American puppeteer, animator, television and film producer. The innovative work of Jim Henson’s Muppets and Sesame Street appears on television in 140 countries and his fantasy films have become classics to multiple generations. His innovations in puppetry have inspired new ways of performing for the screen that are widely used around the world. Henson’s puppet characters, whose unique, anarchic humour and messages of tolerance in dozens of languages, are caring, exuberant, and funny. Their nuanced personalities reflect the range of human qualities giving them even greater depth and appeal.
Training and Early Career
Jim Henson spent his early years in Mississippi, and at the age of eleven his family moved to Maryland. Jim was fascinated by television and while still in high school he found television work as a puppeteer for a local Washington, DC station. This combination of television and puppetry would mark his career. While a freshman at the University of Maryland, Jim Henson began his own daily, five-minute television show, Sam and Friends. Kermit (not exactly a frog yet) was a featured puppet on the show. At university, Jim Henson met Jane Nebel (1934-2013), who helped create the first Muppets and became his first performing partner. In 1959, Jane and Jim married and eventually had five children together who have continued to build on their parents’ legacy
Sam and Friends led to guest appearances on national variety programmes hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan and others. Jim and Jane Henson also began making television commercials for dozens of advertisers. At Puppeteers of America festivals, he met gifted artists who became major collaborators. Television legend, Burr Tillstrom, introduced him to master puppet builder Don Sahlin. At a festival in 1961, Jim Henson met Jerry Juhl (Jerome Ravn Juhl, 1938-2005) and Frank Oz (Richard Frank Oznowicz, b.1944). Juhl joined the Muppets as a puppeteer and soon became chief writer; Frank Oz became one of the foremost Muppet performers and Jim Henson’s closest collaborator.
Jim Henson served as president of Puppeteers of America in 1962. In 1963, the Muppets moved to New York City. Don Sahlin built Rowlf, the first Muppet to be nationally famous, for the Jimmy Dean Show (1963-1966), and in the same year Frank Oz joined the team to assist.
In the mid-1960s, Joan Ganz Cooney began planning Sesame Street, an educational children’s television show that would premiere in 1969. Based on Jim Henson’s success in creating short, funny puppet pieces, Cooney and co-creator Jon Stone asked him to create a family of characters for Sesame Street. These included Ernie (performed by Jim Henson) and Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster (performed by Frank Oz), Count von Count (performed byJerry Nelson), and Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird (performed by Caroll Spinney). Jim Henson also produced over two dozen live action and animated shorts for early Sesame Street programmes. Puppeteers Martin Robinson as Telly Monster and Snuffleupagus (since 1980), Kevin Clash as Elmo (from 1988 to 2012), Richard Hunt (from 1970 to 1991) and Fran Brill (from 1970 to 2015) have also been major contributors.
After almost fifty years of broadcast in more than 140 countries, Sesame Street is one of the longest running television programmes in the world and has won over 150 awards (as of 2009, Sesame Street has won 8 Grammy Awards and 143 Emmy Awards – more than any other children’s show in the United States.)
After the show’s 1969 debut, producers and executives of Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) explored the possibility of international co-productions based on the American Sesame Street but adapted to the countries in which they are produced, incorporating local characters and themes. By 2012, there were more than 35 co-productions, including in the following countries: Afghanistan (Koche Sesame, 2004, Baghch-e-Simsim, 2011), Bangladesh (Sisimpur), Brazil (Vila Sésamo), Cambodia (Sabai Sabai Sesame), Canada (Sesame Park), China (Zhima Jie), Denmark (Sesamgade), Egypt (Alam Simsim), France (Bonjour Sesame, 1, Rue Sésame and 5, Rue Sésame), Germany (Sesamstaße, Eine Möhre für Zwei), India (Galli Galli Sim Sim), Indonesia (Jalan Sesama), Israel (Rechov Sumsum, Sippuray Sumsum), Israel and Palestine (Rechov Sumsum—Shara’a Simsim), Japan (Sesame Street), Jordan (Hikayat Simsim), Kosovo (Rruga Sesam—Ulica Sezam), Kuwait (Iftah Ya Simsim), Mexico (Plaza Sésamo), the Netherlands (Sesamstraat), Nigeria (The Adventures of Kami and Big Bird, Sesame Square), Northern Ireland (Sesame Tree), Norway (Sesam Stasjon), Pakistan (SimSim Humara), Palestine (Hikayat Simsim), the Philippines (Sesame!), Poland (Ulica Sezamkowa), Portugal and Portuguese-speaking African countries (Rua Sésamo), Russia (Ulitsa Sezam), South Africa (Takalani Sesame), Spain (Barrio Sésamo), Sweden (Svenska Sesam), Turkey (Susam Sokağı), United Kingdom (Play With Me Sesame). In addition, dubbed and repackaged versions of Sesame Street air around the globe.
