Michael Wermuth Jnr – Well, this year marks the 60th anniversary of The Jim Henson Company and the Muppets… Right? The Jim Henson Company celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1985, its 40th in 1995, and its 50th in 2005, so if my math is correct I’m right, though technically Jim Henson got his start in puppetry and television in 1954, while The Jim Henson Company wasn’t officially formed until 1957, before which Jim Henson registered all copyrights and trademarks to himself and Jane Henson. But considering when those other anniversaries happened, this should be the 60th anniversary. Of course, it seems like Henson isn’t celebrating its 60th birthday, nor is Disney celebrating the anniversary of the Muppets (some theme park is getting the 60th anniversary treatment instead).
But I felt it’d be great to celebrate those 60-ish years in a breakdown of the timeline… And it’ll have to take multiple posts!
1954-1961: The Washington, D.C. Era
This is the era where Jim Henson got his start in puppetry, as a means to work on television. During this era, the majority of his work was in the Washington, D.C. area, particularly on local channels WTOP and WRC, and Henson did the majority of the work. His first television job was on The Junior Morning Show, where he created and performed Pierre the French Rat, a character based on comics he drew for his school newspaper. This show only lasted three weeks, but Henson quickly found more television work on many other local shows, including Afternoon, Footlight Theater, and Circle R Ranch.
In 1955, after a year of hard work, Henson was given his own show, Sam and Friends, which aired on WRC-TV, the local affiliate for NBC. This show featured such characters as Sam, Harry the Hipster, Yorrick, Profesor Madcliff, Chicken Liver, and of course, Kermit – who was not yet a frog, and did not yet have his familiar collar or frog flippers. While Henson did most of the work on the show, from writing to directing to painting the scenery, he did get help from his future wife, Jane Nebel, who was the other major puppeteer for the rest of this era (Jim’s friend Russell Wall worked with him on The Junior Morning Show, and another friend, Robert Payne, filled-in for Jim when he took a trip to Europe in 1959).
Each episode of Sam and Friends lasted five minutes, aired live, and was broadcast twice a day. Early on, the Muppets didn’t have their own voices. Instead, they lip-synched to records, both musical and spoken-word comedy. Jim Henson didn’t provide any voices until 1957, with Professor Madcliff being the first character to be voiced by Henson.
During this era, the Muppets were heavily involved with commercials. The first Muppet commercials were for Wilkins Coffee, which were different from the average commercial at the time – while most commercials at the time were serious and straight-forward, these commercials were comical, and surprisingly violent. Since Wilkins Coffee was a local product, Jim Henson would pitch the same scripts to other companies local to other areas, with the only big change being the advertised product. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Henson would make commercials for both local (in different parts of the United States) and national products, and would work on a number of industrial films for different companies as well.
At the time, the Muppets were primarily enjoyed by the people of Washington, D.C., but they would soon find a national audience. In 1956, the Muppets made their first national television appearance, with Kermit and Yorrick appearing on The Tonight Show, where Kermit, dressed in drag, lip-synched to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face”, one of many routines performed on many variety shows the Muppets appeared on over the next decade. The Muppets would soon make weekly appearances on Today, initially live from Washington, D.C. by satellite. But when Sam and Friends ended its run in 1961, Jim Henson was ready to move to New York and find more national work.
1961-1969: Moving On Up (or The Rest of the Pre-Sesame Street-Era)
Due to frequent appearances on Today, Jim Henson moved to New York City. The company started to grow a bit. During this period, the performers were mainly just Jim and one other performer. After the birth of their second child, Jane Henson phased out of performing (though she’d continue to be credited as a performer until at least 1976). She was replaced with Jerry Juhl, who served as both performer and writer, but after the arrival of Frank Oz, Juhl also phased out of performing, sticking exclusively to writing. During this period, Don Shalin was hired as a puppet builder.
Throughout the decade, in addition to many commercials, from such products as Marathon Gasoline and La Choy Chow Mein to Purina Dog Chow, Royal Crown Cola, and Munchos, the Muppets were frequent guests on all sorts of talk shows and variety shows. For the week of July 19, 1966, The Muppets co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show. The Ed Sullivan Show, known as the show for new talent, featured the Muppets on 25 shows, introducing such classic routines as “Mahna Mahna”. But perhaps the biggest break was with The Jimmy Dean Show, with weekly appearances by Rowlf, created for the Purina commercials, who would become the Muppets’ first national star. During this heyday, Rowlf would become one of the first Muppets to be officially licensed, would host the 1967 Summer replacement series Our Place, would be featured in industrial films for such companies as IBM and Wilson’s Meats, and would host a pitch reel for a little children’s show called Sesame Street (but let’s not get too far ahead here…).
In addition to all the television appearances, during the 1960s Jim Henson also developed a number of television shows that, unfortunately, didn’t make it past the pilot stages. One of his first was Tales of the Tinkerdee, which was reformatted into another pilot, Land of Tinkerdee. Henson produced a short pilot for a puppet version of the popular comic strip The Wizard of Id. There was also a pilot for a series based on Cinderella, but although it was never picked up, elements were used for a television special, Hey Cinderella. Jim Henson also came up with concepts for a series called The Zoocus.
But while the Muppets were successful with their commercials and guest appearances, Jim Henson was also working on non-puppet projects during this period. He had a film camera and an animation stand, which he used to make a number of films, many seemingly for his own personal use, though some would be shown on various television appearances. More notable is his 1965 Oscar-nominated short Time Piece, as well as his Experiments in Television specialsYouth ’68 and The Cube. Henson also planned on a night club project called Cyclia, and shot several feet of film intended to be projected everywhere in the club, even on the bodies of dancers. Henson, along with Juhl, spent years developing a screenplay called Tales of Sand, which while it never became a film was eventually made into a graphic novel. Henson also shot footage for a presentation on RCA’s Select-A-Vision, one of the first home video formats developed.
In 1968, Jim Henson would get an offer for what was perhaps his biggest opportunity at the time, being asked by the Children’s Television Workshop to create puppets for their new show, Sesame Street, which premiered a year later. Jim Henson would also continue his film making and animation experience for the shows first two years, and the Muppets were intended on being treated like the shows many animation and film segments, to be in their own segments and not on the street or with the human cast. But the Muppets tested so favorably (and the street scenes so poorly) that the Muppets were included on the street as well, and are pretty much THE thing people associate Sesame Street with.
With Sesame Street premiering in 1969, Jim Henson stopped doing commercials as much as he had done (though he would do some from time-to-time), because he was so busy with Sesame Street as well as the fact that he didn’t think it was right to simultaneously do a Children’s show for non-profit television and to use his characters to sell products. With the success of Sesame Street, The Jim Henson Company would soon grow. Tune in next time as we look at what happened next.