn’t consider himself much of a puppeteer. But since puppetry was what the network wanted, it was what Jim Henson was going to do. So, Jim did what anyone with limited to no experience would do: he headed to the library to do some research. He and a friend got together, and started building their own puppets for the audition. They had one week to learn puppetry, and although it wasn’t Jim Henson’s first  choice for a career, he seemed to be a natural. Both boys were hired!
  • The show was short-lived, and was cancelled after only three weeks. But, Jim had impressed producer Roy Meachum, and landed a role on another Saturday morning show. This show would also be cancelled, but the opportunity acted as a stepping stone of sorts, as Jim Henson’s work caught the attention of a producer for NBC affiliate WRC-TV, who promptly offered Henson another job. 
  • At this time, Jim was studying at the University of Maryland. Originally, he wanted a fine arts degree, focusing on production design. But, he quickly realized that Home Economics was more interesting. A degree in Home Economics would allow him to take even more art courses, including a puppetry course. It was in this course that Jim met the woman that would soon become his professional partner, and later his wife, Jane Nebel.  

FIRST PROJECTS

  • Afternoon
    • After Jim Henson met Jane Nebel, he asked her for her help in puppeteering for an afternoon variety show called, “Afternoon,” on an NBC affiliate station. Nebel agreed, and on March 7th, 1955, the TV Highlights sections of The Washington Post and Times Herald printed a small notice for the new show:
      • 2:15 P.M. –Afternoon: A new variety program features Mac McGarry and Willard Scott as co-hosts; fashion information from Inga; music by Mel Clement Quartet; vocals by Jack Maggio; and special features by the Muppets, who are puppeteers.
    • The casual reader flipping through their morning paper might not have even thought about that word, “muppet.” They certainly wouldn’t have known that this notice was an important moment for TV history, that this word would soon take the world by storm, and entertainment would never be the same.
      • For years after, there would be lots of speculation over the origin of the word, “muppet.” At one time, Jim Henson said it was a combination of “marionette” and “puppet,” but later he noted that it didn’t make a lot of sense since they didn’t do much marionette work. Author Brian Jay Jones, in his biography on Henson, speculated that the word came from another TV show that aired in the 1940’s. That show was called, “Hoppity Skippity with Moppet Movies.” Moppet is a word that means, “small child,” and comes from the word “moppe” which means, “rag doll.” So, muppet could be a mash-up of moppet and puppet, and allude to the child-like quality of the characters. 
    • For “Afternoon,” Jim and Jane would have to quickly produce new characters. There wasn’t a lot of time for rehearsal, and Jim Henson got familiar with the ability to perform off-the-cuff, a skill he used often in his later years. The two of them only performed on the show for a couple months before they were offered their own show, a 5-minute block between the news and The Tonight Show. It was called, Sam and Friends.
  • Sam and Friends 
    • Sam and Friends aired in the Spring of 1955 and followed a quiet bald character named Sam, and an abstract group of friends that helped him through daily life. The characters were meant to live within Sam, and Jim Henson liked their abstract quality. 
    • Jim Henson was still a teenager at the time, a college kid living in a town he knew very well. Nearby, his grandfather, a man known affectionately as, “Pop,” was dying of heart failure. It was during one of his many visits with his family that Jim sat down with an old felt coat and a ping-pong ball to make his favorite muppet: a milky turquoise creature named Kermit. In his book, Brian Jay Jones wrote, “That was it. From the simplest of materials–and perhaps appropriately, from a determination to bring a bit of order from darkness–Kermit was born.”
      • The simplicity that Kermit was born from, with his soft cloth of a face and body, made him easy to manipulate which gives him a wide range of appearances. Most of the puppets at this time were not meant for television and had rigid faces to be seen from great distances. Jim’s muppets were built to be expressive specifically for tv viewing.
      • At the time of Sam and Friends Kermit was not a frog. He was a blank slate, another one of Sam’s abstract friends that appeared.
        • These friends were made of pliable material such as foam rubber, fabric, and fleece.
    • Puppetry was still often done within a screen and hidden with a set that was a box that had curtains. Jim used television to his advantage. Instead of having a separate puppet box, the television itself was the puppet theatre set. This made it possible for the muppets to even get a close-up right to the camera.
      • As we have learned in photography the camera never lies but you control what it says. That is exactly what Jim Henson did.
        • In order to know exactly what the camera was saying he realized he needed to see what the camera was seeing. Instead of relying on merely checking to make sure he and Jane’s arms and bodies were out of frame he wanted to closely monitor what the camera was filming. Jim began by placing monitors in the two corners of the room but eventually decided on a single monitor in front of where the two were. To Jim it was not merely a way to monitor the characters and the exact movements, but that what was on the monitor defined the entire performance since it is what the audience would be seeing. 
        • Jim would continue to use this technique and improve it over the years to come. It would also continue to help improve the puppeteers performances, including his own. The only trick to it was that, just as when you take a selfie, the image is mirrored! So everything had to be done opposite to how it was viewed.
    • At the time Jim was still hesitant to use his own voice to vocalize the characters and so in Sam and Friends the characters are lip synching to records. Jim would spend hours looking into a mirror with a muppet practicing the most subtle of movements such as the slight tilt down of head as the muppet said something.
    • While working on the show, Jim hired Jerry Juhl, a puppeteer and friend of future muppet performer Frank Oz. Juhl was Henson’s first employee for Henson Inc., and he even filled in for Jane on the final season of Sam and Friends. 
    • Throughout its run Sam and Friends moved time slots and was cut a few times but stayed popular during its entire run. Fans would write in and demand its return when it was cut by WRC-TV, and the Washington fanbase was sad when Jim finally decided to end the tv spot in 1961. It seemed to be obvious to everyone however that it would not be the last time they would see Jim’s talent. The popularity of the show brought opportunities and exposure to his early muppets through television guest appearances and live shows. Jane would continue to stick with him even through continuing her schooling and doing two live shows a day. 

