Today is May 16th. On this day in 1990, Jim Henson, one of America’s most enduring and important entertainment visionaries, passed away. I was ten years old at the time, and I remember exactly the time and place where I heard the news. I grew up on Muppet Show reruns and Muppet Babies, and Henson has been a prominent inspiration in my creative life into adulthood.
There’s a T-shirt I love that states “I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you.” For some, it may be easy to dismiss Jim Henson as a mere puppeteer or “the Sesame Street guy.” But he was an innovator and technological pioneer in ways most people never really realized. While he revolutionized the way puppets were designed and performed, he never intended to be a puppeteer in the first place. He used puppets as a means to get into television.
Henson realized that the television frame was essentially a puppet stage, and from there, he continued to innovate in the visual mediums of film and television throughout his life. From his brilliant uses of video technologies like chroma key to hide puppeteers, to his later use of radio electronics and animatronics, he and his company brought characters to life like never before. From the simple felt characters on The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock, to lifelife creatures in Labyrinth and Dark Crystal, his fingerprints were in every creation. He used the tools and tricks of the trade to make us believe in these beings.
So it’s no surprise that shortly before his untimely death in 1990, he was making strides that were 15 years ahead of his time. Had he lived, he very well may have gone on to invent YouTube, or even reality TV as we know it now.
In the past several years, archivists at The Jim Henson Company have opened the vaults and populated the company’s YouTube channel with lots of fascinating clips and behind-the-scenes glimpses into his life. From old black-and-white television commercials made early in his career to pieces pulling back the curtain on his more ambitious projects late in life, it’s amazing to see the constant drive he had to push the envelope.
One such clip shows Henson teasing a project he was working on in the months leading to his death, which was driven by “three guys and a Handycam.” He left the world just on the cusp of the camcorder age, where inexpensive home video cameras where putting tools, once only available to television stations, in the hands of anyone with a creative voice. He wasn’t just interested in it. He was trying to legitimize it by bridging it into television.
The Jim Henson Company may not own the “Muppets” or Big Bird anymore. The company nearly sold to Disney at the time of his death, then later to a German conglomerate in 2000. It was repurchased by the Henson family in 2003 before selling the classic Muppet characters to Disney in 2004. The Sesame Street characters sold to the Childrens Television Workshop, now Sesame Workshop, though Henson’s Creature Shop still fabricates the puppets for the iconic program.
One can only imagine what may have happened had he not tragically passed away on May 16, 1990. It would be thrilling to see what he would have had his hands in during this modern age of high-definition, the Internet and social media. But it’s definitely something that lives on in the entertainment industry and the company that still bears his name. Since selling the Muppets franchise in 2004, The Jim Henson Company, still owned and run by his children, has done some really unique, advanced things building on their father’s legacy.
They’ve bridged puppetry into CG animation, using real-time puppeteer performance and motion-capture to animate CG children’s programming (Sid The Science Kid) in a manner of days instead of months. They’re still a leading force in character animation for film and television, recently bringing the titular characters in the feature Where The Wild Things Are to life.
Jim Henson may be gone, but his creative, innovative spirit lives on.