Brian Jay Jones. Jim Henson: The Biography. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013.
On “Sesame Street”, which used Jim Henson’s Muppets, sets were six feet high so puppeteers could operate the puppets while standing.
Many enjoyed it when Muppets interacted with children. Children were not subjected to the high sets. The puppets were then hand operated behind sets.
Henson was born to a Christian Science family They bought a television in 1950. Henson found inspiration he took from his childhood from stars such as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, and Ernie Kovacs. In addition, he was drawn to the puppets “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” as performed by Burr Tillstrom and starring Fran Allison.
Henson was also a fan of the comic strip “Pogo”. Henson learned from “Pogo” that one may expertly play to both young and adult audiences. He further learned from “Pogo” that audiences would accept controversial statements if they were made with a smile.
Also in 1950, the Christian Science Monitor published a comic that 13 year old Jim Henson submitted.
Henson read library books on puppetry. He used the lessons by auditioning for a puppet job on a local television station. He got the job and began working at age 17 on a program the “Junior Morning Show”. The show was cancelled after three weeks when it was discovered three other puppeteers were underage which violated child labor laws.
Fortunately, Henson worked long enough to impress Roy Meachum. He hired Henson to have puppets lip synch records on his “Saturday” show. Unfortunately, that show was cancelled soon afterwards.
Henson also tok classes at the University of Maryland.With the show canceled, he put his efforts into his studies, where he learned about television production and design, puppetry, and arts education, which was then the Home Economics Department, later renamed Practical Arts which included arts courses. This department had less math and sciences than required in other schools which appealed to Henson. Henson was one of six males in the program with 500 females. The puppetry teacher, Ed Longley, was informed his jewelry class that they was hired to teach, which was his specialty, also required him to puppetry, even though he was not a puppeteer. Henson became a leader in the class helping students on their group projects.
The local TV station WRC began a variety show “Afternoon” in 1955. On March 7, 1955, the puppeteers Henson and Jane Nebel were listed as the Muppets, a technical mistake since Muppets are the puppets and not the puppeteers. Still, this was the first ever mention of the Muppets.
Henson had to essentially develop new material for a live daily show. Show host Mac McGarry claimed Henson did so in a manner of minutes. Often a Muppet would lip sync to a novelty song.
Henson was uncertain of his work and asked to be added to the floor crew. Yet the show personnel loved his Muppets. It is claimed he was told if he kept up his Muppets that Henson would “get very rich.”
Nine weeks afterwards, the Muppets had their own show “Sam and Friends” on the 11 pm news with anchor Richard Harkness. Sam was a Muppet with friends that included Henson’s favorite character, a purplish Kermit made from a felt coat and two ping pong balls as eyes.
With TV, Henson realized that theater was what the camera presented, Henson watched his performances on a monitor so he could make immediate changes to make his act better. The Muppets had movable mouths and could show expressions.
Henson first was paid $5 a week. He was soon making $100 a week. At age 19, he was paid $5,200 yet took his set and puppet construction out of that money.
Henson was still in college and eyeing a television job in production and job design. He then did not think he’d be doing puppetry for long.
“Sam and Friends” was canceled in the summer of 1955. There were enough phone calls and letters upset over the cancellation that the show was returned and, instead of being on three nights a week, it was increased to five nights a week.
Jim Henson’s brother died in an automobile accident. Jim Henson realized there was a small time to accomplish things. Henson began working harder.
Word of the Muppets spread. They were signed to do a guest appearance on the “Tonight Show” with Steve Allen. The audience roared its approval of the Muppets.
“Sam and Friends” was added to the last minutes of the early evening news, thus appearing at 6:50 pm and 11:25 pm. In addition, there were appearances on other shows and public appearances. Henson had a job promised by WRC in its sets and scenes department, so he ended he college studying.
Henson experimented with camera tricks and angles and used different lens types. A wide angle lens made a Muppet moving forward appears to be running faster.
In 1957, Stan Freberg learned that his records were being used without credit or payment on the Muppets. A cease and desist order was issued. Yet, when Freberg saw the Muppets, he telegraphed “I take it all back. This is the greatest act I’ve ever seen. I am honored to let you use my records for ever and longer.”
Henson developed a Professor Madcliffe, a Muppet that Henson voiced. Thus a Muppet could interact with others.
The early Muppet humor was the Muppets lip singing to a song ending with either one eating the other or both blowing up.
Jim Henson and Jane Nebel, who dated and were then engaged to others, had a strictly business relationship. They became business partners in 1957.
The Muppets were hired by the John H Willkins Co. to be in commercials. A Muppet named Wontkins would refuse to sample Wilkins coffee and then be hit, shot, blown up, decapitated, etc. with a slogan such as “Use Wilkins coffee...or else!” As he learned with Pogo, one may be controversial if entertaining. WIlkins coffee sales increased 25%. Henson and Nobel won a local advertising excellence award. Wilkins Coffee sold Wilkins and Wontka puppets in 1958 as a promotion using the Muppets name. Henson and Nobel received no proceeds from the promotoin yet they were not bothered by it.
Other companies wanted to use Muppets in advertising. Nash’s Coffee paid $20,000 for eight commercials. Other coffee companies and a soda company around the country used Muppets. Henson reshot a commercial for each ratner than redubbing the company’s name.
“Sam and Friends” won an Emmy in 1959 for Best Local Entertainment Program.
Henson still preferred a career creating and painting sets. WRC asked Henson to keep “Sam and Friends” yet to have someone else perform the puppets. Henson asked a college friend Bobby Payne and then trained him to do the show. Jane Nebel ran the show.
Henson went on a European vacation. He marveled at numerous Punch and Judy puppet shows and how they interacted with audiences. He realized puppets were an art form. He returned excited to go back ino puppetry.
Henson returned to college in 1959. During his absence, the Muppets became part of the “In Our Town” daily afternoon variety show where they made regular daily appearances.
Henson and Nebel formally created Muppets Inc. in 1958 with Henson owning 60% and Nebel 40%. Engagements for both Henson and Nebel. They began dating and then married.
Henson added more voices. He never asked Nevel to provide voices.
The Muppets appeared on the ‘Today” show with host Dave Garroway in New York via a feed so they could stay in Washington, D.C.
Jane Nebel left performing after the birth of their second child.
The Henson family attended Puppeteers of America conventions. They befriended Mike Oznowicz, who had fled from Europe during the Nazis. Jim Henson got to know their son Frank, who was a high school senior expert on marionette. To Frank, this was a hobby. He had performed without pay at Fairyland Amusement Park and the Oakland Recreational Department. Jim Henson saw Frank perform and advised that Henson thought the ending was weak. Frank lated observed “That was Jim. My endings were a bit artsy, whereas Jim liked things to be blown up or eaten.”
Frank would later shorten his last name to Oz and would work on the Muppets. Jim Henson also met Jerome Juhl at the conventions. Juhl bcame the first full time employee at Muppets, Inc.
Henson and Juhl went to a weeklong U.S. Food Fair in Hamburg, Germany to perform. In some scenes, Henson and Juhl worked with Henson controlling a puppet’s mouth with his right hand and operating the puppet’s left hand. Juhl would operate the puppet’s right hand. They had to learn to work together.
For the Food Fair, Henson and Juhl performed a chef speaking mock German who frantically cut things up including a handkerchief and put them into a bowl that exploded in the end. This would later develop into the Swedish chef character,
“Sam ad Friends” ended December 15, 1961. The final showed the set exploding.
In 1962, Jim and Jane Henson, Jerry Juhl, and Bobby Payne filmed a TV pilot “Tales of the Tinkerdee”. No network bought it.
Jim Henson was elected President of the Puppeteers of America in 1962 at age 25. the youngest President they ever had.
The Muppets became regular on the “Mad, Mad World” TV program They also began appearing on the “Today” show about once a month.
The Muppets did seven Purina Dog Chows ads for Canadian TV. Henson asked master puppeteer Don Sahlin, to build the dog Muppets. Henson was impressed that he hired Sahlin as the Muppets main designer and builder. Sahlin was known for creating Muppets with abstract expressions and they were sewed with seams that were undetectable.
Purina offered Henson $100,000 for the rights to own the Rowlf dog Muppets shown in the commercials. Henson declined, realizing the importance of the business end of his work. He knew to keep ownership of characters.
Henson moved the business from Maryland to New York City. He moved into his new apartment at 5 am after driving all night and proceeded to appear on that morning’s “Today” show.
Henson, Juhl, and Sahlin opened a Muppets, Inc. office at 303 E. 53rd Street, Manhattan. A secretary was later hired and then 19 year old Frank Oz was hired. Oz worked part-time for $100 a week while taking college courses at City College of New York.
