Celebrity Jim Henson
One day in the early 1990s, as I was walking into the Cos Cob Post office, puppeteer Jim Henson was walking out. I knew it was him because I had spent many hours watching “Sesame Street” with my two daughters over the years. At that time, I had no idea that Henson lived in town. Research indicated that he lived here from 1964 to 1990, when he passed away. I came across an article in the Greenwich Magazine from 1994. The library hosted an exhibit on the Muppets in the Hurlbutt Gallery, predecessor to the Flinn Gallery.
Jim Henson’s Early Years
Jim Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on September 24,1936. His maternal grandmother was a painter, quilter and needlepointer. She instilled in him an early interest in experimenting with different media as a young child. As a pre-teen, he began performing puppet shows for his friends. Television had a great influence on him, and he loved to watch the magic of puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, who produced that classic children’s progarm “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”. In high school. he had the opportunity to practice his craft on television. He worked as a puppeteer in college, and performed on a local Washington DC Saturday morning children’s program. When Jim was a freshman at the University of Maryland in 1955, he began bi-weekly apperances on “Sam and Friends”. In 1958, he received a local Emmy. Shortly thereafter, he formed the Jim Henson Company.
The Creative Jim Henson
His Muppet characters were introduced during the “Sam & Friends” show. They began making appearances in television commercials. One of his early characters was Wheel Stealer, who would grab snacks for unsuspecting families. This was the early version of the Cookie Monster. His Rowlf the Dog gained national exposure as a spokesman for Purina dog chow commericals. For a while, Rowlf was a sidekick on the Jimmy Dean Show. He became so popular that he appeared on Today and The Ed Sullivan Show! In 1962, Jim and his family moved to New York to participate in a new WNET Television Workshop production. They moved to Greenwich in 1964, and lived on Round Hill Road until 1971.
In 1965, Henson produced a short film titled “Time Piece”, which was a departure from his usual work. He teamed up with a television network to produce “Sesame Street”. During this time, the number of Henson’s creations exploded. He created Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Snuffulupagus, and Elmo. They became household names. It was also a new type of educational television show – not a mindless program. Characters began to discuss issues that related to children on their level.
Henson Faces Financial Difficulties
In the nineteen-eighties, he introduced the TV series “Fraggle Rock”, “The Jim Henson Hour” and “Jim Henson’s The Storyteller”. Jim Henson mixed puppetry and animatronics for the 1982 movie “Dark Crystal”. This was the same year he started the Jim Henson Foundation to support young American puppet artists. He teamed up with George Lucas in 1986 to create the movie “Labyrinth”, which starred David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly.The nineteen-seventies was not a kind decade for Jim Henson. He had trouble getting financial support for his “Muppet Show”. Fortunately, a Lord Lew Grade in Great Britain came to the rescue. Grade let Henson use his ATV Studios in London to continue his work. This spawned a new period of creation. Such characters as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Gonzo and Scooter came on the scene. Kermit was the host. After the program premeiered in 1979, Henson was able to get such guest stars as Liza Minelli, Elton John, Vincent Price and Steve Martin to appear. He eventually had 235-million viewers in 100 countries. Henson received 3 Emmys for “The Muppet Show”. This was followed the same year with “The Muppet Movie”. He also introduced an animated television spinoff titled “Jim Henson’s Muppett Babies”. Henson received 4 consecutive Emmys over the years for Outstanding Animated Program.
His last project involved the creation of “Muppet Vision 3D” exhibits at Disney Parks in California and Florida.
Jim Henson’s Contributions and Legacy
Jim Henson died in Greenwich in May 16, 1990, from pneumonia. He had been a director, producer , writer, puppeteer and innovator. His wife and five children were involved in his work, and continue his legacy today. In 1992, wife Jane established “The Jim Hesnson Legacy” to preserve and perpetuate her husband’s work for the world. Jane died in 2013. Today daughter Lisa is CEO of The Jim Henson Company, while son Brian is Chairman.
It’s amazing how Jim Henson was able to take a simple skill – puppeteering – and turn it into a lucrative business. More importantly, he was able to use it to entertain and teach children about this amazing world. I never had the opportunity to speak with Jim Henson, but I believe he was a very intelligent and caring man. Why else would he leave the world such art?
The world is much better off thanks to Jim Henson.
BIO.COM; Jim Henson – Mini Biography; http://www.biography.com/people/jim-henson-9335615/videos/jim-henson-mini-biography-50003523550
Symmers, D; From Here To Kermitry: Greenwich Magazine, Moffly Publications, Greenwich CT, April 1994.