Jim Henson was still in his early 30s when Sesame Street made him a star and a hero to generations of parents and kids alike. What you might not know is that even before that landmark success, Henson had accomplished quite a bit. Here’s a look at the early days of a creative genius.
1. HE WAS BORN IN MISSISSIPPI.
Kermit the Frog may not have a Southern accent, but his creator spent his early years in the Mississippi Delta. Henson was born in Greenville, Miss., in 1936 and grew up in Leland, Miss. The family stayed in Mississippi until Henson was 12, when his father’s position as a government agronomist moved them to the Washington, D.C., area. While Henson didn’t spend his entire childhood in Leland, the city now bills itself as the “Birthplace of Kermit the Frog” and has a permanent Henson exhibit.
2. SOME OF HIS CREATIONS ORIGINALLY ONLY HAD TWO DIMENSIONS.
While Henson would become a legend as a puppeteer, some of his characters got their start in an unexpected place: A high school yearbook. Henson showed a lot of early artistic promise while attending high school in University Park, Md., where he did everything from designing sets for school plays to acting. He also flexed his muscles as an illustrator by drawing a comic strip for the school yearbook that featured characters that would eventually become some of his earliest puppets, like Pierre the French Rat.
3. HIS FIRST FORAY INTO TELEVISION WAS BRIEF.
During Henson’s senior year of high school in 1954, a local television affiliate wanted to create a new Saturday morning program staffed with young people as anchors and puppets controlled by young puppeteers. As the Jim Henson Company’s site tells it, Henson wasn’t yet an experienced puppeteer, but he knew a good opportunity when he saw one. He researched how to make puppets, and he and a buddy landed the gig.
Unfortunately, this show wasn’t an auspicious beginning to a storied career. The program only stayed on the air for two episodes, supposedly because employing school-aged talent ran afoul of labor laws. Still, even in this brief tenure when he was still a relatively novice puppeteer, Henson showed enough natural skill to impress executives at the TV station.
4. HE BECAME A PUPPET PRODIGY.
While the kids’ morning show didn’t work out, Henson made some valuable connections in the local TV industry. By the summer after his high school graduation, he had earned an ongoing gig with a different local TV affiliate in which he made multiple weekly appearances with his puppets on kids’ shows and a daytime variety show. Producers and viewers alike loved the quirky, funny puppets, and before he’d even started college, Henson had his foot firmly in the show business door.
5. A COLLEGE PUPPETRY CLASS HELPED WITH MORE THAN JUST HIS CAREER.
After finishing high school, Henson stayed close to home to study graphic design at the University of Maryland. During his freshman year, he took a puppetry course that would end up changing his life. In the class, he met a senior named Jane Nebel, and the pair hit it off about as well as any two classmates could. Although it took a few years for their relationship to blossom into romance, in 1959, Henson and Nebel married, a union that resulted in five children and creations that delighted countless more kids.
6. HE GOT HIS FIRST TV SHOW WHEN HE WAS STILL IN COLLEGE.
In 1955, just one year after Henson started performing on television, the local affiliate he had been working for gave him his own show. The five-minute show Sam and Friends starring Henson’s puppets would broadcast live every day of the week. The show featured a number of memorable early puppets like Mushmellon and Harry the Hipster, which were now known as “Muppets.”
7. JANE WAS HIS KEY COLLABORATOR IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.
Jim and Jane Henson were more than just romantic partners—she was a creative force in her own right. When Henson got the opportunity to create his own puppet show, Jane was a partner throughout the process, tackling everything from puppeteering to creating new characters and puppets. When the Hensons started a family in the early 1960s, Jane transitioned to a key behind-the-scenes role in which she helped assemble the teams that created Sesame Street and other hit productions.
8. SAM AND FRIENDS HAD A BREAKOUT STAR ON ITS ROSTER.
While Sam and Friends centered on the bald, human-like puppet Sam, it also featured a Muppet that Henson had created out of an old coat his mother was getting rid of and a single, dissected ping pong ball for eyes. This early version of Kermit wasn’t quite as green as the one who would become famous, and he didn’t sport Kermit’s now-iconic collar. But he was undeniably Kermit, the brilliant straight man who would help make Henson’s more famous later works so much fun. Sam and Friends stayed on the air until 1961, giving Henson plenty of time to tinker with Kermit’s character.
9. HE GOT AN OSCAR NOD FOR A SHORT WITH NO PUPPETS.
Sam and Friends went off the air in 1961. Between that show’s end and the launch of Sesame Street in 1969, Henson had plenty to keep him busy. He made countless appearances on national morning and late night shows, and he continued learning more about filmmaking. His 1965 experimental short Time Piece, which featured no puppets, even earned him an Oscar nomination.
10. HENSON’S WORK ON COMMERCIALS PRODUCED SOME CLASSIC CHARACTERS.
In addition to experiments like Time Piece, Henson’s Muppets were in hot demand with advertisers and producers of other shows. Some of the creations Henson made for these arrangements would become iconic Muppets. A ravenous character called the Wheel Stealer appeared in a snack food commercial and gradually evolved into Cookie Monster, while Rowlf the Dog debuted in a dog food commercial.
For more Henson magic, catch the world premiere of Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow on November 21 at 8/7c on Lifetime.