The “Today” show appearances ended. Fortunately, the Muppets were hired to be on seven episodes of “The Jimmy Dean Show” on ABC. Dean remembered the Muppets form seeing them on local D.C. television. Fan mail, especially for Rowlf, came in. Rawl was the first Muppet to perform with a human, Jimmy Dean. Rawl received more fan mail than did Jimmy Dean.
Jimmy Dean bought the Muppets on tour with him.
Dean paid the Muppets $1,500 per show for the first sven shows in 1963, then $1,750 for the remaining shows The pay was increased on the third season at $1,800.
It was observed that Muppets were popular with adults as well as children.
Commercial income ept the Muppets operations proceeding Alden Muvrey was hired to manage business and contracts. Under a year, Henson decided to handle the business end himself.
The Muppets did commercials for over 50 companies in under a decade.
Henson believed in reshooting until the shot was correct. A commercial could be shot over four days at $12,000 studio cost.
Over time, it was discovered that Jerry Suhl had writing talent as well as performing. Juhl began writing many of the Muppets scripts.
Henson filmed a short movie “Time Piece”. It run for 18 months in New York’s Paris Theatre. It was nominated for Best Short Subject, Live Action Academy Award The Muppets filmed a second pilot, “The Land of Tinderdee”.
Jerry Nelson was hired to give another voice to the Muppets. Frank Oz refused to do voices until about a year later.
Henson wanted a shot of an arrow sticking to an apple on top of a Muppet’s head. He hired a professional archer who needed five takes. Henson was not afraid while Jerry Nelson ducked as far as he could get. Jane would declare of Jim, “Oh, my God, he’s crazy.”
Frank Oz was drafted into the military. Jerry Nelson was hired full time. Frank Oz was rejected due to a minor heart condition just after his own farewell party had concluded.
The Muppets made regular appearances on the “Ed Sullivan” and “Tonight” shows along with other show guest appearances. Henson noted “our material does hav ea certain similarity” as characters still brlw up and dance to songs.
The Muppets co-hosted for a week on “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1966.
The Ideal Toy Company made Kermit and Rowl puppets. In a TV commercial for the puppets, a Kermit puppet advertised “buy us...(or) we’ll bite you in the leg.”
Henson saw his Muppets as tools that could be taken apart and used as needed. Unneeded Muppets were put into his children’s toy boxes. Eventually one of these toys would be salvaged and is now in the Smithsonian Institution.
Henson pitched TV show ideas “Moki” about an adrogynous man mistaken for a woman and for “Inside My Head” which showed montages of brain functions, and two Muppets themed shows, “Adventures of the Snerf-Proof from Planet Snee” and “Johnny Carson and the Muppet Machine”. None of these ideas sold in 1967.
NBC, though, had a TV series “Experiment in Television” for experimental film. They liked Henson’s “A Collage of Today”. NBC gave a $100,000 budget and produced “Youth 68: Everything in Changing, Or Maybe It Isn’t.”
It required 20 hour work days for two months. The program ended with a long haired young man declaring “Nothing will be changed. The people who watch a broadcast like this aren’t going to learn anything.”
The Muppet Inc. moved to two floors at 237bE. 67th St. The offices were renamed Henson Associate with amusingly amed divison HUM! (Henson Universal Music), HIT! (Henson International TV), HE! (Henson Entertainment), and HO! (Henson Organization).
In 1968, Henson aired “The Cube” on NBC, another experimental show. It was about a man trapped in a cube he learns he is on a TV show.
The Children’s Television Workshop (TCW) sought to create a school that would educate children, especially inner city poor children. Educational TV so far had been class lectures. Children’s TV had been entertaining but not very educational. The CTW sought a TV show with slapstick humor, avant garde videos, and would teach children. Jim Henson was approached. His first reaction was of disinterest as he did not see himself as a children’s puppeteer. He was offered creative avenues more than puppets including short teaching films. This got Henson’s attention. He was intrigued with creating “educational commercials” eight seconds long that would repeat two to three times hourly teaching about letters, numbers, body parts, etc.
Henson agreed to have Muppets on the show yet insisted on retaining character ownership. This caused some concern among the CTW attorneys. It was agreed they would share profits from seeling any Muppet-related items from the show.
Henson billed CTW $40,000 for the first batch of films, even though they cost more than that to make. He did not want to bill them for overages above their initial agreement.
