Jim Henson and the History of the Muppets

Jim Henson and Kermit

A Tribute to Jim Henson and his lovable creations the Muppets

In honor of the return of the Muppets to the screen in the film the Muppets, I'm writing this homage to one of my childhood heroes James "Jim" Henson. Jim Henson was a pioneer of children's entertainment and probably the most beloved puppeteer of all time. His creations, the Muppets, have entertained several generations, with almost as many adult fans as children. (See my separate review of the Muppets.)

Jim Henson was born in Mississippi in 1936. As a child, he was part of the first TV generation, growing up in the 1940s. His love of puppetry began by watching Edgar Bergen (with his puppets Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Schnerd) and Burr Tillman's puppets on Kukla, Fran and Ollie. He began to make his own puppets and perform puppet shows for the neighbors.

After his family moved to Maryland, he started attending attending Northwestern High School, where he continued to perform puppet shows at the school. The popularity these shows brought him to the attention of a local kids show called the Junior Morning Show. The show often utilized puppets and they hired Henson, at age 16, as the youngest of the regular puppeteers.

After graduating High School, he attended the University of Maryland because they had a puppetry class in their Arts Department. He also took a Crafts class which helped him in experimenting with new ways to create better puppets. He found ways to make his puppets more flexible and expressive using foam rubber. He combined aspects of marionettes and puppets together and called them Muppets. While still a freshman in college, he was approached by a WRC-TV, a local network, to create a 5-minute long nightly show for the family hour. History was in the making as Henson got to create his first TV show and the Muppets made their debut.

The show was called Sam & Friends. The 5-minute show featured Muppets mouthing the words to popular songs of the day and performing brief comedy sketches. The star character Sam was a bald humanoid-looking muppet with glasses who supervised his group of friends. The most popular of the Muppets was a green lizard named Kermit. (At first, Kermit was a generic lizard. it wasn't until years later that Henson decided that Kermit was a frog.) Kermit made his debut in a sketch where he ate what appeared to be a worm but was actually the tail of a gigantic Muppet called Big V who then gobbled up Kermit. (Henson always maintained that Kermit was his favorite Muppet.) It was on the set of Sam & Friends that Henson met fellow puppeteer Jane Nebel who would later become Mrs. Henson. The show lasted for six years, from 1955-1961.

After graduating college, and after Sam & Friends went off the air, Henson took a trip to Europe where he studied with several European puppeteers. After returning to the US, he began using his Muppets in TV commercials. The most popular of the Muppets he created for TV ads was Rowlf the Dog, who was invented for a series of Purina dog food ads. Rowlf was so popular that the producers of the Jimmy Dean Show wanted him on the popular comedy-variety program. Henson always remained unseen but Rowlf was a popular feature on the show from 1963-1966. This was the first mainstream national exposure of the Muppets and began Jim Henson's rise to pop-culture fame.

The Muppets began appearing regularly on many variety shows and talk shows, most notably the extremely popular programs The Ed Sullivan Show and the Tonight show. During this period, Henson's wife and performing partner Jane retired from show business to raise the Henson's children. To replace her, Henson hired the man who would become his long-time partner and the number-two man in the Muppet empire. Born in Britain,the Dutch/Polish puppeteer Frank Oznowicz had worked with the Vagabond Puppets in Oakland under the name Frank Oz. Their long-time collaborations produced many magical moments. The two became good friends and partners for 27 years.

Henson and Oz were hired by a group called the Children's Television Network to developed a new kid's show for Public Television. The duo and their families moved to New York City and teamed with writer Jerry Juhl to create the proposed series. The show was meant to be educational as well as entertaining. Debuting in 1969, the show was called Sesame Street, and it has become an institution over the decades since, beloved by generations of children. Kermit was brought back (Now as a frog) along with new Muppet creations, such as Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Grover, Oscar the Grouch and Bert & Ernie. These characters have become an iconic part of pop-culture. Sesame Street is still running new episodes today, over 40 years later.