MUPPET INC

  • In 1957, Jim and Jane agreed to formally be in business together. They started out doing commercials, something that Jim Henson would eventually be happy to leave behind. Advertising in the 1950’s was often flat and uninteresting. Jim decided to make commercials that made fun of advertising itself. It was remarkably successful, and soon Jim and Jane were contacted by other companies yearning for their artistic style. 
  • In 1958, the two of them decided to form Muppets Inc, their own business in which they were partners, but as Jane put it, “Jim is the boss.” With the proposal to start their business, Jim also proposed marriage. Although the two of them were engaged to other people at the time, it seemed natural to them that they be married because of their strong bond. 
  • After they were married, the two of them settled together as they continued to work on “Sam and Friends.” Jim started branching out creatively, making what he called, “animated paintings,” out of paper pieces and other material. 
  • Shortly after Jane gave birth to their first child, the Hensons drove to a Puppeteers of America convention in Detroit. There, Jim met some of the people that would remain his closest friends and collaborators for years to come. This was where he met his agent, Bernie Brillstein, and future muppet builder, Don Sahlin. 
  • A couple years later, when Jane was pregnant with their second child, The Hensons once again headed to a Puppeteers of America convention. This time, Jim met someone that would become his life-long friend and fellow performer: Frank Oznowicz (Oz). Oz was only 17 at the time, and he thought of puppetry as merely a hobby. But, two year later Jim Henson would convince him to come out to New York and join him, Don Sahlin, and Jerry Juhl as they embarked on the next adventure. 

