Jim Henson: Creator of the World-Famous Muppets
Jim Henson started designing and building puppets when he was in high school. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, Henson created Sam and Friends. It was a sketch-comedy show with puppets he had created. It lasted approximately five minutes and was shown on television. Henson developed experimental films as well as produced advertisements for coffee. In 1958, Henson founded Muppets, Inc. It eventually became The Jim Henson Company.
On September 24, 1936, James Maury Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi. His early life was spent in Leland, Mississippi until his family moved during the late 1940s to University Park, Maryland. According to Henson, one of the biggest events of his childhood was when his family got its first television. When he was growing up, Henson enjoyed listening to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen who became an early puppet act on television. He also liked Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and claimed to have found inspiration from both programs.
Beginning Of Puppetry Career
In 1954, Jim Henson was in high school and began working at WTOP-TV. His job was to create puppets to be used on a Saturday-morning children's show. The name of the show was The Junior Morning Show. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Maryland. As a university student, Henson took a puppetry class offered by the university's applied arts department. During his time, he created a five-minute show called Sam and Friends. It was a financial success. It included a prototype of his character Kermit the Frog. After Henson graduated from the University of Maryland, he was still conflicted about pursuing a career performing with puppets. Henson then decided to spend time in Europe. He was there for several months and became inspired by watching European puppet performers. Henson learned how the European puppet performers viewed their work as an art form.
Sam And Friends Opportunities
Jim Henson's program Sam and Friends was very popular in the late 1950s. It provided him with the opportunity to be a guest on many different variety shows and network talk shows. Henson was on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Paar Program, The Steve Allen Show, and others. The national exposure created a following for his characters that grew throughout the 1960s.
Wilkins Coffee Company Commercial
After returning from Europe, Jim Henson's company Muppets, Inc. produced a series of commercials for Wilkins Coffee company. These commercials were known for their slapstick violence that left viewers laughing. During this time, advertising agencies felt the only way to provide a successful message on television was with a hard sell technique. Henson's commercials proved there was another way to be successful. People were buying things because advertisements were able to make them laugh.
Jim Henson moved to New York City in 1963. During this time, he spent his time growing his company Muppets, Inc. Henson started doing work on short films. His 1965 short film, Time Piece was nominated for an Academy Award. Henson released two more short films in 1967 called Ripples and Wheels That Go. During this year, he also created an industrial film for IBM called The Paperwork Explosion. In 1968, Jim Henson wrote a documentary called Youth '68: Everything’s Changing...or Maybe It Isn't. It was an attempt by Henson to explain the rebellion against culture occurring in the younger generation. He interviewed musicians and their fans as well as a variety of interesting adults. Jim Henson also wrote a television film in 1969 called The Cube. It dealt with a man who was unable to escape an alternate reality.
At Children's Television Workshop, Joan Ganz Cooney and her staff were impressed by the creativity and quality of the team at Jim Henson's Muppets, Inc. In 1969, Ganz Cooney asked Jim Henson and his staff to work on Sesame Street full time. Sesame Street had a reputation for being a visionary public television children's program. The first episode of Sesame Street with Jim Henson's work appeared on November 10, 1969. It was given some very positive reviews from critics.
Jim Henson's Puppets
Part of the Sesame Street show would have Jim Henson's puppets. His character creations were found living on the titular street. Henson's puppet creations consisted of Big Bird, Kermit, Grover, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch as well as Cookie Monster. Henson would do the voices for most of the characters. Henson's success on Sesame Street made it possible for him to stop doing commercials. He told those around him it was a pleasure to get out of that world.
Films And Animation Insets
During the initial years on the Sesame Street program, Henson and his company were responsible for the performances of the Muppet characters. Henson then became involved in producing different shows and animation inserts that became popular on Sesame Street. He produced a series of films for counting. Starting after season two he did inserts that showed the numbers 2 through 12 using different styles. This included stop motion, cut-out animation as well as stop-and-go animation.
Saturday Night Live
Jim Henson had a desire to move his company beyond providing children's entertainment. Henson and his company's creative team started to focus on adult audiences. They were given the opportunity to do some sketches on the live television show Saturday Night Live. They appeared starting in October 1975 and ran until January 1976. The relationship between the staff of Saturday Night Live and Jim Henson's team never worked out. Writers from Saturday Night Live never got comfortable writing lines and sketches for Jim Henson's Muppet creations.
The Muppet Show
After Jim Henson's characters made their final appearance on Saturday Night Live, he began to develop new projects. One was a weekly television series and the other was a Broadway show. Henson pitched his idea about a weekly television series to all the American networks. All of them rejected Henson's idea claiming his characters would only appeal to children. Henson pitched his show idea to Lew Grade who was a British impresario. He agreed to finance the show. In the agreement, the weekly television series would be taped in England and given worldwide syndication. Henson put his plans for a Broadway play on hold and took his creative team to England.
The Muppet Show Characters
This is when Jim Henson began using a number of his most memorable characters. Kermit was the host of the show. Henson introduced Gonzo the Great, Miss Piggy as well as Fozzie Bear and the hugely popular Animal. People would often comment on how Henson’s behavior in Muppet productions often resembled that of the character Kermit. Eventually, Henson admitted that Kermit was his alter ego. He felt Kermit was a bit bolder. Henson told people Kermit would say things and in the same situation, Henson would have held back.
The Big Screen
The Muppet Show was a huge worldwide success. Three years after the start of the television series, Jim Henson was ready to release his first theatrical film featuring the Muppet characters. The Muppet Movie was released on May 31, 1979, in the United Kingdom. It was both a financial as well as critical success. At the time, it made over $65 million in the United States and was the 61st highest grossing movie of all time. Henson as the voice of Kermit sung the song The Rainbow Connection. It went to number 25 on the Billboard charts and was nominated for the Best Original Song Academy Award. Eight more movies were eventually made with Henson's Muppet characters.
After the success of the movies and television shows featuring his Muppet characters, Henson continued to work on creating television for children. He created the animated Muppet babies and the show Fraggle Rock. He created a show with a mythology theme called The Storyteller. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. He also had The Jim Henson Hour. It received critical praise and provided him with another Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program. He then reached a deal to do work for the Walt Disney Company. He produced the television special for them called The Muppets at Walt Disney World. Henson also developed an attraction for Walt Disney World called Muppet*Vision 3D.
On May 12, 1990 while in North Carolina, Henson spoke with a local doctor about his influenza-like symptoms. He was treated and went back to where he was staying. Henson then returned to New York City. On May 15, he woke up early in the morning and was struggling to breathe. Henson started coughing up blood. He didn't want to go to a hospital because of his work schedule but eventually agreed to go. Soon after reaching the New York Hospital in Manhattan, Henson stopped breathing. Tests revealed he had abscesses on his lungs from a viral infection. Physicians were aggressive in their treatment but nothing worked. On May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died at the age of 53.
Jim Henson received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for both himself and as Kermit the Frog. In 1987, Henson was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. On September 28, 2005, the U.S. Postal Service honored Jim Henson by issuing commemorative stamps featuring Henson and the Muppets. Jim Henson was given a Disney Legends Award on August 9, 2011. The University of Maryland put up a statue of Jim Henson and his character Kermit the Frog.
Jim Henson: The Biography
Jim Henson Legend
Questions & Answers
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