TWISI Salutes Jim Henson

kermit the frog & jim henson

Sometime during December of 1987 when I was three years old my mother taped A Muppet Family Christmas off the television as part of my very special Christmas videotape along with Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, Tis The Season to Be Smurfy and this amazingly campy special called A Mouse, a Mystery and Me that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s been a tradition for me to watch this tape every Christmas and for as long as I can remember it has been the Muppets and this video in particular that has captured my imagination and nestled deeply into the caverns of my heart.

There is a part in A Muppet Family Christmas at the very end where Jim Henson has a cameo in Ma Bear’s kitchen, doing the dishes with Sprocket (the dog from Fraggle Rock). I have these weird fragmented memories of seeing him as a very young child and just knowing that he was somehow responsible for all the magic that I loved in these characters and their worlds but I didn’t quite know how. This never mattered to me. I believed Kermit and Gonzo and Grover and Fozzie were real live beings and that they moved and spoke of their own facility.  Yet, somehow I knew that Jim Henson was their special friend and that he was the man with the beard at the end of the movie. That’s how I see Jim in my head when I think of him now, even after all the YouTube videos I have watched, he’s still always there in the kitchen, washing up after the show.

Twenty two years ago, May 16, 1990 I was five years old. I was just finishing kindergarten at Sacred Heart School of Halifax. My granddad had just died in February so the concept for me was fresh. I don’t remember being told that Jim Henson had died, I don’t remember any outpouring of grief, but I do remember when seeing him in that kitchen one Christmas shifted something. No longer was that just the Muppets’ friend, but suddenly it was the Muppets’ friend who died and wasn’t that sad. I didn’t know any other names, Frank Oz, Steve Whitmire, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, they didn’t mean anything to me. And, as far as I was concerned, the Muppets lived on.

Around the same time I watched Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies every Saturday before gymnastics or ballet or swimming lessons. I had all the Muppet Babies toys from McDonald’s as well as a stuffed Christmastime Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, also from McDonald’s and later I got an NHL Piggy hockey player, which may have just been a weird Canadian thing. In hindsight, the Muppets were a constant presence in my childhood. I watched Sesame Street even after I had outgrown it because Grover and Kermit and Ernie and Bert and the gang still charmed me. As a very young child I don’t remember ever talking about how much I loved the Muppets or how much they meant to me because I was able to take them so for granted. Mom made sure there were Muppets and so they were always there. I wasn’t the sort of kid who sought out what was new or what was popular; I was content to enjoy the things I already had over and over. So instead of asking to rent or buy The Muppet Movie or The Muppets Take Manhattan, I was content with my videotapes of Sesame Street, the episodes on PBS, my Muppet Christmas movie, The Muppet Babies and my toys. It never occurred to me that there was more out there to see. I didn’t even fully realize how deeply connected I was to these characters and of course I would have never thought of there being real people involved in bringing them to life.

When mom and I rented A Muppet Christmas Carol I was about eight years old and I distinctly remember thinking, “Wow. They do grownup movies too!” I think that was the moment that legitimized my love for these strange characters, the moment when I realized that there was more for them to do than just shows for preschoolers. Michael Caine looked like a real grown up actor to me, so of course Kermit and Miss Piggy and Gonzo and Rizzo and Fozzie began to look like real professionals of the film industry to the little budding critic inside my eight year old brain. At eleven, I was obsessed with my videotape of Muppet Treasure Island. From the time I was seven and saw him in Home Alone II: Lost In New York (of all things) I became one of Tim Curry’s biggest fans. The mixture of Tim Curry and the Muppets along with a story about pirates (which I have always had a crazy thing for), couldn’t have been more dreamy for me in sixth grade. Mom and I watched Muppets Tonight every week around this time and I remember having this vague sense that my mom had seen some sort of similar Muppet incarnation before I was born, but I was never really sure what that was.