INFLUENTIAL SHOWS AND FILMS

  • Some of Jim Henson’s most beloved creations came in the form of muppets on Sesame Street.
    • Sesame Street first aired on November 10th, 1969 on PBS stations.
    • Joan Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett conceived the show in 1966; their goal was to create a children’s show that uses the addictive nature of TV in a positive way. During this time, half the nation’s school districts did not have a kindergarten. Cooney sought out the best in television including those that had worked on Captain Kangaroo. Jon Stone, who had worked with Jim on a Cinderella spoof that was live action and puppetry, recommended Jim Henson and his muppets.
      • Jim Henson was intrigued but reluctant at first; he was very insistent that his puppetry was adult puppetry. He was worried that he and his muppets would be labeled solely for children. With some persuading and after seeing the goals of the Children’s TV Workshop he agreed to do the show with his muppet characters.
      • After two years of research the Children’s Television Workshop received a grant of 8 million dollars from the Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation
    • This was the first television show of its kind to base its content and production values on educational research and the first to include a curriculum. 
    • By 2009, it was broadcast in over 120 countries and 20 independent international versions.  
  • The Muppet Show
    • The world seemed to love The Muppets. For years, Jim and his team of furry friends were making regular appearances on variety shows and in commercials. But, the general consensus from executives was this: puppets are for children. This was a stereotype that Jim Henson has always tried to avoid. And when Lord Lew Grade of ATV in the UK took a chance on Jim, The Muppet Show changed television forever. 
    • After they had been working for a year at SNL, Jim Henson and his team: Jerry Juhl, Bernie Brillstein and others learned a lot about how to produce a variety show. They used this knowledge to fit the muppets into a similarly formatted show that would end up having Kermit as the frustrated stage manager. 
    • You can hear more about it in our Muppet Show episode!
  • The Muppet Movie
    • This film was the reverse of The Muppet Show. Instead of live actors coming to visit the muppet characters, the muppets were venturing out into the living world. It was incredibly ambitious and once again brought the creators new challenges that they were able to face and conquer. 
    • We just released an episode about it so be sure to check that out here!
  • The Dark Crystal
    • This film took about 6 years to create but at the time when it was released it was billed as the first live action film with no humans on the screen! It took about 6 puppeteers to perform each 6 foot tall evil Skeksis character.
  • Fraggle Rock
    • Once again Jim Henson created a fun and colorful world of characters that would be loved for years to come. It was a fun place filled with an array of music and a diverse cast of muppet creatures. Fraggle Rock was meant to display and encourage kindness towards those that look different than you. 
  • Labyrinth
    • Labyrinth was deeply personal to Jim and it explored a timeless story that everyone can relate to. It did not try to be something brand new but instead expanded upon great stories before it such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.
    • We just released an episode about it so be sure to check that out here!
  • The Storyteller
    • The idea for this show came from Jim Henson’s daughter, Lisa, after she took a folklore class at Harvard. Together, Jim Henson and Lisa created the concept of the show and based all the episodes on actual folk tales. 
    • You can hear more about it in our Storyteller episode!

AWARDS

  • Jim Henson was so influential that not only does he have a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, but so do The Muppets, Big Bird, and Kermit the Frog.
  • He was awarded many other wins from several different organizations. He shared these wins with those that helped him bring those projects to life. Some examples of these would be the Primetime Emmy for The Muppet Show in 1976, a BAFTA in 1992 for The Storyteller: Greek Myths, a Peabody Award in 1986 with The Muppets, the Daytime Emmy Awards in 74’, 76’ and 79’ for Sesame Street, and many others.
  • Jim also won some awards for how influential and driven he was, some of them posthumously. These awards were a Gabriel Award in 1981, The Television Critics Association Award in 1990 for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming, a Telly Award in 1990 for Public Service, a Visual Effects Society Award for their Hall of Fame in 2017.

