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Unforgettable Jim Henson

The following article is from the November 1990 issue of Readers' Digest.

The most sophisticated people I know-inside they're all children.-Jim Henson

Every week across United States and scores of other countries, millions of children flick on one of the greatest television shows of all time-a show as popular as ever after 21 years.
More incredible still, the cast of characters in this show, imaginatively called "Sesame Street" (after "Open Sesame," the Arabian Nights invitation to discovery), is as unlikely a group as the world's children ever took into their hearts. Among the fictional creatures are such funny folk of felt or fur, gazing at you with Ping-Pong-ball eyes, as an uneasy green frog, a royal-blue monster with an insatiable appetite for cookies, and a big, curious, naive, vulnerable, sympathetic golden bird.
They are the Muppets-one of the most worthwile creations in popular culture. It is likely that more people can name the Muppet pig (Miss Piggy, femme fatale) who is in love with the Muppet frog (Kermit, "my frog") than can name the capital of Iraq.
Behind this phenomenal show-business success story was Jim Henson, the brilliant creator of the Muppets, who once struggled to explain their phenomenal appeal. "I think it's a sense of innocence, of the naivete of a young person meeting life. Even the most worldly of our characters in innocent. Our villains are innocent, really. And it's that innocence that is the connection to the audience."
This special distinction, along with an almost child-like genius, echoed through all of Jim's work. "The most sophisticated people I know-inside they're all children," he told me another time. "We never really lost a certain sense we had when we were kids. That sense of looking around at this big world and not knowing who we are and what we're supposed to be doing here." In short, a sense of vulnerability mixed with a larger sense of wonder.

Prezel Shapes. Starting in 1969, "Sesame Street" brought a rare combination of education and entertainment to its young audience, youngsters roughly two through five years of age-and quicker than you could say "Cookie Monster," these children were learning their letters and numbers and many other things from the Muppets.
When my two sons found out I was going to talk to Jim Henson for an article on "Sesame Street," there was no way they would let me out of our house without tagging along. Indeed, their response to Jim and his Muppets was one of the things that made me realize what a very special person he was.
I remember Jim's warm, gentle-eyed greeting, when Michael, T.H. and I showed up on a television sound stage on Manhatten's West Side. Taking us to a table where a Muppet frog lay lifeless, Jim slipped his hand into the piece of fabric and brought him suddenly alive.
"Hey, look!" Kermit told my sons. "I can salute!" And with a deft movement of a rod attached to Kermit's right hand, Jim made the Muppet deliver a snappy salute.
We watched the rehearsal of a scene in which Jim operated a round-face Muppet named Ernie, and a mustachioed, balding Frank Oz was an oval-headed Muppet named Bert. Standing below an elevated set, both men held their characters over their heads so the camera could see the Muppets, but not Jim and Frank. They kept track of what their Muppets were doing by watching a small monitor below the stage. Often Jim and his fellow Muppeteers had to twist themselves into pretzel shapes to create some of the complicated Muppet routines. Yet what viewers saw on the screen were the Muppets moving with astonishing grace.
"Looks like hard work," Michael said when we later watched the same scenes on a TV screen with Jim.
"The only way the magic works is by hard work," he told my sons. 'But hard work can be fun." The parent in me cheered.
Wathcing the TV replay, my younger son, T.H., was amazed. "We didn't see the rods on the screen!" he told Jim. "They're painted on to match the background," the Muppeteer said. "It's important for the illusion that these character seem to mave and think for themselves."

Network Debut. The child is the man was born James Maury Henson in Greenville, Miss., on September 24, 1936. Jim's mother, Elizabeth, wsa a woman of lively imagination. His father, Paul, was an agronomist with the United States Department of Agriculture, working on pasture crops. (One of these bore the odd name of birds-foot trefoil, and Jim, forever capitivated by funny names, later christened a Muppet after this crop: Herbert Birdsfoot.)
When Paul Henson was transferred to Maryland, the family moved to Hyattsville. In school, Jim was never much of an athlete, but he was always a great dreamer. The last one chosen for baseball games, he would stand dreaming in right field, where there was never much action. That suited him hust fine.
In 1949, when he turned 13, the quiet youngster began badgering his parents to buy a new appliance called television, so he could watch the puppet show "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" and, later, "Life with Snarky Parker." In high school Jim joined a puppet club, and after graduation he landed a job with a local TV station that was looking for young puppeteers.
Continuing to make TV appearences, Jim enrolled at the University of Maryland, and during his first year was offered a late-night, five-minute TV show in Washington, D.C. He asked Jane Nebel, a fellow art student, to work with him. "It was admiration at fist sight," Jane said later.
In 1956, the Muppets made their network television debut on Steve Allen's "Tonight!" show. Jim's Kermit the Frog-fashioned from his mother's old coat-wore a blond wig and sang "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" to an unsightly, purple-faced monster operated by Jane.