Henson produced a series of TV specials called Tales from Muppetland, where the Muppets would perform comedic versions of classic fairy tale stories. The Muppets also appeared in a few Prime Time specials starring TV celebrities of the day, including Jonny Carson and the Muppet Machine , with Johnny Carson, the John Denver Christmas Special with singer John Denver and Pure Goldie with Goldie Hawn. They also did some holiday specials, such as The Muppets Valentine Show, and The Great Santa Claus Switch.

By 1975, Henson was starting to get worried that he would forever be typecast as simply a children's entertainer and he was itching to reach the type of older audience that had made him popular when he did the Jimmy Dean Show. He made a deal with producer Lorne Michaels for the Muppets to appear regularly on Michaels' new sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. Henson never really got to write for SNL because their own writer's penned the sketches. The Muppets appeared in occasional sketches over the 1975-1976 season but it was an odd fit and the SNL writers were never comfortable writing for the cute Muppets since SNL was such a cutting edge, adult oriented show. The writers openly disparaged the Muppets and one of them quipped "I won't write for felt!" The Muppets were dropped from SNL after one season.

Henson and Oz rebounded by moving into their next project. They wanted to make a show that was remeniscent of the old TV variety shows like The Jimmy Dean show and the old Vaudeville theaters that Henson remembered from his early childhood. A bunch of new Muppets were created for the proposed new series. (Including miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, the Great Gonzo and the Swedish Chef) It was hosted by a Muppet named Nigel, who was on offshoot of the Sam puppet from Sam & Friends. The American networks were iffy on the idea of a Muppet program aimed toward older viewers and asked for a pilot episode. The half-hour pilot was called (believe it or not) The End of Sex and Violence on TV. The American networks didn't like the show. Henson and Oz then rejiggered the program, replacing Nigel with Henson's favorite Muppet Kermit. The American networks were not interested in seeing the revamped pilot so Henson and Oz took the project to England where British impresario Sir Lew Grade financed the show, which was renamed The Muppet Show.

Henson, Oz and Grade had trouble finding American distributors for the series but managed to get a series of local networks to syndicate the show. The Muppet Show first aired in January 1976, and was an instant hit in Great Britain but it had trouble finding it's feet in America. It wasn't until the second season that the ratings picked up in the USA. Over the next few years, the show would spread to over 100 countries and become the globally most-watched show in the entire world.

Miss Piggy started out as a minor character but as time went on, she became the most popular of the new Muppets, followed closely by Animal. Henson and Oz performed the Swedish Chef together, with Henson working the mouth--and doing the voice--and Oz working the hands. The rest of the cast used to love watching Henson and Oz trying to upstage each other while doing the Chef. Oz would try to surprise Henson by throwing things around and Henson would have to react.

Despite it's continuing popularity, Henson--who was always looking forward toward new challenges--pulled the Muppet Show off the air after only five season to focus on films.

In 1979, the popularity of the Muppet Show led to their first feature film The Muppet Movie. The film was a box-office and critical hit. The song "the Rainbow Connection", sung in the film by Kermit (Voiced by Henson) was nominated for an Oscar for best song and reached the Billboard top 100. This was followed by The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and the Muppets Take Manhattan (1984.). In 1980, Henson helped the producers of Star Wars 5: the Empire Strikes Back design the Jedi Master/Muppet Yoda, who has been voiced ever since by Frank Oz. In 1982 we saw a much darker than usual project for Henson; the serious fantasy adventure The Dark Crystal, co-directed by Henson and Oz. In 1986 Henson produced/directed another fantasy film called Labyrinth. The commercial failures of both these films were demoralizing to Henson who moved away from any further such serious projects.

Henson would return to TV and produce another kids show called Fraggle Rock, as well as an animated version of the Muppets called Muppet Babies. He made one last attempt to do somewhat more mature material with The Jim Henson Hour (1989) which mixed traditional Muppet hi-jinx with somewhat risque material. Once again, the more mature approach failed. Henson blamed the networks for constantly shuffling the show around the TV schedule.

