Before Jim Henson was known nationwide, his Muppet creations entertained the people of the D.C. area, his home turf.
Jim Henson’s shows and characters are renowned throughout the world. Creator of The Muppet Show, Labyrinth, and, of course, the beloved Sesame Street, Henson gained fame through his innovative puppetry, his unique characters, and his ability to tackle serious and educational subjects while still retaining the humor and sense of fun that characterized all of his work. By the late ‘60s, all of America was familiar with Henson and his creations. But the people of the D.C. area were the first to see his Muppets in action, and it was in D.C. that he got his first big break.
Jim Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, at the only hospital in the region. Henson’s family moved to Hyattsville, MD when he was a little over a year old; they later moved back down to Leland, MS when he was six, but not before he picked up a mid-Atlantic accent rather than a Southern one. After they moved back to Hyattsville at the beginning of his teens, Henson began attending the town’s Northwestern High School in 1951, where he began to absorb the pop culture that would have an influence on the Muppets. He had recently convinced his dad into getting the family a then-rare TV set, and could take advantage of the four channels that D.C. boasted at the time. Jim loved variety shows like Texaco Star Theater, as well as Burr Tillstrom’s puppet show Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. Hewas also heavily influenced by the comic Pogo, as evidenced in some of his high school-era work. The sensibilities of all three are visible in his work, especially The Muppet Show.
At Northwestern, Jim was heavily involved in the drama department, although he was more interested in the set-design and backstage aspects of the theater than being on stage. Even then, his artistic talents were obvious; the posters he designed for school shows made him well-known among the student body. According to one of his former classmates, Henson’s art would often go missing because the teachers wanted to keep his pieces for themselves. Here, he met future University of Maryland classmate and Muppet Show puppeteer, Bobby Payne. It also was at Northwestern that Jim first took a puppeteering class, where he was introduced to the art that would occupy most of his creative pursuits for the rest of his life.
While still a high schooler, Jim was determined to get a job in television. Late in his senior year, he heard of an opening at WTOP-TV, looking for “youngsters...who can manipulate marionettes.” Henson, despite his puppeteering club background, knew almost nothing about puppets, but he desperately wanted to work in TV. Before his interview, Henson frantically flipped through the two books on puppetry at the Northwestern school library. He and his friend Russell Wall built a set and a couple of puppets, and they drove off to the audition. The cramming paid off: along with a few others, Henson and Wall were hired for the station’s new Junior Morning Show.
We’ve talked about other famous faces who got their start at WTOP, but Jim Henson’s short-lived career path was a lot rockier than Vin Scully’s. The Junior Morning Show hit a speedbump after being informed that it was violating child labor laws (three of the puppeteers were under fourteen), and was promptly cancelled after only three weeks on the air. Henson had caught the attention of the brass at the station, though, and they offered him a job on Saturday, a genuine variety show at which Henson was moderately successful. Still, when Saturday, too, went under, Jim was about ready to call it quits; puppeteering wasn’t his main interest, and he was about to start classes at the University of Maryland. However, word of the talented young puppeteer had got around, and he was offered another job at WRC-TV, D.C.’s local NBC affiliate.
Consequently, Henson entered College Park as a budding artist whose talents were already being realized. He started as a studio art major, but realized that his interests in advertising, art, and design were (for some bizarre reason) the jurisdiction of the Home Economics program. Under this odd umbrella, he started taking the University’s brand-new puppeteering course in the fall of 1954. Having worked with puppets on television for several months, he had the most practical experience out of anyone in the class - including the professor, who specialized in jewelry making and took the class on because he was required to by the University as a condition of employment. Perhaps the most important part of the class for Jim, however, was meeting Jane Nebel, his future co-star and wife. Jane was impressed with Jim’s scriptwriting and puppet and set designs, and he in turn was blown away by her animated performances with the puppets.
All the while, Henson was hard at work at WRC-TV, on a new show called Circle 4 Ranch. It was here that Henson created his first “muppets,” a combination of stick puppet and hand puppet, so called because he wanted a distinctive name for his creations. As had become a theme with the early programs to which Henson was hired, however, Ranch was cancelled within a few months. True to form, he picked up another show offer almost immediately, with a spot on future Today Show star Willard Scott’s Afternoon. This was also the first time that he and Jane started collaborating regularly. This led very quickly to Jim and Jane’s first big break: after only two months on Afternoon, the network was sufficiently impressed to offer the pair their own show.
If you were any kind of TV watcher in the DC area in the 1950s and early ‘60s, you probably saw Jim Henson’s first hit show, Sam and Friends. Sam and Friends was a sort of proto-Muppet Show, centering around the human puppet Sam, with a host of abstract creatures that participated in antics around him. The central conceit of the show, apparently, was that Sam, the reserved everyman, was interacting with his “Friends,” characters that were in his head, representing different parts of the psyche. This went over a lot of viewers’ heads, but you can’t blame them - the show was largely centered around slapstick and silly sketches and songs, although Henson would always insist on having the deeper meaning behind it.
