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Inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational revelations in a new Disney+ documentary about Jim Henson

 Creating the two of the most famous eyes in television. A scene from a new Disney+ documentary by Oscar-winning director, Ron Howard. It's called "Jim Henson: Idea Man."
Disney
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Disney
Creating the two of the most famous eyes in television. A scene from a new Disney+ documentary by Oscar-winning director, Ron Howard. It's called "Jim Henson: Idea Man."

Muppets creator Jim Henson never played with puppets as a kid. In fact, he had little interest in puppetry until he created his first puppet show for television. That’s one of the revelations in a new documentary on Disney+ by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard. It’s titled “Jim Henson: Idea Man.”

Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi in 1936.

“Television would transport him beyond Mississippi, beyond, you know, America,” Ron Howard told NPR.

“People knew he was creative and he really wanted to work in television and couldn't figure out l how to get in,” Howard said.

Shortly after graduating high school in Maryland, Henson saw an ad for a television station looking for a puppeteer. Henson recalls in the documentary, “I don't remember ever seeing a puppet show when I was a kid… and I never had any puppets to play with.”

Howard said Henson never intended to be a puppeteer.

“He discovered puppets not out of a love for puppetry, but out of a recognition that this something that connected his voice with audiences.” he said. ”He recognized that [puppetry] was a great creative outlet…. that could express his kind of zany sense of humor.”

Jim Henson works on the very first Kermit (before he was a frog). He was made in the 1950s from an old winter coat from Henson's mother.
Disney / Disney
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Disney
Jim Henson works on the very first Kermit (before he was a frog). He was made in the 1950s from an old winter coat from Henson's mother.

Henson’s first television show premiered in 1955. It was called “Sam and Friends.” It aired on a Washington, DC TV station following the 11 p.m. news.

It was a blend of popular song spoofs, satire and experimental puppetry tailored for the new medium of television.

The show featured a cast of abstract puppets including a lizard-like character named Kermit who help transform the art of puppetry. Until “Sam and Friends” most of the puppets seen on television were designed for live theater. The were made of wood, paper mache and other hard materials. They were intended to viewed by an audience sitting many feet away.

Kermit (who became a frog years later) was made from his mother’s old, green winter coat. The fabric made his face very soft and maluable which Ron Howard said was perfect of the close-up lens of television.

“It fit Jim's large hand in a way that allowed him to do something that most puppets didn't do, which was be flexible, Howard said”. He could bend his fingers and so forth…. and really make that puppet come to life and react. And, you know, a lot of comedy is reaction and the way he could make that make that little [puppet] you know, sort of pucker his face or wince or open his mouth in shock is really one of the reasons why Kermit is such a great comedic character and really a world-class straight man.”

The Muppets that came along years later would follow this flexible formula. Think Miss Piggy, Grover, Elmo, Statler and Waldorf, the two old guys in “The Muppet Show” balcony.

More than 30 years after Henson’s death, puppet makers are still using many of the same materials that made those early Muppets so expressive.

The head is usually made of foam rubber, the same material found in seat cushions or air filters. The foam is often covered with a soft fleece or faux fur fabric designed to maximize expressiveness.

A ventriloquist dummy made from the same soft materials as Kermit and many other Muppets
Barry Gordemer, handemonium.com / handemonium.com
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handemonium.com
A ventriloquist dummy made from the same soft materials as Kermit and many other Muppets

Henson-style puppets also changed the art of ventriloquism. For decades ventriloquists gravitated to dummies made of wood or other hard materials. These days, many performers who grew up with Muppets prefer what’s known as “soft figures,” dummies with flexible faces that harken back to the Mississippi boy who transformed his mother’s coat into a beloved, enduring character.

The broadcast version of this story was edited by Olivia Hampton. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Barry Gordemer is an award-winning producer, editor, and director for NPR's Morning Edition. He's helped produce and direct NPR coverage of two Persian Gulf wars, eight presidential elections, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. He's also produced numerous profiles of actors, musicians, and writers.