Jim Henson was born in September 1936 in Mississippi. His family loved jokes and laughing. Jim spent a lot of time with his grandparents, who helped him create amazing art projects. He also loved to go to the theater and watch movies – and especially loved Westerns and movies that took place in far-off places. He and his friends would spend their play time dressing up and acting out the movies they saw, using homemade props and their big imaginations.
Jim also grew up listening to radio broadcast shows, and his favorite performer was Edgar Bergen, a ventriloquist. A ventriloquist is someone who can talk without moving his lips or mouth. Jim saw this and thought it was amazing. Later his family moved to Maryland, and they purchased their first TV when Jim was 13 years old. Jim watched a show called Kukla, Fran and Ollie which featured puppet performers. He loved the way the puppets appeared to be real creatures, that people could laugh with, share stories with, and be friends with. The puppets were alive in a way that was magical. Jim dreamed about being on television himself.
As soon as Jim turned 16, he started looking for a job in television with all the local stations. Sadly they all said no. While this was hard for Jim, he didn’t give up. He later heard that one of the stations was looking for a puppeteer, so he checked out some books on puppetry, built some puppets, and applied for the job. He got the job of building puppets for a Saturday morning children’s program called The Junior Morning Show. With hard work, practice, and determination, he was accomplishing his goal!
Jim Henson went to college at the University of Maryland, College Park. In college, he took a puppetry class and produced a puppet show called Sam and Friends for WRC-TV. The puppets in this show were early versions of what would later become the Muppets, including an early prototype (or version) of Kermit the Frog. While Jim worked on the show, he invented new puppetry and filming methods that are still in use today, such as allowing the puppeteer to work off-camera by using the frame defined by the camera shot. At this time, most puppets were made from wood and were not very expressive. Instead, Jim used fabric-covered foam rubber to give his puppets a greater ability to express emotion. Instead of strings, he used rods to manipulate the puppets which also increased the range of expression of the puppets.
While Jim was working on the Sam and Friends show, he met and worked with Jane Nebel, another student at the University. They would later begin dating and eventually get married in 1959.
First TV Shows
The success of Sam and Friends led to Henson’s puppets appearing on talk shows like The Steve Allen Show, The Jack Paar Program, and The Ed Sullivan Show. These are similar to the Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Shows in our day. Henson’s puppets also became famous when they were used in TV commercials, such as the Wilkin Coffee Company commercial in Washington, D.C.
In 1969, Jim Henson was asked to join the team working on a new children’s program called Sesame Street. On the show, his Muppets would be characters who lived in the neighborhood of Sesame Street and interacted with the human characters. The show was meant to teach children how to read and count, as well as show children how to share, take turns, and get along. One thing kids loved was the variety of the Muppets; each character was a unique individual and represented a different type of personality. There was Big Bird, the eight-foot-tall yellow bird who is innocent and curious like a child; Oscar the Grouch, the monster that lives in the trash can and shows that it’s ok to be grouchy sometimes or have a different opinion; Elmo, the enthusiastic monster who loves to have fun and discover new things; Bert and Ernie, unlikely best friends who are completely opposite in just about every way (Bert loves oatmeal and pigeons while Ernie loves taking baths with is rubber duckie and playing jokes on Bert); Count von Count, the numbers-obsessed vampire; and Cookie Monster, who will do anything for his favorite food: cookies! It was a huge success, and the characters from Sesame Street are loved by many people who grew up with them. If you haven’t seen Sesame Street ask your parents because I’ll bet they have..
Jim Henson designed the puppets but also moved them around and performed them. These puppets included, Rowlf the dog, Ernie, Waldorf, the Swedish Chef, Guy Smiley, Dr. Teeth, Captain Vegetable…and many more!
To reach a wider audience, and bring his stories and characters to all kinds of people (kids and adults), Jim Henson created more Muppets and new shows for them to be the stars in. The Muppet Show was a variety show consisting of many different kinds of Muppets and a weekly guest star working together to put on a show for their television audience. With colorful characters like Miss Piggy (the demanding diva), Fozzie the Bear (the loveable stand-up comedian with the terrible jokes), Animal (the wild drummer for the band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem), Gonzo (the stunt performer with the chickens), Scooter (the stage manager of the show), and Kermit the Frog (the leader of the whole gang), and superstar guest hosts like Julie Andrews, Elton John, Vincent Price, and Steve Martin, there was something on The Muppet Show for everyone. Although much of the show was chaotic, it showed people everywhere that in spite of the chaos and our differences, the most important thing is to focus on being together and having fun.
The Muppets went on to star in feature films like The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Jim Henson also created the Henson Foundation to teach puppetry and improve the art and design of puppetry in the United States. Jim Henson combined puppetry and animatronics (puppet-like robots). He was even involved in the creation of one of the most famous puppets of all time- Yoda from the Star Wars movies!
Over the years, Jim Henson never lost sight of his vision of sharing his characters and stories with as many people as possible. He even shared his work with his five children; all of them began working with Muppets at an early age and were able to spend time with their father in this way.
When asked about his dream Jim Henson said “…it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with.”
Jim Henson started out with a dream of being on television, and throughout his life, he was able to reach people through television and other ways. He is an example of never giving up on a dream, and of helping people to come together and laugh and share the things that they love and enjoy in order to learn and have fun together.