Magical Muppety Tour: Retracing Jim Henson’s Steps on a Very Special Bus Ride

Published: August 14, 2023
Categories: Feature, Reports

This guest post was written by Tough Pigs pal Zachary Snyder. Many thanks to Zachary for his hard work, and for sharing this wonderful experience with all of us!

This past July, the Puppeteers of America held its annual festival at the University of Maryland. This venue was especially significant because it’s the college that Jim and Jane Henson attended when they created the Muppets, including Kermit.

It was a milestone event for everyone involved, considering the fact that it was the first national festival the organization hosted since the COVID-19 pandemic. As a special treat, a three-hour bus tour was scheduled for a limited group of attendees to explore some places where both Jim and Jane lived and worked during their time in the Maryland/Washington D.C. area.

And so, on Friday, July 21st, we all boarded the bus for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Henson writer and historian Craig Shemin, along with Cheryl and Heather Henson, were on hand to point out the amazing sites and explain their significance in Henson history.

Craig introduced us to our driver Joe and our tech guy Theo, who helped out with providing Henson photos and clips for our tour… more on that later. Photographer Richard Termine had also tagged along for the trip and took special pictures along the way.

Photo credit: Richard Termine

Once everyone had boarded, we were off and running. As we drove off the campus and onto our first destination, Craig began digging into the story of Jim’s time at the University of Maryland. At the start of his freshman year, having enrolled in graphic design in the home economics department, Jim had set up a silkscreen poster business at the Student Union (long before it was named after Adele Stamp, whom Jane used to joke that she knew before she was a building), creating posters for theatrical productions on campus and other special events.

In his first semester, Jim had already begun working with puppets in television for the CBS owned affiliate station, WTOP Ch. 9. As part of his major, Jim began taking puppet classes, which were required, and it was in those classes that he met senior student, Jane Nebel. Because of Jim’s busy schedule in television, Craig said that Jim took only about two classes at most each semester, before finally graduating in 1960, when he arrived at the ceremony in a used Rolls-Royce he had bought for himself with his success.

When mentioning the Rolls, Heather pointed out that in the beginning when her father started making money, he spent a good deal of it on material things at first, but quickly realized that success was never truly about that.

Photo credit: Fawn Potter and Zachary Snyder

At that point we arrived at our first stop at 4002 Beechwood Rd., which was actually the second home Jim lived in during his time in Maryland. Because large buses such as ours do not normally drive through small neighborhoods like this, a police car was waiting to help us get through the residential streets safely.

We learned that the house on Beechwood Rd. was where Jim built the original Kermit puppet out of his mothers spring coat. Craig showed photos of a teenage Jim at the house, including pictures of him standing out front, having dinner with his family, and celebrating Christmas with his parents, where he showed off one his gifts, an LP record of Walt Kelly’s Songs of the Pogo.

Photo credit: Fawn Potter and Zachary Snyder

We then drove over to Jim’s first Maryland home at 4012 Tennyson Rd. To our surprise, the current residents had placed a Kermit doll in the window at the front of the house. Craig mentioned that both of the first two houses were still relatively the same since Jim had lived at each of them in his youth. He also brought up a photo of Jim at grade school age sitting on the front steps of the house.

Photo credit: Fawn Potter and Zachary Snyder

We next stopped off at Northwestern High School in Hyatsville, which Jim attended from 1951 to 1954. Craig pointed out that the only thing remaining of the original school from Jim’s time there was the auditorium. After his untimely passing in 1990, Jane Henson began receiving requests from the school to name certain parts of it after Jim, but only accepted the auditorium, which is now known as the Jim Henson School of Arts, Media and Communications.

Jane chose that particular building to be named after Jim because it held a special place in his heart to him during his high school years. He was very active in the school arts, contributing cartoons to the school magazine such as his comic-strip, Pierre the French Rat, who later became one of the first puppets that he built for television.

Craig also showed us various photographs of Jim’s high school activities, including the drama club, a Halloween party where he was dressed as the Pied Piper, and a school dance photo of him with his date, who Craig said might have been named Mary.

The school was so close to Jim’s Beechwood Rd. house, that he would ride his bike there each day with his best friend, and later best man at his wedding, Joe Irwin, who is still alive and had met with Craig a few months before the festival. Joe had told Craig that both he and Jim were involved with the school tennis team and were ordered to run laps around the entire school. Because neither Jim nor Joe were crazy about running around that far, they would cut through the school, which Craig joked was the only time that Jim ever cut corners in his life.

As we pulled away from the school, Heather and Cheryl Henson began sharing family stories about their father. They talked of how Jim’s Aunt Bobbie loved to tell stories and enjoyed playing the piano, with great enthusiasm and while turning her head around and telling jokes. Heather said that she likes to think that this is where her father came up with the idea of Rowlf doing the same thing every time he would play piano on The Muppet Show. She also told us how on Thanksgiving, Jim would often talk and act like Link Hogthrob whenever he would be given the job of carving the turkey.

From Northwestern High School our bus rolled on to the apartment that Jane lived at with one of her friends at 1218 Perry St. near where she attended Catholic University after graduating from the University of Maryland. Heather explained that her mother was working towards a graduate degree in the hopes of becoming a teacher and was doing a little bit of student teaching at the time.

While living there, she worked with Jim on his first local TV show, Sam and Friends, at the WRC-TV studios, which was affiliated with the NBC network. The apartment building where Jane lived was right between Jim’s parents’ house and the TV studio and he would pick her up each evening to work on the show.

At the mention of Sam and Friends throughout the bus tour, Craig would always plug his book Sam and Friends: The Story of Jim Henson’s First Television Show, which he was promoting at the festival the next day with a panel and a screening of some of the surviving footage from the show.