In May 4th of 1990, Henson was developing a new sit-com Dinosaurs, when he appeared on the Arsenio Hall show with a sore, throat. He commented that he wasn't feeling well. He thought he had the flu. When he flew to visit his daughter Cheryl in North Carolina on the 12th, she insisted he consult a physician but the doctor could not isolate the cause of his increasing illness. He returned to NY on the 14th. On the 15th, his estranged wife June (the two were separated) came to visit him because Cheryl had called and said she was worried about him. Henson starting coughing up blood and was having trouble breathing so June rushed him to New York hospital. Henson was no longer able to breath by the time he got to the hospital and was put on a respirator. His condition deteriorated rapidly and the befuddled doctor tried a series of anti-biotics that did no good. He died 20 hours after being admitted, on May 16 at the age of 53. The official cause of his death was later announced as Streptococcus Pneumoniae, a rare bacterial infection that causes organ failure. Henson's memorial service in NY was attended by many celebrities, including Candice Bergen, the daughter of Henson's inspiration Edgar Bergen. Frank Oz saw to it that all the Muppets were in attendance (Henson's usual cast of puppeteers were willing to perform the muppets at the funeral.).

The Muppets have continued on sporadically since Henson's death, under the guidance of Frank Oz and Henson's son Brian; they've been on TV (The Muppets Tonight, the Muppets Wizard of Oz) and in Film (The Muppets Treasure Island, the Muppets Christmas Carol, the Muppets in Space, among others, including the new film The Muppets) but they've never been as popular as they were when their guiding light and creator Jim Henson was behind the scenes as the heart and soul of the Muppets.



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Comments 22 comments

dilipchandra12 profile image

dilipchandra12 5 years ago from India

About Jim Henson, i know nothing but i have learnt something about him today :) thanks for sharing the above interesting article.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi dilipchandra; I'm glad I could fill you in one one of the most beloved family-fare entertainers of all time.

Rob


pongogirl2 profile image

pongogirl2 5 years ago from California, USA

love reading this hub:)


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Very glad you liked it, pongogirl. I love Henson, too.

Rob


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

Very interesting. A fine tribute to a fine man. We all loved the Muppets. ( Miss Piggy and Kermit remain my favorites.) Who could ever forget that song about being green? I'm very happy to learn about their creators.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Paradise. I remember hearing Kermit singing "It's not easy being green" on Sesame Street when I was about six year old. (Actually, Henson did the singing.) It's a sentimental favorite. Kermit is my favorite Muppet, too.

Thanks for stopping by,

Rob


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

Very well done Rob, lots of history covered in this hub..hard to believe it has been so many years since his passing...I am sure he would have been pleased that 50 years since he created the Muppets that they still would be box office winners. Voted up and very interesting.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Cogerson; It's been 20 years since we lost this great entertainer. I was very sad when he passed. I hope he's smiling in that great Muppet Theater in the sky because his creations are making a come-back.

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Rob


FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

Somehow, I think The Muppets aired earlier in Canada than in US, although I don't know for sure. We are forever getting British tv programs here that don't air in the United states until years later. I loved having big stars on the show, and never quite liked the full length films quite as much even though I love The Muppet movie and The Muppet Christmas Carol. I loved having short sketches with lots of characters highlighted, and that didn't really happen in the films. When Pierce Brosnan guest-starred on the revamped version of The Muppets I was sad to hear an unrelated theme song totally foreign to me. as for Seasame Street, I miss the days when Mr. Hooper was alive. It was never quite the same seeing r. Hooper's Store with no Mr. Hooper. Now few of the original Muppets on Seasame Street are still there. Two of the original actors have recently died.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

Rob, another great hub. I had no idea that The Muppet Show started in the UK and was then reluctantly picked up by the USA. I still like to see the repeats of the show which used to be shown on a Sunday afternoon in the UK and were really, really popular. I remember having a Kermit pencil case for school. I visited Disneyworld. Florida and they have an excellent 3D Muppet Show.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Flora; I'm not sure when the Muppet show aired in Canada. I think there was only a matter of a few months between the UK debut and the US debut.

