Sep 23 2011 5:27pm

Remembering Jim Henson

Remembering Jim HensonTomorrow, September 24th, would have been Jim Henson’s 75th birthday, and that fact is making me feel awfully nostalgic. As a child of the eighties, I grew up in the Golden Age of Henson’s career, watching Sesame Street and reruns of The Muppet Show, Muppet movies, Muppet holiday specials (taped on VHS, of course), and completely, utterly obsessed with the darker fantasy work of his later career: The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and the amazing StoryTeller series. My childhood was utterly infused with Henson’s humor, and the power of his imagination was a constant influence on my own, as it was for several generations of children (and plenty of adults, as well).

Henson was a visionary in the field of entertainment, holding fast to his dream of creating “entertainment for everybody” in spite of periodic resistance and disappointments over the years. He eventually succeeded beyond all expectations, developing shows and movies that appealed to audiences of all ages and backgrounds — shows that bridged the gap between smart, well-crafted “adult” entertainment and the chaotic, fun, “anything goes” appeal of kids TV. As is often the case with truly groundbreaking work, his accomplishments have become so familiar, such an integral part of our cultural lexicon that it’s impossible to imagine what the world would have been like without him, his characters, and the massive influence they’ve had on our lives.

There’s a persistent rumor, never confirmed, that Henson named Bert and Ernie after a pair of characters from It’s a Wonderful Life. Chances are, the names are just a coincidence, but it’s still tempting to press the connection and try to briefly imagine a world in which Jim Henson had never existed. No Bert and Ernie. No Statler and Waldorf. No Oscar the Grouch, Sam the Eagle, Swedish Chef, or Rowlf the Dog. Also, no Dr. Teeth, which means no Electric Mayhem, and I don’t want to live in a world without Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. I mean, do you?

Whooooo! Zoot and Sgt. Floyd Pepper FOREVER!!!! Ahem. What else? Well, no Farscape, obviously. And no terrifying Skeksis from The Dark Crystal (so, my nightmares would have been much lamer when I was five). No Miss Piggy (tragic). No Count von Count (unthinkable). No Muppet Babies (although, if we’re being completely honest, here, I might not be too broken up about that one). Also, none of this:

And who knows what would have happened to David Bowie’s career without Labyrinth?!! (He would have been fine. But there would be a sparkly, goblin-shaped hole in my heart that nothing else could ever fill).

And finally, let’s not forget that Jim Henson is directly responsible for giving us the Yoda that we all know and love and sometimes do really bad impressions of…Henson not only consulted on the look of the character, but he was responsible for introducing Frank Oz to George Lucas, and suggesting that Oz be hired as the puppeteer and voice behind the Jedi Master.

Take a minute to think about the Yodas that might have been. We could have ended up staring at some kind of creepy proto-ALF, sleazing his way through the swamps of Dagobah, with the voice of Howie Mandel. Or Scatman Crothers. Or possibly Orson Welles. Or maybe Lucas would’ve been forced to unleash JarJar on an unsuspecting world nineteen years ahead of schedule. The severe global ramifications of that horrific possibility are simply too chilling to contemplate, but I think we can all agree that we’d be flirting with apocalypse by now. Either that, or everybody would have just ignored The Empire Strikes Back, making room for 9 to 5 to become the highest grossing film of 1980, and Dolly Parton might have become the first female president and we’d all wear sequined cowboy hats to work. I mean, really…who can say?

In any case, even if I try to stick to my absolute favorites, the sheer number of favorite Henson-inspired characters and moments (some touching, some hilarious, some just goofy and bizarre and wonderful) are far too numerous to list. To be completely serious for a moment, there’s no way of knowing what Henson might have done over the course of the last two decades if he’d had the opportunity, but when I think of all the lives he’s touched, all the people he’s inspired and entertained, and the fact that he managed to always do what he loved and left the world a better place for it, all I can think is how lucky we were to have Jim Henson in our lives.

If you have a chance this weekend, I hope you’ll take a minute to think about that, too, and maybe share some of your own favorite clips and characters and memories here. There’s really nothing I can write that will be a more eloquent celebration of the man and the joy he inspired than the following clip, the performance of “Just One Person” which closed Henson’s memorial service in 1990, so please, enjoy. And Happy Birthday, Mr. Henson.

Bridget McGovern also wanted to mention Cookie Monster and the crazy movie version of Roald Dahl’s The Witches somewhere and forgot, so she’s doing it here.

1. Vanye
This one always makes me tear up.
Yes, I'm a softy.
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
Thank you for making a heartfelt tribute to one of the human race's loveliest people.
3. Nance
And no baby Toby (Labyrinth,) since his parents never would have met, if they hadn't both been working with Jim Henson.
Thomas Skidmore
4. timepoet77
The world right now is much poorer and darker without Jim Henson's light to help guide us. I said it before and I'll say it again: we really need him to come back more than ever.
5. SunKrux
I miss Jim. He is one of my all time heros. Because of the three magic words, Jim Henson Production Company (okay, 4 words) I got sucked into the wonderful world of Farscape. I got the chance a while back to ask Brian what he thought he dad would say about Farscape. He said his dad would have loved it. :D RIP Jim, I miss you.
Brian McCullogh
6. webmccullogh
Fraggle Rock was another excellent Henson production filmed in Toronto from 1983-87. Loved the theme song!
7. RD Williams
Jim Henson was one of the best, a true representation of the best of Humanity. There is no way to possibly calculate the impact he had on the world, with his gentle nature, his great, wacky, and sometimes strange sense of humor, and his heart filled with love for everyone, and not to mention his imagination. :D

RIP Jim Henson, there will never be another one quite like you. We miss you!
William S. Higgins
8. higgins
I confess I am now curious to see what Scatman Crothers's Yoda would have been like.
Michael Burke
9. Ludon
One of the fun events for me was when Kermit filled in for Larry King and interviewed Ted Koppel. That was a very entertaining hour.
10. jreidthompson
Genesis to many great things. My favorite is FARSCAPE - a truly great story. (Still cannot fathom why SciFi ended it)
11. Stefan Jones
I remember hearing about Henson and Sammy Davis Jr.'s deaths on NPR on the way home from work. Heck, I remember the exact place . . . the exit ramp connecting Northern State Parkway and Route 106/107.

Both talented men . . . but at the time I was annoyed at the equal billing. Henson created worlds. He was still working, working hard and well, when he went. His workaholism may have helped do him in. I was thoroughly bummed for days after that.

For what it is worth, I think Brian Henson is doing a fine job with the family craft and business. The Storyteller show was just wonderful; I think Brian's dad would be proud.

Grumble: I kind of regret Henson's contributions to the Star Wars universe. Yoda was pretty cool, but those pop-band characters in Return . . . ugh!
12. DarrenJL
If you can use the phrase "VHS of course" then you weren't a true child of the eighties. Betamax was where it was at.
Ashe Armstrong
13. AsheSaoirse
Yes. To all of this. Everything. Especially the Creature Shop.
14. Sandrine
I'm french and I grew up with worlds of Jim Henson too. He maked me dream, and he is always here in my life todays. Labyrinth is my favourite film and I wanted (or want ;) ) to go in the castle beyond the goblins's city. I love all his characters (Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street.....) and they are a part of my life. Look, my friends call me "Fraggle" :))). Thank you Mr Henson.
15. Shahed Rahman
I love you Jim, I think you are right person for a child, good person for a young & ideal for a man.

From, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
16. AlBrown
A wonderful man and a real genius.
My son used to like me to read muppet books to him at bedtime, because I could do all the voices so well. Then we had a chance to meet Mr. Henson at a scifi convention, and I found out why it came so easily to me--our speaking voices were nearly identical. I was honored to be in such good company!
17. Eugene R.
No Jim Henson, no The Frog Prince (1971, part of the Tales from Muppetland series) and no cursed Sir Robin (Kermit's 'nephew'), desperately trying to unveil the witch Taminella, who keeps stuffing his mouth with muffins ("Have another pop-over, Froggy!"). Me and them danged Muppets go way back.

Speaking of things 'way back', I must respectfully disagree with DarrenJL (@12) - Betamax was a creature of the 1970s. By the '80s, the battle was over and VHS had won it.
18. Madeline
About a month ago, I saw Brian Henson's live puppet improv show "Puppet Up", and then a few weeks after that, a double header of "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth". Something that really stuck out was that the puppet body language had the same elements; Jim Henson's timing spread to probably hundreds of other puppeteers.