The Muppet Show
It was always Jim Henson’s goal to appeal to a family audience, producing a show that would entertain adults as well as children. After years of promoting the idea for The Muppet Show, he finally received backing from London-based television producer, Lord Lew Grade. Production began in 1975 in England. The unforgettable characters for the show included Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, performed by Frank Oz; Gonzo the Great, performed by Dave Goelz; Scooter, performed by Richard Hunt (1951-1992); and Rizzo the Rat, performed by Steve Whitmire. Hosted by Kermit the Frog and serenaded by Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, the Muppets, along with weekly guest stars, demonstrated the breadth of Jim Henson’s humour and imagination, airing in more than 100 countries.
Service to the Profession
Jim Henson served as founding president of UNIMA-USA (1974-1980), and, in 1975, he proposed that UNIMA-USA create an award, “Citations of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry”, which annually recognize and reward the best of the puppetry arts in the United States. In 1976, Jim Henson was named a UNIMA Member of Honour. He was a major force in bringing the UNIMA 13th World Puppetry Festival to Washington, DC in 1980.
Throughout his busy career, Jim Henson has always found time to help other puppeteers. In 1982, The Jim Henson Foundation was founded to encourage public interest in the art of puppetry. The series, Jim Henson Presents the World of Puppetry (1985), presented six one-hour programmes documenting the work of puppeteers Sergei Obraztsov, Albrecht Roser, Philippe Genty, Henk Boerwinkel, Richard Bradshaw, and Bruce Schwartz.
The Muppet feature films that Jim Henson produced included: The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). His son Brian produced and directed The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and produced Muppets from Space (1999). Jim Henson created two major fantasy films, The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986). With conceptual design by British illustrator Brian Froud, Jim Henson and collaborators developed elaborate three-dimensional characters with advanced movement abilities for puppets on film. The Dark Crystal, five years in development, used scores of designers, builders, technicians, and performers. Labyrinth, executive produced by George Lucas and starring David Bowie, gave Jim Henson the opportunity to further develop the field of animatronics. The multi-talented staff that worked on these two films formed the basis for what is now known as Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Founded in 1979 in London and now located in Los Angeles and New York, the Creature Shop continues to set industry standards while bringing previously unseen worlds to life.
His Last Decade and His Legacy
Jim Henson had the keen ability of drawing together a strong team of performers, artists, and collaborators who shared his vision. The television series, Fraggle Rock (1983-1987) introduced innovations and refinements. Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1988) and The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1989) had rich dramatic use of language, in contrast to breezy scripts of earlier shows. In 1990, Jim Henson directed Muppet*Vision 3D, a short film attraction for a custom-made theatre installation at Disney/MGM Studios’ theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort.
On May 16, 1990, after a brief illness, Jim Henson died in New York City. His work continues to entertain a global audience through The Jim Henson Company. In 1991, his son Brian Henson became president of The Jim Henson Company and now serves as Chairman. Daughter Lisa Henson currently serves as CEO and oversees a variety of film and television productions and projects for a range of platforms. After 2000, The Jim Henson Company was briefly owned by EM.TV. It has been owned by the Henson family since 2003. In 2000, Sesame Workshop purchased the rights to the Sesame Street Muppet characters. In 2004, The Walt Disney Company purchased the rights to the classic Muppets and the Muppet name. The films The Muppets (director, James Bobin, 2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (director, James Bobin, 2014), along with numerous Muppet television and Internet projects, were produced by The Walt Disney Company.
Daughter Cheryl Henson is president of The Jim Henson Foundation and daughter Heather Henson is a performer and producer (IBEX, Hand Made Puppet Dreams, Puppet Slam Network). Both serve on the board of The Jim Henson Legacy, helping to preserve and present their father’s body of work. The Henson family’s gifts to the Center of Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Museum of the Moving Image in New York made possible the creation of permanent exhibitions celebrating their parents’ life and work. Additional gifts to the Smithsonian Institution, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and The Strong Museum of Play help guarantee that future generations will continue to be inspired by Jim Henson.
A brilliant innovator, Jim Henson stretched the capabilities of puppetry in combination with advancing technology. As a preeminent popular artist, he contributed to the diverse visual vocabulary of the 20th century. As a performing genius, Jim Henson brought delight and wonder to international audiences.
(See United States of America.)
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