I think the moment when I became aware of the nature of my relationship to the Muppets and to Jim Henson was when I was thirteen years old and saw Muppets in Space. Something was suddenly wrong. Of course, by this time I knew how the Muppets worked and I had a better understanding of what Jim’s role had been in their creation. Yet, I still didn’t know very much about him as a person and I didn’t know a lot about the process or the history of the Muppets either, but I did know that now something was different. It wasn’t something that I could necessarily put my finger on. I enjoyed Muppets in Space. It made me laugh and it made me cry. But there was still something about the experience that fell flat and for the first time I realized how personal that felt.

Throughout the next few years and Muppet projects I started saying things like, “Kermit wouldn’t say that!” or “they deserve better than that gag or that song or that cheap popular culture reference,” I even found myself saying, “Jim wouldn’t like this” or “Jim wouldn’t have let them do that!” How did I know? I was just some fourteen year old kid from Halifax, Nova Scotia who had seen Jim Henson once in a kitchen on TV washing the dishes!! But, I think that was part of Jim’s magic. Even though Jim was only ever there where I could see him that one time the truth is that he was always there, throughout my childhood, he just usually communicated through Ernie and Kermit and Rowlf and Dr. Teeth. But, as I was slowly finding out, I had gotten his messages loud and profoundly clear.

When I graduated from University my mother gave me this wonderful book called It’s Not Easy Being Green, a compilation of quotes from and about Jim Henson. It amazed me when I began to read it because although I had not seen a lot of interviews with him or read a lot about him, most of what he said in this book, the values and the core beliefs that encapsulated his life, I felt like I had heard and knew before. The Muppets had taught me about Jim. The more I read the more I realized that this beautiful ideology of kindness and creativity, of following your dreams and the importance of teamwork and friendship and a belief in yourself, all the essence of the Muppets and their work, was also the essence of Jim and his team of Muppeteers. These were all concepts that I had held so dear to me for as long as I can remember, the type of team I had always wanted to belong to and it has become so clear that I got so much of my passion and optimism and faith in the best of humanity from Jim Henson, but always indirectly.

I found out later that the Muppet performers, who have tried valiantly to do the work that Jim started justice and to keep true to the characters they’ve created and their own unique personalities and spirits, had been having difficulties with executives who didn’t understand their vision. That was the discrepancy that I could feel even at thirteen years old. That’s how in tune I was to the subtleties that Jim Henson and his Company had worked so hard to imbue these characters with. I felt like I knew each one of the Muppets, like you know a close friend who has been with you a long time, and through them I felt that I knew Jim.

In recent years my love of the Muppets has grown into a full-fledged fascination. I have read multiple interviews, devoured The Muppet Show on DVD, watched all their original films, developed a massive talent crush on Steve Whitmire, who is a Muppet Superhero to me, and amused myself on YouTube for hours looking for rare Muppet and Sesame Street gems. Through it all, these last twenty two years, I still feel very strongly that Jim Henson lives on in me, as he lives in thousands, maybe even millions, of others all over the world. He is in my dreams. He is in the voice that tells me that I can do anything I put my heart into, that I mustn’t give up when things get tough, that life is just a grand adventure, and that it just takes one person to change the world. Why shouldn’t it be me?

Jerry Nelson once said, “I see Jim’s life as a very Zen kind of thing. I never heard him say rude or bad things about other people. He lived, I think, by example. To show other people how to be by who you are.” Jim Henson was undoubtedly one of my greatest and my most profound teachers. Dave Goeltz said this beautiful statement of Jim: “As a parent, one of my goals is to see whether I can raise my children to survive in the world without losing that childlike innocence, trust, optimism, curiosity and decency. I am certain it is possible because Jim was the living embodiment of it.” I have the same goal for my own life and the same hope for all the children and young people that I love. In every step along that journey, as “I’m movin’ right along in search of good times and good news,” I know a part of Jim will always be there with me wearing a pink apron and a wistful smile watching all the seeds of his imagination and the many sprouts they have blossomed, having a really terrific time.

Here are some magical videos that I love.

And check out what the lovely Tracey Nolan has to say about it.

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