Jim Henson did more than invent the Muppets. He changed the face of children’s television all over the world, says Sabuhi Mir
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Jim Henson took the genre of puppetry to a new level. He invented the word "muppet" - a name he applied to his unique marionette and puppet hybrids. His Muppet Show entertained an estimated 235 million viewers in more than 100 countries and won three Emmy Awards. He was responsible for revolutionising children's educational television with such memorable characters as Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Cookie Monster. It’s no surprise, then, that producer Joan Ganz Cooney, who worked with him on Sesame Street, described him as ‘our era's Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, W.C.Fields and Marx Brothers’.
Born in 1936, Henson spent his early years in Mississippi. He became fascinated with television while at school and in 1954, just before entering the University of Maryland, he learned that a local station needed someone to perform with puppets on a children's show. Although he wasn't particularly interested in puppets, he wanted to get into TV. He and a friend made a couple of puppets and were hired. The job didn't last long but it brought him to attention and, within a few months, Henson returned to a larger station, where he was given his own twice-daily, five-minute show, Sam and Friends.
Sam and Friends, which ran from 1955-61, allowed Henson to debut his muppets - most noticeably an early version of the everyman character, Kermit the Frog. Guest appearances on popular US television shows followed, and his muppets became a weekly feature on both The Today Show and The Jimmy Dean Show. On the latter, Henson introduced his first nationally renowned character: a brown floppy-eared piano-playing dog named Rowlf. Jimmy Dean said of Rowlf: ‘I fell in love with that dang dog. Rowlf worked so beautifully, you would believe it was him and totally forget about Jim Henson and Frank Oz working him.’ Dean hit the nail on the head: Henson created puppets that were so life-like that adults and children would forget that they were actually puppets. This was key to Henson's success and universal appeal.
In 1961 Henson founded Muppets Inc. but it wasn’t until 1969, when he received a proposal from Joan Ganz Cooney, that his creations would change the face of children's television. Cooney wanted Henson to create a cast of muppet characters to star in an educational children's programme for public television. The muppets would carry the programme, but there would also be a cast of supporting actors and children extras.
The result was Sesame Street, which was first broadcast on November 10 1969. Designed for a pre-school audience, it came at a time when many American children didn't have any schooling until they started kindergarten at five.
Sesame Street was groundbreaking in the way it mixed entertainment with pre-school education. It was not afraid to tackle hard-hitting social issues such as disability, bullying, homosexuality, AIDS and more recently the September 11 attacks, using a mixture of sketches, humour, film shorts and special guests including US actor James Earl Jones or United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
It was also the first show in the world to create international co-productions that adapted the American original to better suit other cultures, starting with a German co-production in the 1970s. Since then there have been many other versions, including Russia, China, South Africa, Bangladesh, Japan, Egypt, Mexico, and Holland. Sesame Street has been recognised with more than 50 Emmy Awards, as well as educating over 120 million children in over 130 countries around the world.
Even though Sesame Street received national acclaim in the US, Henson was still unable to find any television network willing to back his concept for a series created for an older audience. On a suggestion by his colleague Frank Oz in 1975, Henson left the US and came to London. There he found the necessary support from television producer Lord Lew Grade to create The Muppet Show.
Production began at Grade's ATV studios in 1975 and soon the world was introduced to Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, the Great Gonzo, Scooter, Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band. The Muppets were joined by guest stars on a weekly basis, who were lovingly mocked or put into surreal scenarios. The list of luminaries who got the muppet treatment is as long as it is impressive, and includes Gene Kelly, Rudolph Nureyev, Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Steve Martin, John Cleese, Alice Cooper, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore and Sylvester Stallone. Elton John duetted with Miss Piggy on Don't Go Breaking My Heart and sang Crocodile Rock with a choir of crocodiles. As well as guest stars, the show also featured recurring sketches including a parody of Star Trek called Swine Trek. The success of The Muppet Show also led to the Muppets starring in six feature films.
Throughout the 1980s Henson continued to explore film and television. He produced the series Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Babies and created new characters for The Storyteller, The Jim Henson Hour and Dinosaurs. Most significantly, he developed new technologies in his fantasy films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, which starred David Bowie.
In Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Henson pioneered animatronics - the use of high technology to bring realistic movement and life to totally inanimate objects. These techniques have since been used in films like Babe, Stuart Little, Cats & Dogs and Dr Doolittle. Henson and Frank Oz also collaborated with George Lucas in the creation of Jedi Master Yoda for the film The Empire Strikes Back.
Henson died suddenly on May 16 1990, at the age of 53, from an aggressive strain of pneumonia. At the time of his death he was working on Nicholas Roeg's film The Witches. However, his legacy continues through The Jim Henson Company, The Jim Henson Foundation and his Creature Workshop.
Perhaps British television executive Michael Grade says it best: ‘Jim Henson was to television what Walt Disney was to films. The legacy of his imaginative genius will live and delight generations for years to come.’
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