tribute to Jim Henson

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Best known as the creator of The Muppets, The late great Jim Henson was born on 24th September 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi. Raised in Maryland he was educated atUniversity of Maryland, College Park, where he created Sam and Friends. He was raised as a Christian Scientist and spent his early childhood in Leland, Mississipi moving with his family to Hyattsville, Maryland, nearWashington, D.C., inthe late 1940s. He later remembered the arrival of the family’s first television as “the biggest event of his adolescence,”having been heavily influenced by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the early television puppets of Burr Tillstrom (onKukla, Fran, and Ollie) and Bil and Cora Baird. In 1954 while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV, creating puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show called The Junior Morning Show.After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist. A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated in 1960 with a B.S. in home economics.As a freshman, he had been asked to create Sam and Friends, a 5-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were forerunners ofMuppets, and the show included a prototype of Henson’s most famous character: Kermit the Frog. Henson would remain at WRC for seven years from 1954 to 1961. “Among the first of his assignments at WRC was Afternoon, a magazine show aimed at housewives. This marked his firt collaboration with Jane Nebel— who later became his wife” in the show, he bega experimenting with techniques that would change the way puppetry had been used on television, including using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppeteer to work from off-amera. Believing that television puppets needed to have “life and sensitivity,” Henson began making characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions at a time when many puppets were made of carved wood. A marionette’ arms are manipulated by strings, but Henson used rods to move his Muppets’ arms, allowing greater control of expression. Additionally, Henson wanted the Muppet characters to “speak” more creatively than was possible for previous puppets—which had seemed to have random mouth movements—so he used precise mouth movements to match the dialogue

Kermit_Rich2.When Henson began work on Sam and Friends, he asked fellow University of Maryland sophomore Jane Nebel to assist him. The show was a financial success, but after graduating from college, Henson began to have doubts about going into a career as a puppeteer. He wandered off to Europe for several months, where he was inspired by European puppeteers who look on their work as an art form. During this time, he also contributed to Saturday Night Live. He eventually found success when In 1969, Joan Ganz Cooney and the team at the Children’s Television Workshop askewd him to work on Sesame Street, a visionary children’s program for public television. Part of the show was set aside for a series of funny, colorful puppet characters living on the titular street. These included Grover, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster and Big Bird. Henson performed the characters of Ernie, game-show host Guy Smile, and Kermit, who appeared as a roving television news reporter. It was around this time that a frill was added around Kermit’s neck to make him more froglike. The collar was functional as well: it covered the joint where the Muppet’s neck and body met.At first, Henson’s Muppets appeared separately from the realistic segments on the Street, but after a poor test-screening inPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania, the show was revamped to integrate the two, placing much greater emphasis on Henson’s work. Though Henson would often downplay his role in Sesame Street’s success, Cooney frequently praised Jim’s work and, in 1990, the Public Broadcasting Service called him “the spark that ignited our fledgling broadcast service.”The success of Sesame Street also allowed Henson to stop producing commercials. In addition to creating and performing Muppet characters, Henson was involved in producing various shows and animation insets during the first two seasons. During the first, Henson produced a series of counting films for the numbers 1 through 10, which always ended with a baker (voiced by Henson) falling down the stairs while carrying the featured number of desserts. For seasons two to seven, Henson worked on a variety of inserts for the numbers 2 through 12, in a number of different styles—including film (“Dollhouse”, “Number Three Ball Film”), stop-motion (“King of Eight”, “Queen of Six”), cut-out animation (“Eleven Cheer”), computer animation (“Nobody Counts To 10”). Jim Henson also directed the original C is For Cookie.Concurrently with the first years of Sesame Street, Henson directed Tales from Muppetland, a short series of TV movie specials—in the form of comedic tellings of classic fairy tales—aimed at a young audience and hosted by Kermit the Frog. The series included Hey, Cinderella!, The Frog Prince, and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.

