The Early Years


Jim and Sam and Friends

James Maury Henson was born 79 years ago today, on September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi–which, not coincidentally, was also Kermit’s home state–living there with his mother and father, Betty and Paul, and older brother, Paul, until the family finally moved to Hyattsville, Maryland in the late ’40s. He grew up loving the movies, imagination, and play. His beloved grandma on his mother’s side, affectionately called “Dear,” instilled in him a love of all sorts of arts and crafts, from drawing to sewing to making props. Throughout his childhood, Jim would often be in the midst of huge, involved projects from the aforementioned ones to assembling homemade working radios and the like. Meanwhile, for entertainment, his family would gather around the radio and listen to comedy, radio dramas, and puppeteers such as Edgar Bergen (who was a huge radio star, despite being a ventriloquist).


And then in the early ’50s, after they moved to Maryland, Jim convinced his family to buy a TV, which practically became the Holy Grail of technology for the young boy. He was captivated with all that this little box could do and he devoured countless shows. He was particularly taken with the variety show format, which would serve him well in his own career when he was older, but even from an early age knew that he wanted to work in television. According to Brian Jay Jones’ Jim Henson: The Biography, another major influence on young Jim was Walt Kelly’s comic strip, Pogo, which was about a “calm-at-the-eye-of-the-hurricane main character,” a sweet possum, surrounded by a “colorful” and chaotic ensemble animal cast, in Jim’s own words, “bouncing off him”–another dynamic that should be very recognizable to Muppet fans, as was the strip’s humor, which delivered sharp, adult satire to its audience underneath the surface of its “disarmingly cute,” seemingly childish cast, which taught Jim how humor can be pitched to adults even while the children appreciate the characters’ soft, cuddly exteriors.


In high school, Jim became very involved with theatre but was actually much more interested in backstage production than performing, mostly designing posters and painting sets for the school productions. He apparently did join the puppetry club but most likely due to the fact that they were putting on a show of Pogo. This would become a running theme in his life–not necessarily choosing to be a puppeteer but finding himself drawn into it over and over again. In 1954, when he was 17, a local TV network was looking for young people to work marionettes on a children’s show called The Junior Morning Show, and Jim applied for the job because he was so desperate to begin his TV career. Although he had no real experience with puppetry, he read up on the subject, checking a few books on technique out of his local library, building some puppets with his friend, Russell Wall, and getting the job with him. It didn’t last long, however, because the show was canceled for violating child labor laws with some of their other hires, but Jim and his friend, who were old enough, impressed the network so much they were placed on another show, Saturday, where they performed puppets lip-synching to records.


Jim in college

Jim in college

He continued to do puppetry for the network even while attending college at the University of Maryland, designing sets, and even printing silkscreen posters for the school’s theatre program, running his own small side business. Not long after joining the school, he transferred from Art to the school’s Home Ec major, which actually encompassed set and costume design, advertising, puppetry, and more, and as it turned out, he had more practical puppetry experience as a freshman than the professors, so he practically spearheaded that part of the program himself. He also met his future wife, Jane Nebel–who herself proved to be a very good puppeteer–there and the two began to collaborate on projects together. In 1955, Jim and Jane were hired to perform their puppets on a new local show, Afternoon, the announcement in the local paper of which was the first time the term “Muppets” was used in print. Fun fact: although many people believe that “Muppet” derived from a mixture of “marionette” and “puppet,” and Jim himself claimed this at the start in order to give reporters a solid answer, he later admitted that it actually has no meaning. Basically, he just liked the sound of it. Jones also suggests that it may have subconsciously derived from the old English word, “moppet,” meaning “small child,” which interestingly enough, itself derived from moppe, which meant a “rag doll”!


Anyway, it’s on Afternoon, where Jim and Jane began to develop a style that would recur throughout his career. At this point, his puppets were still lip-synching to records. Later, they would sing old, contemporary, novelty, and original songs themselves, but this established the indelible link between Muppets and music performance, as well as zany comedy, lots of explosions, and often larger, monster-shaped Muppets eating other Muppets. They became so popular that, in 1955, they were given their own show, Sam and Friends–a short 5-minute program that at first aired at 11:25 PM, between the local news and the start of The Tonight Show, and thus an amazing slot. Sadly, the majority of these early Sam and Friends episodes don’t exist any more. In fact, the reason I’m not blogging on episodes in this first entry is that the ones that do survive are actually from a few years later, so I’ll get to them the day after tomorrow. For now, it’s important to note that the show was about a bald, funny-looking human Muppet named Sam, who was surrounded by a bunch of colorful, abstract friends such as Harry the Hipster, Yorick, Mushmellon, Hank, Frank, and most importantly of all, Kermit, who Jim designed by cutting up an old felt coat of his mother’s and gluing on a cut-up ping-pong ball for the eyes. At this point, Kermit wasn’t a frog, but like the other characters, was just a weird, abstract, undefinable, anthropomorphic…thing. Even at the time, Kermit was his favorite, Henson having made him in order to find a creative outlet to help him cope with his sadness over his grandfather’s death.


A young Jim and a young Kermit

A young Jim and a young Kermit

Other cool things to know about Sam and Friends: before the show, any time puppets appeared on TV, they would tend to be within a puppet theatre, just as they were on stage. Examples include The Howdy Doody Show and Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. Like puppets of old, they would have static, frozen expressions on their faces and would also always play against a human performer. That’s because most other people didn’t realize what Jim intrinsically understood–that TV was its own artistic medium, not just a conduit to watch live performances from elsewhere. Traditionally, puppets didn’t need to have expressive faces because they were designed to be viewed from far away, in a theatre. But on TV, the cameras could zoom in very close, and so in order to create characters for people to identify with and fall in love with, Jim understood that they’d need to have more pliable, alert faces capable of movement and emotion. He also realized that performers didn’t have to hide behind a puppet stage. All they would have to do is hide out of camera range–under and/or to the side, and so they could have all the room they needed to move around in, as long as it wasn’t captured by the camera.


He even came up with the now-standard technique of having small monitors beside him and Jane that showed them exactly what was happening on camera, so they could move the puppets around freely but also be able to see their own performances. And he also understood that humans didn’t have to be on screen at all. He also created a technique known as the “Henson triangle” that had to do with eye, nose, and mouth placement, all the puppets given slighly crossed eyes, which added to the illusion of expressiveness. It’s easy to take many of these things for granted today, but at the time, this was all revolutionary. Common facts we know about puppets today are actually things that Jim Henson innovated while trying to come up with solutions to improve his 5-minute-long late-night TV puppet show!


Anyway, the show began to grow more and more popular to the point that Jim and Jane were getting hired on other shows for the network, even eventually appearing on The Tonight Show. By 1957, they were doing about 10 shows a week, sometimes as many as 3 per day. And this was around the time that a local advertiser, the John H. Wilkins Coffee Co., became interested in approaching Jim to create humorous ads for their product, which jump-started an extremely lucrative period in Jim’s career that further catapulted the Muppets to stardom and became a staple of his resume for years to come. Tomorrow, I’ll be posting on those early ads, which took the form of two of Jim’s earliest, most well-known-at-the-time Muppet characters, Wilkins and Wontkins!


PS. And if you would like a much more in-depth look at Jim Henson’s life, do yourself a favor and buy Brian Jay Jones’ masterful Jim Henson: The Biography. Raving about it enough simply isn’t possible.

« »