When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world, said Jim Henson. Henson would fulfill his youthful ambition by not only becoming the most famous puppeteer in modern history, but by changing the nature of puppetry itself and inspiring the minds of millions of children worldwide.
Born on September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi, Henson was the second son of Paul Ransom and Elizabeth Marcella Henson. While his mother stayed at home with the children and entertained them with her active imagination, Hensons father worked as an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Names of crops his father was working with would later inspire numerous Muppet characters names.
His childhood was a happy one, as he spent countless hours exploring the shorelines of Deer Creek. One of his most significant relationships early on was with a young friend, Kermit, who would later inspire one of his most celebrated Muppets. Henson also developed a close relationship with his maternal grandmother, who was an artist herself and occupied her time painting, quilting and doing needlework. She was the main motivating force behind Hensons efforts, constantly cheering on his artistic talents and encouraging him to put his creative imagination to good use.
When he was in fifth grade, Henson moved with his family to Maryland, where he began to focus more seriously on the arts. His parents finally gave in to his years of pleas for a television and from that point on Henson knew he wanted to work in the television industry. I loved the idea that what you saw was taking place somewhere else at the same time, he said. Thus, in 1954, while he was still attending Northwestern High School, he began creating puppets for a Saturday morning childrens show on WTOP-TV. It was interesting and kind of fun to do but I wasnt really interested in puppetry then, recalled Henson. It was just a means to an end. The next year, Henson enrolled in the University of Maryland and continued pursuing his passion for TV.
As a freshman, he was given the chance to perform puppets on a twice daily, five-minute show on WRC-TV. He created Sam and Friends with fellow student Jane Nebel, whom he later married in 1959. The show ran for six years, while Henson continued to pursue his degree in art and theatre design. Sam and Friends was the testing ground for numerous Muppet characters that would later become instantaneously recognizable, including Hensons signature character, Kermit the Frog. It also allowed him to experiment with new techniques that would allow for the puppets to appear more lifelike, such as using special framing to allow the puppeteer to work off-camera.
Called Muppets for their combination of puppet and marionette features, the success of Sam and Friends allowed Hensons Muppets to gain popularity. They soon began appearing on numerous talk shows and commercials nationwide. Henson and his wife moved to New York City in 1963, where Muppets, Inc. was formed. Henson had officially entered the world of TV and it would not be long before he became a household name.