(written May 13, 2015)
Last week I was venturing through YouTube looking for the Muppets’ Bohemian Rhapsody video and I stumbled upon a video that I had not seen in a while, the video was the one of Big Bird performing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” at the Jim Henson Memorial Service. This very moving tribute got me wondering when Henson had passed and, to my surprise, I discovered that it had been almost 25 years since his passing. On May 16, 1990, Henson passed away as a result of a bacterial infection (Streptococcal toxic shock syndrome). With this, the world lost a great and imaginative individual who brought joy and adventure to the world. What follows are some of the most memorable creations and projects that he was a part of.
Henson of course is best known for the creation of The Muppets, who helped prove that puppets do not have to live in the domain of entertaining children and could also be enjoyed by adults. The Muppet Show was a prime time success that brought together The Muppets and celebrities in a weekly Variety Show. While Henson was still with us the Muppets also made three movies: The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Of these my favorite as a whole film was The Muppet Movie (with a cameo by Big Bird who was heading to New York to break into Public Television). While The Muppet Movie was my favorite film, my favorite scene came from The Great Muppet Caper and was accompanied by the song “Happiness Hotel”. In this scene Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo are trying to check into the hotel and the proprietor of the hotel goes straight into singing about all of the many, many problems at the hotel.
Though the Muppets are his known creation, probably his greatest contribution to society was the Sesame Street characters whose main purpose has been to help educate the world’s children. Beginning in 1969 when the Children Television Workshop was trying to put together Sesame Street, they brought Henson and his staff in to create characters for their program. Of these, some of the most notable characters are Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, and Grover. Thanks to Henson’s efforts on Sesame Street, the show became a success and has helped to educate millions of children in not only the United States but also around the world.
In 1982, Henson, who always seemed to be pushing the art of puppetry, ventured outside of his Muppet universe and began to create fantasy films that were far and away vastly different from his Muppet projects. These films began in ’82 with The Dark Crystal, which was very different from the previous work he had done with his Muppet characters. Crystal, despite being marketed as a family film, is in fact pretty dark and featured at the time what were groundbreaking animatronics. Crystal’s story centered around an elf-like creature called a Gelfling, who is believed to be the last of his kind, and his quest to restore the Dark Crystal and help to restore the equilibrium of his planet.
In 1986, Henson’s second foray outside of the Muppet universe came with the release of Labyrinth. Just as The Dark Crystal featured groundbreaking animatronics, Labyrinth also featured animatronics that were well advanced beyond anything else that had been previously used. It was a fantasy story of a fifteen year old girl named Sarah that wishes for the Goblin King to come and take her infant half-brother away. And when her wish is granted she realizes the mistake that she has made and only has thirteen hours to reach the Goblin King’s castle at the center of the labyrinth to regain her brother. Despite the combination of the Jim Henson Creature Shop (who had just a few years earlier had commercial success with The Dark Crystal) and David Bowie, Labyrinth ended up being a commercial failure. Unfortunately, Henson, who was greatly affected by the poor turnout for Labyrinth, never lived long enough to see the resulting popularity that would eventually come to the film.
Through these movies, shows, and characters and even all the other works I wasn’t able to mention here, Henson was able to bring joy and happiness to not only children, but also to adults all throughout the world. He was also able, through his shows, to help educate children worldwide. His passing was a great loss to us all for if he was still alive today he would only be seventy-eight years old and most likely still be creating fantastic works beloved as much as his classics. Though we have been without his genius and creativity for the past twenty-five years, he did leave all of us with probably the greatest gift of all – the inspiration for all of us and for future generations to create great new worlds of fantasy even more fantastic than those that came before.