Jim Henson was a genius and a careful craftsman and a nice guy; the Mr. Rodgers of his field.
19. Smaug's Li'l Brother Puff
Jim Henson's is one of only two celebrity deaths that made me weep like a friend had gone (the other was Mel Blanc). He's absolutely my top hero in any field and the true-born successor to Walt Disney.

Now having said that, I will grouse about: "As a child of the eighties, I grew up in the Golden Age of Henson’s career, watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Muppet movies, Muppet holiday specials..." Most of which came out in the late '60s and '70s -- Henson's actual Golden Age -- which I'm a child of. I'm in that overlooked cohort stuck in the crack between Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers and I'm sensitive about one group or the other getting all possessive of my cultural totems. ;-P
Steve Taylor
20. teapot7
> And who knows what would have happened to David Bowie’s career without Labyrinth?!

Well he might have held onto his credibility a little longer :)

The thing I most miss is the chance to have more of The Storyteller - I thought they were a magnificent achievement.
21. Annette Rey
There was a great disturbance in the Force on the day he left our realm. Very sad for the child in all of us. We should be flooded with more of his joy.
james loyd
22. gaijin
When I graduated high school, the only news events significant enough to be worth recording in my yearbook were the deaths of Ted Geisel and Jim Henson. Later, when I received positive feedback for my puppet shows at the public library, I had to give much of the credit to a lifetime of watching Henson productions.

Oh, and the Bert & Ernie thing is a coincidence:

"I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street. The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive it was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cabdriver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format. (Jon, sadly, is no longer with us either.) He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental." --Jerry Juhl
Ian Tregillis
23. ITregillis
I was in high school, but sick at home, when Jim Henson died. To this day whenever I think of chicken pox, all I can remember is being so miserable and then finding out that Jim Henson had passed away, which made it so much worse.

I agree with all the praise for Storyteller. I wish that had gone much longer. But it was because of the connection to the Henson Shop I gave Farscape a try, and that was well worth it!

I think I need to rewatch Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. Haven't seen those in years...
24. politeruin
Farscape. Farscape. Farscape.*

I'd be for the poorer if that had not been made. Two of the finest realised fictional characters in any series that i deeply cared about: Pilot and Dominar Rygel XVI. I was thinking in particular of the stupendous ending to series 3; so here we have Pilot mourning the loss of a ship to another ship. I didn't think it possible to get upset at such a thing...

Thanks, Jim - Thim.

*Rewatch please?
Bridget McGovern
25. BMcGovern
As far as a Farscape rewatch is concerned, no official announcement yet...but I promise you that we're working on it :)

Thanks to everyone for all the comments so far!

@higgins (8)--I'm glad I'm not the only one...

@Smaug's Li'l Brother Puff (19)--Mea culpa; I only meant that my childhood coincided with the period after Henson and the Muppets had become firmly established and hugely popular with both children and adults, when he began experimenting with darker fantasy films and working with artists like Brian Froud and William Stout. Obviously, with a career as consistently amazing as Henson's was, there's probably no such thing as a 'Golden Age' (although I fully admit that I would have loved to watch his earlier work on the air the first time around, instead of catching it in reruns, or on tape :)
26. politeruin
Did you promise us that? I vaguely recall something but that'd be sweeeet...
Bridget McGovern
27. BMcGovern
@politeruin Typed too fast, sorry! We had not promised before, but I am promising now--we'll definitely be focusing on some Farscape on the site, and are all very excited about it. (So excited that we get flustered and start typing in the wrong tense, apparently...). In any case, keep an eye out!
28. politeruin
Oh, right right. Then my initial statement still stands i'd say... sweeeet. I think my memory is dredging up fellow commenter's calls for a rewatch, at least i hope.
Heather Jones
29. JourneywomanJones
A world without Kermit the Frog would be a dark world indeed!
Becky Hantsbarger
30. BeckyIA
Farscape, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Muppet Show, and, my favorite, Animal. What a dreary world it would be without them! Thank you, Mr. Henson.

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