24 September 2011

Jim Henson 75 years old today!

Seventy-five years ago today in Greenville, Mississippi, Jim Henson was born.  In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show called The Junior Morning Show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at the University of Maryland as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist. A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses, in which he graduated in 1960. As a freshman, he had been asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were forerunners of Muppets, and the show included a prototype of Henson's most famous character: Kermit the Frog.

In the show, he began experimenting with techniques that would change the way puppetry had been used on television, including using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppeteer to work from off-camera. This was just the beginning of what turned out to be a magical career, in which he co-created 'Sesame Street', 'The Muppet Show' and the tons of ideas, cartoons, films and television series, which has inspired so many generations of children and adults. He died very suddenly in May 1990 at the young age of 53.

My own memories of Jim were meeting him for the first time at the UNIMA Congress in Dresden, East Germany in 1984.  I was interviewing many of the puppeteers during the festival for a UNIMA publication and also for my audio archive. A few years later, while studying at the Institute International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France, I was told that Jim would be coming over to France to run a course in 'Puppetry for Film and Television'. I immediately applied to participate and was very fortunate to be one of twenty puppeteers chosen from around the world. So we all gathered together at the Institute to meet the Muppet Master in May 1987 and we even captured that exact scenario in one our our student short films during the course (see here!)

After the course, I kept in touch with Jim and when I began working on developing 'Puppets Against Aids' later that year, Jim invited me to New York to assist me in helping to attract some funding for the program. I found him to be a warm and generous human being who was more concerned for the greater humanity than for himself. May we all learn from this great master, who would have turned seventy-five years old today. Long may your memory life, Jim Henson!

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