September 28, 2023

Celebrating one of Mississippi’s own: Jim Henson

Mary Apel

“Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.

Keep believing, keep pretending.”

-Jim Henson

This past week marked the birthdate of Mississippi’s own Jim Henson. The visionary puppeteer, filmmaker, and creator of the beloved Muppets left an indelible mark on entertainment and continues to inspire generations even after his untimely passing at the age of 53.

Jim Henson was born on September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi. Growing up in the heart of the South, Henson often said, lent itself to his passion for creative storytelling. As a young boy, he loved the natural beauty of the Mississippi landscape, which later served as inspiration for his screen sets and art. Henson’s career began during his college years at the University of Maryland, where he started performing puppet shows on a local television station. It was here that he honed his craft, bringing to life a cast of characters that would eventually become iconic figures in popular culture.

The breakthrough came in 1969 when Henson introduced the world to “Sesame Street,” a groundbreaking children’s television program that combined education and entertainment. The lovable Big Bird, Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster captured the hearts of children and adults alike, teaching valuable life lessons with a touch of humor. The success of “Sesame Street” propelled Henson into the spotlight, paving the way for his next big venture – “The Muppet Show.” Premiering in 1976, this variety show showcased Henson’s unparalleled creativity and wit. With characters like Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Gonzo, the show became a global sensation, delighting audiences with its clever skits, musical numbers, and celebrity guests.

Beyond the small screen, Henson’s creative genius extended into the world of film. In 1982, he brought to life the fantasy film “The Dark Crystal,” showcasing his mastery of puppetry and storytelling. This project was considered ambitious for both filmmaking and puppetry, and cemented Henson’s reputation as a visionary filmmaker.

For Gen-Xer’s, these characters and images were as much a part of childhood as anything that comes to mind. New generations have been reintroduced to Sesame Street through streaming services, making it the most widely viewed children’s television series of all time. A large part of that is due to its association with Disney.

Henson had begun work to sell a bulk of his projects to Disney at the end of his life. Tragically, on May 16, 1990, the world lost Jim Henson at the age of 53. He grew ill and died quickly and unexpectedly, leaving a universe of unfinished ideas. Henson’s closest collaborator and best friend Frank Oz believes that the stress of negotiating with Disney led to Henson’s death, stating in a 2021 interview that “The Disney deal is probably what killed Jim. It made him sick.”

His funeral has been widely documented, due to his beloved nature and shock of his passing.

One publication described it as follows:
The service began with an organ rendition of the Sesame Street theme song, and “Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. Then the Dirty Dozen Brass Band entered, playing “A Closer Walk with Thee”, followed by clergy, the church choir, and family.

Harry Belafonte was present, paying tribute to Henson: “There is no question about Jim Henson’s great artistry and the extent to which we have all been touched by it. Greater than his artistry was his humanity.”

Colorful butterflies on metal stems, crafted by the Muppet Workshop, were distributed to mourners, who waved them while Belafonte sang “Turn the World Around.” A barefoot dancer in a sequined costume and painted face danced waving a foot-tall butterfly.

In addition to Big Bird singing “Bein’ Green” and the “Just One Person” closing, Muppet numbers included the male performers singing “Baby Face” in the voices of the chickens, “It’s in Every One of Us” and “You Are My Sunshine” in their own voices, Kevin Clash rendering “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” in the voice of Elmo, Richard Hunt and Frank Oz singing “Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear” in the voices of Scooter and Fozzie Bear, Jerry Nelson singing “Halfway Down the Stairs” in Robin the Frog’s voice, Nelson and Steve Whitmire singing “Wemblin’ Fool” in the voices of Gobo Fraggle and Wembley Fraggle, Frank Oz singing “Cottleston Pie” in the voice of Bert, and Dave Goelz singing “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” in the voice of Gonzo. The service closed with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Watch his memorial service here.

Henson’s impact on the world can best be summarized by friend Richard Hunt’s Eulogy:

“It’s important that we all stop giving ourselves such a hard time. We’ve got to remind ourselves, and push ourselves, to let go— there’s not much we can do except to be, and in being, become aware. See what’s going on around you all the time, and allow it to happen: all the sadness, all the joy. And that’s why Jim’s last words are most important: ‘Please watch out for each other,’ he says. Love everyone and forgive everyone, including yourself. Forgive your anger. Forgive your guilt. Your shame. Your sadness. Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth, and most especially your heart.” —Richard Hunt. (Two years later, Hunt was memorialized in the same cathedral.)

Henson’s “last words” here are reportedly from a letter to friends and family; while a copy of the letter is not available online, here’s a portion that’s widely quoted:

“Watch out for each other. Love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it!”

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