Ryan Dosier – 20 years ago today, the world lost the man who brought so much happiness and laughter to the world. Nothing ever seemed like it was more important to Jim Henson’s legacy than those two things: laughter and happiness.
But I have a confession to make, Muppet fans. I never knew Jim Henson–in fact, there is no way I ever could have known Jim Henson. I was born five whole months after he passed. I’m not sure how someone who wasn’t even alive to watch the man work can write about remembering him… but I guess we’re about to find out.
I never knew Jim Henson as a real person. It’s hard for me to imagine him as one, in fact, because I’m so convinced that he’s this mythic figure whose legacy and past-life inspire what I do today. He was Kermit the Frog, he was a visionary, he was a pioneer. But still, I never saw him as a person. Jim Henson is a name and a legacy and I felt that it was almost impossible for me to know him as more than that.
But something amazing happens to you when you watch The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, the tribute TV special aired in November, 1990. In it, the Muppets, Fozzie, Robin, Clifford, Scooter, Lew Zealand, etc., spend the entire tribute trying to figure out just who this Jim Henson fellow was and why it’s so important that they pay tribute to him. They don’t really ever figure it out (shocking, I know), but at the end they find an envelope from Kermit, who has been nowhere to be seen. In the envelope they find a bunch of letters and artwork from real families and real children who show the Muppets why Jim Henson was important: because people loved him.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this a defining moment in my life. I realized then and there that Jim Henson was indeed a man. A man who inspired millions, and still continues to today. Jim Henson was someone that people loved so much that they wrote letters and drew pictures for him even after he was gone. But the measure of Jim Henson the man is far beyond just that. He is truly immortal because of what he did as a man. His imagination, budding with ideas and never stopping, brought the world so much joy and inspired so many people that there’s no way it will ever stop.
Jim Henson lives on through the legacy he left behind. He lives on through those who worked with him and knew him the best: Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Caroll Spinney, Steve Whitmire, Dave Goelz, Kevin Clash, Brian Henson, Lisa Henson, Karen Prell, Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Lewis, Kirk Thatcher, and more. These individuals carry on Jim Henson’s legacy in the most important ways, and that is by bringing life to it every day. These men and women continually remind the world of what Jim Henson created and inhibit his creations’ lasting impact.
There are also those who now work with the people who knew Jim Henson: Bill Barretta, Matt Vogel, Eric Jacobson, Lylle Breier, Louis Henry Mitchell, Roger Langridge, Cory Edwards, and more. These people are just as important to Jim Henson’s legacy because they also bring life to Jim Henson’s legacy in new ways. They provide new instances for us to enjoy the Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, etc. because they act as the driving forces behind it. These people build off of what Jim Henson created and bring more of his legacy to the world.
Those who did not know Jim Henson and don’t directly work with the people who did are equally as important. People like Joe Hennes and Ryan Roe, Steve Swanson, Greg James, Phillip Chapman, and the countless others who support Jim Henson’s legacy by just being fans (or even reaching beyond that) are equally as important. People like you, or me, or any other Muppet fan is keeping Jim Henson alive just by being a fan.
I was born after Jim Henson was gone. The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson aired a month after I was born. I love the fact that Muppet stuff continued and has continued all thanks to the legacy Jim Henson left us. In this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine, there’s a page-long spread highlighting events from 20 years ago. This week they honored Jim Henson. I can think of now better way to end this article than by quoting it because it speaks exactly the words I’m attempting to.
20 Years Ago This Week…
On May 16, 1990, Jim Henson, the beloved mastermind behind Kermit, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and the rest of the Muppets, unexpectedly succumbed to pneumonia
For anyone who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, Jim Henson was a mythic figure–a real-life Willy Wonka, only instead of making candy, he made puppets. The characters Henson created, with collaborators like Frank Oz, for Sesame Street and The Muppet Show had so much life and personality (Kermit the Frog’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green” soulfulness, Miss Piggy’s karate-chopping girl-pig power, the untamed id of Animal, the eager-to-please neurosis of Fozzie Bear) that it was almost impossible to believe they were just pieces of felt controlled by a puppeteer’s hand.
When Henson died on May 16, 1990, at age 53 after contracting pneumonia, it seemed as though all those icons of childhood–Bert and Ernie, Gonzo, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, the list goes on–had died with him. But the legacy of Henson’s work has endured, and 20 years after his death, the Muppets are on the cusp of a major resurgence. Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall; I Love You, Man) has co-written and will star in a new Muppet movie, which begins filming in September. “The Muppets were my first comic influence,” says Segel. “Even when you were a kid, you knew you were watching something mischievous. You had this feeling like you were being led into this grown-up world.” The movie will be the first theatrical Muppet movie in over a decade, and Segel promises it will stay true to the spirit of Henson’s work. “There was nothing ever mean-spirited about the Muppets,” he says. “Jim Henson clearly had such respect for people. You just get this sense of the goodness of it all.”
We miss you, Jim. Thank you for leaving us your legacy so that we can carry it on in your memory. You inspire me every day, Jim Henson. I hope to do your legacy proud.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier