May 16, 2010

James Maury "Jim" Henson (September 24, 1936 – May 16, 1990)

I actually remember the day, 20 years ago, when I heard on the news of his passing. I was sad, I felt like Kermit, had suddenly died as well. Instantly, the image of all the muppet characters ceasing to exist entered my mind. Then the logic occurred to me that they were only characters operated by people, and that all the puppets he instilled life into with his hands and his voice, would be replaced by other performers, and eventually they were, but it was never quite the same.

He is one of the most widely known puppeteers in American history. He was the leading force behind the long running television series Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and films such as The Muppet Movie (1979) and creator of advanced puppets for projects like Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Return of the Jedi. He was also an Oscar-nominated film director, Emmy Award-winning television producer, and the founder of The Jim Henson Company, the Jim Henson Foundation, and Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

Henson's sudden death on May 16, 1990, of Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome (a bacterial infection), resulted in an outpouring of public and professional affection. There have since been numerous tributes and dedications in his memory. Henson’s companies, which are now run by his children, continue to produce films and television shows.

On September 26, 1992, Henson was posthumously awarded the Courage of Conscience Award for being a "Humanitarian, muppeteer, producer and director of films for children that encourage tolerance, interracial values, equality and fair play."

Jim Henson never thought that he would make a name of himself in puppetry; it was merely a way of getting himself on television. The vehicle that achieved it was "Sam and Friends" (1955), a late-night puppet show that was on after the 11:00 news in Washington DC. It proved to be very popular and inspired Jim to continue using puppets for his work. He made many commercials, developing the signature humor that Henson Productions is known for. A key reason for the success of his puppets is that Jim realized he didn't need to hide puppeteers behind a structure when they were in front of a camera. All he had to do was instruct the camera operators to focus on the puppets and keep the puppeteers out of the frame. This allowed the puppets to dominate the image and make them more lifelike.

Not only was he the creator of The Muppets, but he has been a massive creative influence to many artists, animators and puppeteers, during and after his life. For me personally, he is as close to a 'religion' as there is. If you define religion as a system of human thought that includes a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices that give meaning to the practitioner's experiences of life... then yes, I suppose the 'Church of Henson' is my faith. I was devoted to his work as a child and even more now. I respect and appreciate his endeavors and I've grown to admire his passion for the unique style of storytelling that he developed.

I find it strange how I can miss a man that I've never met, 20 years after his passing. I never met Jim, but when I watch clips of him and focus on the characters he's created and observe the large amounts of work he's done in the 35 years of television and film production he had accomplished, I feel as if I do know him, and he was just plain awesome.

Below is an incredible one hour 1994 documentary titled "The World of Jim Henson"

It includes the beginnings of The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fragile Rock, The Muppet Movie, The Storyteller, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal. With appearences from Frank Oz, Lew Grade, Jon Stone, Maurice Sendak, Jane Henson, Jerry Juhl, Ted Koppel, Harry Belafonte, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian Henson and many more. Along with Henson's early works including some footage from 1960's commercial ads, the 1965 independent movie 'Time Piece', and archive footage from The Jimmy Dean Show, the Goldie Hawn Special, The Ed Sullivan Show, and dozens of fascinating interviews with the people who worked with him the most.

Part 7 can be seen here.

Unfortunately the song at the very end of part 9 was removed due to Copyright.

The one-hour special - The Muppets' Tribute to Jim Henson:

The Muppets Celebrate 30 years (CBS 1986):

No comments: