I don’t remember a time before I knew the Muppets. I can’t recall the first time I saw Kermit the Frog or Ernie. But I know there was a time before I knew who Jim Henson was.
There I was, a preschool kid, still in Sesame Street’s demographic. I was watching a VHS tape full of Fraggle Rock episodes that my aunt gave me. At the time, cable TV wasn’t even available in my hometown, much less HBO. (We led such deprived childhoods back then!) In between Fraggle episodes, there was a flashy music video for the song “I’m Gonna Always Love You” from The Muppets Take Manhattan. You can watch that video on YouTube, complete with some helpful titles covering the screen with the name of the uploader.
I watched as a football flew through window of the Muppet Babies’ nursery. I watched as the window broke. And then, out of nowhere, I watched as a mysterious man with a beard and sunglasses magically repaired the window and strutted away as the camera revealed that his feet were large, green flippers.
I was fascinated by all of this. My parents explained that the mysterious bearded man was the guy who came up with the idea for the Muppets, and his name was Jim Henson. I’d like to think that even at my young age I understood how remarkable it was that there was this guy who was responsible for all the great Muppet stuff I loved.
By the time The Jim Henson Hour premiered a few years later, I was a budding pop culture nerd and fully on board the Jim Henson fan bus. I didn’t know the other Muppet performers’ names, but I had figured out that Jim Henson played Kermit the Frog. And for a few glorious weeks, here was this primetime TV series that opened and closed with Jim Henson talking to me, telling me he hoped I enjoyed the show and showing me how some of his puppet tricks worked. He was like a friend of the family who always had something cool to show me. (I wrote about that series for its 25th anniversary on this very website.)
That show was cancelled after one short season, but that didn’t hinder my admiration for Jim Henson and his work. I watched and re-watched and re-watched all my Muppety VHS tapes, looking for Jim’s name in the credits.
And then, suddenly, it was May 16, 1990. As I was getting ready for school, my mom came into my room and told me that she had just heard on the radio that Jim Henson died. I’ve often heard Muppet fans say Jim’s was the first celebrity death that really affected them, and that was definitely the case for me. I felt like the Muppets at the end of the Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson special that aired a few months later – I was just getting to know him, and he was gone. It feels impossible that that morning was 30 years ago tomorrow.
I watched The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson when it aired, taped it, re-watched it, and learned a little bit more about the man and his career. (I wrote about that special for its 25th anniversary on this very website.) A few years after that, another major turning point came when I received Jim Henson: The Works for my birthday, allowing me to absorb a then-unprecedented amount of information about Jim’s life, his creative process, and his ambitions. (I wrote about that book for its 25th anniversary on this very website.)
At a certain point, I started to feel like I knew Jim Henson in a way I don’t feel with other cultural figures. I get the impression that’s true of a lot of fans. His work shaped us in so many ways, and it means something so personal to us, that we feel a certain familiarity with him that we may not feel with any of our other artistic heroes. Of course, I’m aware that I can’t say with authority that I know what he was really like – and I generally try very hard to avoid the “Here’s what Jim would do/Here’s what Jim wouldn’t do” debates that pop up online – but I feel more acquainted with him than, say, Stan Lee or Stan Freberg or any of my other favorite creators named Stan.
In recent years we’ve gained unprecedented insights into who Jim Henson was, thanks to the efforts of the Jim Henson Legacy, various cultural historians, and his surviving collaborators and friends. We know about what inspired him, we know about how driven he was to keep creating, and he know how he would go “Hmm” when presented with an idea he wasn’t enthusiastic about. Brian Jay Jones’s Jim Henson: The Biography gave us all a level-up in Jim Henson expertise, and Jim is more beloved now than ever.
I suspect the vast majority of people who consider themselves fans and admirers of Jim never met him or even saw him in person, and yet when we see him in photos or onscreen, we feel like we’re looking at an old friend. And 30 years after we lost him, we still miss him.
I never met Jim Henson. But it sure has been great knowing him.
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com