It feels great to see the Muppets in movies again. The Muppets, the first theatrical release in 12 years for Jim Henson’s beloved characters, was a huge success. Next year, the Muppets return with Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, Tom Hiddleston, and friends for The Muppets…Again!. The spirit of Henson’s extraordinary creations is alive and well.
The famed puppeteer’s family just donated nearly 400 puppets, costumes, and other props to the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The institution plans on opening a gallery devoted to Henson, who passed away in 1990, set to open in the winter of 2014-2015. We wanted to share our excitement over the news, so we created a list of fascinating facts and tidbits about Henson that reveal more about the man behind the Muppets — a kind, gentle, creative genius who brought his beautiful vision to life.
Photo credit: Philip Geraci
Jim was close to his maternal grandmother, Sarah Brown, who went by the nickname “Dear.” She was an artist and loved to paint. Dear convinced her creative grandson to pursue his dreams and share his vivid imagination with the world.
Henson first started working with puppets during his senior year of high school in the puppet club. He made sets. Later, he performed a puppet act on Washington, DC’s WTOP-TV Saturday morning program.
Photo credit: Jack Maier
In college he created the puppet show Sam and Friends for WRC-TV, where he developed several techniques that would later be featured in The Muppets. Henson also created an early version of Kermit the Frog. He was paid only five dollars a show. Sam and Friends was also where Jim first worked closely with his future wife, Jane Nebel — a fellow University of Maryland student.
When his shows were on the air, Henson wanted to take a break from television and become a fine art painter.
Henson directed several experimental films in the 1960s.
Shockingly, Henson was only nominated for one Academy Award. His 1965 short Time Piece was granted the Best Short Subject nomination for Live Action Subjects. It was screened at the Museum of Modern Art and starred Henson as a man racing against time.
The first Muppet Henson created (with Don Sahlin and Frank Oz) that rose to stardom was Rowlf the Dog, not Kermit. The brown mutt regularly appeared on The Jimmy Dean Show during the mid-1960s.
Image credit: Joe Lanzisero and Tim Kirk
Henson was finalizing a contract with Disney to sell them his company the week that he died. The family decided to cancel the planned deal, but the Mouse House later distributed some of the Henson catalogue. Today, Disney owns rights to all the Muppets characters, but the Jim Henson Company retains ownership over other characters and entertainment properties.
The first film dedicated to Jim Henson was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze . Jim Henson’s Creature Shop handled the animatronics for the film and the location doubled for part of news reporter April O’Neil’s apartment.
Most people think Kermit the Frog was named after Henson’s childhood friend Kermit Scott in Mississippi. The Jim Henson Company archivist has said this isn’t true and that the puppet guru simply liked the sound of the name. Others claim that Sam and Friends‘ sound engineer Kermit Kalman Cohen inspired the name.
Henson was scared of the MGM lion as a child.
Initially, Henson and his wife Jane told people they came up with the term “Muppet” as a way of combining the words “puppet” and “marionette.” Henson later said, “It was really just a word that we coined.”
When Henson made talk show appearances, he would carry a “Kermit Repair Kit,” which consisted of a black gym bag filled with Kermit fleece, sewing equipment, eyeballs, and a microphone.
Photo credit: JustCoolRecords
Henson loved music and had a large vinyl collection.
New York restaurant Oscar’s Salt of The Sea (located on Third Avenue before it closed in the 1980s) was one of Henson’s favorite lunchtime hangouts. He sketched many puppet designs on the eatery’s place mats.
Henson taught a puppet workshop series at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières, France. You can watch several videos recorded during Henson’s classes over here.
Henson, Oz, and company wanted to steer audiences away from the idea that puppets were only for children. In search of an “adult” venue, Henson collaborated with Lorne Michaels. During Saturday Night Live‘s first season in 1975, the Muppets made appearances in the first seven episodes. It threw the writers for a loop. One even snidely remarked that they “didn’t write for felt.” Henson believed the writing was “normal sitcom stuff,” which made things “boring and bland.” Michaels agreed. They parted amicably. Here’s a “Land of Gorch” sketch, featuring Scred (Jerry Nelson) and Lily Tomlin singing “I Got You Babe.”
George Lucas wanted Henson to perform the part of Yoda for Star Wars. He turned it down, but suggested the director hire Frank Oz — who has expressed a desire to return to the series, but reports about his involvement in Episode VII are unconfirmed.
One of Henson’s favorite songs was Harry Belafonte’s “Turn the World Around,” which was featured on The Muppet Show (Henson’s favorite episode) and performed by Belafonte at Henson’s memorial service.
Henson drew the tattoos on inked Muppet Lydia from The Muppet Show. She was inspired by one of Henson’s favorite songs, Groucho Marx’s “Lydia The Tattooed Lady,” which the Muppet actors sang at Henson’s memorial service.
The Wizard of Oz was the first movie Henson ever watched and remained his favorite until his death. References to the classic film appeared in several Muppets projects.
The characteristically humble Henson showed up in a Rolls-Royce for his graduation from the University of Maryland.
The last time Henson appeared on television was on the May 4, 1990 episode of Arsenio Hall, 12 days before his death. Kermit joined him for the interview, as well as muppet Clifford, voiced by Elmo’s Kevin Clash.
Rumor has it that Henson wanted to direct a film based on the classic Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, with Tom Cruise playing the prince afflicted by a curse that turns him into a monster. Unfortunately Disney was planning their version of the story for a 1991 release, so Henson backed down from the idea. The fairy tale inspired several Muppets sketches, including one with Lesley Ann Warren.
In the 1960s, Henson — along with Sesame Street writer and producer Jon Stone and TV screenwriter Tom Whedon (Joss Whedon’s father) — created a Cinderella television pilot that never aired. It eventually became the 1969 hour-long TV special Hey, Cinderella!.
Henson was crazy about games of all kinds: cards, board games, you name it.
In case his affinity for Muppet Rowlf didn’t give it away, Henson loved dogs.
Pierre, the French Rat is Henson’s oldest surviving puppet and one of the first to appear on television. The character was inspired by a comic strip Henson drew for his high school magazine in the 1950s.
Henson loved comics and cartoons. He collected the works of Pogo, Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, Li’l Abner, Charles Addams, Jules Feiffer, Roger Price, James Thurber, and Johnny Hart. In the 1960s, Henson made a test pilot for a Wizard of Id TV show based on the Brant Parker and Johnny Hart comic strip of the same name.
Henson requested that no one wear black at his memorial service.
The earliest Kermit prototype was made from Henson’s mother’s coat, “milky turquoise” in color, with two ping-pong balls for eyes.
Henson loved jazz music. This Sam and Friends sketch proves it.
Some of Henson’s favorite performers and puppeteers were Burr Tillstrom, Bil Baird, Edgar Bergen, Ernie Kovacs, Stan Freberg, Homer and Jethro, and Spike Jones of Spike Jones and his City Slickers fame.
Henson loved to read. His favorite children’s books were Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne and The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. His favorite puppetry book was My Profession by Sergei Obraztsov. He also enjoyed the works of Frank Baum and Roald Dahl.
Jim Henson created over 2,000 Muppets during his lifetime — and loved every one of them.