Concerned that the company was becoming typecast as a purveyor of solely children’s entertainment, Henson, Frank Oz, and his team targeted an adult audience with a series of sketches on the first season of the groundbreaking comedy series Saturday Night Live(SNL). Eleven “Dregs and Vestiges” sketches, set mostly in the Land of Gorch, aired between October 1975 and January 1976, with four additional appearances in March, April, May, and September. Henson recalled that “I saw what creator Lorne Michaels was going for and I really liked it and wanted to be a part of it, but somehow what we were trying to do and what his writers could write for it never gelled.” The SNL writers never got comfortable writing for the characters, and frequently disparaged Henson’s creations; one,Around the time of Henson’s characters’ final appearances on SNL, he began developing two projects featuring the Muppets: aBroadway show and a weekly television series. In 1976 the series was initially rejected by the American networks who believed that Muppets would appeal to only a child audience. Henson was finally able to convince British impresario Lew Grade to finance the show, which would be shot in the United Kingdom and syndicated worldwide. That same year, he abandoned work on his Broadway show and moved his creative team to England, where The Muppet Show began taping. The Muppet Show featured Kermit as host, and a variety of other memorable characters, notably Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, and Fozzie Bear. Kermit’s role on The Muppet Show was often compared by his co-workers to Henson’s role in Muppet Productions: a shy, gentle boss with ” Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, remembered that Henson “would never say he didn’t like something. He would just go ‘Hmm.’ That was famous. And if he liked it, he would say, ‘Lovely!’ ” Henson himself recognized Kermit as an alter-ego, though he thought that Kermit was bolder than him; he once said of the character, “He can say things I hold back.” Jim Henson was the performer for several well known characters, including Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, the Swedish Chef,Waldorf, Link Hogthrob, and Guy Smiley.In 1977, Henson produced a one-hour television adaptation of the Russell Hoban story Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. THree years after the start of The Muppet Show, the Muppets appeared in their first theatrical feature film The Muppet Movie. The movie was both a critical and financial success; it made US$65.2 million domestically and was at the time the 61st highest-grossing film ever made. A song from the movie, “The Rainbow Connection”, sung by Henson as Kermit, hit number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1981, a Henson-directed sequel, The Great Muppet Caper, followed, and Henson decided to end the still-popular Muppet Show to concentrate on making films. From time to time, the Muppet characters continued to appear in made-for-TV-movies and television specials.

Grover_richIn addition to his own puppetry projects, Henson aided others in their work. In 1979, he was asked by the producers of the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back to aid make-up artist Stuart Freeborn in the creation and articulation of enigmatic Jedi Master Yoda. Henson suggested to Star Wars creator George Lucas that he use Frank Oz as the puppeteer and voice of Yoda. Oz voiced Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and each of the four subsequent Star Wars films. The naturalistic, lifelike Yoda became one of the most popular characters of the Star Wars franchise. Lucas even lobbied unsuccessfully to have Oz nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. Around that time, he began creating darker and more realistic fantasy films that did not feature the Muppets and displayed “a growing, brooding interest in mortality.” With 1982’s The Dark Crystal, which he co-directed with Frank Oz and co-wrote, Henson said he was “trying to go toward a sense of realism—toward a reality of creatures that are actually alive [where] it’s not so much a symbol of the thing, but you’re trying to present the thing itself. To provide a visual style distinct from the Muppets, the puppets in The Dark Crystal were based on conceptual artwork by Brian Froud.The Dark Crystal was a financial and critical success and, a year later, the Muppet-starring The Muppets Take Manhattan (directed by Frank Oz) did fair box-office business, grossing $25.5 million domestically and ranking as one of the top 40 films of 1984. However, 1986’s Labyrinth, a Crystal-like fantasy that Henson directed by himself, was considered a commercial disappointment. Despite some positive reviews (The New York Times called it “a fabulous film”),the commercial failure of Labyrinth demoralized Henson and hebecame quite depressed.” Although The film became a cult classic

