Author’s Note: This is yet another “spotlight” series that I will be featuring on this page. Each week I intend to post information about someone who has made a positive contribution to society. Stay tuned!
James Maury Henson, more commonly known as Jim Henson, was one of the most beloved figures in the history of children’s television. Creator of the Muppets and primary contributor to Sesame Street, Jim Henson was a creative genius whose work has inspired generations. Jim Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi on September 24, 1936. As a child he spent a lot of time with his artist grandmother who encouraged him to use his imagination. In the late 1940s, Jim moved with his family to Maryland. In 1950 the Henson’s got their first television set and Jim’s obsession with the medium was cemented.
As an older teen, Jim started working at a number of local television stations. From the start of his television career he used plush puppets which he referred to as “Muppets” to capture audience’s attention. Jim Henson’s early career included segments on a children’s program called “The Junior Morning Show” and, shortly after that he was asked to create a puppet-centered show aimed at housewives. From this assignment came “Sam and Friends” which included a character that would later morph into Kermit the Frog.
Jim Henson’s early work was geared towards both adults and children. He even made a series of commercials for many different products that featured the Muppets. The Muppets were so extraordinarily popular in the 1960s that they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Jimmy Dean Show. In the late 1960s, when Sesame Street was being developed, the creators recruited Jim Henson to provide Muppets for the program and this subsequently proved to be his most successful endeavor.
Sesame Street launched on November 10, 1969 and was a hit from the start. It was an innovative program that taught children educational lessons in a humorous and entertaining way while also depicting a multi-racial cast. Sesame Street’s huge popularity resulted in the creation of some of Jim’s most famous characters like Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, and Big Bird. Sesame Street is still in production today and now includes a wealth of merchandise such as toys and books for youngsters.
Although Jim Henson loved Sesame Street, he was also interested in creating a more adult avenue for his Muppets. Hence, in 1976 he started “The Muppet Show” that featured characters like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Gonzo. “The Muppet Show” involved more adult themes and writing than Sesame Street but—like Sesame Street—it included appearances by famous movie stars, songwriters, and even political figures. The show shot to pop-culture success and, in 1979, the first Muppet feature film was released. Several more followed.
Jim Henson loved making movies with Muppets and after the success of the Muppet films he branched out into more adult-themed work. His fantasy films “The Dark Crystal” (1982) and “Labyrinth” (1986) displayed Jim’s work with Muppets other than those from the Muppet or Sesame Street casts. Both films were somewhat disappointing at the box office. Yet Jim continued working on Sesame Street, the Muppets, and a third kid-friendly program called “Fraggle Rock.”
Sadly, Jim Henson died suddenly at the age of 53 from an infection on May 16, 1990. Despite his shocking passing, Jim Henson’s friends and family honored his last wishes. His memorial service was held publically and televised, with Muppets making appearances and mourners wearing brightly colored clothing—just as Jim had requested.
Yet Jim’s legacy lives on. His Muppets are still hugely popular icons and Muppet movies are still being released in the 21st century. Sesame Street is currently celebrating 40 years on air and YouTube is packed with clips of Jim’s work. In 1999 CNN aired a documentary about his life that is viewable on YouTube. The Jim Henson Company, run by Jim’s children, has a website that offers fans a chance to learn more about the man behind the Muppets.
Jim Henson was a man who used humor to make the world a better place. He is a shining example of how much good one person can do in the world and how infectious their influence can be on others. Hence, the world truly is a better place for having had him in it.