Name given by Jim Henson to the puppets he created for television when he began performing in 1955. “Muppet”, a trademarked name, refers to puppets descended from Jim’s originals that are created for Sesame Workshop and appear on Sesame Street or are owned by The Walt Disney Company.
Jim Henson’s Muppets were built in a wide range of techniques that are still used today. The classic example is Kermit the Frog. The puppet is soft, constructed of foam rubber (Polyfoam), then covered with fabric (fleece). The puppeteer’s right hand works the puppet’s head and moveable mouth, and the puppeteer’s other hand works the two rods that control the character’s hands. Cookie Monster represents another type of Muppet that did not use rods and is referred to as a live-hand puppet. The puppet’s head is performed by the puppeteer’s right hand and its left arm and hand is a sleeve and a glove worn over the puppeteer’s left arm and hand. The puppet’s right arm is operated by a second puppeteer. A third type, such as Big Bird, is essentially a full body costume with the head performed by one of the puppeteer’s hands (see Costume Puppet), which creates the illusion of a character that is human-sized or larger.
In 1963, Don Sahlin (1929-1978) became chief designer and builder for the company, refining the look most associated with The Muppets. Other puppet designers who influenced the Muppet look include Michael Frith, Caroly Wilcox, Bonnie Erickson, Ed Christie, Rollie Krewson and Kirk Thatcher.
The puppets were originally designed specifically for television; the puppeteers out of frame use a TV monitor also positioned out of camera range to constantly check the position and movement of the puppets. Muppets often sing, and the puppeteers are noted for excellent mouth synchronization as well as musical ability.
The huge success of Sesame Street (first broadcast in 1969) and The Muppet Show (1976-1980) made this style of puppetry popular around the world. It was soon widely imitated.
In 2004, The Walt Disney Company purchased the Classic Muppet characters, the Muppet name, and all Muppet characters from The Jim Henson Company. Sesame Workshop has owned the characters that appear on Sesame Street since 2000.
Muppet movies produced by The Jim Henson Company include: The Muppet Movie (1979, director: James Frawley); The Great Muppet Caper (1981, director: Jim Henson); The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984, director: Frank Oz); The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, director: Brian Henson); Muppet Treasure Island (1996, director: Brian Henson); Muppets from Space (1999, director: Tim Hill). The films The Muppets (2011, director: James Bobin) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014, director: James Bobin) were produced by The Walt Disney Company.
(See United States of America.)