One interesting fact many people don't know is that Henson and company had a lot of trouble getting guests during the first year of the show. Most stars thought it was beneath their dignity. Henson had to rely on people he'd met and made friends with in his earlier work (Like Sandy Duncan and Ruth Buzzy) or friends of his co-workers (Avery Schreiver appeared because his former comedy partner Jack Burns was a writer on the show) or fading, older actors who were having trouble finding work (Like Milton Berle) or little known acts who were looking for exposure (Like the cast of the stage show Muemmenschanz).

It wasn't until the second season when Rudolph Nureyev, the famous ballet dancer, appeared on the show that people started to take the show seriously. If it was good enough for Nureyev, it was good enough for them. After that, the guests were lining up to be on the show.

It was probably a very sad day for many kids when Mr. Hooper died. I was past the Sesame Street age by then but I'd heard about it and thought that it must have brought a shocking reality to children everywhere.

Good to hear from you, Flora,

Rob


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Ho Jools; Yeah, Henson couldn't sell the Muppet Show in the US originally, although it later became a big hit. There were a lot of British references in the show that American kids probably didn't get. For instance, the episode with the live cow where Kermit says "They're going to love this show in Jersey."

I saw the live Muppet show in disneyworld once. It was fun.

Thanks for stopping by,

Rob


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

Wow, I hadn't really thought about words we use that don't cross the Atlantic in quite the same way. So were people in New Jersey saying ,"We're the garden state, not the cattle state." when they watched The Muppets? Jersey is a small island in the English Channel famous for its deliciously thick cream (from its Jersey cows of course!)


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Jools; Yeah, that was probably confusing to a lot of Americans who were thinking "What does New Jersey have to do with cows?" Another example of the British-centric humor is that Dr. Bunsen Honeydew was designed to look like Sir Lew Grade, but Grade was not well known in the United States.

Another little known fact about the show is what was called the "UK spot". Since there were more commericals in the US than in England, they had to cut a scene or two out of each episode of American broadcasts. The scenes that were designated only to be shown in the UK were known as "UK Spots". These scenes have been returned in the DVDs.

Rob


carcro profile image

carcro 5 years ago from Winnipeg

A very fitting tribute. I love the Muppets, certainly brings the warm fuzzy feelings when ever I watch them. Some of my all time favorite movies are Muppet movies, especially Muppet Treasure island. When my son was very young we bought the computer game of the same name, it was so awesome just like the movie. Saw the newest movie out at the theatre now and also brought back all the great memories. Super Duper Hub, Voted Up and Awesome!!!


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Carcro; I get the same warm, fuzzy feeling from the Muppets. The new film was a delightful return to form for the Muppets. Their best in years.

Thanks for reading.

Rob


ThomasRydder 5 years ago

Incredible article! I had no idea that Henson was in on Yoda, although I did know about Oz's involvement. Splendid piece, Rob...you really hit the bulls eye on this one :)TR


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi Thomas; The popularity of Yoda is a kind of vindication for Henson's commercial failures in adult sci-fi, with Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. He didn't invent or voice the character but he helped design it, so that counts for something.

Thanks for reading,

Rob


ThomasRydder 5 years ago

I don't count them as failures...he was simply outside his niche. Inside his world, he was Master.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Thomas; I liked those films. From an artistc sense, I think he succeeded but commercially, he failed.

As you say, in his own world, of family entertainment, he was second-to-none.

Rob


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 4 years ago from London, UK

Wow, that was a comprehensive tribute to a great show and its creator. Thank you for the information.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 4 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY Author

Hi HH; Yeah, Henson was great and he deserves to be remembered.

Thanks for reading,

Rob

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