Let me be clear, before we start, that I’m about to geek out on puppetry. Jim Henson is why I’m a professional puppeteer today, even though I never met him. Like many puppeteers, I grew up watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and before I discovered the wider world of puppetry.
Now, I’m also a science fiction writer and here’s the thing… Henson would be a really good subject for an Alternate History story of the “Duck Mr. President” variety, where a single change could affect the entire time line.
I do not exaggerate. The face of modern puppetry would be completely different if not for Jim Henson. Here, let me show you.
Cusp point 1: What if Jim Henson hadn’t gone into puppetry?
It’s easy to think of Henson as a puppeteer because he’s synonymous with puppetry in most Americans’ minds but when he started puppetry it was just a way to get on television. He was fascinated with the medium and kept applying for jobs in TV. Then, in 1954 he heard that WTOP was looking for puppeteers for its Junior Good Morning Show. So he and a friend built some puppets, auditioned and were hired. He later said, “…but I wasn’t really interested in puppetry then. It was just a means to an end.”
Think about that. If he’d been hired by someone before he got to puppetry, we wouldn’t have Kermit.
Cusp point 2: What if he had gone into marionettes?
When Henson started, the two most popular puppetry shows on television were Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and Bil Baird’s Snarky Parker. No one was doing moving mouth hand-and-rod. That’s what most of the Muppets are. Even the moving mouth puppets that you’d see, like Ollie, didn’t lip synch. The mouth was used for emphasis but didn’t try to mimic speech. The only ones that did were the related form of ventriloquism. Even there, the only puppeteer using a fabric puppet was Shari Lewis and Lambchop. I’ve got Bil Baird’s The Art of the Puppet sitting next to me. It’s one of the go-to books for puppeteers. Published in 1965, there is exactly one photo of a fleece-covered moving mouth puppet and that’s a photo of Sam and Friends. Today, if you look at puppets on television, it’s hard to find ones that aren’t fleece-covered moving mouth puppets.
When I say that Jim Henson changed the face of American puppetry, I mean it.
Cusp point 3: What if Sam and Friends hadn’t happened?
You know about The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, but the show that predated those was Sam and Friends. Up to this point, television producers simply filmed traditional puppetry booths or stages but Henson realized that the television was the booth. If you look at early Sam and Friends clips, you can see that he kept the playboard for a while before abandoning that to give us the look that we think of today. During this time, Jim and his partner, Jane Nebel who he later married started using monitors.
Monitors are small television screens that show what the camera is seeing. It’s not like looking in a mirror because when the puppeteer moves to the right, the image on the screen moves to its right, which is backwards from the way a mirror works. Some puppeteers never get the hang of it but Henson recognized, early on, that being able to see what the audience saw gave him enormous flexibility.
Today, all American film and video puppeteers use monitors.
Cusp point 4: What if he hadn’t established the Creature Shop?
Animatronics, or cable-controlled puppets, have been around since at least the mid-sixties. Capable of more detailed movement than a simple hand puppet, they also came with a serious drawback. All those animatronic characters had masses of stiff cables running out of them to puppeteers, which limited how they could be filmed. Dark Crystal explored new ways to combine puppets and and actors in hybrid characters but had to work around the cable limitation.
And then in Labyrinth, Henson switched to using radio controls and raised the game to whole new levels. For the character Humungous, they invented a new style of control, in which the puppeteer fit his arm into a mechanical sleeve which relayed the movement via a series of servos and motors to the puppet. This technology allowed a single puppeteer to work a massive figure.
When Labyrinth finished filming, Henson kept people on staff and started a permanent workshop to continue research and development of new puppetry techniques. That was the core of the Creature Shop, which has been widely recognized as the leader in innovation for film and television puppetry
Today, you’ll see the technology they developed in everything from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to a life size T-Rex.
Would someone else have invented these techniques? Possibly, but what is abundantly clear is that the vision and endless curiosity of Jim Henson changed the shape of modern puppetry.
Because of how influential he was throughout his career, I can’t help wondering what advances we are missing because of Cusp Point 5. What if Jim Henson had gone to the hospital sooner?
Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Shades of Milk and Honey, (Tor, 2010) and the 2011 Hugo Award-winning short story “For Want of a Nail.” Her short fiction appears in Clarkesworld, Cosmos and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer, lives in Portland, OR.