Monday, June 8, 1970

Musical Artist - Henson, Jim

Jim Henson was an American puppeteer, actor, director, writer, and filmmaker best known for creating the Muppets. He was also one of the greatest creative geniuses of the twentieth century. After graduating from the University of Maryland, Henson founded Muppets, Inc. in 1958 and set about making puppets for use in commercials and talk show appearances. He created the character Rolf the Dog, who made regular appearances on the Jimmy Dean Show, and used the character Kermit the Frog, who had been created previously for the local television show Sam and Friends, in a series of advertisements. In these early years, Henson was a regular on the talk show circuit, appearing on shows such as the Jack Paar Program, the Steve Allen Show, and the Ed Sullivan Show.

Henson rose to prominence when he and the Muppets became affiliated with the children's show Sesame Street, an affiliation that would continue for the rest of Henson's life and beyond. In addition to Kermit the Frog, Henson created and performed numerous characters on the show including Ernie, Guy Smiley, Captain Vegetable, the King, and several others. Henson also appeared in stop motion live-action sequences, and did a memorable voice-over for a series of counting videos he produced that always culminated with a baker triumphantly presenting a collection of confections before tripping and falling to the ground.

In the mid-1970s, Henson tried to appeal to a more adult audience by doing sketches for the new comedy show Saturday Night Live, but this never really worked out. Instead, Henson created The Muppet Show and later an adaptation of Russell Hoban's Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, both of which proved quite successful (which is mildly ironic, given how difficult it was for Henson to market The Muppet Show to skeptical television executives). The success of these projects led to the development of the feature film The Muppet Movie, which was followed by The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. For The Muppet Show (and later projects), Henson created and performed several new characters, such as Waldorf, Dr. Teeth, and the Swedish Chef.

Never satisfied to rest on his laurels, Henson developed yet another television show - Fraggle Rock, as well as the Storyteller series using Muppet-like technology to help retell folk tales and stories from Greek mythology. Henson's Muppets inspired a whole collection of Muppet-like work beyond his own projects, including Frank Oz's turn as Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and subsequent Star Wars movies, and the entirety of the Farscape television show.

Henson clearly loved music, and song featured heavily in his work. He sang the iconic Its Not Easy Being Green as Kermit in 1970, and when The Muppet Movie was released, the song The Rainbow Connection reached the Top 40 charts. He directed the original production of the song C Is for Cookie. He turned Emmet otter's Jug Band Christmas into a musical, and featured musical numbers in The Muppet Show and every subsequent Muppet-related movie.

On May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died of toxic shock syndrome stemming from an untreated viral infection. The infection apparently went untreated because Henson, a notorious workaholic, didn't bother to get medical attention on the grounds that he had too much to do and couldn't afford to take the time. And as a result, he died when he was only 53.

I have said this before, but it bears reiterating: I am almost exactly the right age for Henson's work to have had a huge influence on me. I was a child when he was doing his pioneering work on Sesame Street, and was exactly the right age to be sucked in by The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. When The Dark Crystal hit the theatres, I was a preteen and primed for that kind of fantasy tale. And so on. If you can find clips from it, Henson's memorial service featuring many of the people whose lives he influenced is beautiful, tear-jerking, and for me, almost rage-inducing. Henson's most productive period of creativity only lasted a little over twenty years. Had he not died so very young, he could have created so much more. Most of his closest collaborators outlived him by decades: Frank Oz and Dave Goelz are still alive. Jerry Nelson died in 2012. If Henson had gotten medical attention early enough, he might not have died in 1990, and I think it is likely we would have had at least another twenty years of his genius.

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