Jim Henson

By Michael Corvin

      Yes, Jim Henson is best known for his work with Miss Piggy and
company, but this master of puppetry is so much more than just the man
behind the Muppets.  For even after his death 27 years ago, his Creature
Shop is still turning out fantastic whimsical characters. He was born in
1934 and when just in high school, he started crafting puppets honing his
skills and by the time he attended the University of Maryland, Henson was
already laying down the seeds to becoming the world most famous puppet
master. It was there that a young Jim Henson started Sam and Friends, a
five minute sketch comedy. Sam and Friends was just the beginning and
from there, after joining the Children’s Television Workshop’s Sesame
Street in the mid 1960’s, Henson ran wild with the creative freedom of a mad man with hand puppets.

      His creations now called Muppets, a combo of using the
words puppet and marionette, made his hand puppet characters
stand out and unique among anything anyone else was doing.
Among his best loved characters that he created for Sesame
Street were Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and his loveable monsters
Grover, Cookie Monster and my favorite, Oscar the Grouch.
But there was one Muppet that truly stood out. Kermit the Frog
was not only Jim’s baby but Jim himself puppeteered the little
green frog and also voiced him too. Being the standout star
Muppet of Sesame Street, Kermit went on to star in his own
TV series in the late 70’s called The Muppet Show along with
an all new host of loveable characters. With Fozzie Bear,
Scooter, Doctor Teeth, Gonzo Kermit and the breakout star of
The Muppet Show…..Miss Piggy!

      Even though Henson’s work on television was outstand-
ing, he wanted to shy away from his cute lovable characters
ever so slightly and dip his toes into a new medium…..film.
And he did with a series of Muppet movies starting Kermit,
Piggy and friends but Henson still wanted more.  He wanted
to work on a full length feature film that did not star his cute
and loveable Muppets. The Dark Crystal showed the world
that Jim Henson could do much more than just do cute fuzzy
individual characters, that he could create a whole fantasy
world and fill it with some creepy and crazy creatures.

      The film still had a Jim Henson touch but where cute was always present before, now he was dipping
into another realm and the film, although a box office flop, was just the start of what else Jim could do
without his most famous characters behind him. The creatures in Dark Crystal were stunning and like
nothing the world ever seen before. It showed that Jim and his team of puppet masters of his newly formed
Jim Henson Creature Show could do much more than just Muppet movies for kids.

      Henson followed The Dark Crystal with Labyrinth, a dark tale
about a baby being kid-napped by The Goblin King who reigns
over a fantastic world filled with other worldly creatures.  When the
child’s teenage sister tries to rescue him, she must enter the crazy
maze in search of him where she finds The Goblin King wishing to
raise the boy as his own. Although still not a box office smash,
Labyrinth was a wonderful fantasy movie filled with amazing crea-
ture characters played by both creepy hand worked Muppets and
actors working in full body costumes.

      Actors working in costumes was nothing new for Henson, for he started putting actors in suits since
the days working on Sesame Street with Big Bird. Both The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth used this
technique fully with Crystal’s creepy birds, pixies along with Labyrinth’s elves, ogres and trolls. The use of
both costumes and puppets would follow Henson into other productions as his Creature Shop created a
full size dragon for his new TV series The Jim Henson Hour in 1989 from where he won an Emmy and later
for the TV series Farscape. The TV comedy series Dinosaurs and loosely based on the Honeymooners,
again showed how puppets or Muppets could work with actors in costumes.

      In 1979, after the success of Star Wars, George Lucas asked
Henson to help with the creation of the Jedi Master Yoda. Henson
not only worked on the character but also suggested his own long-
time friend Frank Oz not only work the puppet but that he voice the
character too. Frank Oz is the voice of not only Yoda but here’s a
shocker for you……Miss Piggy too, along with a whole host of
Sesame Street personalities like Bert, Oscar and Grover. That’s
right kids, the Jedi Mater Yoda is really Miss Piggy!  Frank Oz
himself would also take a trip into horror with the movie version of
the musical The Little Shop of Horrors that he directed along with
a life size giant Muppet playing the man eating plant Audrey 2.

      Sadly in 1990, Jim checked himself into a hospital after feeling ill. He soon past away of Streptococcal
toxic shock syndrome as he was only 53 years old. After his death, the Muppets were taken over by the
people at Disney where they remain just as loveable as they always have even though his beloved Kermit
is now voiced and operated by another puppeteer actor. Even though the man himself is gone, his
Creature Shop lives on and still works in the movie world creating creatures and characters for film and TV
projects. In the late 90’s to the early 2000’s, Farscape took Henson’s company into the adult TV sci/fi
genre creating not only amazing alien puppets but also full scale costumes and monsters worn by actors.

      Today, the Jim Henson Creature Shop has come a long, long way from producing kid shows on early
moving television. Today even within Henson’s lifetime, he wanted more and drove for more grown up
projects that he saw come true. His costume inspired creatures can be seen in everything from Where The
Wild Things Are to the horror movie Trolls and his unique styled hand puppets show up everywhere from
stage comics and ventriloquists to movie monsters. The world may have lost Jim Henson way too soon but
his craft, characters and legacy lives on and always will.
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