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I only met Jane Henson a couple times, mostly in passing.  A part of me was always intimidated, not because she was such a strong  presence (which she was), but because she was the closest you could get to the real Jim Henson.  Not the man who created The Muppet Show, brought us all those classic characters, and helped introduce Sesame Street to the world, but the guy from Mississippi who had a home life and a family away from his professional life.  Aside from their children, Jane Henson was the strongest connection to this part of Jim’s life, which made her the closest you could come to the Jim we don’t generally hear about.

Because I didn’t know Jane personally, I wanted to get some stories and thoughts from people who did know her.  So we reached out to some of the puppeteers, writers, and colleagues who worked with her and were touched by her.

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Joe Bailey: Muppet Show and Sesame Street writer, author of “Memoirs of a Muppet Writer

Here are some “snapshots” that went through my mind when I hear of Jane Henson’s passing last week:

I remember the day I met Jane. It was May 8, 1977. It was Mother’s Day. It was also the day I sailed for England on the QE-2 with the Muppets gang to start writing The Muppet Show. The show was produced outside London, and starting a new season by sailing to England on the Elizabeth was becoming a Muppets tradition.

Besides Jim, Jane and myself, the party consisted of Puppeteers Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt, Bernie Brillstein, Jim’s manager, his wife, Debbie, Head Writer, Jerry Juhl and his wife, Susan, and writer, Don Hinkley and his wife, Karen. This was quite an extroverted sailing party and Jane held her own with the best of them.

At that time, I had been working with Jim for four seasons on Sesame Street. So, I knew that Jane had to be a very special person. And she certainly was. Of course, she had a wonderful sense of humor. (It is hard to imagine Jim Henson married to anybody who didn’t have a sense of humor: Is the frog supposed to be funny?)

So, it was on that extraordinary ocean voyage that I got to know Jane Henson. I remember she enjoyed my stories about my Italian mother’s disastrous cooking. (My father said her favorite kitchen utensil was the hand grenade.)

There was also a great sense of stability in Jane. Although she had stopped performing, she was still very much involved in the business side of the Muppets. At the same time, she was also running a high-octane household with five growing kids and Jim traveling much of the time. Jane magically held it all together. And, that allowed Jim to engage in all his wonderful madness as if he didn’t have a care in the world (which, evidently, he didn’t).

I remember, too, how strong Jane was when Jim died so suddenly. And, in the 23 years since Jim’s death, Jane has kept his work alive through her support of the Jim Henson Foundation and the Jim Henson Legacy. She will be sorely missed in the puppet community.

Recently, Jane was very gracious to me when my book about writing for the Muppets came out. I even heard she got a chuckle or two out of it. That meant a lot to me.

Finally, it should also be noted that Jane was deeply involved with the creation of the Muppets. She was Jim’s first performing partner and worked along side him during the early years when the Muppets were really being developed. No history of the Muppets should be written without crediting Jane’s creative contribution to them.

Jane Henson was a Great Lady. She had an extraordinary life and it was my great pleasure and honor to have known her. I shall remember her fondly.

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Paul Williams: Muppet Movie songwriter

Jane was a quiet lady, always sweet to me and always enthusiastic about the work.  Although we spent very little time together my reaction to seeing her was always one of ‘comfort and calm’.   She seemed to have the ‘Mom’ vibe perfected to a high art.  I know her influence on and passion for puppetry was a huge part of the Muppet’s early success.  Her greatest success has to be not only the continuing impact of the Henson name on the entertainment world, but more importantly the brilliance of her children as artists, businessmen and women and happily, really nice people.  She’ll be greatly missed.

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David Stephens: Muppet performer

I first met Jane Henson when I was 16 years old at the National Puppetry Festival of the Puppeteers of America, held in San Francisco in 1993. As a teenager from a small Alabama town, to me, she was an intimidating figure as the Muppets’ matriarch. But she was nice enough to pose for a photo with me and sign my festival program. Little did I know in the years to come she would prove to be a true friend and supporter of my work.

After one of my performances, she came up to my stage and [invited me to] dinner at a Thai restaurant nearby. I threw my gear in my van as fast as I possibly could and sat down for some pad thai with Jane. After a few moments talking about one of the shows that day, she looked me dead in the eye and said “You’re so much like Jim.”

What had she just said? I could barely process it.

She went on,” Part of it is your Southern sensibility..and your banjo playing! Jim had Kermit play the banjo, but I’m sure he would have.” And later, “I wish Jim could have known you and you could have known Jim.”

In October of 2008, “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,”a touring exhibition of Jim’s sketches and puppets curated by the Smithsonian, was hosted by the Atlanta History Center. For the opening festivities, I was asked to demonstrate TV puppetry so that visitors could experience performing in front of a camera and using a TV monitor, the method by which the Muppets have always worked. There were several History Center staffers who enjoyed joking around with puppets I had brought when Jane came by with Henson archivist, Karen Falk and Arthur Novell, past president of Jim Henson Legacy and longtime Henson associate. Suddenly, no one wanted to be on camera. Jane came over to the table of puppets, looked them over and asked me “Which one am I?” She grabbed Norbert, a purple monster character I use regularly. I grabbed another puppet and we proceeded to amuse ourselves and demonstrate TV puppetry techniques for onlookers. Seeing Jane pick up a puppet and perform, Arthur commented, “She never does this!” Though she had stopped performing regularly in the early 1960’s, it was amazing how good Jane’s techniques remained. It was as if she’d never stopped. And she commented on the similarity of my puppets to the early Muppets she and Jim made.

