Monday, November 21, 2011

The Boy Who Loved Puppets


Stark Raving Mythopath salutes master storyteller and puppeteer, Jim Hensen.

When Jim was a boy in Greenville, Mississippi, his family didn’t have a tv. Or a computer. No iPod. No Game Boy. No Wii. But after all, it was the early 1940’s, and nobody had those things.

So how did Jim and his brother Paul entertain themselves? By splashing in the creek. Or climbing trees. By watching fireflies and catching frogs. By telling stories. Jim wrote poems and drew pictures. He played ping pong and board games with his best friend, Kermit. With so many fun things to do on a summer’s day, who needs tv?

Jim loved to entertain his family by putting on shows in the back yard. He also worked in school plays—both on the stage and behind the scenes.

Jim and Paul built a crystal radio set. After school, they listened to radio shows like The Green Hornet. They loved to hear Edgar Bergen talking to his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. On Saturday afternoons, they went to the movies. The first movie Jim saw was The Wizard of Oz, and that story always remained his favorite.

Jim’s dad worked for the Department of Agriculture,  and he wanted Jim to study science. But Jim was more interested in puppets. He took books out of the library to learn how to make them. By this time, his family had moved to Maryland. At sixteen years of age, Jim and his friend got a job doing puppets on a local tv station.

Jim thought that puppets should be able to smile. So instead of making them from wood, he made them from cloth. Instead of moving their arms with strings, he used rods. One day he cut up his mother’s old green cloth coat to make a frog character. He cut a ping pong ball in half to make the eyes. And so was born one of the most famous puppets of all time—Kermit the Frog! Jim and his friend called their creations “Muppets,” a combination of marionettes and puppets.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, Jim got his college degree in—of all things—home economics! That way he could study crafts and fabrics to help him make puppets. After college, he went to Europe to learn from famous puppeteers. When he returned to America, he used his Muppets to make  tv commercials.

One day, when he was 33 years old, Jim got a phone call from a tv producer with public television. They were piloting a new children’s show called Sesame Street. They wanted to hire Jim—and his puppets!  Jim wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t want people to think that puppets were just for children. But in the end, he decided to give it a try.


The Muppet Display at the Museum of American History

That was a very good decision! Sesame Street was launched on November 10, 1969. The show became the longest running children’s program in history and won many awards. Not bad for a kid who grew up without tv! Jim Henson went on to produce other shows and movies with Kermit, Miss Piggy, Oscar the Grouch, and the Muppets. He worked on puppets for other projects as well—like the Jedi Master Yoda in Star Wars.

Jim showed the world that puppets aren’t just for children. When he passed away in 1990, at the age of 53, a jazz band played at the memorial service. Everyone waved butterfly puppets as a fitting tribute to the boy who loved puppets.


2 comments:

  1. He was a genius who died way too young. I still love the Muppets and I'm learning some puppetry myself. When I'm trying to lip synch, I remember that Jim Henson always had Kermit on his hand, lip synching along with Jim as he talked. And now there's a new Muppets movie opening soon.

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  2. Amen, Roberta. It was tragic that he died so young. Did you ever see Muppet Treasure Island? Love that movie!

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