September 24th, 2023 would have been Jim Henson’s 87th birthday. Jim Henson, the man who brought the cultural zeitgeist of the Muppets to the world of children’s television (Sesame Street, 1969; Fraggle Rock, 1983), variety comedy shows (The Muppet Show, 1976), science fiction fantasies (The Dark Crystal, 1982; Labyrinth, 1986), and holiday specials (Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, 1977). Henson was an innovator in the world of puppetry; for children, for adults, for everyone. His drive for technological advances in this form of entertainment and experimental usage of practical and early computer generated special effects, really shines through the quality of the shows and movies his company created- and many of his works hold up as entertaining now as they did three generations ago!
The word puppets has become synonymous with Henson’s “muppets”– a mix between monsters and puppets- since his first televised commercials in the late 1950s-1960s, using simple puppets to sell Wilkins coffee and other products, often with slapstick violence involved. One of Henson’s first recognizable Muppets was Rowlf the dog; originally featured on segments on the Jimmy Dean Show (1963-1966), Rowlf would remain unchanged through the years and eventually joined the cast of the Muppet Show as the resident piano player. But the true shining star of the Muppets would come in the shape of a green, slender, triangle-pointed collar wearing, banjo-playing, Muppet Show host, Kermit the Frog. Prototyped in Henson’s pre-Muppet Show variety show Sam and Friends (1955), Kermit wouldn’t reach Rowlf’s peak stardom until his appearance as a main character in the early seasons of Sesame Street and his first signature song “Bein’ Green” (1970). As Sesame Street became an instant success, educating preschool kids on numbers and letters and social skills, Henson wanted to pitch a new, more edgier Muppet show, so he created a short- Muppets: Sex and Violence (1975)- and it flopped. But it would take less than a year for ITV in England to contact Henson for a variety show, which would become The Muppet Show, hosted by Kermit, and featuring Rowlf and an expanded cast of Muppet characters.
During off seasons between production on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, Henson focused his energy on full-feature films. The Muppet Movie (1979) provided a backstory for the Muppets, opening on Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” in the middle of a swamp- a magical moment that carries the whimsical tone throughout the rest of the film. The lasting legacy of the Muppets, in my opinion, has its roots firmly in the lyrics of this song. Muppets are “weirdos” (to quote Sam the Eagle), a group of lovers and dreamers coming together to make something absolutely remarkable, making their dreams- or metaphorical rainbows– come true.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe itRainbow Connection (1979), Jim Henson and Paul Williams
I know they’re wrong, wait and see
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers and me
Unfortunately, Jim Henson passed away at the age of 53 from organ failure caused by an untreated strep infection in 1990. His future was bright, with a looming partnership with Disney including a full Disney Parks takeover with rides, parades, and costumed characters, and more Muppets-related media; but his untimely passing caused the Jim Henson Company to re-evaluate their contracts with Disney and pull back on the Disney Parks inclusion. In 1991, the Parks attraction Muppet Vision 3D was opened, and Disney collaborated with the Jim Henson Company on a few movie projects, including Muppets Treasure Island in 1996; in 2004, Disney would purchase the rights to the Muppets characters, with the exception of the Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock casts.
My personal introduction to the world of Jim Henson’s Muppets was watching Fraggle Rock– reruns of the 1983 series- on a cable channel in the early 2000s with my mom. During lockdown in 2020, I revisited the series as an adult. I had always identified with Boober, the anxious and introverted member of the main group of fraggles, a made-up species of cave dwellers who love to “dance your cares away/worries for another day” (quoted from the theme song). Except Boober, who is quite content being worrisome, and is never forced to change who he is, or conform to the norm. The overarching themes of tolerance and understanding became more potent in my viewing in 2020, and like many of the other Jim Henson films and shows on this list, Fraggle Rock is never afraid to hit heavy topics- like death, mourning, bullying, and conflict- balancing it with slapstick silliness and folk songs. I believe it’s one of the best shows created by Jim Henson before he passed, and a must-watch to this day.
Jim Henson’s works continue to entertain people of all ages to this day, and I’m certain anyone can find something in his catalogue that they’ll enjoy! Although some of the recent works below were created after Henson’s passing, his compassion for the Muppets and his push for innovation and inclusion lives on in the world of modern-day puppetry. In chronological order of releases, here’s some of Jim Henson’s Muppets content you can check out at Westlake Porter Public Library!
- Sesame Street DVDs –Big Bird and Friends & Follow that Bird (1985), Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999), Sesame Street Old School 1969-1974 (2006), Sesame Street Old School 1974-1979 (2006), Sesame Street Old School 1979-1984 (2006), 50 Years and Counting (2019), Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021)
- Sesame Street Books – The Monster at the End of this Book (1971),How to Be a Grouch (1976), Another Monster at the End of this Book (2009), Love from Sesame Street (2018), Sunny Day: a Celebration of Sesame Street (2019), Love the Fur You’re In: Monster Wit and Wisdom from 50 Years of Sesame Street (2019)
- The Muppet Show (1976-1981) – Season 1, Season 2, Season 3
- The Muppet Movie (1979)
- Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)
- The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
- The Dark Crystal (1982); Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: the Ultimate Visual History (2017)
- Fraggle Rock (1983-1987) – Season 1, Season 2, Season 3; Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock: the Ultimate Visual History (2021)
- Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
- Labyrinth (1986)
- Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
- Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
- Muppets From Space (1999)
- It’s a Very Merry Muppets Movie (2010)
- The Muppets (2012)
- Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
- Muppet Babies- Time to Play! (2018)
- Biographies and Other Puppetry related books- Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets (2011), I Am Big Bird: the Caroll Spinney Story (2014), A Practical Guide to Puppetry (2022), Puppetry with and without Ventriloquism: 2 Easy Methods to Bringing Puppets to Life (2022)
I would also recommend checking out DefunctTV’s series on Jim Henson and his Muppets on Youtube, here, as it goes more in depth into Henson’s personal life and his impact on the world of puppetry as a whole.