Thought of the Day 9/24/12 Jim Henson

“My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.”
–Jim Henson

James Maury Hensonwas born on this day in Greenville, Mississippi in 1936. Today is the 76th anniversary of his birth.

He grew up  near Leland,  Mississippi exploring the countryside around his home. He was encouraged to pursue his artistic side, but he didn’t see a puppet show until the family moved to Washington, D.C. in the late 40’s. Henson recalled the family getting their first television as “the biggest event of his adolescence.” He enjoyed watching early puppet shows like Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and Bil Baird and Charlemagne the lion. While still at Northwestern High School he got his first TV experience on WTOP-TV where he created and performed puppets for The Junior Morning Show on Saturday mornings. At the University of Maryland  Henson  was a studio arts major with hopes of working that into a career in stage or television design.

As a freshman he worked for WRC-TV on a five-minute long program that ran nightly at 6:40 pm called Sam and Friends. For the show he created a cross-breed of a marionettes and hand puppets  which he called “muppets.” Muppets were more flexible and could express more emotion than traditional puppets. Instead of painted wood he used foam rubber-covered with fabric which gave the creatures soft bodies. He gave them large mouths “that allowed them to convey a wide range of emotions.” [The Mississippi Writers Page]

The Sam and Friends characters were donated to the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC [Image courtesy: National Museum of American History]

Here’s a sketch from Sam and Friends

He asked fellow UofM freshman Jane Nebel to help him on the show. Hensen and Nebel married in 1959 and had five children together.

Sam and Friends ran for six seasons and…

proved the stepping stone for a series of commercials that brought him nationwide fame. Soon, he was making guest appearances on such national network programs as The Steve Allen ShowThe Jack Paar ShowThe Tonight ShowEd Sullivan, and The Jimmy Dean Show, and weekly appearances on The Today Show …[The Mississippi Writers Page]

Muppets, Inc. grew. Jim and Jane added puppeteer and writer Jerry Juhl, puppet builder Don Sahlin and puppeteer Frank Oz to the fold. In 1968 they created a special for National Education Television “Muppets on Puppets” a 9 minute mini documentary on the world of puppeteering.

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The next year Sesame Street premiered. Children’s Television Workshop asked Henson and his creative team to develop a family of muppets to populate Sesame Street. They came up with Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, the Cookie Monster and others.

Hensen, center, works on Sesame Street. [Image courtesy:]

Next came  the weekly syndicated variety show, The Muppet Show, starring Kermit. The show included an expanded cast of muppets (like Miss Piggy, Gonzo, the Count, and Elmo) and featured a human guest star. It ran from 1976 to 1981.

Here’s a clip from the show featuring John Cleese…

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Movies followed. Henson found success with both Muppet productions and other puppet enhanced movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

Henson won 18 Emmy Awards, 7 Grammy Awards and 4 Peabody Awards in his 30 year career and touched millions of lives. He died from complications of pneumonia in New York on May 16, 1990. Here’s “Just One Person” (one of my favorite Muppet songs) performed at Henson’s tribute.

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About ritalovestowrite

Freelance writer, graphic designer, musician, foodie and Jane Austen enthusiast in Northern Baltimore County, Maryland. As a writer I enjoy both fiction and non fiction (food, travel and local interest stories.) As an advocate for the ARTS, one of my biggest passions is helping young people find a voice in all the performing arts. To that end it has been my honor to give one-on-one lessons to elementary, middle and high school students in graphic design and music. And as JANE-O I currently serve as the regional coordinator for JASNA Maryland and am working on a Regency/Federal cooking project. View all posts by ritalovestowrite

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