Jim Henson, the man behind the Muppets, was created on September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi. Henson started working as a puppeteer in school, creating characters like Kermit the Frog. He was employed as a producer on Sesame Street, a popular kids’ show that started in 1969, and created The Muppet Show in 1976. The Muppet Movie, the very first of many films featuring Henson’s well-known characters, appeared in 1979. He died of pneumonia on May 16, 1990.
In a young age, Henson was drawn to the artwork. His maternal grandmother, a painter, quilter and needleworker, supported his creative fires, including his puppetry. Well before his teen years, Henson was performing puppetry for crowds, including his fellow Cub Scouts. His youth was likewise spent toying with distinct visual mediums, including television, which he adored. An important influence of his youth was TV puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, of the show Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
He started performing with his puppets on a local Washington, D.C. Saturday morning program. By his freshman year in the University of Maryland, in 1955, Henson had scored a biweekly touch on an area NBC affiliate, Sam and Friends. The program scored a nearby Emmy Award in 1958, the exact same year that Henson founded the Jim Henson Company.
Among Henson’s puppet characters, Wheel Stealer, who snatched a family’s bites on a food advertisement and after chomped on an IBM computer in a TV advertisement, was an early embodiment of the precious blue Cookie Monster. The very first Muppet to develop national publicity, Rowlf the Dog, went from making appearances in Purina advertisements to playing a sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show in 1963. Rowlf was brought to life with all the help of puppet contractor Don Sahlin and puppeteer Frank Oz.
Around once, Henson started experimenting with short films, including 1965’s Academy Award-nominated Time Piece. Between his puppetry and animated shorts, Henson perfected his gift for engaging kids and making learning fun on Sesame Street.
But Henson’s even larger claim to TV fame came in the 1970s, using the introduction of The Muppet Show. Astonishingly, Henson had a challenging time obtaining the show funded in America, but finally got the support desired with London-based TV producer Lord Lew Grade. In 1975, at Grade’s ATV Studios, Henson and his team created Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Animal, Gonzo, Scooter as well as the others of The Muppet Show ensemble. The success show, with Kermit as the host, premiered in 1976. Shortly after, celebrity guest hosts came aboard, including Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Vincent Price and Steve Martin. Henson’s show reached a staggering 235 millions audience in over 100 nations, and earned three Emmy Awards.
The Muppet Show additionally led to feature films for Henson, including The Muppet Movie in 1979, and an animated TV spinoff, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies, that garnered four consecutive Emmys (excellent animated program). But Henson did not restrict his TV puppetry to his first Muppets. Other important motion pictures followed also, including 1982’s The Dark Crystal, a groundbreaking movie mix puppetry and animatronics, and 1986’s Labyrinth, that has been produced by George Lucas and starred David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly.
Henson’s last job was Muppet*Vision 3D, a multimedia draw installed at Disney theme parks in California and Florida. The effort was not anticipated to be the famed puppeteer’s swan song, but on May 16, 1990, following a short and sudden spell of streptococcus pneumonia, Henson died at the age of 53. His going though celebratory funeral contained a musical puppet performance. Big Bird himself walked in to pay his esteem and sing, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” The supersized yellow puppet also expressed thanks to Kermit the Frog—commonly credited as Henson’s Muppet alter ego.
(Henson and Jane met in school and married in 1959; they split in 1986, but never divorced.) Jane Henson created the Jim Henson Legacy, dedicated to maintaining and perpetuating her late husband’s contributions to the world, in 1992. Jane also helped run the Jim Henson Foundation, founded in 1982 by Jim as well as the couple’s daughter, Cheryl. The Jim Henson Foundation is committed to supporting American puppet theatre. Jane Henson expired on April 2, 2013, in the age of 78.
The Henson family is not alone in keeping their dad’s vision living: The Walt Disney Company has introduced a whole new generation of youngsters and parents to Henson’s puppet buddies, releasing the hit film The Muppets in 2011.
As youthful Robin the Frog, Kermit’s nephew, so eloquently said in a Muppets homage to Henson soon after his passing, “This Jim Henson could be gone, but perhaps he is still here also, inside us, believing in us.”