HENSON, JIM

U.S. Muppeteer-Producer

Jim Henson's most significant contribution to television culture was his imaginative ability. His creative talents are responsible for perhaps the most recognizable and beloved television characters of all time--the puppet/marionette hybrids better known as the Muppets. For over three decades, the Muppets have entertained children and adults in myriad pop culture arenas, however, they are most associated with the television legacy known as Sesame Street.

As an adolescent, Henson was fascinated with television. His desire to work for the blossoming industry was inadvertently realized through the craft he considered merely a hobby---puppetry. His first puppet creations premiered on a local television station, an NBC affiliate in Maryland, which picked up Henson's five-minute puppet show and ran it prior to The Huntley-Brinkley Report and The Tonight Show. This exposure proved to be a tremendous opportunity.

Jim Henson developed an innovative art-form which was perfectly suited for television. His Muppets (some say this name is a combination of m(arionette) + (p)uppet) were ideal for the new medium because they perpetuated its "seamlessness." Muppets are stringless (unlike marionettes) and appear to move on their own (unlike traditional hand-puppets). This characteristic of "realness" made the Muppets readily accepted by the television audience.

Sam and Friends, Henson's first network program, aired for several years. The Muppets amassed a loyal following by appearing in commercials and performing in popular venues such as The Ed Sullivan Show. However, it was the character of Rowlf the Dog (a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show) which propelled the popular fascination with Henson's creations.

It was not until 1969 (and the commencement of a public television experiment called Sesame Street) that Jim Henson and his Muppets became a household word. Sesame Street was the brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney. Frustrated by the lack of quality children's programming, Cooney proposed a television program especially for pre-schoolers which would incorporate the stylistic devices of advertisements (jingles, etc.) to sell learning. Although Sesame Street was designed for all preschool children, it was particularly targeted at inner-city youths. In many ways the program symbolized the idea of a televisual panacea, an entertainment offering with an educational and pro-social agenda.

It was Jon Stone, the first head writer for Sesame Street, who suggested Henson's Muppets for the project and it has been suggested that if there were no Muppets, there would be no Sesame Street. The Muppets are largely responsible for the colossal success of this program. In skits, songs, and other performances they epitomized the social skills fundamental to Sesame Street's mission--cooperation, understanding, tolerance and respect.

Henson's Muppets were abstractions--most were animals, some were humans, and others a combination of both, all of different sizes, shapes and colors. Their appearances were foreign, but their personalities were very familiar. Each member of the Sesame Street ensemble personified characteristics inherent in pre-schoolers. Through Ernie's whimsy, Big Bird's curiosity, Oscar's grouchiness, Grover's timidity, or the Cookie Monster's voracity, children experienced an emotional camaraderie. However, Kermit-the-Frog (often referred to as Jim Henson's alter ego) is the Muppet most representative of the human spirit. Kermit's simple reflections often echo the philosophical complexities of everyday life.

Jim Henson's Muppets are a global phenomenon. The internationalization of Sesame Street is indicative of their cross-cultural appeal. Sesame Street is an anomaly within the realm of children's television and the unique qualities of the Muppets are somewhat responsible for this distinction.

Still, the immediate success of Sesame Street was a bitter-sweet experience for Henson. He felt stymied that the Muppets were branded "children's entertainment." He knew the wit and charm of the Muppets transcended all questions of age. In 1976, owing much to the implementation of the Financial Interest and Syndication (Fin-Syn) rules, The Muppet Show began, and offered a venue more in keeping with Henson's larger vision for his creations. The Fin-Syn rules opened time slots in local television markets for non-network programming. Henson quickly took advantage of this need for syndicated programming with his new production. The half-hour variety program featured celebrity guests who participated in the Muppet antics. The Muppet Show was hosted by Kermit--the-Frog, the only Sesame Street character permitted to cross genre boundaries (except for guest appearances and/or film cameos). The series spawned a new generation of characters for its predominantly adult demographic. "Animal," "Doctor Teeth," "The Swedish Chef" and "Fozzie Bear" still appealed to children and adults, but the now the Muppets were more sophisticated and less pedagogical. The romantic relationship between Kermit and a porcine diva known as "Miss Piggy" established the dramatic potential of the Muppets. Miss Piggy was inspired by Frank Oz, Henson's lifelong colleague.

