Jim Henson was a television pioneer and innovative visual artist who raised puppeteering to a new art form.
1936: Born Jim Maury Henson in Greenville, Mississippi. Grew up in Hyattsville, Maryland.
1990: Died from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome in New York Hospital at age 53.
Henson created his first puppets while still in high school, for a local television network’s children’s program called The Junior Morning Show.
At the University of Maryland, he dove deeper into the art of puppetry, in the College of Home Economics.
Along with his future wife, Jane Nebel, Henson created Sam and Friends, a televised short and precursor to what would become The Muppets.
He graduated in 1960 with a B.Sc. in home economics and pursued a career in puppetry.
Evolving The Art
Henson changed the world of puppetry by eschewing traditional wood-carved characters, instead innovating with foam-rubber and textiles. This allowed for more expressive dialogue and life-like interactions than had previously been seen in puppetry.
As Sam and Friends grew in popularity, Henson and his Muppets became popular talk-show guests and the Muppets appeared in a number of commercials for consumer goods.
Creating Pop Culture
Henson and Nebel moved to New York City and founded Muppets, Inc. in 1963. Eventually, Henson met and formed a business relationship with Frank Oz.
Henson and his team of puppeteers were invited to work on children’s educational series, Sesame Street.
During Sesame Street, Henson and team developed some of their most iconic characters, including Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Guy Smiley, and Big Bird.
After American television networks rejected his idea for The Muppet Show, Henson took it to the United Kingdom. The show ran from 1976 – 1981, winning a Peabody Award and numerous BAFTA and Primetime Emmy awards.
The Muppet Show’s success spawned big-screen adaptations. Henson went on to create Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, The Storyteller, The Dark Crystal, The Jim Henson Hour, Labyrinth, and others.
Henson died suddenly in May 1990 after suffering organ dysfunction.
Since his death, he has been bestowed many honours and awards, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, induction to the Television Hall of Fame, commemorative stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service, and the Disney Legends Award.
Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation in 1982 to nurture future generations of puppeteers in the United States, an effort that continues to this day.