Jim Henson would have been 76 today. He shares his birthday with Steve Whitmire, who took over as Kermit the Frog after Henson passed away in 1990. Whitmire is 53, the same age Henson was when he died. My daughter was also born on this day, fourteen years ago. But apart from a handful of episodes of Fraggle Rock when she was younger, she never really got into the Muppets. So I kind of feel like I’ve failed as a parent. She is sufficiently traumatized by Large Marge, so at least I got that right.
I guess it’s just that she didn’t grow up in a world were Jim Henson was everywhere. Seriously, I can’t think of anyone that’s around now that’s as all-encompassing as Jim Henson was when I was growing up. The Muppets had their own TV show, a Saturday morning cartoon, and three movies. They had a Christmas album with John Denver. They were in your cereal bowl. They were Happy Meal toys, die-cast cars, and Crayola coloring plates, They were on the covers of magazines like Time and Life, as well as their own Muppet Magazine, where they appeared with the likes of Henry Winkler, Brooke Shields, and Mr. T.
They were on the Today Show, the Tonight Show, and Hollywood Squares. They were part of Cliff Huxtable’s sandwich-induced nightmare (the episode was dedicated to Henson, who died before it aired.) Just two weeks before he died, Jim and Kermit were on Arsenio, with Kevin Clash and a scene-stealing Clifford (if you haven’t seen the documentary Being Elmo, check it out on Netflix. It didn’t win all those awards for nothing.) The interview was to promote the upcoming Muppets at Walt Disney World special and the early stages of the Disney/Henson partnership.
But it wasn’t just the Muppets. On TV, there were specials like Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, Dog City and The Tale of the Bunny Picnic. There was Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, both of which were shown in countries all over the world, and had segments or even completely different characters for each specific country. Americans watching Boondock Saints instantly recognized the bartender with Tourettes as Doc, and half-expected him to find a postcard from Uncle Traveling Matt. But not British viewers, because their Doc was a bearded lighthouse keeper.
Not to say that everything he did was a smash hit. After Fraggle Rock ended, Henson partnered with HBO again for The Ghost of Faffner Hall. The concept –teaching kid’s about music by way of guest stars like Dizzy Gillespie, Mark Knopfler and Thomas Dolby–was solid, but the puppets were
kind of unimaginably terrifying, and it only lasted 13 episodes. The Storyteller, another high-concept show starring John Hurt, his faithful dog, and guest starred the likes of Miranda Richardson, Johnathan Pryce, and Sean Bean (who somehow doesn’t die), didn’t last long on NBC, with the remaining episodes and reruns folded into The Jim Henson Hour. The Storyteller was a bit creepy as well, particularly “The Soldier and Death.”
Gah! Nightmares for a week!
GAAAAAAHHHH!!!! NIGHTMARES FOREVER!!
A second season, starring Michael Gambon as a different storyteller (but with the same dog) focused on four Greek myths, but was not shown in the United States until…I don’t know, twenty years later? And of course, The Jim Henson Hour itself only ran for 12 episodes, and of them, only nine were shown on NBC.
When the The Dark Crystal came out in 1982, people weren’t really sure what to expect. It was ambitious; the first movie to feature exclusively puppets. But they were much darker than the cutesy family-friendly Muppets, with the possible exception of Janice, the only Muppet who can get away with saying “Hell” and talk about getting naked. Twice. It also had the misfortune of coming out at the same time as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which went on to become the (then) highest grossing film of all time. Still, it was a modest hit with $40 million, more than making up for the $15 million budget. Labyrinth didn’t fare as well a few years later, losing over $12 million. However, both have gone on to become huge cult classics.
Every single one of these shaped my childhood. Even Star Wars wouldn’t be the same without Jim Henson. While Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was not responsible for any of the aliens in the movies (they were all done by Stuart Freeborn) Henson consulted on the creation of Yoda, who obviously was performed by Henson’s Number 2, Frank Oz.
Yes, the Muppets made a comeback with their movie last year, but it’s not the same. And it’s not because of the fart shoes, or wrong sounding Muppets, or the recent passing of longtime Muppeteer Jerry Nelson. The Muppets are fractured. In 1987, there was a special called A Muppet Family Christmas. In addition to the regular stable of Muppet characters, it featured Fraggles and Sesame Street characters. They can’t do that now. The Muppets were bought by Disney, The Fraggles and all non-Muppet characters were retained by The Jim Henson Company, and Sesame Street is owned by the Children’s Television Workshop. Because of that, when Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas was released on DVD, it was missing the introduction and narration of Kermit (not to mention the outtakes). And what about The Muppet Musicians of Breman, The Frog Prince and Hey Cinderella? Will they ever be re-released? They’re like orphaned children who were put into different foster homes. It’s depressing.
If Jim Henson were still around today, I wonder if my daughter would have grown up watching new and innovative Henson creations? Or would he have fallen into the same slump as his friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg? I don’t think Henson ever worked directly with Spielberg, but Spielberg spoke during the Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson special and they both worked with Lucas. And I think they all belonged to the Bearded Genius Club. So I’d like to think maybe, with him around to bounce ideas off of, they’d have stayed on top of their games and the movie landscape from 1990 onward would be much different than as we know it.