"Huge Inspiration." Jim tried to interest the three U.S. networks in a family variety series built around the Muppets, but was turned down. However, England's Lord Grade liked the idea, and in 1976 put "The Muppet Show into world distribution from London. combining the biggest American stars-from Bob Hope to Julie Andrews-and the smallest Muppets.
Comedian Mel Brooks, who apeared in The Muppet Movie, once said that the basic message of "The Muppet Show" was that "The meek shall inherit the earth." The Muppets were equally admiring of their guests. Of Ethel Merman, who appeared on the show during its first season, Jim's Kermit once intoned, "When she sings, I get people in my throat."
Jim and Jane were married in 1959. By the 1970s, Jane was spending most of her time at the Henson home in Bedford, N.Y., raising their five children. An affectionate father, Jim encouraged Brian, Cheryl, Heather, John and Lisa to watch how the Muppet magic was made-and get involved.
Brain Henson remembers the "huge inspiration" that came from growing up around a man whose special fantasy was always spilling over into his family. Not surprisingly, all five children have worked in the arts. Brian, like his father, became a puppeteer.

Alter Ego. In all, Jim and his colleagues created more thatn 2000 rich and woolly and imaginative Muppet characters. Some became superstars-like the seductive Miss Piggy and Cookie Monster (both operated by Frank Oz), Big Bird (Carroll Spinney) and, of course, Jim's own, irrepressible Kermit. "I suppose he's an alter ego," Jim once said, "but he's a little snarkier than I am-slightly wise. Kermit says things I hold myself back from saying."
Yet Kermit, like Jim, was ever the trouper. In a movie back lot in Hollywood, I remember Jim and Kermit aboard abathysphere, being lowered into a "Georgia swamp" for a scene in The Muppet Movie. A log had been fitted on top of the bathysphere, and Kermit was perched on the log. In Jim's tiny submarine compartment was a bread-box TV monitor and all six feet, three inches of Jim, jammed into a cross-legged yoga crouch. Air was fed to him through a hose, and electric cables brought him the director's instructions and the picture on the TV monitor.
Through two rubber gloves that came out of the top of the diving bell, Jim manipulated Kermit's mouth with his right hand so Kermit could sing, and with his left hand Jim used a nearly invisible black wire to make Kermit strum the banjo. Jim was underwater for three or four hours at a time.
Why all this? So audiences would better accept the seemingly effortless illusion that Kermit was alive and real.

Galloping Pneumonia. Jim drove himself hard-and the results showed. As of last year, "Sesame Street" was being watched by more than 68 percent of all households with a child under six. "The Muppet Show" plays weekly to 235 million viewers in over 100 countries. Altogether, Jim Henson Productions has won 22 Emmy Awards, with 12 going to Henson personally. His company also the prestigious Peabody Award in 1978 and again in 1986. Meanwhile, his movies drew millions of fans.
All of this activity, however, wore Jim out. This past May, after appearing on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in Los Angeles, Jim complained of fatigue and a sore throat. Returning to New York with what he thought was the flu, he put off seeing a doctor. When Jane Henson finally got him to New York Hospital, he was having trouble breathing.
An agressive, overwhelming type of pneumonia known as streptococcus pneumonia Group A had been galloping through his body for at least three days. He was immediately treated with huge doses of antibiotics, but hte infection had already overwhelmed him. This led to kidney and heart failure, and he died 20 hours later.
At his memorial service, thousands crowded the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. In place of a traditional service, Jim's family substituted a "celebration of life." Mourners waved brightly colored foam butterflies that were handed out with memorial programs.

Art of Appreciation. "After the serive," says fellow Muppeteer Frank Oz, one of Jim's closest friends, "I wandered around for days and weeks, thinking about Jim. And one image kept coming back to me. It was of Jim standing with his arm folded, wearing a very warm smile, looking, just appreciating.
"Sure, Jim the creator was a genius. Yet I see Jim foremost as an appreciator. He appreciated the Muppet family and his own family. He appreciated flying kites with his children. He appreciated beauty, and he appreciated fun."
And out of that, in turn, Jim made appreciators of the rest of us. We appreciate Jim Henson's brilliance, his joy of life and, especially, the joy he brought to millions of us around the country-and around the world.

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