Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Puppetry is Living Artistry that Moves and Breathes Under the Master’s Touch

Long before Jim Henson came on the scene with his Muppets, I was putting on puppet shows for my parents. I used a box for a stage with fold down curtains so there was an “opening curtain” and the “closing finale.” A flashlight served as my stage light.

My colorful characters were drawn and colored on paper and then glued onto Popsicle sticks. I could remain hidden below the stage and pop-up my characters for their lines, which I spoke by distorting my voice when needed.

My indulgent parents listened to my made up stories and the retelling of fairy tales and applauded enthusiastically at the end. Years later, when my own daughter asked for a puppet theater, I was delighted. Ironically, today we’re both artists; she the graduate and me a self-taught tutored student learning by the seat of my pants.

Little did I know then that the things I did as a child foreshadowed my interest in the arts and my creative bent for writing script and creating character? Painting came later out of necessity and my abundant passion and imagination.

Today I am honoring the magnificent puppet master, the late Jim Henson, for the joy he brought to so many during his lifetime and his continued legacy. His career spanned several generations and his joy in creating unique and humorous characters made us all laugh.

 A Biography

Jim Henson— a television pioneer, an innovator in puppetry, technology and visual arts, and a performer—literally brought to life some of the most memorable characters ever—including the world’s most famous frog, Kermit. Henson’s impact on entertainment, education and culture continues to this day.

Born September 24, 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi, Henson spent his early years in Leland, Miss. Throughout his youth, Jim had an interest in art and, later, television. When he was in the fifth grade, the Henson family moved to Maryland. There he, often with his older brother Paul, experimented with a variety of artistic techniques—experiments which eventually led Henson to the very latest visual media, television.

In 1954, while still in high school, Henson began his television career performing puppets on a local Washington, DC Saturday morning program on WTOP-TV. The following year, as a freshman at the University of Maryland, he was given his own twice-daily, five-minute show, Sam and Friends, on the local NBC affiliate, WRC-TV. Henson along with his assistant, fellow University of Maryland student and future wife, Jane Nebel, introduced many Muppet mainstays—music, humor and innovative technical tricks (such as eliminating the puppet stage and using the television itself as the proscenium).

Perhaps most memorably, the show featured an early version of Kermit the Frog. The success of Sam and Friends led to guest appearances on such national network programs as The Steve Allen Show, The Jack Paar Show and The Today Show. Henson also began making hundreds of humorous commercials for sponsors throughout the country.

Having established a group of talented collaborators, he continued to pursue his career in puppetry and film making. Between 1964 and 1969, Jim produced several experimental films including the award-winning Time Piece, Youth ‘68, and The Cube. In 1969, Henson unveiled a family of characters to populate Sesame Street, the groundbreaking children’s show made for public television. These characters—Ernie and Bert, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Cookie Monster and Big Bird among them—continue to entertain and educate today.

Sesame Street demonstrated the Muppets’ undeniable appeal to children, but Henson strongly believed these characters could entertain a much wider family audience. After years of trying to sell the idea for The Muppet Show in the U.S., Henson finally received backing from a London-based television producer, Lord Lew Grade. In 1975 production began, and in 1976 the world was introduced to a new family of unforgettable characters, such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, The Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, among others.

Hosted by Kermit the Frog, and accompanied by the musical meanderings of Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band, the Muppets were joined each week by an international pantheon of guest stars, from Gene Kelly and Rudolph Nureyev to Steve Martin and John Cleese. The success of The Muppet Show led to Hollywood, where the Muppets starred in six feature films: The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets From Space.

During the 1980s, in addition to making Muppet movies, Henson brought two remarkably original fantasy films to the big screen, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. These films challenged Henson to create new kinds of three-dimensional characters with advanced movement abilities. The multi-talented staff that helped create these two films formed the basis for what is now known as Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and it continues to set industry standards in animatronics, performance and performance technology. His accomplishments don’t end there, but my words must.

On May 16, 1990, after a brief illness, Jim Henson died in New York City. With his keen ability for drawing together a strong team of performers, artists, and collaborators who shared his vision and creativity, Henson ensured that his work and unique creative vision would continue. Through The Jim Henson Company, his work continues to captivate and entertain a global audience.

My teenage sons idolized Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Here is the Muppet’s version. Fantastic!