How do you adequately thank someone for helping you become the person and professional you are? I am so grateful for Jane’s friendship and her encouraging words and spirit that so many puppeteers were privileged to experience. To hear her laugh and to see her smile and twinkling eyes was to know joy. I will miss her laugh and her smile and all the warmth I felt in her presence.

[For more of David’s memories, read his tribute to Jane in full on his website.]

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Noel MacNeal: Muppet performer

Jim Henson gets the credit for creating the Muppets. But take a look at those early photos of Jim with creations. Who else is standing there among those characters? Jane Henson. Jane was also a puppeteer and let’s face it; Jim was good but even he couldn’t perform all those characters. Jane’s support and enthusiasm (and well placed sense of humor) not only helped Jim but helped so many other puppeteers through the years. Jane was an inspiration, a mentor, and encouraging spirit within the puppetry community. So when I see those early photos of “Sam and Friends” I’m reminded: behind every great man, is a great woman.

Thank you, Jane.

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Arthur Novell: Former Executive Director of The Jim Henson Legacy

I would meet her every Tuesday. I called it “Tuesdays with Jane”.  That went on for 18 years.  It was a recap situation, where we could review what was happening.  They were terrific meetings, very informed and open-ended.

It was great having Jane at the Legacy with us every Tuesday.  She was great company and she was funny, we laughed a lot. She was challenging and always interesting and she was so smart. Just one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. She was very well read, she’d read anything.

She was our founder and funder.  Jim passed away in 1990, and the company was getting a lot of requests to honor Jim posthumously and there were requests for copies of his work and interest from educators and people in the business.  Jane called and said, “I have an idea. The company is so busy, they really can’t accommodate these requests.  And also: archival. Who’s going to put all this together?”  It was Jane who hired Karen Falk, which was a godsend.  Jane was the driving force. It was her direction, her vision.

We did a lot of things together. We traveled together, we talked late at night. I bored her with my stories, she never bored me with hers.  Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about Jane. We became good friends.

Once, we went down to Leland, Mississippi. It was a long trip, and we had to rent a car to get to Leland to the museum down there.  They knew we were coming and they invited us to a dinner party.  Along the way, Jane loved to eat, and I loved to eat.  I think we stopped at every fast food place on that car trip.  By the time we got to Leland, we were pretty well-fed.  The inside of the car looked like we were picking up trash along the highway.  We pulled up to the front of the house, it was a lovely Antebellum mansion, quite elegant.  We were sitting in the car and Jane said, “Oh, let me have the mouth wash”.  I had one of those little sample things.  The timing couldn’t have been better, in an embarrassing kind of way.  As they spotted us, they came out to the car, and at that moment, Jane was gargling.  They looked in shock because Jane’s mouth was full of mouthwash and I was in the back seat looking for a plastic bag. And here’s this very southern group, with their very southern hospitality, so they didn’t say anything. They ushered us into the house, into this fancy reception with a lot of people.  And sure enough, the hostess took me aside and asked what happened, so I said, “Jane wanted to be fresh”.

It’s not always good when friends become clients, but when clients become friends, it’s really something special.  And that’s what happened with Jane and me.
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Brian Jay Jones: Author of the upcoming “Jim Henson: The Biography”

Over the past five years, I had the great privilege of getting to know Jane Henson — at least a little. She was brassy, brilliant, outspoken, and opinionated — and, frankly, the first time I met her, she intimidated the hell out of me. But the more I got to know her, the more I came to find that she was also incredibly warm and sweet, and completely and utterly devoted to her family and friends. She was also just as funny as you might imagine, edgy with a slight whiff of mischief. (And yeah, she was a terrific puppeteer, too — there’s a reason young Jim Henson asked her to be his first performing partner back in 1954: Jim knew sheer talent when he saw it.)

For the five years I knew her, Jane was fighting cancer. And yet, she was always generous with her time, giving me several hours (on several occasions!) in New York, and a few more when she happened to be in Washington, DC. I never called our sessions together “interviews”; instead, I called them conversations – because I think that’s how we both came to regard them. There were times I was worried I might be tiring her out — one session ran nearly five hours — but Jane seemed to have a nearly endless enthusiasm; the one time I suggested that we start wrapping things up because she might be tired, she simply looked at her watch, raised an eyebrow at me, and shrugged, “If you say so.”

Yeah, I came to adore her.

The last time I saw her was late summer 2012.  She was a bit tired, but still as punchy as ever and we talked for several hours in the conference room of the Jim Henson Legacy, an organization she founded in 1993 to preserve and perpetuate Jim’s life and work. When I got up to leave that afternoon, I took her right hand in mine and shook it. “Thank you for sharing Jim with me,” I told her, “and thanks for sharing you.” She patted the back of my hand warmly with her left hand and smiled.

