FLASHBACK: Remembering Jim Henson, 25 Years After His Death

by Whitney Matheson, Video by Ashley Crossman 7:05 AM PDT, May 15, 2015
Playing FLASHBACK: Remembering Jim Henson, 25 Years After His Death

Growing up in the 1980s, Jim Henson shaped my childhood. By 1990 I’d logged hundreds of hours watching the Muppets. I could quote Labyrinth by heart. No holiday season was complete until our family had played that John Denver and the Muppets record at least 30 times.

So, as you can imagine, the day I heard Henson died, it felt like I’d lost a friend.

Looking back, Henson’s death was one of the first losses that ever affected me. Twenty-five years ago I had just turned 13, and I can still tell you which stretch of road my mother and I were riding along when we heard the news on the radio.

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Many of my friends remember that day as well, as do their parents (and perhaps some grandparents). While there’s no doubt Henson was a master craftsman and puppeteer, his true artistry lied in the way he channeled his soul into his work.

Before the Muppets came along, onscreen puppets were, well, just puppets. Henson gave his creations such vivid personalities, wit and expressions it was easy to believe each had a beating heart beneath the felt.

Though he didn’t become a household name until Sesame Street, Henson’s work dates back to the 1950s. As an adult, I discovered his experimental films, which include mesmerizing oddities like 1969’s teleplay The Cube and 1965’s Time Piece, a rhythmic short that earned him his first Academy Award nomination.

Watch these early films now, and you can see how much Henson valued human connection. Though it’s only a minute long, Wheels That Go pulsates with parental love, as Henson aims the camera at his young son. The 66-second Ripples takes the simple act of tossing a pebble into a pond and transforms it into a meditation on art, religion and family.

With the Muppets, Henson entertained us, but that desire for connection remained at the forefront. Some of the most poignant Sesame Street moments I remember are when real kids interacted with Henson’s characters as if they were classmates. The more young viewers bonded with Big Bird and pals through the screen, the more adults began watching alongside them. Though too humble to admit it, Jim Henson brought millions of families closer together.

Henson was an innovator from the start: At a time when many TV puppets relied on wood and strings, he opted for softer materials like felt and foam. This enabled his creations to express a range of emotions, unlike, say, an eternally grinning Howdy Doody.

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In the ‘70s, Henson began to explore animatronics. Though 1982’s The Dark Crystal wasn’t a critical success, its arresting visuals made lasting impressions on viewers. Animatronics popped up again in 1986’s Labyrinth, an elaborate musical fantasy that, like The Dark Crystal, failed to ignite the box office but went on to become a beloved cult hit.

“It’s really amazing to think that in 1989 his twin obsessions were CG animation and 3-D stereoscopic,” his daughter, Lisa Henson, noted in a 2011 interview.

Jim Henson’s death of a bacterial infection on May 16, 1990, shocked fans and friends worldwide. Less than two weeks earlier, the 53-year-old artist had appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show, cracking jokes with Kermit on his arm.

Press surrounding his May 21 memorial service was on par with prominent political figures. Mourners wore Kermit greens, Big Bird yellows and other vibrant hues; Henson once declared he wanted no black at his funeral.

During the service, Harry Belafonte sang Turn the World Around. Frank Oz, Henson’s longtime collaborator, gave a moving and funny eulogy. Puppeteers belted out a medley of Henson’s favorite tunes, and Big Bird sang a version of It’s Not Easy Being Green that’s so heartbreaking I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. 

Tributes followed for months, culminating with a primetime TV special, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. In it, we see Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear and the rest of the gang pay their respects. At the end of the program, Kermit looks into the camera and says, “We’ll be seeing you soon with more Muppet stuff, because that’s the way the boss would want it.”

Sure enough, more Muppet stuff keeps on coming. Partly thanks to Jason Segel’s spirited Muppets revival, in recent years the franchise has turned over a new lilypad. Just this week, ABC shared a trailer for its highly anticipated Muppet Show reboot. The series is co-executive produced by Bill Prady, a TV vet who began his writing career with Henson’s Muppets and penned that 1990 special.

People don’t always want to take pop culture seriously -- heck, Henson parodied it on every episode of The Muppet Show -- but the connections we make with it can run very, very deep.

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In my life, the celebrities I’ve mourned most have been the ones who left footprints on my youth: Mister Rogers, Michael Jackson, Robin Williams.

Jim Henson left us way too soon, but I’m grateful to have made that permanent connection with his work -- and I hope his legacy inspires generations of lovers and dreamers down the road.

Whitney Matheson (@whitneymatheson) is a pop-culture writer, teacher and lifelong Ernie fan.