During production of his later projects, Henson began to experience flu like symptoms.On May 4, 1990, Henson made one of his last television appearances o

n The Arsenio Hall Show, At the time, he mentioned to his publicist that he was tired and had a sore throat,on May 12, 1990, Henson traveled to Ahoskie, North Carolina, with his daughter Cheryl to visit his father and stepmother. The next day, May 13, Henson, feeling tired and ill, consulted a physician in North Carolina, and returned to to New York on an earlier flight .Henson’s wife Jane, came to visit and sat with him talking throughout the evening. At 2 am on May 15, Henson was having trouble breathing and began coughing up blood. did not want to bother going to the hospital. .”Two hours later, Henson finally agreed to go to New York Hospital. By the time he was admitted at 4:58 am, he could not breathe on his own anymore and he had abscesses in his lungs. He was placed on a mechanical ventilator to help him breathe, but his condition deteriorated rapidly into septic shock, . On the morning of May 16, 1990, Henson died at the age of 53 at New York Hospital.

Henson’s death was covered as a significant news story, occurring on the same day as the death of Sammy Davis Jr. The official cause of death was first reported as Streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacterial infection. Bacterial pneumonia is usually caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, an alpha-hemolytic species of Streptococcus. Henson’s cause of death, however, was organ failure resulting from Streptococcus pyogenes, a severe Group A streptococcal infection.

A public memorial service was conducted in New York City  On May 21, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Another one was conducted on July 2 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. As per Henson’s wishes, no one in attendance wore black, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band finished the service by performing “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Harry Belafonte sang “Turn the World Around,” a song he had debuted on The Muppet Show, as each member of the congregation waved, with a puppeteer’s rod, an individual, brightly colored foam butterfly.Later, Big Bird, performed by Caroll Spinney, walked out onto the stage and sang Kermit the Frog’s signature song, “Bein’ Green”.]In the final minutes of the two-and-a-half hour service, six of the core Muppet performers—Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Kevin Clash, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt—sang, in their characters’ voices, a medley of Jim Henson’s favorite songs, eventually ending with a performance of “Just One Person” that began with Richard Hunt singing alone, as Scooter.Henson employee Chris Barry writes that during each verse, “each Muppeteer joined in with their own Muppets until the stage was filled with all the Muppet performers and their beloved characters.” The funeral was later described by Life as “an epic and almost unbearably moving event.” The image of a growing number of performers singing “Just One Person” was recreated for the 1990 television special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson and inspired screenwriter Richard Curtis, who attended the London service, to write the growing-orchestra wedding scene of his 2003 film Love Actually.

Henson’s sudden death resulted in an outpouring of public and professional affection. Henson was cremated at Ferncliff Cemetery and his ashes were scattered at his ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. there have since been numerous tributes and dedications in his memory.

Henson’s companies, which are now run by his children, continue to produce films and television shows.

The Jim Henson Company and the Jim Henson Foundation continued after his death, producing new series and specials. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, founded by Henson, also continues to build creatures for a large number of other films and series (e.g. the science-fiction production Farscape, the film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the movie MirrorMask) and is considered one of the most advanced and well respected creators of film creatures. His son Brian and daughter Lisa are currently the co-chairs and co-CEOs of the company; his daughter Cheryl is the president of the foundation. Steve Whitmire, a veteran member of the Muppet puppetering crew, has assumed the roles of Kermit the Frog and Ernie, the most famous characters formerly played by Jim Henson.on February 17, 2004, it was announced that the Muppets (excluding the Sesame Street characters, which are separately owned bySesame Workshop) and the Bear in the Big Blue House properties had been sold by Henson’s heirs to The Walt Disney Company. However, as a result, Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children’s Television Workshop), also lost the rights to Kermit the Frog, and he could no longer appear on any new material on Sesame Street, although Kermit did later appear on the premiere of the show’s 40th season on November 10, 2009.One of Henson’s last projects is a show attraction in Walt Disney World and Disneyland featuring the Muppets, called Muppet*Vision 3D, which opened in 1991, shortly after his death.The Jim Henson Company retains the Creature Shop, as well as the rest of its film and television library including Fraggle Rock,Farscape, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth.In 2010, it was announced that the first major biography of Henson, sanctioned by the family and the Jim Henson Legacy, was underway.

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