Remembering Jim Henson 30 years after his death
The death of a genius
Thirty years ago this month, Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, died from a sudden onset of bacterial pneumonia. He was 53 years old.
Jim Henson was the only man on earth who could make me hug a frog or like a pig. It was his creative genius that made me care about a giant cavorting canary and listen to the grumblings of a shaggy-green character lurking around trash cans.
I’m sure there are people out there who will argue the meaning of genius and whether Jim Henson was one. Young people out there may not even know who he was. But for me, Jim Henson’s genius enabled him to spread smiles around the world. His quintessential creativity taught children important life lessons with puppets who lived on Sesame Street. Not many people could do what he did.
This man was not a political leader. He was not a renowned scientist or the winner of a Nobel prize. He was not a recording artist or a movie star or a sports hero.
Jim Henson was just a guy who used his creativity to maneuver Muppets and help kids understand difficult situations. He showed children how to accept themselves and others. He doled out daily doses of music, color, and joy. He brought sunny days to kids who needed warmth and light. He changed the world.
I was stunned when I heard that he had died, somehow assuming that creative genius and joy in his work would assure a long life and not an abrupt end.
Tears came. My sadness merged with the collective grief felt throughout the world. People mourned the loss of a man who had a rare gift, much needed in a difficult world. We lamented the loss of the man who helped us understand each other. We cried for the death of a creative genius whose work bestowed laughter on everyone who saw it.
For children, for lovers, for dreamers, and me…
Henson’s creatures, the Muppets, were created for children, but everyone, no matter their age or their geographic location, could relate to them. Since I had young children at the time, I could legitimately turn on the television and watch Sesame Street. But the girls weren’t the only ones singing and laughing at the antics of muppet-puppets. I did, too, because I understood that a little Muppet existed in all of us.
After all, I could sympathize with the intelligent but sometimes awkward amphibian, Kermit, the frog, when he sang, “It Ain’t Easy Being Green.” (Fill in your own blank. “It Ain’t Easy Being …Short / Bald / Broke / Red-Headed /Flat-Footed,” or whatever else ails you.)
I could smirk at the love-struck, stage-struck, silly Miss Piggy. I laughed at the Cookie Monster in myself when I watched him gobble up every sweet morsel insight. And, on a tough morning, after being up all night with a sick child, I could remind myself that I didn’t really want to act like the pea-green, grubby, grumpy Oscar the Grouch.
And I totally understood the need for rainbows.
In one of the early Muppet movies, (and to date, there are ten of them,) Kermit the Frog crooned a simple melody called “The Rainbow Connection.”
“Why are there so many Songs about rainbows And what’s on the other side Rainbows are visions They’re only illusions And rainbows have nothing to hide So we’ve been told and some chose to Believe it But I know they’re wrong wait and see Someday we’ll find it The Rainbow Connection The lovers, the dreamers and me…
Why ARE there so many songs about rainbows?
Jim Henson knew the answer to that question. There are songs about rainbows because people need to believe in the happily-ever-after theory. We need to believe in magic and possibilities. We need to be able to see the beauty around us, both in the natural world and in the full spectrum of diverse people around us.
The Muppets understood that “Rainbow Connection.” They taught tolerance and compassion by acknowledging each other’s foibles and accepting them all the same.
Sesame Street and its Muppets celebrated its 50th-anniversary last year, a remarkable feat in the television world of ratings and costs. In the course of those five decades, Sesame Street produced over 4,500 episodes, 180 albums, and 30 television specials. The show has been produced in 120 countries in dozens of languages, taking the original characters and giving them regional traits. Currently, there are eight international productions.
The most recognized children’s show in the history of television, Sesame Street won 150 Emmys and 11 Grammys.
By the show’s tenth anniversary in 1979, nine million American children under the age of six were watching Sesame Street daily. In the 1980s, I was watching along with my daughters. We were just three souls in a global crowd of millions inspired by the Muppets’ diverse characters and daily lessons. Watching Sesame Street made me believe in a bright future where children knew that each person on earth is unique. Each person is a little weird. Each person is important.
Henson once talked about the difficulty of making a positive impact on the world:
“I know it’s easier to portray a world filled with cynicism and anger, where problems are solved with violence…It’s an easy out. What’s a whole lot tougher is to offer alternatives, to present other ways conflicts can be resolved, and to show you can have a positive impact on your world. To do that, you have to put yourself out on a limb, take chances, and run the risk of being called a do-gooder.”
Let’s hear it for the “do-gooder”
I wonder what he would think of the impact his creations had on education and how they helped children understand the complex world around them. I wonder if he would see how much his joy and genius positively affected the world decades after his original vision.
My sister used to have a brilliantly-colored poster hanging on her bedroom wall. A lavishly dressed king stood there, crown askew, the robe untied. Bright red hightop tennis shoes, laces undone, covered his feet. The caption read, “Great is the man who does not lose his child’s heart.”
Henson got that, saying,
“The most sophisticated people I’ve ever known had just one thing in common: they were all in touch with their inner children.”
I think about the creativity and joy that ran through Jim Henson’s creative arteries. All these years later, I think of the impact he’s had on millions and millions of children who became more compassionate adults because of him.
Don’t we all wish that our work would be that meaningful?
Jim Henson’s creative genius gave credence to the motto that “laughter is the best medicine.” In the end, I hope he had his own store of the powerful medicine of laughter as a cure he so freely gave to the rest of the world.
And I send a silent thank-you to the universe and hope it reaches him.
Jim Henson once admitted,
“When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there.”
You did it, Jim Henson. Against all odds in an adult world, you kept your child’s heart and gave each of us that spark of youthful laughter we thought we’d lost.