HIS DEATH

  • 1986 was a big year for Jim Henson. His latest film, Labyrinth, was a box office flop. His marriage to Jane, one that had been weakened by Jim’s famous wandering eye for women, was officially ending. It was at this time that Jim headed to the south of France, and spent a few days alone. In recent years, it had seemed that his mind had been shifting to deeper themes, and seemed to consider his own mortality. So, Jim Henson decided, for one reason or another, to write letters to his children in the event of his death. He told no one, except his lawyers. 
  • Years went on and Jim Henson continued his work. In 1989, he worked on realizing a dream he had from when he saw “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” at age three: working with Disney. It might be impossible to believe, but there was a time when Jim Henson considered buying the studio when it was at its lowest point. But of course, that never worked out. Now, as Disney sat at the edge of a renaissance, Jim Henson was ready to secure a deal with the company. Although some of his collaborators felt that Disney was getting Jim too cheaply, he himself was thrilled with the idea. He even planned to have a celebration once the deal had been signed. 
  • But, it wouldn’t come to be. Just as Jim Henson was getting ready to make the deal, he came down with what felt like a cold. He was a generally healthy man, always willing to work through any slight sickness. He was the kind of person that never had time to be ill, and simply didn’t allow it. But this was different. Arthur Novell, Henson’s PR director and his collaborator Kevin Clash both noticed something was off with Jim as he struggled to perform Kermit on the Arsenio Hall show. He admitted to them that he might have strep throat, but still felt OK. 
  • On May 9th, Jim sent flowers to his daughter Lisa, who was recently promoted to an executive role at Warner Brothers. He then went with his daughter Cheryl to visit his father for a few days. It was a nice visit, but Jim was still feeling sick. He developed a cough, but didn’t want to worry his family. He and Cheryl took an early flight back to New York so Jim could get some rest. At this point, he was showing symptoms for pneumonia, caused by streptococcus bacteria.
  • When Jim cancelled a morning meeting, and an all-day taping session for Disney, it was clear that something was very wrong. Jane came to see him, and stayed with him as his condition seemed to worsen. His heart was racing, and he started coughing up blood. When Jane convinced him to go to the hospital, she called Arthur Novell. She put Jim on the phone who said, “Arthur…just look after them for me.” 
  • Jim Henson had two families: a family related by blood, and a family he built through work. After he lost consciousness in the hospital, both of these families raced to his side. It all happened very fast, and Jim Henson never awoke. The family said their goodbyes, and he was pronounced dead on May 16th 1990. 
  • The news was baffling. How could someone so healthy, so full of life, someone with seemingly so much more to give, just be gone? Amidst the devastation, the family tried to carry on. They headed back to Henson’s apartment, making calls and consoling each other. The Offices became a gathering place for anyone that worked with Jim, with groups of colleagues gathering for several days, trying to make sense of something so unbelievable. Brian Henson, who was in the UK as his father fell ill and didn’t get the chance to say goodbye, was tasked with meeting Disney’s lawyers and trying to figure out where to go from there. Disney would one-day adopt Jim Henson’s Muppets, but not for 14 more years.
  • As the family started early plans for the memorial service, they got a visit from some legal representatives, bearing letters from Jim Henson. He was gone, and yet, he found a way to reach out from beyond the grave, guiding his friends and family when they needed him most. Jim’s letters gave instructions on what to do with his body, and some requests for his memorial service, like playing, “When the Saints go Marching In,” and no black attire. 
  • The ceremony was emotional to say the least, with heartfelt speeches and performances. Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Steve Whitmire, and Kevin Clash all performed a medley of some of Jim Henson’s favorite songs. At the end, they each slipped on a muppet and sang the song, “Just One Person.” 
    • “And when all those people believe in you–Deep Enough and strong enough believe in you, Hard enough and long enough–
    • It stands to reason you yourself will start to see
    • What everybody sees in you…And maybe even you can believe in you too”                                           

POSTHUMOUS WORKS

  • While Jim Henson was alive he had a lot of ideas and projects that he was working on. Being a creator meant that his work was never done and so when he passed away suddenly there were projects that he had conceived or been a part of that had not been finished or released. Here are just a few of those works.
    • The final Season of Muppet Babies.
    • From his death until 2008 Sesame Street continued to use his performances within the show and would go on to use some of his old vocal tracks in updated versions of their familiar songs. One example of this would be the 1993 “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” which featured Aaron Neville. In this version they make use of Jim Henson’s original recording as Ernie. 
    • “The Storyteller: Greek Myths” which was released at the end of 1990.
    • The 1991 series “Dinosaurs”. 
      • Jim had come up with the concept of a sitcom format for Dinosaurs with the general premise in place.
    • The graphic novel “Tale of Sand” in 2012 was developed from an unused  screenplay by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl.
    • He helped to produce the 1996 mini-series of Gulliver’s Travels.
    • “Here Come the Muppets” was a stage show that was put on 9 days after Jim’s death where they had to use pre-recorded vocal tracks.
    • The last one that we will mention is a project that he worked on in his last few days and was the last film that he directed. It was Muppet*Vision 3D, an attraction that would premier at Walt Disney World one year exactly after his death. The main feature of the attraction was the 3D film that contained Henson as his characters of Kermit, Waldorf, and the Swedish Chef.

Many of us know the name Jim Henson. He was an innovator, a creative force that was responsible for countless happy moments. He was a man with a plan, a clear vision of his place in the world and what he wanted to do with his time. If you ask the people that knew him best, they’ll say he was an even-tempered, soft-spoken leader that took chances on the ones he believed in. Jim Henson knew that everyone on his team was valuable, no matter their title. And when he suddenly left the living world, every single person that knew him felt an immense loss. 

Jim Henson was a creator. He breathed life into his work. And by all accounts, he was a good friend and loving father. Sure, he wasn’t a perfect person, but he was like every human being in that way. Jim Henson made the world a better place, and planted a seed in every person that was moved by his work, to do the same. And although his final letters were meant for his children, many people have found comfort in his last messages, read at his memorial:

“Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it. Love, Jim.” ALL JIM HENSON EPISODES


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