James Maury Henson, or just Jim as he was known by, was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on September 24, 1936. I joke that my daughter better be glad she was a girl or I would have named her Jim in memory, as she was born on September 25th.
Jim was the youngest of two children, his father was Paul Henson, his mother was Betty Marcella. His early childhood was lived in Leland, Mississippi, before moving with his family to Maryland in the late ‘40s, near Washington, DC. He remembered the arrival of the family's first television as "the biggest event of his youth, "having been heavily influenced by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the early television puppetry of the Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Bil and Cora Baird.
Henson began working for WTOP-TV (now WUSA-TV) in 1954 while attending Northwestern High School, creating puppets for a Saturday-morning children's show called “The Junior Morning Show”. He later enrolled at the University of Maryland with a major in studio arts. He did this with the initial intention of becoming a graphic artist. He also graduated in 1960 with a BS in home economics where he first learned about textiles and fabrics to build puppets.
As a freshman, he had been asked to create a set of five minute shorts for WRC-TV called “Sam and Friends”. The characters that Henson created for “Sam and Friends” were actually the precursors to the “Muppets”, and the show included a prototype of Henson's most famous character Kermit the Frog, which Henson said he made out of a pair of his mother’s wool socks.Henson remained at WRC for seven years.
During his run with the show, Henson began experimenting with techniques that changed the way puppetry was used on television, one technique being the use of the camera’s field of vision to be the stage. Instead of having a stage in every scene, the puppeteer merely stayed out of camera view. He believed that television puppets needed to have "life and sensitivity” so the characters could emote more and began making characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions at a time when many puppets were still being made of carved wood and paper mache’. Henson used thin rods to move his Muppet arms, allowing greater control of expression, unlike marionettes that used strings and could become cumbersome to keep straight.
Going to Sesame Street
In 1969, television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, the Children's Television Workshop, impressed with Henson’s creativity, asked him and his staff to work full-time on Sesame Street, a totally visionary children's program for public television that had never been done before, but played right in to Henson’s vision for puppetry on t.v. This was the beginning of the Muppets as a household word.
At first, the puppet sections of the show were ancillary and appeared separately from the realistic segments on the Street, but after a poor initial test-screening, the show was revamped to integrate human storylines with puppet storylines thus making it one cohesive cast and adding more of the suspension of disbelief needed to draw in the show’s fans as well as placing much greater emphasis on Henson's work. in 1990 the Public Broadcasting Service called him "the spark that ignited our fledgling broadcast service." The success of Sesame Street also allowed Henson to stop producing commercials. He later remembered, "it was a pleasure to get out of that world" because it pigeon holed him.
Along with the puppets, Henson also developed many of the animations and film shorts seen during the first two years of Sesame Street.
Growing his audience
Concerned that the company was becoming typecast as children's entertainment only, Henson, with the help of Frank Oz and his team targeted an adult audience with a series of sketches on the first season of the groundbreaking comedy series Saturday Night Live that aired between October 1975 and January 1976. The SNL writers never got comfortable writing for the characters, and frequently used the puppets as the butt of the joke. Once Michael O'Donoghue, a lead writer for the show at the time, quipped, "I won't write for felt."
Being disenchanted with SNL, it was about the time of the final appearances of his characters in that season, he began work on two projects featuring his Muppets, a Broadway show and a weekly television series. In 1976, the series was initially rejected by the American networks, which believed that Muppets would appeal to only a child audience. Then Henson pitched the show to Lew Grade, a British angel investor, to finance the show. The show would be shot in the United Kingdom and syndicated worldwide. That same year, he scrapped plans for his Broadway show and moved his creative team to England, where The Muppet Show began taping.
In 1977, Henson produced the one-hour television special Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas for HBO, which was based on the Russell Hoban story of the same name.
The Big Screen:
Three years after the start of The Muppet Show, the Muppets appeared in their first Box Office hit, The Muppet Movie. The movie was both a critical and financial success; it ended up grossing $65.2 million domestically and was at the time the 61st-highest-grossing film ever made. Still one of my favorites.
A song from the film, "The Rainbow Connection", sung by Henson as Kermit the Frog in the beginning of the movie, hit number 25 on the Billboard Chart’s Hot 100 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. In 1981, a Henson-directed sequel, The Great Muppet Caper, followed. IT was at this time that Henson cancelled the t.v. series to concentrate on the big screen.
Along with his own puppetry projects, in 1979 he was asked by the producers of the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back to help the make-up artists to create and articulate the Yoda puppet. Henson suggested to George Lucas, a long time Muppets fan, that he use Frank Oz as the puppeteer and voice of Yoda. Oz voiced Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and each of the five subsequent Star Wars films. Lucas even lobbied, unsuccessfully, to have Oz nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. It was around this time that he began working on darker and more realistic fantasy films that did not feature the Muppets but more realistic puppets using latex and skin quality textures. In 1982's The Dark Crystal, which was co-directed and co wrote by Frank Oz, Henson said he was "trying to go toward a sense of realism—toward a reality of creatures that are actually alive [where] it's not so much a symbol of the thing, but you're trying to [present] the thing itself."
Like the other movies under his belt, The Dark Crystal was a financial and critical success and, a year later, The Muppets Take Manhattan (directed by Frank Oz) did pretty fair in the box-office, grossing $25.5 million domestically and ranking as one of the top 40 films of 1984. However, 1986's Labyrinth, a Crystal-like fantasy that Henson directed by himself, was considered (in part due to its cost) a commercial disappointment. Ironically, the film later became a cult classic.
Henson and his wife separated the same year, although they remained close for the rest of his life. Jane later said that Jim was so involved with his work that he had very little time to spend with her or their children. All five of his children began working with Muppets at an early age, partly because, as Cheryl Henson remembered, "one of the best ways of being around him was to work with him."
His Final years
Henson continued creating children's television, such as Fraggle Rock and the animated Muppet Babies. He also continued to sink into darker, mature themes with the old folk tales mythlogy series, The Storyteller (One of my favorites), which won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. The next year, he returned to television with The Jim Henson Hour, which mixed lighthearted Muppet fare with riskier material. The show was critically well-received and won him another Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program, but it was canceled after 13 episodes due to low ratings. I personally didn’t care for it as much as previous works. In some cases, it would use clips from The Storyteller.
In late 1989, Henson entered into negotiations to sell his company to The Walt Disney Company for almost $150 million, hoping that he would "be able to spend a lot more of my time on the creative side of things" with Disney handling business matters. By 1990, he had completed production on the television special The Muppets at Walt Disney World and the Walt Disney World attraction Muppet*Vision 3D, and he was developing film ideas and a television series entitled Muppet High.
His Last Days
On May 4, 1990, Henson appeared with his first major character, Kermit, on The Arsenio Hall Show, for what turned out to be his last television appearance. At the time, he disclosed to his publicist that he was tired and had a sore throat, but felt that it would soon go away.
On May 12, Henson traveled to North Carolina, with his daughter, Cheryl, to visit his father and stepmother. While there, Henson consulted a local doctor for what appeared to be a flu like virus. They returned to their home in New York City the following day, and Henson cancelled a Muppet recording session that had been scheduled for May 14. His estranged wife, Jane, came to visit that night. On May 15, Henson woke up at around 2:00 a.m. where he was having trouble breathing and began coughing up blood. Two hours later, he finally agreed to be taken by taxi to the emergency room. Shortly after admission, he stopped breathing, and an X-ray revealed that he had abscesses in his lungs as a result of a viral infection. Henson was placed on a ventilator, but he deteriorated over the next several hours, despite increasingly aggressive treatment with multiple antibiotics.
On the early morning of May 16, 1990, just over 20 hours after being admitted, Henson died at the age of 53 at the intensive care unit. News of his sudden and unexpected death spread quickly and fans from around the world responded with tributes and condolences. I was actually watching an episode of Muppet Babies when it broke that he had died.
The doctor confirmed on May 29 that Henson's cause of death was due to organ dysfunction resulting from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome caused by Streptococcus pyogenes. So if you guys are sick, don’t play around with it. Get to the doctor.
On May 21, Henson's public memorial service was conducted in Manhattan at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Another was conducted on December 2 at St Paul's Cathedral in London. In accordance with Henson's wishes, no one in attendance wore black, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from New Orleans, finished the service by performing "When the Saints Go Marching In”, as each member of the congregation waved a bright colored foam butterfly attached to a puppet arm rod. Later, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Kevin Clash, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, and Richard Hunt sang a medley of Jim Henson's favorite songs in their characters' voices, ending with a performance of "Just One Person". The funeral was described by Life as "an epic and almost unbearably moving event."
Henson changed the world with one idea that started with a glorified sock puppet made for a pair of “borrowed” socks from his mother, what can you do? Go out and create.
Let me know if you liked this expose’ on the life of one of the greats, and I will make more. I love history and I know quite a bit about quite a few of the puppetry greats.