From their modest beginnings as the stars of TV commercials and children's programming, Jim Henson's Muppets rose to a worldwide fame rivaling Walt Disney's mouse or Warner Brothers' bunny. Henson (1936-1990) coined the term Muppets by combining the words "marionette" and "puppet," which pretty much describes these sock puppets with arms that were usually operated by a single puppeteer. Henson felt that the intimate medium of television demanded of puppets a greater flexibility and expressiveness than the usual painted wooden faces such as Charlie McCarthy or Howdy Doody could provide, but it wasn't only his puppets' faces that were flexible: the Muppets' loose and loopy sense of humor offered TV viewers a refreshing brand of comedy which almost immediately set Henson's work apart from that of his contemporaries.
In the 1950s, fresh out of high school, young Henson secured a job as a puppeteer at the local NBC TV station in Washington, D.C. All through his college years, Henson's first Muppet prototypes appeared in a five-minute show called Sam and His Friends which aired immediately before The Tonight Show. In 1958, the program won a local Emmy award, but, curiously, Henson had until then never taken puppetry very seriously. As he later explained to a journalist, "It didn't seem to be the sort of thing a grown man works at for a living." A trip to Europe exposed Henson to a wide tradition of puppetry he hadn't encountered in his own country. The experience inspired him to pursue puppetry in earnest and at the same time it convinced him that he wanted to bring something fresh and innovative to the craft which he'd found lacking in even its most expert European practitioners.
After his graduation from the University of Maryland, Henson earned much of his living by producing TV commercials. One character, Rowlf the Dog, created for a TV dog food ad, ended up as a featured player on The Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960s. The talkative, philosophical hound charmed viewers and put a national spotlight on Henson. His Muppets began doing specialty appearances on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. In one memorable bit, Kermit the Frog—who had not yet made a name for himself—sat idly humming "Glow Worm" and devouring each unfortunate worm which inched his way. The pay-off came when one of the tiny worms turned out to be the tip of the snout of a great hairy beast, which then in turn gulped down the frog (and belched). Not limiting himself to puppetry, Henson tested his creativity in other venues, such as Timepiece, a 1965 short film (nominated for an Oscar), which he wrote, directed, and starred in.
The turning point for Henson's Muppets came in 1969 with the debut of Public Television's innovative children's show Sesame Street. The program's runaway success made stars out of the befuddled Big Bird, the ravenous Cookie Monster, ash-can dwelling Oscar the Grouch, and roommates Bert and Ernie (named after the cop and cabbie in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life), but especially the gentle puppeteer's alter ego, Kermit the Frog. For the first time in broadcast history, an educational program started drawing ratings comparable to those of the commercial networks, and the Muppets were given their due share of the credit and glory for this feat. Millions of three-to-five-year-olds were falling in love with Henson's creations and begging their parents for Muppet merchandise. Henson, providing the singing voice for Ernie and Kermit, even had hit single records with the songs "Rubber Ducky," which was just for fun, and "It's Not Easy Being Green," a subtle plea for racial tolerance. Eventually, such was the Muppets' stature in show biz that Kermit filled in one night for Johnny Carson as the guest host on The Tonight Show. To this day, Muppets are starring on the still-running Sesame Street.
In the 1970s, a series of Muppet TV specials inevitably led to the weekly half-hour The Muppet Show. Premiering in 1976, The Muppet Show featured the puppets in a variety show format, interacting each week with a different human star. But none of these celebrities outshone the Muppets themselves, nor did their stellar performances eclipse the public's interest in the ongoing, one-sided courtship between shy Kermit and the boisterous, short-tempered coquette, Miss Piggy. The phenomenal success of The Muppet Show —it has been called the most popular TV show ever—led in turn to The Muppet Movie (1979) and other big screen follow-ups including The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Muppets from Space (1999).
The continued success of his Muppets in all these ventures enabled Henson to branch out into other areas of show business artistry. Henson Associates, a multi-media organization which far outstripped its humble origins with a frog, has provided creatures for various filmmakers, such as cinematic realizations of the famous characters from Alice in Wonderland for the 1985 movie Dream Child. One of Henson's own special projects, The Dark Crystal (1983), was an elfin fantasy in the Tolkien manner, populated entirely by beasts and fairies of Henson's devising. The Henson influence can be witnessed in the Star Wars films in the presence of Yoda, a puppet given voice by long-time Henson associate Frank Oz. TV series continued to issue forth from Henson Associates, including the children's program Fraggle Rock and the sophisticated fairy tale presentations of The Storyteller. Henson was responsible for the creature effects in The Witches, a film based on a story by Roald Dahl, which, sadly, turned out to be the last project on which the puppeteer-turned-media-mogul would be involved. In 1990, the tall, bearded, gentle genius suddenly died after a brief illness. Henson's organization continues to produce innovative work in the field of fantasy and "creature creation," and, of course, his Muppets have proven that they have a life of their own.
—Preston Neal Jones
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Bacon, Matt. No Strings Attached: The Inside Story of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. New York, Macmillan, 1997.
Durrett, Deanne. Jim Henson. San Diego, California, Lucent Books, 1994.
Finch, Christopher. Jim Henson: The Works, the Art, the Magic, the Imagination. New York, Random House, 1993.
Gikow, Louise. Meet Jim Henson. New York, Random House, 1993.