Jim Henson and Me

I’ve commented in the past on this blog about how much I love the Muppets. For the last six years a rare “Think Different” poster of Jim Henson and Kermit has hung in my workspace. But I don’t think I’ve ever explained where my love of the Muppets and Jim Henson came from, or how deep it once was. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share that story now.

My love of the Muppets started before I can remember, but I’m sure it was due to Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I grew up watching Sesame Street as a toddler in the late 70s and only very slowly tapered off watching regularly through the mid 80s. I remember Mr. Hooper dying in 1982. I even remember the cast discovering that Mr. Snuffleupagus wasn’t just a figment of Big Bird’s imagination in 1985. Sesame Street characters were in the toys I played with as a child, and their names were among some of the first words I learned.

As if that influence wasn’t enough, my mother owned professionally-made puppets and would put on puppet shows for the kids in our church and in other local organizations. By the time I was six I had joined her (I think my sister had as well). I learned to keep my thumb pointed towards the floor (lest my puppet stare at the ceiling), not bite my words, and on some puppets, operate the rod attached to the puppet’s hand. When I was nine I had a couple of my own cheap puppets (B-list “Chewy Granola” cartoon characters I probably got from a box-top offer) and had tape-recorded my own script for use in my school’s talent show. I performed both characters at the same time. By that time, everyone knew that I was aiming to become a pro, and that I idolized Jim Henson. I loved the way that the Muppets were able to create entertainment that was enjoyed by kids and teenagers and adults, and all for different reasons.

Then, in May of 1990, and at the height of my love of puppetry, Jim Henson died.

I don’t remember where I was when I heard about it or how I felt initially. But one evening later that summer, when I was almost twelve, my family and I were eating dinner at home and chatting. Somehow, a few weeks after it happened, the subject of Jim Henson’s death came up. We had already spoken about it, but not much. They knew I respected him, studied puppeteering, and hoped to join the Muppets, but I think the question of whether my plans had changed had never come up. Perhaps that was the question put to me.

My initial reaction to the question was one of self-protection. I wanted to show that I wasn’t bothered that some old puppeteer had died. I was almost a teenager, and I was supposed to be growing aloof at this point. I made some sarcastic comment like, “Oh, I’m so sad he’s gone. Boo hoo!” and faked crying and rubbed my eyes like a mime.

Then I surprised even myself when my fake tears turned to sobbing. All conversation stopped and my embarrassment grew as my tears splashed down on my dinner plate, and I realized I hadn’t mourned him, hadn’t thought through how my plans might change now that the visionary creator of that world was gone.

I didn’t know it then, but over the next three years I would conclude that they weren’t worth joining any longer, and decide to pursue a career in music. Sometimes I see things they’ve done and feel it was the right decision. Other times I’m not so sure. I love what I do now, but there’s a certain magic and purity to a story like this one that’s hard to resist.