Jim Henson (September 24, 1936 - May 16, 1990) was the creator of the Muppets, founder of The Jim Henson Company, and the performer behind many of his company's most famous characters, including Kermit the Frog, Ernie, and Rowlf the Dog. James Maury Henson was born in Greenville, MS, on September 24, 1936. Ten years later, in 1946, Henson moved with his family to Hyattsville, MD, a suburb near Washington, D.C.. While growing up, he loved watching Disney films and movies with comic legends like Bob Hope and George Burns, and enjoyed listening to such radio acts as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. He would grow up to pay tribute to—and work with—many of these same legends. Henson graduated as a member of the National Honor Society from Northwestern Senior High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, on June 14, 1954.
Henson made his earliest foray into television puppetry with friend and first puppeteering partner Russell Wall in the summer of 1954. The two created and performed the puppets Pierre the French Rat and Longhorn and Shorthorn for The Junior Morning Show on local station WTOP. Although the show lasted only three weeks before being cancelled, Henson quickly landed a puppeteering job on the show Aftertnoon at NBC affiliate WRC-TV.
In 1955, while a college student at the University of Maryland, WRC-TV offered Henson his own show, resulting in the creation of Sam and Friends. The five-minute shows aired live twice a day after the news, and often involved the puppets lip-synching to a comedy or novelty record. Henson's co-puppeteer was the woman who would later become his wife, Jane Nebel. The two wed on May 28, 1959. Of the cast of characters created for this series, only Kermit would remain as a major figure with Jim Henson for later productions.
Jim Henson made several important innovations in terms of how puppets were used on TV. The first is that he did away with tiny one-hand puppets whose heads only bobbed when they talked, preferring instead to use puppets with moving mouths and often real hands. The second innovation was to get rid of the stage that all puppets on TV hid behind, just as they did in conventional theater. He wisely realized that the TV screen itself is the stage. Freeing the puppets from the constrictions of the past, Henson found that the characters were able to move around their environment in a much more imaginative and exciting way.
Beginning in the late 1950s, while still producing Sam and Friends, Henson kept his fledging company afloat by using his puppets in TV commercials. Early forays included Wilkins and Wontkins and other characters for local companies, under the name "Muppets Inc.", formed in 1958. By the 1960s, the burgeoning Muppets Inc. had expanded to national campaigns, and one of the characters created for these commercials was Rowlf the Dog. Rowlf helped Henson get nationwide attention for the first time by appearing in regular comedy bits on The Jimmy Dean Show. This led to increased appearances by the Muppets on variety shows and talk shows, including Today and The Ed Sullivan Show.
During this time, Jim Henson met and hired two more people who would become enormously important to his work: Frank Oz, who Henson once called "absolutely the greatest puppeteer in the world" and Jerry Juhl, who would have a hand in writing nearly every Muppet production for 35 years. In 1962, Don Sahlin also joined the Muppets, building Rowlf and laying the foundations for the Muppet Workshop. Apart from puppetry, Henson also experimented as an animator and filmmaker, with such films as the 1965 Academy Award nominated short Time Piece (which he wrote, directed, and starred in), several comedic industrial films (paving the way for the Muppet Meeting Films), the documentary Youth '68, and the hour-long experimental drama The Cube in 1969.
That same year, Joan Ganz Cooney and the newly-formed Children's Television Workshop approached Henson about creating and performing puppets on a new show aimed at pre-schoolers. The show would become Sesame Street, and it introduced viewers to such memorable characters as Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Count von Count, Cookie Monster, Grover, and eventually Elmo as well.
Jim Henson was initially reluctant to use his characters on an educational kids' series, for fear of being typecast as a children's entertainer. However, Joan Ganz Cooney, once remarked that while the show's creative team had a collective brilliance, Henson was the only "individual genius.": "He was our era's Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers," Cooney said, "and indeed he drew from all of them to create a new art form that influenced popular culture around the world.’
On Sesame Street, Jim Henson performed Kermit the Frog, the only major established Muppet to appear regularly on the new series (although Rowlf made one cameo). He also performed such new characters as Ernie and game show host Guy Smiley. Continuing his penchant for animation and live film-making, Henson produced, wrote, and directed such inserts as the quiet and gentle Doll House film, and the Number Song Series that always ended with a baker falling down the stairs (Henson dubbed the voice, even though a different actor portrayed the baker) and several animated shorts, including "King of 8", "Queen of 6", and "Eleven Cheer." According to season two research studies found in CTW Archives files, "All of the Henson films are extremely effective in getting the children to watch and to participate. The involvement of children viewing these films is remarkable."
Although increasingly individuals like Don Sahlin, Kermit Love, and other Muppet Workshop employees gained greater responsibility for character development, Henson still supplied the initial sketches for many of the key characters, including Ernie, Bert, and The Amazing Mumford. As evidenced in Jim Henson's Designs and Doodles, while Love and Sahlin built Big Bird, Henson devised the initial concept of a full bodied character, and supplied sketches showing how he would be performed.
By the late 1970s/early 1980s, he became more involved with other projects, and therefore mainly just performed his characters in inserts rather than in the main street plots. However, he was still involved in related productions, performing his characters in the first Sesame Street movie, Follow That Bird, performing his characters' voices in various Sesame Street Live shows, and also performing in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, Big Bird in China, Don't Eat the Pictures, The Sesame Street Special, and Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting. In the last production mentioned, Henson also appeared as himself in two scenes. He was also interviewed on The Sesame Street Experiment and Sing! Sesame Street Remembers Joe Raposo and His Music.
Jim Henson's last segments for the show were taped on November 21, 1989. Henson's later performances include "The Bird Family," a Sesame Street News Flash segment in which Kermit interviews a bird whose parents live in different trees, Kermit's song "I Wonder 'Bout the World Above Up There," and Ernie's song "Don't Throw That Trash on the Ground."