The success of The Muppet Show provoked Henson to explore the medium of film. His cinematic endeavors include The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan and Treasure Island.

The Muppets have permeated all media--television, film, animation, music, literature. Their generative ability is also manifest in various spin-off endeavors such as Fraggle Rock, The Muppet Babies, and Dinosaurs. The empire known as Jim Henson Productions has spawned numerous production companies--all infused with the imaginative potential of their creator. It is interesting to note that Henson's "Muppet-less" projects, feature films such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were not widely successful. Perhaps this is because they lacked the cheerfulness which has defined most of Henson's work.

Jim Henson died on 16 May 1990 from an untreated bacterial infection. His vision and creative spirit are immortalized by the Muppets and the future projects his legacy inspires.

-Sharon Zechowski

JIM (JAMES MURRY) HENSON. Born in Greenville, Mississippi, U.S.A., 24 September 1936. Educated at the University of Maryland, B.A. 1960. Married: Jane Anne Nebel, 1959; children: Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather. Producer-performer, Sam and Friends, Washington, D.C., 1955-61; creator of The Muppets, combination marionettes and puppets, 1959; regular appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show, 1963-66; Sesame Street Muppets from 1969; The Muppet Show, 1976-81; creator, Fraggle Rock, Home Box Office, 1983-90; writer, producer, director, muppeteer of various films, 1979-90. Member, Puppeteers of America (president 1962-63), AFTRA, Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Screen Actors Guild, American Center of Union Internationale de la Marionette (president, board of directors), 1974. Recipient: Emmy Awards, 1958, 1973-74, 75-76; Entertainer of the Year Award AGVA, American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Award, 1978; Peabody Award, 1979, 1987; Grammy Award, 1981; President's Fellow Award, Rhode Island School of Design, 1982. Died, in New York City, New York, 16 May 1990.

TELEVISION SERIES

1955-61 Sam and Friends (muppeteer)
1969     Sesame Street (muppeteer)
1976     The Muppet Show (muppeteer)
1983-90 Fraggle Rock (creator)
1984-    The Muppet Babies (producer)
1987     The Storyteller (producer)

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1977 Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (muppeteer,         director, producer)
1986 The Tale of the Bunny Picnic (muppeteer,         director, producer)
1990 The Christmas Toy (mupeteer, producer)

FILMS
The Muppet Movie, 1979; The Great Muppet Caper, 1981; The Dark Crystal, 1982; The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984; Into the Night, 1985; Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird, 1985; Labyrinth (also writer), 1986; Muppet*vision 3-D, 1991.

PUBLICATIONS

Baby Kermit and the Dinosaur. New York: Random House, 1987.

Favorite Songs from Jim Henson's Muppets. Winona, Minnesota: H. Leonard, 1986.

In & Out, Up & Down. New York: Random House, 1982.

Muppets. Winona, Minnesota: H. Leonard, 1986.

The Sesame Street Dictionary: Featuring Jim Henson's Sesame Street Muppets. New York: Random House, 1980.

The World of the Dark Crystal. New York: Knopf, 1982.

FURTHER READING

Blau, E. "Jim Henson, Puppeteer, Dies; The Muppets Creator was 53." The New York Times, 17 May 1990.

Culhane, John. "Unforgettable Jim Henson." Reader's Digest (Pleasantville, New York), November 1990.

Finch, Christopher. Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Finch, Christopher. Jim Henson: The Works, The Art, the Magic, the Imagination. New York: Random House, 1993.

Harrigan, S. "It's Not Easy Being Blue." Life (New York), July 1990.

"Jim Henson: Miss Piggy Went to Market and $150 Million Came Home (Jim Henson Sells Muppet Empire to Walt Disney Co.)." American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1989.

Owen, David. "Looking out for Kermit. (Jim Henson Productions of Muppet Fame Taken Over by Henson's Five Children)." The New Yorker (New York), 16 August 1993.

Schindehette, S., and J.D. Podolsky. "Legacy of a Gentle Genius." People Weekly (New York), 18 June 1990.

 

See also Children and Television; Children's Television Workshop; Cooney, Joan Ganz; Muppet Show; Tillstrom, Burr