America’s greatest and most popular puppeteer, James Maury Henson was born on 24 September 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi. Henson was in fifth grade when his father accepted a new job and the family moved to Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Fascinated with television, Jim began looking for ways to work in the expanding medium, and after graduating from Northwestern High School, he and a friend landed jobs as puppeteers for the Junior Morning Show on a local station.
Henson enrolled at the University of Maryland in 1954, and met Jane Nebel, who became his first important performing partner and later his wife. In 1955 Henson debuted Sam and Friends on Washington’s NBC station, WRC-TV: one of the characters was an early version of Kermit the Frog. The show ran until 1961 and won a local Emmy in 1958. With this award, Henson began to seriously consider puppetry as a career and art form.
After graduating from the University of Maryland, Henson began making television commercials, and his characters Rowlf the Dog and other Muppets began appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show, and the Jimmy Dean Show. During the next few years Henson brought in colleagues Jerry Juhl, Don Stahlin, and Frank Oz, who would play significant roles in the development of the Muppets. Oz became Henson’s key performing partner on characters as diverse as Grover, Cookie Monster, Fozzie Bear, and Miss Piggy.
In 1965 Henson wrote, produced, directed, and starred in an experimental film, Timepiece, that was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1966 the Carnegie Institute conducted a study of children’s television programming that resulted in the establishment of the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), which began developing a new show for preschoolers. The basic proposal included puppets, and Henson’s Muppets were suggested.
Debuting in 1969, Sesame Street was an instant success. Featuring a greatly expanded cast of Muppets, the show introduced preschoolers to letters, numbers, and shapes as well as more complicated themes such as friendship, pregnancy, and death. Many of its characters—Bert, Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Elmo, Big Bird, the Count, Cookie Monster, and Kermit the Frog, among others—have become American icons. By the early 1970s Sesame Street was being watched by approximately half of the twelve million children aged three to five in the United States. The program is currently shown in more than 140 countries with 20 international versions using indigenous characters, puppets, sets, and stories.
In September 1976 Henson introduced The Muppet Show. Despite the Muppets’ obvious appeal to adults, Henson had a hard time convincing American network television to air a prime time show using his characters. Lord Lew Grade of the British-based Associated Communications Corporation ultimately took a chance and syndicated the program to TV stations in more than one hundred countries. Adults made up three-fourths of the show’s audience. Muppet regulars Sam the Eagle, the Swedish Chef, Statler and Waldorf, Kermit the Frog, and Miss Piggy played host to an impressive array of guest stars such as Vincent Price, Zero Mostel, Danny Kaye, George Burns, and Julie Andrews. One of the show’s proudest moments came when one of Henson’s greatest inspirations, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, visited the show with his characters, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.
The popularity of The Muppet Show led to a variety of feature films, including The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), Muppets from Space (1999), The Muppets (2011), and Muppets Most Wanted (2014). The talents of Henson and his team led to other film work, including The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986). Other television shows also followed. Fraggle Rock premiered on HBO in 1983 and ran for four years. Muppet Babies, an animated Saturday morning program, was launched in 1984 and ran for eight years. In the fall of 2015, ABC launched a new series, The Muppets.
Henson died of a bacterial infection in 1990 at the age of fifty-three. Memorial services were held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. In true Jim Henson style, both services started with “Sunny Day,” the theme song from Sesame Street. Henson wanted the memorials to be happy and had requested that mourners not wear black. Instead, they waved colorful butterflies on stems made by the Muppet Workshop. Big Bird sang “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” a song usually voiced by Henson in the character of Kermit the Frog. A Dixieland band played, and Muppeteers sang a medley of Muppet-related songs.
- Kiley Armstrong, “Thousands Attend Memorial for Muppet Creator,” Associated Press (21 May 1990)
- Matt Bacon, No Strings Attached: The Inside Story of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (1997)
- Rhea R. Borja, Education Week (2 October 2002)
- Christopher Finch, Jim Henson: The Works, the Art, the Magic, the Imagination (1993)
- Susan Andre George, Follow Your Enthusiasm: The Jim Henson Performance Aesthetic (1993)
- Ann Donegan Johnson, The Value of Imagination: The Story of Jim Henson (1991)
- Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography (2013)
- John J. O’Connor, New York Times (1 June 1990)
- Jean Seligmann and Elizabeth Ann Leonard, Newsweek (28 May 1990)