How Jim Henson Worked

Jim Henson and his lovable Muppets brought smiles to the faces of adults and kids alike. See more pictures of Jim Henson.
Nancy R. Schiff/Archive Photos/Getty Images

If you grew up during the 1970s and '80s -- or if your children were growing up during those years -- you may remember Thanksgiving Day 1983, when the residents of Sesame Street told Big Bird that Mr. Hooper, their grocer, had died. Today, people look back on the episode as a touching and groundbreaking moment in television history. But at the time, people saw it mostly as a way for families with children to talk about death and grief. Nearly seven years later, the tables were turned, and Big Bird appeared at memorial services for his creator, Jim Henson. Big Bird sang "It's Not Easy Being Green" as a tribute to Kermit the Frog, one of the many characters Henson had performed.

Henson is best known for creating the Muppets, a distinctive group of puppet characters whose popularity has endured almost since their inception. He is often considered to be one of the most influential puppeteers in the world. Others think of him as a very gifted children's entertainer. Given the huge fan base for his most popular shows, it's easy to understand why. As puppeteer David Stephens says, "A majority of people still place puppetry at the 'kiddie table.'" But Jim Henson wasn't just a puppeteer (although puppeteering at his level takes incredible talent and skill). He also wrote, directed and produced not only Muppet-related projects, but also projects that had nothing to do with the Muppets.


Jim Henson died suddenly in 1990, of organ failure caused by a Group A strep infection (Strepoccocus pyogenes), but his creations, and the unique spirit that makes the Muppets so beloved, lives on.

Next, we'll look at how Henson got into puppetry in the first place. Here's a hint: It wasn't because he started out with a great love of the art form.


Puppeteering as a Means to an End

Rowlf the Dog, pictured here on the set of "The Jimmy Dean Show" with Jimmy Dean and Jim Henson, was the first Muppet to make it big on national TV.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As a small child in Mississippi, Henson spent a lot of time with his maternal grandmother, who was an artist and helped to foster his creative gifts. Many biographies cite his love of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen on the radio, the puppet show "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" and the work of puppeteer Bil Baird as inspirations for his later work. However, Henson said that as a child, he wasn't interested in puppets and didn't play with them [source: Harris]. He also loved the zany humor of comedian Ernie Kovacs and the irreverent, satirical productions of musician Spike Jones. Henson basically loved the medium of television and begged until his parents bought one in 1950. He knew that he wanted to be a part of it.

Initially majoring in studio art in college, Henson took a puppetry course, as well as courses in textiles and crafts. He soon found a way into TV by puppeteering for local children's TV shows but considered puppets just "a means to an end" [source: Finch]. In 1955, Henson started working for another local TV station with his own puppet show, "Sam and Friends." He also had a successful business making silkscreened event posters and was known for his highly detailed, colorful and imaginative painting style.


"Sam and Friends" did well, but Henson was unsure about making the commitment to being a puppeteer after he graduated from college. A tour of Europe, where puppeteering was considered a serious art form that could entertain all ages, helped with his decision. After returning to the U.S., he married his puppeteering partner, Jane, and his puppets began appearing in commercials for everything from coffee to dog food, as well as on national talk shows. He formed his own company in New York in 1963 and hired Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl shortly afterward, when Jane quit puppeteering to raise their children. Throughout the 1960s, Henson Productions focused primarily on making commercials.

In 1969, Henson was invited to be part of a pilot for a new children's television show called "Sesame Street." Once the show got going, making commercials became a thing of the past.

Next, we'll delve into Henson's role on "Sesame Street" and find out how he worked to avoid being typecast as a children's entertainer.


The Blessing and Curse of 'Sesame Street'

Contrary to popular belief, Jim Henson wasn't a creator of "Sesame Street", but his Muppets were integral to the show's success. At first, Henson wasn't interested in participating in a children's show, but he was eventually persuaded to sign on by the lofty educational and humanitarian goals of The Children's Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop): "to use the medium of television as a tool to help children learn [source: Sesame Workshop]. During the first seven seasons, Henson also produced short segments for the show, in which he employed several different techniques: live-action film, traditional animation, stop-motion animation, Claymation and computer animation.

Around the time of the show's debut, Henson began producing a series of Muppet TV specials, which set the wheels in motion for a Muppet TV show. The problem was the typecasting that Henson had been afraid of when he signed up to work on "Sesame Street" -- the networks didn't know what to make of the characters and concepts, or of a puppet show that wasn't intended just for children [source: Plume].


Meanwhile, Henson had the opportunity to reach a new audience when his team performed sketches on "Saturday Night Live" during that show's first season, but ultimately, it didn't work. Although Henson appreciated what SNL creator Lorne Michaels was trying to achieve, the collaboration never quite got off the ground [source: Harris]. His wish to reach a wide audience finally came true when "The Muppet Show" began filming in the United Kingdom in 1976 and became a huge hit.

