The Muppet Master
Founder of Henson Associates
"Nobody creates a fad. It just happens. People love going along with the idea of a beautiful pig. It's like a conspiracy."-Jim Henson
Jim Henson can be credited with many accomplishments. A brilliant innovator, he stretched the capabilities of advancing technology to adapt the ancient art of puppetry to the modern medium of television, transforming both in the process. As a pre-eminent popular artist, he contributed a lovable collection of endearing and enchanting characters to the diverse visual vocabulary of the 20th century. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the delight and wonder he brought to children and adults alike, championing the qualities of fancifulness, warmth and consideration in an often coarse and cynical age.
Henson began his television career while still a high school student in 1954. Hearing that "The Morning Show," a local Washington, DC, program, was looking for a puppeteer, he fashioned a crude puppet out his mother's old green coat and a couple of pingpong balls and landed the job.
The following year, as a freshman at the University of Maryland, he was given his own twice-daily, five-minute TV show called "Sam and His Friends." Realizing that traditional solid-head puppets wouldn't translate well to television, Henson, with the help of fellow classmate Jane Nebel (whom Henson would later marry), invented a new type of puppet that could be more expressive.
Dubbed Muppets (which, according to one story, came from combining the words puppet and marionette), Henson's puppets featured extremely wide, over-biting mouths and flexible arms that could be moved by rods. Made of foam rubber and covered with fleece, wool, flannel or other soft material, the Muppets were pliable, so their faces could be manipulated to imitate human facial expressions. In addition to the Muppets, the show also introduced many of what would become Henson trademarks-music, off-the-wall humor and technical tricks. At the time, Henson doubted that anyone really watched his show. But he couldn't have been more wrong. In 1958, he won an Emmy for "Best Local Entertainment Show." The success of "Sam and His Friends" led to guest appearances on such national network programs as "The Steve Allen Show," "The Jack Paar Show" and the "Ed Sullivan Show." Henson also began making commercials for sponsors throughout the country. To help out, Jim and Jane brought on puppeteer and writer Jerry Juhl in 1961.
By 1963, increasing demand for national television appearances and an ever-growing list of commercial clients prompted Henson to seek out the talents of master puppet builder Don Sahlin and a young puppeteer named Frank Oz. The trio worked to develop the first nationally known Muppet character, Rowlf the Dog, who appeared regularly on "The Jimmy Dean Show" from 1963 to 1966.
Impressed by Henson's ability to create short, funny puppet skits, in 1969, public television show producer Joan Ganz Cooney asked him to create a family of characters to populate her new children's show, "Sesame Street." Henson hesitated to accept Cooney's offer because he didn't want to be pigeonholed as a children's entertainer, but he eventually agreed.
While Henson was always careful never to take credit for the achievements of "Sesame Street"-the show itself was the creation of the Children's Television Workshop (CTW)-few would disagree that it was primarily Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Grover and the other Muppets who made "Sesame Street" so captivating. Even Cooney herself once remarked that while CTW had a collective genius, Henson was the only individual genius. "He was our era's Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers," she says. "And indeed, he drew from all of them to create a new art form that influenced popular culture around the world."
During its 30 years on the air, "Sesame Street" has been shown in countless countries, and Henson's Muppets have entranced hundreds of millions of children. In fact, given the number of his fans and the intensity of their devotion, Kermit the Frog may possibly be the most popular children's character of the century, eclipsing even Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse.
Based on the popularity of "Sesame Street," Henson began developing his own program, "The Muppet Show." But despite the Muppets' success on "Sesame Street" and their proven appeal to both adults and children, Henson was unable to convince any major U.S. network to carry it. Even with its more sophisticated satire and wit, network executives still felt "The Muppet Show" was too child-oriented. Finally, in 1975, British impresario Sir Lew Grade offered Henson the chance to bypass the networks and join forces with his internationally syndicated ACC group. Grade even promised Henson complete artistic control over 24 shows per year. It was an offer Henson couldn't pass up. As part of ACC, Henson would get the financial backing he needed to produce the show, yet still have the freedom to offer it to network affiliates as a syndicated program.
Starring such unforgettable characters as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, Rizzo the Rat, Statler and Waldorf and, of course, Kermit the Frog, "The Muppet Show" was an instant hit. At its peak, it drew a weekly audience of more than 235 million viewers from around the world, and some of the biggest names in show business vied for guest appearances. The show's list of guest stars read like a Who's Who of Hollywood, boasting celebrities such as Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Telly Savalas, Dean Martin, Diana Shore, Raquel Welch, Brooke Shields, Steve Martin, John Denver and Rudolf Nuryev (who danced "Swine Lake" with Miss Piggy).
One of the reasons for Henson's sustained appeal was his refusal to stick with the status quo. Once something showed the slightest trace of stagnation, he immediately dropped or revamped it. True to form, when he felt "The Muppet Show" itself growing stale, he promptly ended it in 1981, after a five-year run.
With "The Muppet Show" behind him, Henson took his creations to the big screen, producing five Muppet feature films-"The Muppet Movie," "The Great Muppet Caper," "The Muppets Take Manhattan," "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island¬"-as well as two fantasy films, "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth," which were inspired by the illustrations of Brian Froud.
Throughout the 1980s, Henson continued to create memorable television specials and series, including "Fraggle Rock," the multi-award-winning animated cartoon "Muppet Babies," "Jim Henson's Greek Myths," and "Jim Henson's The Storyteller"-which featured stories based on authentic folk tales, several of which were written by Academy Award-winning writer/director Anthony Minghella.
Tragically, Henson's 34-year conquest of children's imaginations ended on May 16, 1990, when he died of complications brought on by an extremely aggressive form of pneumonia. Today, Jim Henson's legacy lives on through the activities of The Jim Henson Company. Led by the Henson family, The Jim Henson Company has dedicated itself to continuing the work Jim had so successfully accomplished over the years.
All Together NowShortly before his death, Jim Henson had agreed to sell the rights to all but his "Sesame Street" characters to Walt Disney Co. for an estimated $200 million. The money certainly would have made Henson the richest puppeteer in history, but that wasn't his reason for making the deal. He hoped that in the hands of Disney, his endearing creatures would have, in his own words, "greater longevity."
But after Henson's death, Disney pulled the plug on the deal, contending that Jim Henson was his company. Enraged at what he considered to be an insult to his father's memory and wanting his father's dream for the Muppets' longevity to become reality, Henson's son, Brian, sued Disney, leading the organization in a spirited continuation of his father's iconoclasm. Disney eventually conceded, agreeing to an out-of-court settlement. Henson's creations are now part of the pantheon of children's favorites that also includes Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.