Jim Henson is one of the most famous originators of children's entertainment in history; at the same time, he remains one of the most underrated and under-appreciated artists (Collins, 1998; Eide & Abrams, 2005). That is largely because he is primarily regarded as an entertainer when, in fact, he actually contributed much more than merely entertainment to the world. On one hand, his recognition as the creator of The Muppets and Fraggle Rock have endeared him to generations of children and parents for the joy and humor he contributed to children's entertainment; on the other hand, it is ironic that the tremendous success of his genre may have obscured his more substantial contributions to child development and welfare precisely because of the success of his entertainment media and initiatives (Collins, 1998; Eide & Abrams, 2005).
In fact, Jim Henson was as much as educator, cultural ambassador, and child psychologist as he was a visionary in children's entertainment (Loevy, 1988). His contributions successfully bridged the gap, for the first time, between a form of children's entertainment that children greatly appreciated and education. In that regard, the beauty of Henson's approach was that it leant itself to educating his audience without explicitly presenting itself as an educational process (Cluhane, 1990; Loevy, 1988). Even more importantly, the education promoted by Henson's works was much broader than any particular academic subject, although it certainly provided an effective vehicle for teaching reading and arithmetic to children, many of whom absorbed substantive information from Henson's characters that would typically have been considered above their comprehension level in a more traditional setting for early education (Cluhane, 1990; Collins, 1998).
In addition to promoting basic pre-elementary school skills, Henson's characters and productions also taught children lessons about self-esteem, tolerance, compassion, and moral values as well (Cluhane, 1990; Collins, 1998; Loevy, 1988). Had Jim Henson merely provided children's entertainment, it would be perfectly appropriate to regard him as having been one of the most talented, creative, and influential children's entertainers of all time. However, the extent to which he actually contributed to child welfare and development through his work was such that the characterization of "entertainer" is far too marrow to accurately depict the comprehensive value that he contributed through his works. Jim Henson was, in fact, much more than "just" an entertainer (Collins, 1998; Eide & Abrams, 2005).
Early Life and Foundational Experiences
"Jim" Henson was born James Maury Henson in 1936 in depression-era Mississippi, growing up in Leland, Mississippi (McIntyre, 2010).
Unlike so many others at that time, his father was fortunate enough to have steady employment by the federal government as an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In retrospect, his earliest childhood experiences may have contributed substantially to the development of the skills and talents that he would later exploit to their full potential as a creator and innovator of children's entertainment (McIntyre, 2010).
Specifically, he was fortunate enough that his family was able to afford a television when very few families could; he also had regular access to art supplies, primarily through his grandmother. She was a painter who also thoroughly enjoyed quilting and needlework and she always encouraged him to enjoy the world around him and to explore his imagination and creativity to their fullest potential (McIntyre, 2010; Stauffer, 1970). By the time Henson's family moved to Maryland when he was five, he and his older brother had collaborated in their artistic efforts that laid the groundwork for Jim's first appearance on television in Washington D.C. while he was still in high school (McIntyre, 2010; Stauffer, 1970).
At that time, Henson's characters included those that he had originally created as cartoon drawings for his school newspaper, such as a French-looking rat named "Pierre" and what he referred to as a "couple of cowboys (Muppet Central, 2011). Henson also created two characters named "Wilkins" and "Wontkins" in connection with some commercial work for Wilkins Coffee, playing the voices of both characters himself. In those days, commercials were shot locally, so when they became popular, Henson ended up re-shooting the same commercial spots many times for each different region in which they were intended to air (Muppet Central, 2011).
The success of those commercials led to their syndication and to lucrative work with advertisement agencies, as well as to commercials for national clients such as Polaroid. On one hand, the work was very well-paid; on the other hand, Henson described being miserable working in the creatively-limiting environment where he had to compromise is artistic impulses tremendously (Muppet Central, 2011). From his perspective, nothing could have made him more appreciative of the eventual opportunities that the recognition he developed for his talents led to in children's programming.
Early Career and Professional Influences
His Saturday night show Sam and Friends debuted in 1954 on NBC television station affiliate WTOP-TV (McIntyre. 2010; Muppet Central, 2011). Barely a year later, as a college freshman at the University of Maryland, he was producing his own five-minute Sam and Friends show that aired twice daily and featured characters entirely of his own creation. His work also aired on a show called simply Afternoon, a midday variety show targeting housewives on which Henson contributed what he referred to as "little entertainment pieces" (Muppet Central, 2011). According to Henson, he was not particularly proud of much of that work because he produced it partly "as a lark" and mainly to pay the bills in college. There was even a tape he made with Fred Clarke whose kinescopes Henson refused to allow to be released because he considered it such poor work from the perspective of creativity (Muppet Central, 2011).
Sam and Friends originally aired before the network news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, re-airing again later before The Tonight Show during the original Steve Allen era (Collins, 1998). Henson was actually ambivalent about the genre throughout the six-year run of his successful show because he was not particularly interested in children's programming as a career in general, or in being a puppeteer, in particular. That is especially ironic considering that even his "proto-Muppets" were revolutionizing the art form. Specifically, throughout the thousands of years of the art form, puppets had characteristically been fashioned with solid heads that were extremely limited in their expressiveness. Meanwhile, Henson's "Muppets" had soft faces that could be made to portray "life and sensitivity" in a manner that Henson believed was essential for the television medium. In fact, according to Henson, the name "Muppets" was actually derived from the combination of the traditional stick-operated "marionettes" and "puppets" (Collins, 1998). Child psychologists have since suggested that this feature of Henson's Muppet characters did indeed play a significant role in the extent to which children were drawn to them in such highly personal ways that allowed them to become useful educationally (Eide & Abrams, 2005). This feature also became extremely valuable in connection with Henson's characters' ability to teach social issues and to generate the personal identification necessary for them to help children absorb positive messages about social consciousness and self-esteem as well (Eide & Abrams, 2005).
Nevertheless, and despite Henson's ambivalence, the show Sam and Friends would actually win an Emmy Award in 1958 (Muppet Central, 2011). It was during that production that Jim would also meet arguably the two most influential individuals in his life: his eventual wife, Jane Anne Nebel, and, "Kermit," a creature fashioned out of one of his mother's old coats who would not actually become a frog until Jim's production of a television special called The Frog Prince, in connection with which he acquired his trademark flippers and little pointed collars for the first time (Muppet Central, 2011).
Henson's obvious creative talent led to work in New York City and to his eventual collaboration with master puppet creator Don Sahlin and puppeteer Frank Oz (McIntyre, 2010). Some of their first and most memorable characters included "Rowlf" the dog who debuted on television on the Jimmy Dean Show. Throughout the next decade, Jim, Rowlf, and Kermit became regulars on nationally-aired shows such as The Today Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. The success of Jim and his team with puppets expanded into experimental film-making and some of their first efforts in that genre such as The Cube, Time Piece, and Youth '68. Time Piece in particular was very successful and was actually nominated for an Academy Award in 1965, bringing Henson and his team to the attention of television producer Joan Ganz Cooney (McIntyre. 2010; Muppet Central, 2011). She especially appreciated their ability to create short funny skits and proposed including some of Henson's puppets for a children's show already in production in connection with which Henson and his team would create some of the timeless characters that would be enjoyed, likely in perpetuity, by many generations of children (McIntyre, 2010).
The Muppets and Henson's Later Professional Accomplishments
It was this project, The Muppets, for which Jim and his team would create "Bert" and "Ernie," "Oscar the Grouch,"…