Henson created the Muppet characters Bert and Ernie for “Sesame Street”. Big Bird was created to represent the awkwardness of childhood. Oscar was created as a grouch o the show would not be all sweetness.
Henson attended the 1969 Puppeteers of American annual conference. There he watched Puppeteer Carroll Spinney performing experimental interactive puppeteering and was impressed even though a spotlight ruined his animation. Henson tod Spinney I liked what you were trying to do”. Henson asked Spinney to join the Muppets. Spinney had been asked to talk with Henson four ear earlier. Spinney realized when Henson talked he meant to do it. This time, spinney responded he would do it. Spinney was inside the Big Bird costume.
“Sesame Street” began having already covered in Life magazine. It was a hit from the start,
The Muppets created a special “The Great Santa Clause Switch” with Art Carney. The script had been in progress for six years.
More people were hired as the Muppets expanded.
Some have wondered what educational lessons are taught by Muppets slapstick humor. Yet it got children watching the show.
A newspaper critical comment about Kermit caused Henson to keep Kermit off the show for almost a year. Herbert Birdsfoot filled the void but didn’t seem to work as well as Kermit. Kermit returned.
Monsters had long been a part of Muppets routines, often devouring other characters. A monster that would appeal to children, and not frighten them, was introduced as the Cookie Monster. A monster previously in the crowd, Grover, then stepped forward.
The show writers were often too idle. The Muppets would ad lib scenes with children.
In the second season, seven children watched “Sesame Street” in the U.S. It was shown in 50 countries, but not in Great Britain, where BBC labeled it “undemocratic and possibly dangerous.”
TV Guide estimated, accurately according to the author, that Henson Associates earned $350,000 in 1969, including about $25,0000 per commercia. Henson began devoting his energies to “Sesame Street” and vastly reduced his commercial work.
“Sesame Street” released records. The album won a Grammy for Henson singing as Ernie the song “Rubber Duckie”, which peaked at #16 on the hit list. Merchandising followed. Topper Toys earned over $5 milin selling “Sesame Street items.
The Muppets got their own TV show, “The Muppet Show”..A young executive Michael Eisner approved creating a pilot .
Henson estimated each show would require about $32,500 to create. It turned out each “Muppet Show” episode cost about $125,000. Eisner recommended approval of the show. “ A “Muppet Valentine Show” was shown on ABC to critical acclaims.
The Muppets made several appearance on the “Cher” show. The Cher” show producer raised the idea of CBS showing “The Muppets Show”. A pitch reel with Cher and Cher’s daughter Chastity was filmed with Muppets. CBS considered “The Muppet Show” for Sunday night but went with “60 Minutes”, a move that doomed “The Muppet Show” on CBS.
The Muppets were cast on a new show “Saturday Night Live” (SNL). The Muppets sketch was critcially condemned for jokes that didn’t work. Henson was upset that he had no script input as only SNL writers were allowed to write the skits. Write Alan Zweibel claimed wirters didn’t want to write the Muppets skits. Actor John Belushi referred to them as the “mucking Fuppets”.
“The Muppet Show” was accepted by Lord Lew Grade for his ITC/ATV produciton company for prime time syndication. At a time when most TV shows cost $80,000 per episode to produce, Henson was given $125,000 per episode. “Saturday Night Live” let The Muppets out of their SNL contract.
“The Muppets Show” became very successful in England. Two years later, they became a hit in the U.S. They then became a global hit.
“The Muppet Show” ran for five years. There would be three shows in soe stage of production including post production at most any one time.
The show placed character and visual interactions over jokes.
Meanwhile, the Muppets won two Emmys for their “Sesame Street‘“ work.
“The Muppet Show” began in the US. on five statons in 1975, and nearly162 stations in 1976.
The American Guild of Variety Artists named the Muppets as Entertainer of the Year.
Henson looked towards amking movies. Lord Lew Grade was agreeable to financing the movie. Henson asked for $8 million at at time when Disney films average $1 million. Henson didn’ tell Grande he had two movies in mind.
Frank Oz received more responsibility. He wasn’t a writer yet he would meet with the writers and would let them know what wasn’t working. Oz was given a Creative Consultant credit.
“The Muppet Movie” had a finale with 250 Muppets. 150 puppeteers were hired, including Tim Burton and director John Landis.
“The Muppet Movie” was released in 1979. It grossed $65 million in its first release.
“The Muppet Show” had 235 million viewers worldwide.