Heather spoke about Jane’s love and fascination with religious art. Jane enjoyed making miniature figures as well as ceramics and clay art. Cheryl Henson then pointed out that Jane’s love of little religious figures inspired her mother to create the Nativity story used in the 2013 CBS television special, A New York Christmas to Remember. Coincidentally, DVD copies of the special were being sold in the store at the puppetry festival.

Photo credit: Fawn Potter and Zachary Snyder

From Catholic University, we drove over to a hotel that had once been the original home of the WRC-TV station. Parts of the building were being demolished, so we couldn’t get a closer look at it, but Craig showed us some photos of Jim and Jane working at that original station on Sam and Friends. To give everyone an idea of the kind of stuff they did on the show, they screened the “Old Black Magic” episode of the show on the bus.

We then moved on to the current WRC studio at 4001 Nebraska Ave. Craig explained to everyone on board that in the beginning, Jim and Jane would lip sync each Sam and Friends show to music and comedy records that were popular during the day, from Stan Freberg, to Homer and Jethro, to Spike Jones. Once Jim began doing commercials for Wilkins Coffee and Sam and Friends shows with live actor Paul Arnold, he began using live voices for the Muppet characters.

Because the television cameras at the studio were only five feet, six inches tall, Jim and Jane had to kneel down on the floor to perform rather than standing up straight. Craig said that because most of the content on WRC was mainly news shows, the entire crew loved working with Jim and Jane and watching them perform the Muppets. Jim playfully called his little space at the studio “Weirdsville.”

As Sam and Friends continued to gain popularity, Jim decided to take a break from the show and travel through Europe in 1958 with Joe Irwin, while Jane and Bobbie Payne, another Muppet performer, filled in at the show. After seeing how puppetry was revered throughout many countries in Europe, Jim returned home excited to try many different things in puppetry with his own work. With Jane, he officially founded Muppets Inc. and also began saving audio from Sam and Friends. Craig told us that Jim had saved over 400 acetate records and reel-to-reel audio tapes of the show.

At one point, Jim and Jane were both engaged to different people, but eventually they got together and were married in 1959. The couple earned a local Emmy award for Sam and Friends, which was presented by then-vice president Richard Nixon. Nixon didn’t speak much to Jim that night, except to note that Jim had a beard and that he had known a man in the navy with a beard.

One location we could not get to on the tour was Rodel Studio at 1028 33rd St. NW. where Jim shot all of his Wilkins Coffee commercials. After Craig treated us to a sample of commercial clips from Wilkins, along with other spots for brands like Community Coffee and Kraml Milk, he told that even after Sam and Friends ended and the Muppets moved to New York, Jim and his team continued to make commercials at Rodel Studios throughout the 1960’s.

During that time, while he and Jane began attending Puppeteers of America festivals, Jim started bringing in more people to work with him, including head writer Jerry Juhl, puppet builder Don Sahlin and Muppet performer Frank Oz. This group shot many commercials at Rodel, as well as a sales film for Wilson’s Meats that was made for the executives of Wilson’s and not the general public. We watched a clip of that film, followed by a news clip from the early 1990s where Jane returned for a visit to Rodel Studios and showed exactly where they worked and what they did.

Another place we could not visit was the house that Jim and Jane moved into after they got married in Bethesda — because it’s no longer there. Craig and Heather showed us photos of Jim and Jane at the house, including the two of them having their first Christmas together there.

Jim set up an animation stand in the house, which he had bought on his first trip to California in 1959. Jane used to say that Jim would work all night long creating animated short films into the early morning hours, when it was easier to work without being disturbed by phone calls. Other notable locations that Craig mentioned included the National Institute of Health, where Jim and Jane would perform the Muppets for benefit shows along with the Baltimore Art Show. Jim attended it one year to showcase some of his silkscreen art. Craig said he wonders if anyone alive now who bought those prints back then still has them in their possession.

Photo credit: Fawn Potter and Zachary Snyder

Our final destination on the tour was over to Driskell Park in Hyatsville, the home of a special concrete planter dedicated to Sam and Friends. Craig explained that the sculptor, William C. Culbertson, originally sculpted the planter out of clay and cast it in concrete. Each part of it was shipped over to the park individually and it was all put together in 2016, where it currently sits to this day.

Culbertson also made concrete benches adorned with special quotes from Jim Henson. All of us got off the bus so we could admire and pose for pictures around the planter. After walking around for a little bit, Richard Termine gathered everyone together for a group photo around the planter. You certainly couldn’t come up with a better way to end the tour.

As we all got back on the bus and headed back over to the University, Craig talked about the statue of Kermit and Jim there, which was the work of sculptor Jay Hall Carpenter, commissioned as a gift from the classes of ’94, ’98 and ’99. A special ceremony took place on September 24th, 2003, on what would have been Jim’s 67th birthday. Craig then showed us one final video of Carpenter being interviewed about the construction of the statue and how it came to be.

And then we were back at the campus, at the end of a field trip that had ended much too soon.

For all of us on the bus, the tour was much more than just a drive through historical sites and landmarks. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. We were given the rare chance to explore the early life and work of Jim Henson and how he both lived and worked during that time.

I was reminded of why Jim and the Muppets mean so much not just to me, but to so many others in the world and how he created characters and worlds that people not only came to love, but to cherish. Words could not express how grateful we all were to Craig Shemin, Heather and Cheryl Henson, driver Joe and tech guy Theo, for allowing us to see the sites and hear the amazing stories of a gentle genius.

It was something that none of us, any of us, would ever forget. And for this, on behalf of everyone who was there that day, I can only say… Thank you Jim!

Photo credit: Richard Termine

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by Zachary Snyder

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