Puppetry is an ancient art form that has been practiced for centuries in nearly every culture of the world. In the United States, the Muppets have long been the nation's most successful puppetry organization. Founded in the 1950s by Jim Henson (1936–1990), who had been fascinated by the possibilities of presenting puppets on television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), the Muppet characters have appeared on hundreds of public and commercial TV programs and recordings; in films and commercials; and as toys and merchandise. Henson coined the term "Muppet" by combining the words marionette and puppet. Muppets, unlike other puppets, have flexible faces that allow for a wide range of expressions that play well on TV. Muppet characters like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Big Bird, Grover, Fozzie Bear, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo have captured the world's imagination.
Henson had his first taste of success as a teenager when he created a five-minute-long puppet feature for adults to air immediately before The Tonight Show (1954–; see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3). The show was such a success that Henson and his Muppets were soon asked to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948–71), Today (1952–; see these entries under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3), and The Tonight Show. The first Muppet star was Rowlf the Dog, who appeared for three years on The Jimmy Dean Show (1957–66).
In 1969, the Muppets achieved enormous popularity through their appearances on the public television program Sesame Street (see entry under 1970s—TV and Radio in volume 4). Children were enthralled by the Muppets' antics as they explained the alphabet, did simple math equations, and discussed social issues. Thanks in part to the Muppets, Sesame Street grew to be one of the most popular programs in TV history.
In 1976, Henson got his own show, called simply The Muppet Show. It remained on the air until 1981. Each week, a human celebrity would appear in a variety-show format with the Muppets, who were led by Kermit the Frog, one of Henson's 1950s creations. The show was a phenomenon and led to several Muppet films, including The Muppet Movie (1979), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), and Muppets from Space (1999).
Henson was constantly seeking methods to expand the art of puppetry. His Muppet success financed such innovative work as two TV series, Fraggle Rock (1983-88) and The Storyteller (1987), and the film The Dark Crystal (1982). Henson died in 1990 after a brief illness. The Muppet team endures and continues to delight audiences with their outrageous humor and advanced puppetry skills.
For More Information
Finch, Christopher. Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show. New York: Random House, 1981.
Gikow, Louise. Meet Jim Henson. New York: Random House, 1993.
Henson, Jim, et al. The Art of the Muppets. New York: Bantam, 1980.
Muppet World.http://www.muppetworld.com (accessed March 28, 2002).