[For more of Brian’s memories, read his tribute to Jane in full on his website.]

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Stephen Christy: Editor-in-Chief of Archaia Comics (publisher of Henson comics like Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Tale of Sand)

There’s an evening I’ll always remember.  Lisa Henson and her husband held a dinner at her house with her and her family, Brian Henson and his family, and Jane.  I was very excited to meet Jane, as I think Tale of Sand was about done at this point.  She and I had a wonderful conversation at dinner, and I expressed to her how grateful I was for all of the work she’d done.  Jane was responsible for all of the work that the Jim Henson Legacy has been doing over the last few years, and she was instrumental along with Karen Falk in filling the Henson archives.  Just doing the work to let people know what Jim was all about.  It was something Jane really devoted a lot of her time and energy to.  So I was very grateful that I got to talk with her and express my thanks for that and for the opportunity her family gave me to help bring Jim’s lost work to life.  She was very supportive, and she spoke very highly of the work we did on the project.  Getting that validation from her was worth more than the Eisner Awards in a certain sense.  It was very special.

I was really impressed, in her age, she’s actually really funny.  She has a great sense of humor.  This is a huge piece of Jim’s legacy that’s gone now.  It’s very sad to see, but I know that the entire family and everyone at the Jim Henson Company is doing a lot to carry on Jane’s mission.

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Jan Nelson: Wife of Muppet performer Jerry Nelson

Jerry would have been the person to really write about Jane. He was close to the whole family. There are pictures of Jerry playing with the Henson kids when they were little.

My impression of Jane is that she was a force to be reckoned with. Years ago Jerry played guitar with Dick Solberg (the Sun Mountain fiddler) and his band from time to time. The band was due to appear in a funky downstairs club in the Village named the Sun Mountain Cafe (after the band) on a particular night and Jerry spread that information at Sesame Street in case anyone wanted to come and hear him.

It was after midnight and Jerry was on stage with the Sun Mountain band. I glanced across the crowded club and saw Jane sitting at a table with Arthur Novell. I was surprised – it was really late and they must have just come in. I went over and talked to them a bit. Later I got the story from Arthur. At eleven o’clock that night she had called him up and told him to take her down to the club in the Village to see Jerry play. Arthur grumbled about it … he was not happy to be going out that late … but he obeyed. They sat through the last set and left no earlier than 2 am. I would never have expected to see those two non-party animals at that hour but there they were. It was great.

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Stephanie D’Abruzzo: Muppet performer

She was an artist, a puppeteer, a proud mother and grandmother, but she is known to most people as the widow of Jim Henson. One of her largest ventures was creating – and supporting – the Jim Henson Legacy, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and raises awareness of Jim’s life and work as an individual artist. The Legacy is quite dear to me for many reasons, including the fact that my husband is its current president (which makes me its unofficial first lady).

When I think of Jane, I think mostly of a mom.  But when I say that I think of Jane mostly as a mom, I don’t mean to downplay her career at all. And I don’t think of her as simply a mother to her five children, or as a grandmother of eight, or even as a surrogate mom to me (which I can’t really say that she was). I think of Jane as the grand matriarch of everyone who’d ever worked for or with the Jim Henson Company in any capacity. She was the Muppet Mom

She clearly took great joy in the events that united the family of Muppet performers, builders, directors, producers, crew, writers, and staff. When she created the Jim Henson Legacy in 1993, she didn’t just make it possible for there to be exhibits and screenings of Jim’s work across the country and around the world… because the Legacy often hosted in-house screenings, celebrations, reunions and yes, memorial services, she also gave a touchstone to every current and former Henson employee.

Those events that the Legacy hosted were almost always attended by Jane, and the room always received her with the casual warmth of a mum and the solemn respect of a materfamilias. I will admit that I really only truly felt like I was a Muppet Performer once Jane described me as one. It’s probable that I am not the only one who felt this way. She was there when the Muppets were created, and she was the closest I would ever get to meeting Jim.

Lest you think I am boiling this woman’s worth to nothing more than motherhood (both literal and figurative), I will also offer this:

She was incredibly talented, but she was almost reluctant to admit to my husband that she’d built some of those first Muppets, and preferred to tell her stories through the lens of Jim’s work. When I finally saw some of her sculptures a few years ago, I was gobsmacked by them.

She was fascinating. Willard Scott has had a open crush on her since they worked together at WRC-TV in Washington, DC, but she was always unflappable and classy when it came up. And I always sensed there was more to her than met the eye.

She was highly opinionated. You did not want to disagree with her. I will not expound on that.

Suffice it to say that my soul is weary from saying goodbye to so many loved ones in our Muppet Family in the past twelve months. This goodbye will be just as sad, but also very different, because Jane won’t be there.

[For more of Stephanie’s memories, read her tribute to Jane in full on her website.]

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Many thanks to Joe Bailey, Paul Williams, David Stephens, Noel MacNeal, Arthur Novell, Brian Jay Jones, Stephen Christy, Jan Nelson, and Stephanie D’Abruzzo for sharing their thoughts and stories with us.

Click here to help us remember Jane Henson on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com

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