Henson wanted to d a non-Muppet movie. Lord Grade wanted to have another Muppets movie while their popularity remained strong.
For the movie “The Great Muppet Caper”, Muppets rode bicycles on radio controlled bicycles with some held together with rods so they could stand up together.
It took 20 weeks to film “The Great Muppet Caper”.
A scene in a hot air balloon was filmed using characters in one hot air balloon 1,000 feet in the air with remote control oerators in one helicopter and a camera operate held onto the bottom of another helicopter. The scene took a week to film.
Muppets Inc. developed a TV show “Fraggle Rock”. This show was carefully planned. HBO accepted it.
Henson began filming a movie “The Dark Crystal” which Henson had been working on for several years. Henson had the lead role and directed. Filming took almost six months while there was also filming for “Sesame Street”.
A corporate raider Robert Holmes a Cort took over Associated Communications and fored Lord Grade out. Holmes a Court was not a filmmaker. Henson wanted to move “Dark Crystal” away from Holmes a Court. “Dark Crystal” had most of what was created for it turned into “Fraggle Rock”.
“Fraggle Rock” began on HBO in 1983. It was a critical success. It lasted five years. It was seen in 90 countries, including the Soviet Union, making it the first Western TV series shown there. “The Muppet Show” was later added to Soviet broadcasting.
Henson bought back “The Dark Crystal” paying Holmes a Court $15 million. Universal released it in 1982. It opened to mixed critical acclaim. It grossed $40 million over its initial nine week run.
Henson began working on the next Muppets movie, “The Muppets Take Manhattan”. It began filming in 1983. The movie had Muppet Babies, which also led to profitable marketing. It grossed $25 million on $8 million costs.
Marvel Productions approached Henson about having a “Muppet Babies” animated children’s show. Henson wanted the show to “have a nice reason for being”. He noted “Fraggle Rock” was meant to promote “harmony and understanding”. “Muppets Baby” was designed to promote creativity.
CBS paid $250,000 per hour for the first 13 episodes of “Muppets Babies”. It led its Saturday morning time slot and did well in ratings running second behind “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and won an Enny for Outstanding Animated Program in each of its first four years. The show lasted seven years.
Kermit becae spokesfrog for the National Wildlife Federation.
Holmes a Court still owned the first two Muppets movie, all 120 “The Muppet Show” episodes, and 10% of Muppet merchandising net income. Henson bought his Muppet property away from Holmes a Court for $6.5 million. This proved to be a wise decision by Henson.
Henson began working on the movie “Labyrinth” with Executive Producer George Lucas. Maurice Sendak sent a cease production legal request as he thought the ployt of “Labyrinth” appeared close to his book “Outside Over There”. Henson was hurt by his friend’s actions and Henson renamed “wild things”, a term Sendak used, as “fiireys” and gave Sendak an acknowledgement in the credits,
“Labryinth” cost $25 million o film. It grossed $12 million.
Henson next produced a one hour TV special “The Tale of the Bunny Picnic” for HBO and BBC.
Henson created a TV pilo “The Storyteller” which cost $943,000 for a 30 minute show.
NBC agreed to broadcast “The Jim Henson Hour” in 1989 yet with major format revisions. NBC wanted a mixture of skits, Muppets, and “Storytellers”. Henson began working on the new show for NBC a year before it aired. It was shown on Friday nights, a low viewership night. Some critics liked the “Storyteller” part yet not the rest of the show. This was the first time The Muppets were not the hit part of one of their productions. It was cancelled after a few months.
Henson realized he was spending an increasing amount of his time on the business end of obtaining funds, signing distributors, etc. Henson decided to sell to Disney. He sold it for $150 million. The “Sesame Street” characters were not included. Henson Associates changed its name to Jim Henson Productions to sound more like a movie produciton company. It had 150 employees.
Henson produced a 3-D Muppet movie for Disney theme parks, “Muppet Vision 3D”.
The sale to Disney meant Bernie Brillstein no longer could represent him. Henson gave Brillstein $10 million and pledged to pay him $500000 to continue serving as his personal advisor.
Henson, for the first time ever, called in sick one day. He had pneumonia with a rare infection, He was later hospitalized yet died a few hours later.
Negotiations with Disney continued years after Henson’s death. Disney bought The Muppets. Jim Henson Company kept the Creature Shop, which created the “Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles” characters, “Fraggle Rock”, “Labryinth”, and “The Dark Crystal”.