Biography: Jim Henson

I know, I haven’t been as constant with my Muppet posts as I wanted to be. It’s really tricky to stay daily! But I’ll do what I can. 🙂

I want to have, in addition to Muppet skits and reviews and such, some biographies of the people who bring the Muppets to life. Naturally this means I’d start with Jim Henson, the brains behind the entire venture!

Love.

Love.

Jim Henson was born in Mississippi in 1936, but his family relocated to Maryland when he was ten; due to this I tend to think of him as a “local boy” and this seems to fuel my unfounded sense that I know or understand him more than others. 😉

I live like 30 minutes from this and have never been to see it. I think I would cry.

I live like 30 minutes from this and have never been to see it. I think I would cry.

Following high school, Jim enrolled at the University of Maryland – where there is still a statue of him and Kermit, to this day! – where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics. I’m not joking. 🙂 However, he was working in puppetry and on television throughout his time at UMD, and even before; he and his friend, Russell Wall, began doing some shorts on a local morning show during the summer before he began college, and this eventually led to 5-minute live segments called “Sam and Friends” following the news twice a day on a local NBC affiliate.

“Sam and Friends” ran from 1955 until 1961, and is the reason that many DC natives knew Jim Henson’s name and work – particularly Kermit, who was created for this show, though not considered a frog yet – even before The Muppets grew to great fame. (I’ve heard quite a bit about “Sam and Friends” from my father.) It was also during production of this show that Jim Henson met Jane Nebel, whom he would later marry. They had five children together, and though they separated in 1986, they remained close friends and never divorced.

Jim soon (while still attending college) extended from just “Sam and Friends” to creating puppets and performances for other companies as well, including commercials for Willkins Coffee, and later, La Choy noodles.

Strange things happen to people who don't drink Willkins Coffee.

Strange things happen to people who don’t drink Willkins Coffee.

Just tell 'em the La Choy Dragon sent ya!

Just tell ’em the La Choy Dragon sent ya!

In the late 50s and early 60s, Jim met Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl and began partnering with them as well; Muppets Inc, the company he had created, spread to include Rowlf the Dog, who appeared on the Jimmy Dean Show and began to give the Henson creations a national presence, leading to appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and elsewhere.

Rowlf on Jimmy Dean:

A string quartet that is not, on the Ed Sullivan Show

A string quartet that is not, on the Ed Sullivan Show

Jim Henson always wanted to be considered an entertainer for all ages and strove not to be categorized as childrens’ entertainment in spite of his use of puppets. With that being the case, his involvement with “Sesame Street” beginning in 1969 was a little dubious at first since it would, guaranteed, tie his name directly to children’s television. However, he ended up (with others in his company) designing the Muppets used on the show, and performing many of them himself, even using Kermit, the character who would eventually be most closely associated with Jim himself.

In the last 1970s, The Muppet Show was contracted as a half-hour comedy variety show. Jim, still interested in providing adult entertainment that was appropriate for children (rather than children’s entertainment), ended up getting away with a lot of wink-wink material that apparently made it past the censors just due to their being puppets and nobody paying close attention. 🙂 The format worked and served not only to introduce numerous characters who remain famous and well-known today, but also to make Jim Henson a household name in television and, eventually, movies and other medium as The Muppets created a springboard opportunity to branch out.

First Appearance of the Swedish Chef, in 1975’s “Muppet Show: Sex and Violence” pilot

Unfortunately, and frustratingly for Jim, few of the projects that he spearheaded that did not have the core Muppets in them were as successful as The Muppet Show and its film counterparts. Efforts at fantasy films, like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, or more fantastic television shows like The Storyteller, were met with less enthuasiasm and generally relegated to cult status.

If you're over 30, you've probably seen this movie, and may have been kind of traumatized by it (like me).

If you’re over 30, you’ve probably seen this movie, and may have been kind of traumatized by it (like me).

Regardless, the strides that the Henson Company has made in puppeteering and special effects in general have been amazing. Jim Henson was known as a creative genius, always pushing the envelope and trying to keep doing new things rather than settle into a rut of sticking to what worked. Jim continued to work with the Muppets, and in 1990 was working on an agreement to have the characters and distribution rights bought by Disney; they made a 3D movie, MuppetVision 3D, which has been running in Hollywood Studios since 1989.

Sadly, the deal was not completed as the agreement grew complicated, and in the midst of negotiations Jim neglected what at first appeared to be a cold that blossomed into what was deemed walking pneumonia. On May 16, 1990, on the point of collapse, he was rushed to the hospital but pronounced dead less than 24 hours later. The business was taken over by his adult children – Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Rachel – and by Jane Henson. The deal with Disney wasn’t closed until 2004, and does not include characters created for Sesame Street or other PBS shows. The Muppets have gone on to make numerous other movies and TV specials, and Steve Whitmire took over performing Kermit (which had been arranged in advance: all Muppets typically have an “understudy” which I guess nobody ever thinks will need to be used.)

In the 24 years since Jim Henson’s death, the company has had its ups and downs, but Jim’s influence and presence can still be felt, even as recently as 2011’s “The Muppets”… Jim’s picture and voice are woven subtly throughout the film.

 

Jim Henson & some friends

Jim Henson & some friends

 

Trivia:

– In addition to the Muppets, Jim did multiple short films and animations for Sesame Street, most famously the “Song of [number]” skits. If you grew up in the right era you will remember these as the Baker skits, where every one ended with the Baker singing what he was carrying, then falling down the stairs. 😀 Jim provided the voice of the Baker, but a different actor did the falling.

– Kermit was, originally, made out of an old coat that belonged to Jim’s mother. Jim chose it because he liked the colour. (Funny part of that being that “Sam & Friends” was initially in black and white.) Kermit was not designated as a frog until shortly before he began regularly appearing on “Sesame Street”.

– Jim and Frank Oz performed Muppets on the first season of Saturday Night Live, in a bit called “Land of Gorch”. The content was not written by the Muppets Inc writers, thus apparently the Muppet performers never really felt quite like they “fit”.

Gilda Radner and a character from Land of Gorch

Gilda Radner and a character from Land of Gorch

King Ploobis from Land of Gorch

King Ploobis from Land of Gorch

– Jim enjoyed making short movies and on occasion made non-Muppet commercials, such as the Bufferin commercial he produced (“Memories”) with a musical score by Raymond Scott (known for the music he produced for old Looney Tunes cartoons).

– Jim performed over 175 Muppets in his career, including 50 on The Muppet Show alone. Many of these are “anything” Muppets used in the background.

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7 thoughts on “Biography: Jim Henson

  1. This is awesome! I’ve always loved Rowlf, and never knew that he was the first “famous” Muppet. The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth are close to my heart. And boy do I remember that falling chef from Sesame Street! That was so my era. Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories, Rebecca. And you totally have to go see that Jim & Kermit statue. It’s ok if you cry.

    • I know, I have always had a major soft spot for Rowlf (which will be showing up in my next post!), and I think it’s pretty cool that he’s been around so long! It also makes me laugh that he got cast as one of the Muppet Show’s musician characters – I don’t think he had been invented as a piano player, it was just a way to slot a sort-of famous character into the show. 😀

      The baker falling at the end of the number songs was something I had forgotten about until I saw it again on the “Sesame Street: Old School” DVDs. Actually the number of skits that I remembered, but hadn’t seen in ages, on that DVD set was intense! 😀

      I’ll definitely see the Jim Henson statue one of these days. Hopefully sooner than later. 🙂

  2. Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited this web site before but after going through some of the posts I realized it’s new to me.
    Regardless, I’m certainly pleased I came across it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back frequently!

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