The Man Behind The Muppets: How Jim Henson Turned His Muppets Into Global Celebrities

Jim Henson's Muppets revolutionized puppetry. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional puppets, Henson made his creatures more lifelike, gave them memorable personalities and used them to make learning fun for kids. And he promoted a better world as he entertained adults.

Time magazine listed him among the 20th century's 100 most influential people, alongside the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg.

"My father really worked hard but enjoyed his work so much he seemed relaxed, personifying the notion of flow in work," daughter Lisa Henson, CEO of Jim Henson Co., told IBD. "He had so much creativity that it didn't seem like work, just being himself."

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Rise In Mississippi

Henson (1936-90) was born in Greenville, Miss., to a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist and a practical Southern belle, both with a good sense of humor. His maternal grandmother, called Dear, often visited; she taught Jimmy to sew, draw and paint, and encouraged him to read books like Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz" and newspaper comics such as "Pogo."

Dad's jobs caused the family to move between the farms of Leland, Miss., and the Washington, D.C., suburb of Hyattsville, Md.

Jimmy spent much time in movie theaters and listening to radio shows such as one starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy.

Then in 1950, the Hensons bought a TV set.

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Henson's Keys

• Creator of the Muppets.

• Overcame: Limitations of traditional puppets.

• Lesson: Nice guys finish first.

• "I know I drive some people crazy with what seems to be ridiculous optimism, but it has always worked out for me."

The D.C. area had four stations, and one of Jimmy's favorite programs was "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," with Burr Tillstrom's puppets. Near the end of Henson's senior year of high school, the local CBS TV station hired him and a friend to manipulate marionettes on a new children's show. Henson knew nothing about puppetry but checked out books from the library to teach both himself and his friend.

Three weeks later, the station canceled their program. Its host hired them for another one where they used puppets to lip-synch to records; it lasted two months. Meanwhile, Henson had caught the eye of a producer at the higher-rated NBC station WTOP — and soon was puppeteering again. His work involved interacting with a country singer who told stories of the frontier and showed scenes from Westerns. Henson stayed there until 1961.

All the while, Henson was in school. He graduated from high school in 1954 and entered the University of Maryland. He studied set design, costuming and commercial art, which he hoped would lead to a job at a TV show.

One of his classmates was Jane Nebel, who would become his business partner and wife. Over the next few years, Henson developed puppets that were easier to move and had more expressive faces. As early as 1954, he referred to them as Muppets to differentiate them from traditional hand puppets and marionettes.

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Jim And Jane

He and Nebel began working together and found that if they watched tiny TV monitors, they could see what the audience liked and react accordingly.

They began doing segments on NBC's "Tonight Show" in 1956, and the visibility brought them advertising work. Their first client made specialty coffee and had them shoot 180 commercials that were so funny, fans said they watched TV less for the programs than the ads.

Henson, at 21, still didn't think puppets would be his long-term career; they were a way to pay bills and get experience working in TV.

Then he turned over his duties to friends while he went to Europe for a few weeks. He was stunned to find that puppetry there was popular with adults on a sophisticated stage of puppets, sets, stories and audience interaction.

"It was as if those few weeks in Europe had opened a creative floodgate — for what followed would be a period of enormous experimentation and artistic growth as Jim pursued a wide variety of interests and began to play with other forms of media," wrote author Brian Jay Jones in "Jim Henson: The Biography."

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Work And Marriage

In 1958, Henson and Nebel formed Muppets Inc. (of which he owned 60%). The next year, they married.

In 1960, they earned an astounding $100,000 (worth $750,000 today) from their puppetry and commercial creations.

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Henson finally got his college degree. He and Jane had their first child, Lisa, bringing her along to their first convention of the Puppeteers of America. There, he met Tillstrom, who introduced him to Bernie Brillstein, a talent agent who would become a major factor in Henson's success.

In 1961, Jane bore their second daughter, Cheryl, and retired from performing. Henson auditioned replacements and began building a crew of superstar talent, including Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl.

Henson hoped to land his own network show and knew that to have that shot, he had to be in New York City. So the family moved there from Maryland in 1963, the same year son Brian was born.

Photo Credit: Disney

Photo Credit: Disney

Henson's big break came in 1968. The nonprofit Children's Television Workshop asked what was now called Henson Associates to help create a program on Public Broadcasting Service TV stations. The result was "Sesame Street."

Henson's goal was to educate in such an entertaining way as to hold the attention of kids. He expected the series to last 13 weeks. Little did he know.

The first episode aired in November 1969 and was a hit from the start, with characters such as Big Bird and Bert and Ernie becoming household names. A 1996 survey revealed that 95% of American kids had watched "Sesame Street" by the time they were 3, and over 1,000 studies have been done on its impact. The program has won 159 Emmy Awards, far more than any other, has been broadcast in 140 countries and recently partnered with cable network HBO for a cash infusion after donations to CTW declined.

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

As Henson's empire expanded in the 1970s, he maintained the same easygoing persona, sugarcoating any criticism of employees in the gentlest way while insisting on perfectionist standards.

"He was working in a very collaborative medium, so he would put ideas out there and hope others would respond to his creative vision," said Lisa Henson. "He enjoyed their innovative solutions and the teamwork needed to push projects to the next level."

Recalled Oz in a 1996 documentary, "Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets": "He was quiet and unassuming when you met him, but he also had this steely determination to succeed. That enabled him to create more popular characters than anyone since Walt Disney."

Yet TV networks, which didn't see an adult audience for puppets, turned down Henson's two pilots for what was to become "The Muppet Show."

Lew Grade of Associated Television in Britain was more optimistic. In 1976, he began airing the first of 120 episodes. The show went into endless syndication in America, won four Primetime Emmys and led to a series of feature and TV films, starting with "The Muppet Movie" in 1979.

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Henson found himself commuting from London to Toronto (where the popular TV series "Fraggle Rock" was shot) to New York to Los Angeles and back.

The absences from his family took a toll. In 1982, Jane filed for divorce, though they remained close.

In 1989 he returned to U.S. TV with "The Jim Henson Hour" on NBC, mixing light Muppet material with more adult themes. Critics liked it, but the show was canceled after just 13 episodes due to low ratings, which Henson blamed on the network's constant rescheduling.

He was negotiating with the Walt Disney Company to sell his company for $150 million so that he could concentrate on the creative side when he died at 53 from a streptococcal bacterial infection.

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Photo Credit: The Henson Company

Upbeat Farewell

At the memorial service in New York, no one attending wore black. The service ended with the key Muppet performers coming on stage to sing a medley of songs in their characters' voices. Life magazine called it "an epic and almost unbearably moving event."

"Jim inspired people to be better than they thought they could be, and more daring, more outrageous and ultimately more successful." said his agent, Brillstein. "And he did it all without raising his voice."

Photo Credit:  Matthew Cooper

Photo Credit: Matthew Cooper

In 2004, Disney bought the Muppet characters (excluding those from "Sesame Street"). Its theme parks include the Muppet Vision 3D attraction. Disney's ABC network has announced the fall debut of "The Muppets," a reality show parody behind the scenes of Miss Piggy's talk show.

Henson Co. continues to develop innovative family entertainment, with Brian as chairman. Cheryl, president of the Jim Henson Foundation, edited a book of her father's wisdom on living a fulfilling life, "It's Not Easy Being Green."


Banner Photo Credit: The Henson Company