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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.