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Jim Henson (1936)

James Maury Henson

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  Summary  

James Maury "Jim" Henson (September 24, 1936 – May 16, 1990) was an American puppeteer best known as the creator of The Muppets. As a puppeteer, Henson performed in various television programs, such as Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, films such as The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper, and created advanced puppets for projects like Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. He was also an Oscar-nominated film director, Emmy Award-winning television producer, and the founder of The Jim Henson Company, the Jim Henson Foundation, and Jim Henson's Creature Shop. He died of Streptococcus pyogenes on May 16, 1990.

Henson, who was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and educated at University of Maryland, College Park, is one of the most widely known puppeteers ever. He created Sam and Friends as a freshman in College Park. After suffering struggles with programs that he created, he eventually was selected to participate in Sesame Street. During this time, he also contributed to Saturday Night Live. The success of Sesame Street spawned The Muppet Show, which featured Muppets created by Henson. He also co-created with Michael Jacobs the television show Dinosaurs during his final years. In 1992, he posthumously received the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey, and on June 16, 2011, he posthumously received the Disney Legends Award.

  Biography  

 early life
Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, the younger of two boys. His parents were Betty Marcella (née Brown) and Paul Ransom Henson, an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was raised as a Christian Scientist and spent his early childhood in Leland, Mississippi, moving with his family to Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington, DC, in the late 1940s. He later remembered the arrival of the family's first television as "the biggest event of his adolescence," having been heavily influenced by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the early television puppets of Burr Tillstrom and Bil and Cora Baird.

In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV, creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show called The Junior Morning Show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist. A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated in 1960 with a B.S. in home economics. As a freshman, he had been asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were forerunners of Muppets, and the show included a prototype of Henson's most famous character: Kermit the Frog.

In the show, he began experimenting with techniques that would change the way puppetry had been used on television, including using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppeteer to work from off-camera. Believing that television puppets needed to have "life and sensitivity," Henson began making characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions at a time when many puppets were made of carved wood. A marionette's arms are manipulated by strings, but Henson used rods to move his Muppets' arms, allowing greater control of expression. Additionally, Henson wanted the Muppet characters to "speak" more creatively than was possible for previous puppets – which had seemed to have random mouth movements – so he used precise mouth movements to match the dialogue.

When Henson began work on Sam and Friends, he asked fellow University of Maryland freshman Jane Nebel to assist him. The show was a financial success, but after graduating from college, Jim began to have doubts about going into a career as a puppeteer. He wandered off to Europe for several months, where he was inspired by European puppeteers who look on their work as an art form. Upon Henson's return to the United States, he and Jane began dating. They were married in 1959 and had five children, Lisa , Cheryl , Brian , John , and Heather .

 later career
Though he was still engaged in creating children's programming, such as the successful eighties shows Fraggle Rock and the animated Muppet Babies, Henson continued to explore darker, mature themes with the folk tale and mythology oriented show The Storyteller . The Storyteller won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. The next year, Henson returned to television with The Jim Henson Hour, which mixed lighthearted Muppet fare with riskier material. The show was critically well-received and won Henson another Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program, but was canceled after 13 episodes due to low ratings. Henson blamed its failure on NBC's constant rescheduling.

In late 1989, Henson entered into negotiations to sell his company to The Walt Disney Company for almost $150 million, hoping that, with Disney handling business matters he would "be able to spend a lot more of my time on the creative side of things." By 1990, he had completed production on a television special, The Muppets at Walt Disney World, and a Disney World attraction, Jim Henson's Muppet*Vision 3D, and was developing film ideas and a television series titled Muppet High.

 Natural History Project and Dinosaurs
In the late 1980s, Henson worked with illustrator/designer William Stout on a feature film starring animatronic dinosaurs with the working title of The Natural History Project. In 1991, news stories written around the premiere of The Jim Henson Company-produced Dinosaurs sitcom highlighted the show's connection to Henson. "Jim Henson dreamed up the show's basic concept about three years ago," said a New York Times article in April 1991. "'He wanted it to be a sitcom with a pretty standard structure, with the biggest differences being that it's a family of dinosaurs and their society has this strange toxic life style,' said Brian Henson. But until The Simpsons took off, said Alex Rockwell, a vice president of the Henson organization, 'people thought it was a crazy idea.'" A New Yorker article said that Henson continued to work on a dinosaur project until the "last months of his life."

 legacy
The Jim Henson Company and the Jim Henson Foundation continued after his death, producing new series and specials. Jim Henson's Creature Shop, founded by Henson, also continues to build creatures for a large number of other films and series (e.g. the science fiction production Farscape, the film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the movie MirrorMask) and is considered one of the most advanced and well respected creators of film creatures. His son Brian and daughter Lisa are currently the co-chairs and co-CEOs of the company; his daughter Cheryl is the president of the foundation. Steve Whitmire, a veteran member of the Muppet puppeteering crew, has assumed the roles of Kermit the Frog and Ernie, the most famous characters formerly played by Jim Henson.

On February 17, 2004, it was announced that the Muppets and the Bear in the Big Blue House properties had been sold by Henson's heirs to The Walt Disney Company. However, as a result, Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children's Television Workshop), also lost the rights to Kermit the Frog, and he could no longer appear on any new material on Sesame Street, although Kermit did later appear on the premiere of the show's 40th season on November 10, 2009.

The Jim Henson Company retains the Creature Shop, as well as the rest of its film and television library including Fraggle Rock, Farscape, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth.

In 2010, it was announced that the first major biography of Henson, sanctioned by the family and the Jim Henson Legacy, was under way.

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Whole or part of the information contained in this card come from the Wikipedia article "Jim Henson", licensed under CC-BY-SA full list of contributors here.