More than just a puppeteer, Henson was a "cultivator of talent" and "understood how to put the right talents together to form a powerhouse ensemble" [source: Stephens]. Steve Whitmire was 18 when he was hired to work on "The Muppet Show." In one incident, Whitmire was having trouble with his character, and they were running out of time. In an interview with Muppet Central, Whitmire says that while they could've just passed it off to a more experienced puppeteer, Henson "would not let me get off the horse." He adds "But it was so gentle [...] he was so patient and so slow. I remember that so well because that's the way he was" [source: MuppetCentral].

"The Muppet Show" spawned a successful film, and Henson ended the show in 1981 to focus on making movies. While he returned to his roots a bit with the Saturday morning cartoon "Muppet Babies" in 1984, he broke new TV ground with "Fraggle Rock," which explored serious themes such as prejudice and class structure within an allegorical world. Although he created the shows (and performed some minor Fraggles), Henson wasn't hugely involved in their day-to-day operations.

We may have already surprised you with some of the things that Jim Henson has done, but there's so much more. Did you know that Henson made experimental films? Read on to learn about some of his non-Muppet endeavors.


Henson Beyond The Muppets

Jim Henson was a painter and a commercial artist in college, but he also enjoyed experimenting with other art forms like film. The 1965, nine-minute-long film "Time Piece," which stars Henson, contains surreal imagery as well as animation. "Time Piece" was nominated for an Academy Award. Henson also collaborated with electronica pioneer Raymond Scott on the shorts "Ripples" and "Wheels that Go" (created for Montreal's Expo '67). In 1969, NBC aired an hour-long TV movie directed and produced by Henson, which he co-wrote with Muppet writer Jerry Juhl. "The Cube" is an existential piece about a man stuck in a white room from which other people can come and go.

In the mid-1960s, Henson also appeared on "The Mike Douglas Show" and "The Tonight Show" with a sketch featuring a character known as The Floating Face. He consisted of two eyes and a mouth made of string controlled by invisible wires and was puppeteered over a prerecorded background of images. In some cases, he was animated using an analog animation system called Scanimate. Most of these performances were monologues or songs by Henson.


While "The Muppet Show" was ending, Henson began working on films and TV with darker, more adult themes. The 1982 film "The Dark Crystal" featured puppets that looked nothing like the Muppets and were based on concepts by fantasy artist Brian Froud. The work showed no humans on-screen, used cutting-edge animatronics and was praised by critics. "The Labyrinth," released four years later, also showcased creatures designed by Brian Froud. The film still focused on the basic themes of good and evil but was lighter than "The Dark Crystal." Unfortunately, it was not as successful, although neither did particularly well financially.

Henson launched two different shows at the end of the 1980s: "The Storyteller" in 1988 and "The Jim Henson Hour" in 1989. "The Storyteller" showcased European folktales and mythology with both humans and puppets, while "The Jim Henson Hour" was a mixture of short movies, silly Muppet sketches and darker tales. Both shows won Emmys, yet both were quickly canceled.

At the time of his death, Henson was working on a deal to sell his company to The Walt Disney Company so he could focus solely on creating instead of business. Puppeteer David Stephens states that "Jim felt very strongly that one of Disney's strengths was its devotion to its characters. It was his hope towards the end of his life that Disney would be able to extend that strength to the characters he created."

People who worked with Jim Henson described him as a visionary and an innovator who was constantly looking for something new. In the next section, we'll look at some of the groundbreaking ideas that Henson contributed to the word of puppetry.


Henson the Visionary

Part of the Muppets' appeal was that Jim treated them like real people when he took them out in public (like here, at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1983).
Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images

Henson was always a creative trailblazer, and his outside-the-box thinking contributed to the Muppets' enduring popularity. When he started "Sam and Friends," puppets were typically made out of very stiff material and were either straight hand puppets or marionettes. When he built the puppet that would later become Kermit the Frog (initially an abstract, lizard-like creature), he used foam rubber for the body. This gave it more flexibility and allowed the puppeteer to be more expressive. The foam-rubber (later reticulated polyfoam, which doesn't disintegrate over time) body became the basis for most future Muppets.

Another of Henson's puppet innovations had to do with the removal of the stage or wall that hid the puppeteer from the audience. Although some mechanism for hiding the performer was necessary in live puppet shows, it wasn't always in television -- the television was the "stage." Henson eventually used a technique on "The Muppet Show" called "platforming up," in which the sets were built up high so that the performers could stand at full height (although in many cases, they had to twist into various positions to prevent from being seen). The camera framed the Muppet action above, and the Muppets could move freely about in their space. This was difficult for the performers, who had to view their puppet's actions in a monitor.


