James Maury “Jim” Henson was an American puppeteer. He was one of the most widely known puppeteers in history and was the creator of The Muppets. He was the leading source behind their long run in the television series Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and films such as The Muppet Movie and creator of advanced puppets for projects like Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. He was also an Oscar-nominated film director, Emmy Award-winning television producer, and the founder of The Jim Henson Company, the Jim Henson Foundation, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Henson died unexpectedly in 1990 at the age of 53.
Jim Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi on September 24, 1936. He was the younger of two boys. His parents were Betty Marcella and Paul Ransom Henson, an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He spent his early childhood in Leland, Mississippi, then moved with his family to Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington, DC, in the late 1940s. Henson was raised as a Christian Scientist; he later remembered the arrival of the family’s first television as “the biggest event of his adolescence,” being heavily influenced by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the early television puppets of Burr Tillstrom and Bil and Cora Baird.
In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show named The Junior Morning Show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking that he might become a commercial artist. A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated with a B.S. in home economics in 1960. As a freshman, he was asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were already recognizable Muppets, and the show included a primitive version of what would become Henson’s most famous character, Kermit the Frog.
In the show, he began experimenting with techniques that would change the way in which puppetry was used on television, including using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppeteer to work from off-camera. Henson believed that television puppets needed to have “life and sensitivity,” and so he began making characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions, at a time when many puppets were made out of carved wood. A marionette’s arms are manipulated by strings, but Henson used rods to move his muppets’ arms, allowing greater control of expression.