Celebrating Jim Henson, Muppet Maker, With His Daughter Cheryl
By Anne W. Semmes
Greenwich is reclaiming once again the great creative legacy of the wondrous Muppet-maker Jim Henson and his family that once graced our town. In the 23 years since the Greenwich Library featured “Jim Henson: The Greenwich Years 1964-1971,” the wizardry of Jim Henson has only widened in its appeal in its many forms—on television, in films, in puppet theaters—to children of all ages across the world, and surely to their accompanying adults. You can find it now streaming on Netflix, where Julie Andrews interacts with Henson puppets in the series, “Julie’s Greenroom.”
We have the Greenwich Historical Society to thank for pulling together at a busy time their exhibit “Jim and Jane Henson: Creative Work, Creative Play,” and bringing to us on May 2 Henson’s daughter Cheryl Henson to speak to those seminal years her family spent in a 19th century farmhouse on Round Hill Road. We recently caught up with Cheryl, who serves as president of The Jim Henson Foundation and as a board member of the Queens-based Jim Henson Company. It didn’t take long to place her back here in her childhood days, when a puppet theater took center stage in the Henson living room.
“All of us loved that house,” says Cheryl, counting off her sisters Lisa and Heather, brothers John and Brian, assorted cats, dogs, other animals and imaginary monster Muppets.
“There was a wonderful connection to the beauty of nature, with the stream behind that house,” she says. “We spent a lot of time in and around the house doing a lot of craft projects.” In the exhibit, at the Storehouse Gallery, check out Cheryl’s dollhouse, a copy of the Round Hill Road house, and the photographs of mosaic murals her father did with help en famille. “It was a wonderful atmosphere.”
After those magical seven years—the family then moved up to Bedford—a favorite Muppet of Cheryl’s, Robin the Frog, went into storage and wasn’t unearthed again until Cheryl was headed for college. It’s there in the exhibit. “My father gave it to me when I was nine years old. Robin was the star of ‘The Frog Prince,’ a show he had just finished taping.” Why had she loved it so? “Because it was a child-sized puppet—a puppet I could perform myself.”
So how did her father come up with the name of Muppet? “My parents came up with the word ‘Muppet’ early on. When they first started doing their act, they called it ‘Muppets.’ My father once said [Muppets] was a combination of marionettes and puppets, but he later said, ‘Not really. It’s really a fun-sounding word.’”
Kermit the Frog was Jim Henson’s signature character and he’s in the exhibit, but not the original made out of Jim’s mother’s “milky green coat.” That Kermit is in the Smithsonian. His second model is in the exhibit, no less a wonder, and is owned by Cheryl’s sister, Heather. Oscar the Grouch is also there, peering out of his garbage can. He resides in the Muppet Workshop in New York.
So how many Henson puppets are there? “Hundreds and hundreds. In fact, we’ve donated 500 puppets to the Center of Puppetry Arts. And that doesn’t include many hundreds donated to the Museum of the Moving Image, and that doesn’t include whole other groups of puppets. So, over the years, because my father worked on so many different television shows and films, each production had a large number of puppets. But over the course of my dad’s career he also worked on probably another 20 or more different television shows that did not become popular.”
Jim Henson embraced television as a vehicle for his puppets early on, but with his death at age 53 in 1990, just missed seeing some great technological advances. Surely they would have entranced him.
“My father was always very interested in technology in TV and film,” Cheryl says. “He was doing digital puppetry back in the 1980’s with a character called Waldo that appears in the Disney Muppets 3D film that is shown at Disney World. We’ve furthered that technology, made it much more precise, much more advanced. So now we’re able to do full television shows using that technology as in Sid the Science Kid, and Splash and Bubbles on PBS.
“I think my father would have been very interested in virtual reality films. He was always interested in alternate ways to tell a story in a completely different world. The first big project of his that I really worked on extensively was ‘The Dark Crystal’ film—he worked on that for five years and it was released in 1983. It was about creating a whole new world, where everything is new and unlike our world. I think he was interested in the concepts of creating an alternate world.”
But she also believes, she says, “that the success of the Muppets has to do with how tactile they are. A lot of people are attracted to the physical, furry, tactile puppets as in the Sesame Street characters—you can imagine reaching out and cuddling them and touching them. I think that is part of the appeal. Like the Cookie Monster, they’re real—they exist in our world.”
Less remembered is how her parents had introduced their puppetry featuring “Sam and Friends” on late night television shows. “Their humor was more for college age, young adults. They had a sophisticated, jazzy, irreverent sense of humor. That’s how they got started.” The appeal of The Muppet Show wasn’t just for kids, she says: “It was humor appealing to all ages.”
“Both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show were very popular around the world,” she notes, “partially because the puppets could be dubbed in other languages more easily, and because a lot of the humor is very universal and very physical. The Muppet Show was the first American show to be a global success.”
So what surprises her the most about the appeal of her father’s puppetry in the wider world? “The most surprising was how The Muppet Show was a huge popular success in Poland during the Solidarity uprising against the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. People would put on Muppet show cabarets to do political theater in Gdansk, the center of Solidarity. They would do cabarets dressed as Muppets. It’s just a great image!”
For those wishing to read about her father, Cheryl recommends “Jim Henson: The Biography” by Brian Jay Jones, available at the Storehouse Gallery. “It’s wonderfully researched,” she says. For a shorter “three-and-a-half-minute read,” she recommends “I Am Jim Henson” by Brad Meltzer. “It’s a children’s biography that just came out. It’s so sweet.”
Cheryl Henson will speak to “Celebrating Jim Jenson and the Art of Puppetry” on May 2, from 7 to 8 p.m., at Greenwich Historical Society’s Vanderbilt Education Center. For tickets and information, call 203-869-6899, ext. 10, or visit www.greenwichhistory.org. Also, this evening at 7: 30 p.m., Story Barn, at the Vanderbilt Education Center, will feature Valerie Stauffer as one of the storytellers sharing her meeting the Hensons in 1970.