Thu
Nov 17 2011 10:00am
We Almost Didn’t Have the Muppets: Four Alternate Points in Jim Henson’s Life

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.

This article is part of Muppet Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
9 comments
Sewicked
2. Sewicked
I knew a little about Sam & Friends (thank you, History of TV) but the rest is fascinating. Thank you.

And have you ever heard the song "A Boy & His Frog"?
Sewicked
3. kittent
Don't forget, Rowlf the Piano playing dog who was on the Jimmy Dean Show in 1963. I had a serious crush on Rowlf.

Also, don't listen to "a boy and his frog" unless you are alone or you don't care if anyone sees you cry. Tom Smith is as much a genius in his way as Jim Henson was in his.
Jenny Thrash
4. Sihaya
So does the "frog riding a bicycle" routine in The Muppet Movie represent any sort of technical tipping point for puppetry, or was it really just sort of applying a giant budget to the bells and whistles that already existed at the time?
Sewicked
5. ccollins
He has changed some of American Puppetry--but not all. Let's call it the 1% of puppetry then--and remember that there is 99% that is never seen in/on comercial venues.
Mary Robinette Kowal
6. MaryRobinette
4. Sihaya -- They pulled out some tricks with the frog riding a bicycle, but nothing truly earthshaking.

5. ccollins -- Fair point. There's a lot of fascinating work happening in puppetry that looks nothing like the Muppets, however, most Americans think of when they think "puppets" are Muppet style figures. In fact, you can tell how old someone is, roughly, by the hand sign they use when miming "puppets" based on what was popular when they were kids. Anyone under 45 tends to make a gesture like a moving mouth puppet.
Sewicked
7. Geckomayhem
I didn't know even half this about Jim Henson, but he will forever be a pioneer in my mind. I grew up watching Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and the Muppet Show. We had a video (recorded off TV) of Jim Henson in person with his muppets and I associated it with my grandfather - the reason has been lost on me, but my beloved grandfather did die only a handful of years after Jim - and we treasured that VHS for many years after he died.

Truly a genius in the world of television and his legacy has lived on for many decades already. :)
Sewicked
8. MichellePar
"The Works" is an amazing book on the working life of Jim Henson. It isn't a biography, per se, but it is all about his career, in as much detail as they could get (I'm assuming). So much amazing stuff (one of my favorite bits is the list of all the guests on The Muppet Show for its entire run).
Zorila Desufnoc Eht
9. AlirozTheConfused
Jim went to the doctor as soon as he realized that it wasn't a simple flu.

What he had (pneumonia) wasn't uncommon, but the pneumonia he had was an unusually violent and deceptive one, showing only the symptoms of a weak flu, and then it just overwhelmed his body.

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