Henson and his builders were quick to make use of growing technology to make the Muppets more lifelike as well. Remote controls were employed to make ears and eyebrows wiggle. Kermit and the Muppets did things that puppets had never done before, such as driving cars (which involved using a little person to drive from the trunk) and riding bicycles (accomplished by marionetting from a crane above). Near the end of Henson's life, Henson Productions was working on a system that would allow a single puppeteer to control multiple animatronic characters. Known as the Henson Performance Control System, it would eventually win an Academy Award.

Henson also made it a point to treat his Muppets as real characters when they were out in public -- not just as puppets -- which led other people to do the same. Kermit made talk show and game show appearances alone, and he also guest-hosted "The Tonight Show" and "Larry King Live." The combination of more flexible materials in the construction of the Muppets (allowing them to move freely in space) and treating them like people made them more accessible to their audience -- which was Jim Henson's goal all along.

Speaking of which, on the next and final page, we'll examine the profound impact that Jim Henson had -- and continues to have -- on the world of puppetry and audiences everywhere


Henson's Legacy

Jim Henson: a complex, but noble guy.
Nancy R. Schiff/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The company first founded in the early 1960s as Muppets Inc. went through various name changes and is now known as The Jim Henson Company. It is co-owned by Henson's five children, who are all involved in running it and all active in the field of puppetry. The company has several TV series in production, as well as adult-oriented theater and television shows under the subdivision Henson Alternative.

Another subdivision, Jim Henson's Creature Shop, has been building puppets, as well as providing digital effects, animation and animatronic creatures, since 1985 for both Henson productions and other companies. The company sold off the ownership of the "Sesame Street" characters (to Sesame Street Workshop) and the Muppets (to The Walt Disney Company) in the early 2000s, but the Creature Shop still builds the puppets for "Sesame Street."


Jim Henson championed the advancement of puppetry as an art form in the United States. In 1966, he founded the U.S. chapter of the UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette). He and Kermit were both on hand in 1978 to cut the ceremonial ribbon for the opening of the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Ga., the nation's largest puppetry organization. In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation, a charitable organization that still provides grants to artists and theater owners today.

In 1993, Jane Henson founded the Jim Henson Legacy to preserve his contributions to entertainment and share them with the public. The Legacy sponsors screenings and exhibits of Henson's work. Through it, the Henson family made a gift of more than 500 puppets, drawings and other pieces to the Center for Puppetry Arts to be exhibited in a new museum wing. The Center currently has some small exhibits of his work, which can also be seen in Leland, Miss., (Henson's birthplace) as the Jim Henson Memorial and Muppet Museum, and in other traveling exhibits around the United States.

In addition, Henson's impact is evident in the world of puppetry today. According to puppeteer David Stephens, "[...] there is now a younger generation who are discovering Jim Henson's work and being inspired by it. Puppets are still being used in commercials, music videos, television, film and in both large and small scale live performance."

The success of the Broadway musical "The Lion King," the parody musical "Avenue Q" and independent puppet performances also speak volumes about the enduring popularity of puppetry, which would not have been possible without Jim Henson.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bacon, Matt. "No Strings Attached: The Inside Story of Jim Henson's Creature Shop". USA-Macmillan, Inc., 1997.
  • Benson, Shiela. "Movie Review: Going to Great Lengths in a Trying 'Labyrinth'." The Los Angeles Times. June 26, 1986. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Blau, Eleanor. "Jim Henson, Puppeteer, Dies; The Muppets' Creator Was 53." The New York Times. May 17, 1990. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Borgenicht, David. "Sesame Street Unpaved." Hyperion Pub., 1998.
  • Davis, Michael. "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street." Viking Adult, 2008.
  • Finch, Christopher. "Jim Henson: The Works." Random House, 1993.
  • Harris, Judy. "Muppet Master." Cinefantastique. April/May 1983. Archived at Muppet Central. Sept. 21 1988. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Jim Henson Company. "Company." Jim Henson Company. 2011. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Jim Henson Foundation."About Us." Jim Henson Foundation. 2011. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • The Jim Henson Legacy. 2011. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Milvy, Erika. "Oh Naughty Muppets, What Would Jim Henson Think of You Now?" KQED Arts. Aug. 23, 2011. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Padgett, John B. "Jim Henson." Mississippi Writers Page: University of Mississippi. Feb. 17, 1999. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Plume, Kenneth. "Interview with Frank Oz." IGN. Feb. 10, 2000. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Plume, Kenneth. "Ratting Out: An Interview with Muppeteer Steve Whitmire." Muppet Central. July 19, 1999. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Schindehette, Susan. "Legacy of a Gentle Genius." People Magazine. June 18, 1990. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Stephens, David. "Bio." All Hands Productions. 2010. (Sept. 4, 2011)
  • Stephens, David. Personal interview conducted via e-mail. Aug. 31, 2011.
  • Time Magazine. "Show Business: The Man Behind the Frog." Time. Dec. 25, 1978. (Sept. 4, 2011),9171,948401,00.html