Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and undoubtedly the most beloved puppeteer in history, was born in the town of Greenville, Mississippi, on September 24, 1936. The son of an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jim moved with his family to Hyattsville, Maryland in the late 1940s. Already a skilled puppeteer, Jim began his studies in theatre arts at the University of Maryland in 1955.
That year marked the appearance of his first television show, Sam and Friends, a five-minute late-night puppet show he produced along with another freshman, Jane Nebel, whom he would marry in 1959. The show featured some early incarnations of his famous Muppet characters, including a lovable frog named Kermit that Jim fashioned from one of his mother’s old coats and two ping-pong balls.
In 1958 Sam and Friends earned Jim his first Emmy® award; he would go on to win an impressive 30 Emmys during his lifetime for his work with the Jim Henson Company.
The Muppets—Jim coined the term “Muppet” to describe his unique combination of marionette and foam-rubber hand puppets—immediately proved popular, starring in television commercials and regularly appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Then, in 1969, came the immensely successful Sesame Street, making Kermit a bona fide star and introducing the world to Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Bert, and the rest of the gang and earning Emmys and plaudits for the indelible ways it taught children the alphabet, arithmetic, and life lessons. “The Muppets transcend all age groups,” he once said. “Their satiric comment on society seems to delight all ages.”
It wasn’t until The Muppet Show debuted in 1976, starring Kermit and the egotistical and hilariously outspoken Miss Piggy, that the Muppets became a favorite of fans of all ages. An estimated 235 million viewers tuned in to The Muppet Show each week in more than 100 countries. In 1979, Jim turned to the big screen with a feature film, The Muppet Movie, followed The Great Muppet Caper, in which Jim made his directorial debut, and The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Jim decided to entrust the Muppets to The Walt Disney Company in 1989, although the acquisition was not actually completed until 2004. There were parallels between the two companies’ creative geniuses: Walt and Jim were small-town boys who took something considered simple and limited in appeal—animation and puppetry—and elevated them to art forms that charmed fans of all ages.
In 1989, in addition to working on the Here Come The Muppets show for the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), Jim collaborated with Walt Disney Imagineering on the beloved Muppet*Vision 3D attraction, his last film, which is still charming audiences at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and at Disney California Adventure. Jim’s last project was the television special The Muppets at Walt Disney World, which aired on NBC in 1990.
Jim was also the creative force behind the innovative Dinosaurs television series for ABC, which ran from 1991-1994. The Henson family has continued to contribute to the Disney legacy; Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and the rest of the gang finally returned to the big screen in The Muppets and are scheduled to follow that movie with The Muppets… Again! in 2014.
Jim passed away unexpectedly on May 16, 1990, robbing us all of future Disney collaborations and the fruits of his genius. “We both work for families, and at Disney they have the best ways of reaching families, the best distribution channels,” he said in an article published just before he passed away. “I wanted to work with that whole Disney machinery. It’s such a terrifically strong thing. Besides, we’re having a lot of fun.”