Sam and Friends clip
Sam and Friends also marked the first appearance of a character called Kermit, who, although not yet a frog, quickly became one of Jim’s favorite Muppets. The show was distinctive in its innovative approach to puppeteering; they were made for TV, to be looked at close-up, and they ranged across the whole screen without a stage, like real actors. Unlike the stiffer, lockjawed marionettes of earlier puppet shows, Jim spent hours in the mirror learning to accurately track mouth movements with his more flexible Muppets. This approach paid off: they looked more “real” than any TV puppets had before. Based on this, and on the show’s deft hand for humor, the show, despite being only five minutes long and airing at 11:25 PM, quickly gained a following in and around the District. When Sam and Friends was initially cancelled, in the summer of ‘55, there was such a public outcry that the station brought it back after only one night off the air.
By the time Henson was a college sophomore, in the fall of 1955, his show had become a huge success. Sam and Friends netted several awards (including one for “the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America”). Despite being caught up in a television whirlwind at such a young age, he still cared about his studies; he was an A and B student, impressive for someone who spent so much time scripting, designing sets, and puppeteering for his own TV show. He was also active around the University: he was the publicity director of the University Theater for several years, and even spent a year in ROTC. On top of his other pursuits, he somehow also found time to run a successful silkscreen poster business out of Stamp Student Union.
His professors clearly recognized his talent, and he maintained close relationships with several of them. He continued to send self-designed Christmas cards to his silversmith puppetry professor, Edward Longley, who later provided them and other memorabilia and pictures seen in this article to the University archives. Not all of his teachers were so supportive of his TV activities, however; during one conversation, his drama professor Rudy Pugliese asked him, “Why are you wasting your time with those puppets?”
Despite what his professors might think, though, Jim’s puppets brought him more and more success. Word of Henson’s talents began spreading outside the DMV. Executives from NBC in New York caught wind of Sam and Friends, and in October 1956, Jim and Jane made a successful appearance on the Tonight show with Steve Allen. Their show’s increased success led the station to give them a second time slot, at 6:50 PM - primetime. Sam and Friends was now putting out ten shows a week; the work involved prompted Henson to withdraw, briefly, from the University of Maryland at the beginning of 1957. But Jim reaped the rewards of his hard work, and won his first Emmy in 1958, at the age of 21. After a trip to Europe strengthened his resolve to pursue puppeteering, he and Nebel got married in 1959.
Jim Henson graduated from the University of Maryland in 1960, earning his home economics degree. By that time, he had already achieved more success than many do in their entire careers.
Both of the Maryland institutions he attended later paid tribute to him a decade after his untimely death in 1990. In 2002, Northwestern High named their arts wing the Jim Henson Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, encompassing the programs in theater, visual arts, and puppetry he loved so much. The University of Maryland dedicated a statue near their student union in 2003, showing Henson in conversation with his most beloved Muppet, Kermit, sitting on a bench that students can share with them.
Jim Henson’s presence is still felt at both Northwestern and College Park, in the legacy he left behind. Both schools are very proud of their most well-known alumnus. Puppetry is still a hot subject at UMD, and Jim’s statue is a point of pride, quiet and tucked away, yet giving off an undeniable sense of friendliness and artistic pride, just like the man himself.
To learn more about Jim Henson's career, watch In Their Own Words: Jim Henson on WETA TV 26 and WETA HD.
- ^ Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography, (New York: Ballentine Books, 2013), 26.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Burr was later a peer of Henson’s, meeting at a puppetry convention; while there, he convinced Jim to let him drive his Rolls Royce down the street with Jim animatedly working Kermit out of the sunroof.
- ^ Julia Oliver, “Northwestern dedicates arts wing to Jim Henson,” The Gazette (Prince George’s/Montgomery Counties, MD), October 10, 2002.
- ^ Jones, Jim Henson, 72.
- ^ Ibid., 33.
- ^ Ibid., 35.
- ^ Ibid., 35.
- ^ Ibid., 37.
- ^ Ibid., 40.
- ^ Ibid., 41. As the man himself later admitted: “For a long time I would tell people it was a combination of marionettes and puppets, but, basically, it was really just a word that we coined...we have done very few things connected with marionettes.”
- ^ Ibid., 47.
- ^ Ibid., 47. The first Kermit was made from his mother’s old turquoise coat, a piece of cardboard, and two halves of a ping-pong ball, while Henson was grieving the impending death of his grandfather.
- ^ Jones, Jim Henson, 55.
- ^ Edward L. Longley Collection on Jim Henson, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland. Sam and Friends also helped support the well-intentioned but now-cringeworthy Jaycee Annual Crippled Children’s Boat Ride.
- ^ Jones, Jim Henson.
- ^ Ibid., 58.
- ^ Ibid., 55.
- ^ Ibid., 60.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Despite being coworkers, their relationship still didn’t escape the gender norms of the 1950s entirely. An article in The Christian Science Monitor reported admiringly that “Despite their busy schedule, Jane does the housework without help[.]” [“‘Muppets’ Win Way,” The Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA), December 15, 1959.]
- ^ A possibly apocryphal story goes that Jim’s mother made him shave off his beard for his wedding, so with typical Hensonian humor, he put its remains in an envelope and sent it to Jane, addressed “From Samson to Delilah.” [Alison Inches, Jim Henson’s Designs and Doodles: A Muppet Sketchbook, (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 2001), 22.]
- ^ https://www.umd.edu/traditions/landmarks/