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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
(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.
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)
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (muppeteer, director,
1986 The Tale of the Bunny Picnic (muppeteer, director,
1990 The Christmas Toy (mupeteer, producer)
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
Baby Kermit and the Dinosaur. New York: Random House, 1987.
Songs from Jim Henson's Muppets. Winona, Minnesota: H. Leonard,
In & Out, Up & Down. New York: Random House, 1982.
Winona, Minnesota: H. Leonard, 1986.
Sesame Street Dictionary: Featuring Jim Henson's Sesame Street Muppets.
New York: Random House, 1980.
World of the Dark Crystal. New York: Knopf, 1982.
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.
Christopher. Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show.
New York: Knopf, 1981.
Christopher. Jim Henson: The Works, The Art, the Magic, the Imagination.
New York: Random House, 1993.
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.
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.
S., and J.D. Podolsky. "Legacy of a Gentle Genius." People Weekly
(New York), 18 June 1990.
and Television; Children's
Television Workshop; Cooney,
Muppet Show; Tillstrom,