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A history of Jim Henson and the Muppets

Marionette + puppet = Muppet

Jim Henson named Kermit after a boy he had known in his childhood, Kermit Scott, who is now a professor of philosophy at Purdue University.
  • Jim Henson named Kermit after a boy he had known in his childhood, Kermit Scott, who is now a professor of philosophy at Purdue University.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear Matthew Alice:

Being a left-handed guitar player, I couldn't help bur notice all the Muppets play their guitars left-handed. In fact, they seem to do everything left-handed. Why is this?

Greg Spaniol, Clairemont

The Muppets appear to be left-handed because the people who operate them use their right hands for the most important work. The right hand operates the head and mouth while the left hand holds rods attached to the arms. (The rods are always painted the same color as the background scenery, disguising them somewhat.) AIthough the puppeteers are ambidextrous, they appear to favor the left hands of their puppets because their own left hands manipulate them. Some of the puppets have hands that grasp. Here. two puppeteers are involved: one to work the mouth and the left arm, the other to work the right arm. The puppeteers. of course, stand below the puppets to operate them, and watch themselves on television monitors which show their movements reversed, right to left. It sounds complicated, and it is.

Almost everything about the Muppets is a combination of custom and technology. The word itself is a coinage of Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, who needed something to describe the cross between a marionette, which is operated by rods and strings, and a puppet, which is operated by hands. In 1954, when Henson was seventeen, he built some puppets to audition for a television show in Washington. D.C. He had unfolded his imagination in front of radio sets, and then had clamored for his parents to buy a television for him to watch the Kukla, Fran, and Ollie puppet show by Burr Tillstrom, and the Life of Snarky Parker by Bil and Cora Baird. These were the first puppeteers to reach an audience through television, but their styles and techniques had already been developed by the time they appeared on the screen. When Henson won his audition to appear on TV, and soon was given a daily five-minute broadcast, called Sam and Friends, which he and Jane Nebel, his future wife, performed for the next eight years, he became the first puppeteer whose only medium was TV, and whose craft, also, was television. As he told an interviewer many years later, "From the beginning we worked watching a TV monitor, which is very different from working in a puppet theater."

Henson today is forty-four (he was born September 24, 1936 in Leland, Mississippi); he is thin, tall and by temperament, calm and patient. "He's just like Kermit," said one of the writers for The Muppet Show, which draws an estimated 235 million viewers in 102 countries, and which features Kermit the Frog, operated by Henson himself. "If The Muppet Show had a basketball team, the score would always be Frog 99, Chaos 98." Innocence is the whole of his treasure, Henson says. Even his villains are innocent, naive children, threatened by a complex world. That is all Henson offers to explain his appeal.

Steve Allen was the first to give Henson a break on network television, in 1957, with a spot on his Tonight Show. In the 1960s the Muppets appeared on Ed Sullivan, and in the early 1970s they achieved celebrity on Sesame Street. Henson turned down offers to show his Muppets on afternoon television or on Saturday morning. He tried to persuade executives from all three networks that his Muppets would draw and hold an audience of adults. Refused in the United States, he went to England to produce an adult show for syndicated distribution throughout the world.

About 400 Muppets, most of them variations of 15 basic types have been built to supply the show's production in England. The typical Muppet stands three feet high and is made of sculpted foam, covered in a skin of fleece. Compared to the traditional puppet Of marionette, the Muppet is flexible, and its wide, overbiting mouth can be shaped into attitudes that look natural and real. As a Muppet takes on more personality, its design changes, too. Miss Piggy, for instance, has undergone changes to her mouth; the ends have been turned up to allow her to smirk more readily. The most complex character technically, is probably Big Bird, which has television monitors built into it. And of all the characters, Kermit is the only one to survive from the days of Sam and Friends. Henson named him after a boy he had known in his childhood, Kermit Scott, who is now a professor of philosophy at Purdue University.

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