Jim Henson didn’t set out to become a famous puppeteer or create characters beloved by children—and adults—worldwide. He made puppets simply because he wanted to work in television.

“I love television and I wanted to work in it, and I heard a television station there was looking for a puppeteer,” Henson said in a 1985 interview. “So, I made some puppets and got a job. But it was just in order to work on television that I got into puppets.”

Now, almost 70 years after introducing the world to the Muppets, Henson’s work continues to endure. Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and many more of his characters, from “The Muppet Show” to “Sesame Street,” have become a part of American culture and own a significant place in entertainment history and viewers’ hearts.

“The Muppets are these indelible characters,” says Ryan Lintelman, entertainment curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “There’s something to love in each one of them, and people can find themselves in the Muppets.”

A new documentary, Jim Henson Idea Man, directed by Ron Howard and debuting on Disney+, focuses on Henson’s life and wide-ranging career, giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at his time as a student at the University of Maryland, his filmmaking, his relationships with his wife and children and his tireless creative energy.

Henson was born in Mississippi but grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, not far from the Washington, D.C. border. He attended the nearby University of Maryland, where he met his wife, Jane, in 1954. The couple had five children. Henson died in 1990 at age 53 after an illness. Jane died in 2013 at age 78.

Karen Falk, the director of archives for The Jim Henson Company, says Henson made puppets to perform when he learned that a local D.C. television station, CBS affiliate WTOP-TV, was looking for puppeteers. The producers wanted young performers for “Junior Morning Show,” and so Henson went to the library to learn about puppet making. He created puppets, auditioned with a friend and earned the job.

Henson and Kermit
Jim Henson created the original Kermit puppet in 1955.  Disney+

“This was his chance to work in television,” Falk says. “That was his whole goal. Jim was really interested in all aspects of making television.”

That show was short-lived, but a director from another television station, WRC-TV, was impressed and recruited Henson for his station. The puppets Henson made for the programs, now known as Muppets, would go on to star in their own puppet sketch comedy television series, “Sam and Friends” in 1955.

“He really changed the way puppets were used on television,” Falk says. “Before he was on television with the Muppets, puppets were basically theatrical. They had a puppet stage, and so that’s how they were presented on TV.”

He made puppets more expressive and believable as living characters, and thought about them through the lens of the TV camera rather than on a stage, she says.

Howard’s film incorporates new interviews with collaborators, including Frank Oz, a puppeteer who started working with Henson early on in their careers and later went on become the puppeteer and voice actor for Yoda in Star Wars, and Henson’s four surviving children: Lisa, Heather, Brian and Cheryl, with old footage of Henson at work. That archival material shows the breadth of Henson’s career, which encompassed not only the Muppets but commercials and feature films like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.

“I realized that this spirit of his, this creative energy he had was ever present,” Howard says in a press statement. “The art that he would do or that the family would do together, it was just nonstop. In that moment, I recognized that this was really a story of a restless, burning, creative spirit and that’s what we needed to share.”

The filmmakers hope that audiences will be inspired by Henson's drive to experiment in his work and desire to tell stories that resonate.

"I think one of the reasons he's so enduring is that he just created these characters that were able to process very adult emotions, whether it was dealing with loss, or it was dealing with love or was dealing with friendship,” says Justin Wilkes, the president of Imagine Entertainment and a producer on the documentary.

The National Museum of American History has an extensive collection of Henson’s creations, including objects that have been displayed at the museum’s 7,200-square foot “Entertainment Nation” exhibition, opened in 2022. One of the objects on display when the exhibition opened was the original Kermit puppet created by Henson in 1955 for “Sam and Friends,” as well as other WRC-TV programs.

That puppet, which the Henson family donated to the museum in 2010, was made from a coat that belonged to Henson’s mother and a pair of Henson’s blue jeans. He cut a ping pong ball in half to make the eyes. At that time, Kermit was not yet considered a frog. That amphibian evolution would not happen until the television special, “Hey, Cinderella!,” which first aired in 1969.

Original Kermit
The original Kermit the Frog puppet, created by Henson in 1955, is part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History collection. Jaclyn Nash / Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

“This is one of the museum’s most treasured objects alongside George Washington’s uniform or Abraham Lincoln’s hat,” Lintelman says. “I would make the argument that Kermit has had as much influence on American history and culture as those other iconic objects.”

The museum also has a newer Kermit the Frog puppet which was first loaned in 1979 in celebration of the tenth anniversary of “Sesame Street” and then designated as a gift in 1994 by The Jim Henson Company. In 2013, the Henson family donated more than 20 Henson puppets and props, including Miss Piggy and the Swedish Chef from “The Muppet Show,” Bert and Elmo from “Sesame Street” and Red Fraggle and Traveling Matt from “Fraggle Rock.”

Additional items in the Smithsonian’s collections include puppet heads from Henson’s The Dark Crystal, a portrait of Henson by artist Yousuf Karsh at the National Portrait Gallery and a commemorative Jim Henson stamp at the National Postal Museum.

Kermit's eyes
Henson cut a ping pong ball in half to make Kermit's eyes. Disney+

Sunae Park Evans, the senior costume conservator at the National Museum of American History, is tasked with conserving and presenting the Muppets that arrive in her lab. She says that when fellow Smithsonian staff members see her working with the Muppets, they have tears in their eyes. That’s how much Henson’s creations mean to them.

“It’s so amazing to look at people’s reactions,” she says. “I appreciate it more and more as the time passes.”

In the 1990s, the Henson family explored the idea of building a museum similar to what the Disney family did with the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, Falk says, but they decided it would be better to partner with existing institutions to share their vast collection of puppets.

“There was a partnership with the Smithsonian going back to the ’70s,” Falk says. “We always talked about having a collection of Jim’s characters at the Smithsonian, and Jane felt very strongly that the original Muppets, the ones that premiered on WRC-TV, should ultimately be at the National Museum of American History.”

Henson took the art of puppetry and made it for television, and he saw the power of television affecting children’s lives. People can relate to the Muppets. “I’ve always identified with Kermit, being kind of the eldest brother of my family and trying to keep this crazy cast of characters altogether,” Lintelman says.

Through his imagination, Henson brought an irreverent, zany, humanistic quality to the Muppets, Lintelman adds.

“There's great value in these silly things sometimes,” he says. “That's what I hope the visitors to the museum will see is that, yeah, you want to see the Muppets. Well, why is that? It's because they're really meaningful to you and that there's power in that.”

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