Mirror Mirror - 2019

Jim Henson and the Muppets - One Man’s Creativity Enlightening the World’s Imagination

By Jennifer Allen

“When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there." ~ Jim Henson

It's amazing when you realize that anyone who is at least in their 60's or younger has always known a world with the Muppets in it. To think that one man could create such wonder with an assortment of little felt dolls is hard to think about practically, but somehow Jim Henson managed to do just that.

Henson was always interested in four things during his childhood: building things, music, stage performances, and later the innovation of television. In 1953 he sought out a job ad for an upcoming show in Maryland looking for puppeteers. At the time, he knew nothing about the craft but his passion for television overshadowed this problem. He grabbed two books on puppeteering from his local library which taught him not only how to operate a puppet, but also how to build them. In 1954 Henson did some work on various local TV shows and commercials doing small puppet segments. Around this time he also coined the term, “Muppet" as a combination of “puppet" and “marionette".

Soon after he met Jane Neville in college (who was also a great puppeteer) and they started doing five minute segments on NBC called Sam & Friends. One of the Muppets used on Sam & Friends was what would eventually become Kermit the frog. This experience gave Jim and Jane some of their most innovative ideas for Muppet performers in years to come such as adding sticks to move the arms and small TV monitors on the floor so that the puppeteer could watch their performance above their head in real time.

Soon after, both added doing commercials for Wilkins Coffee and animation work and in 1959 met his eventual skit writer Jim Jule and a young puppeteer named Frank Oz.

Through the 60's the Muppets gradually gained in popularity through various TV appearances, and soon writer and director John Stone approached Henson to come to a sit down meeting for a new children's show being worked on by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, the co-creators of the Children's Television Workshop. Both Ganz Cooney and Morrisett had spent 2 years researching early childhood development and educational media and had decided to create a children's show that was like no other at the time. John Stone thought that by adding Henson's creations to the show, it would keep the children more interested in watching, and he was right. Jim agreed to do the show, but with 2 conditions: 1) he would maintain all rights to the Muppet characters, and 2) there would be a 50/50 split on merchandising between him and CTW.

Not so ironically, test audiences showed that the kids were more interested when the Muppets were on screen than the “street segments" with only the human cast. It was decided soon after to intermingle the two and soon characters such as Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Bert & Ernie, and Big Bird were introduced.

Sesame Street officially premiered on National Entertainment Television on fifty years ago on November 10, 1969 and almost immediately became a huge hit. Most of why it was so popular was the Muppet characters, but it also started a national dialogue on the roles and responsibilities of children's entertainment and education. It was the first children's show with a diverse cast including African American and Latino American characters that had segments in both English and Spanish.

While Henson did enjoy the success of Sesame Street, he wanted to get back to doing prime-time TV spots with more adult themes. After working on some skits on this new comedy show called Saturday Night Live in 1975, Henson shopped around his idea for a Muppet-themed evening variety show with human guest stars. The idea was not liked by most TV executives because they felt that the Muppets were meant for children.

It wasn't until a young executive at ABC saw Henson's work that The Muppet Show would start to gain footing. Soon after British TV producer Lew Grade agreed to co-produce 24 episodes for a first season. What was unique for the show at the time was that Grade promoted the show through first-run syndication which is common place today but was unheard of in 1976. The show would run for five seasons and would become the most popular prime-time show in the world at the time it was produced.

During production on The Muppet Show, Jim Henson had gotten an idea to create a feature film with the Muppets as well. The movie would show how all of the characters on The Muppet Show originally met and then trekked to Hollywood to create their own TV show. The Muppet Movie premiered forty years ago on May 31, 1979 and gave us endearing songs such as “Moving Right Along", “I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" and “Rainbow Connection". Also coming out near the end of 1979 was a TV Special and album where the Muppets collaborated with John Denver to sing Christmas songs. I still have the LP version of that album on the shelf to this day.

Life's like a movie
Write your own ending
Keep believing, Keep pretending
We've done just what we set out to do
Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you…
~ “The Magic Shop/Rainbow Connection Reprise"
from The Muppet Movie

Henson would go on to give the world more of his unique creations with everything from The Dark Crystal to The Muppet Babies to The Storyteller and while not all of his ideas became huge hits at the time, most have gone on to become nostalgic classics to fans young and old. To think that Sesame Street is 50 years old, The Muppet Movie is 40 years old, and both still hold an endearing place in our hearts says a lot about the gift that Jim Henson left on the world.

My mother made me a Muppet fan when she sat me down to watch Sesame Street for the first time when I was only a few months old… and that has never gone away.

Jim Henson left us on May 16, 1990 at the age of 53, but the legacy he left behind is one that we all cherish. He kept us smiling by working with felt hand puppets of all shapes and sizes. He created innovative ways to entertain, educate, and appreciate. While Disney may own the rights to The Muppets now, we will always remember those moments where Jim Henson gave us just a glimpse into his beautiful world, like a moment in the swamp where one frog sat on a log with a banjo made our face smile and our hearts swell.

ADDENDUM: After initially writing this article, we learned that Carroll Spinney, the performer for Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, sadly passed away on December 8, 2019 at the age of 85. Big Bird was a favorite character of mine and for so many others. He will sorely be missed as well.


Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer & Graphic Artist.