I’ve always been a huge fan of “The Muppet Show.” I thought its creator, Jim Henson, was a genius for thinking up characters like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Gonzo. I loved them all, but Kermit was my favorite. I still enjoy the show, even though it went off the air ages ago.
So, when I got an opportunity to read and review JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY, I was thrilled. I wanted to learn as much as I could about this amazingly talented man. And I wasn’t disappointed, as Brian Jay Jones’s book is packed with tons of information about him. Jones takes us through Henson’s entire life, from his birth on September 24, 1936, in Leland, Mississippi, to his early and tragic death on May 16, 1990, in New York City. During those 53 years, he accomplished a great deal.
Henson was captivated when television was first introduced to the masses. It was very primitive in comparison to today’s offerings, not to mention quite expensive. But he was fascinated with it and was almost immediately hooked on TV programming. More than anything, he wanted to work in a television studio.
"[W]hen I got an opportunity to read and review JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY, I was thrilled. I wanted to learn as much as I could about this amazingly talented man. And I wasn’t disappointed, as Brian Jay Jones’s book is packed with tons of information about him."
Henson got his first job as a puppeteer in 1966. He had no experience with puppets, had no great desire to work with them, and didn’t wish to be in front of a camera, but he dearly wanted to be involved with the new medium of television. When a spot opened for two puppeteers to do a late-night puppet show, Henson took a crash self-course in puppetry, going so far as to create his first puppet simply for the audition. He got the job on “Sam and Friends,” which would be the start of his long television career.
To me, Henson always will be best known for “The Muppet Show,” but others might recognize his importance in other roles. “Sesame Street,” for which he created many memorable Muppets (such as Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster), launched in 1969 by the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) and is still on the air. Despite his best efforts, he was labeled as a children’s entertainer, but saw himself as so much more than that.
In 1959, Henson married Jane Nebel, his business partner in the newly formed Muppets, Inc. They worked together for years, building the company and creating their own family. But during the course of their careers and their loved ones growing up, they were often going in two different directions: Henson to work on one of his never-ending string of projects, and Jane to keep the kids in school and the household functioning. Henson’s constant attention to his business endeavors put a strain on their marriage. Although they never divorced, they were legally separated years before his death.
Although Henson created a whole host of puppets, making movies and TV shows with them, that were not intended for children, his Muppets are his best-loved characters. He produced many movies (some with the Muppets, some with other puppet characters), several other TV programs, and a host of commercials. During his career, he was responsible for the creation of over 2,000 puppets, some made solely by him, but most made by his crew of engineers in his workshops.
Brian Jay Jones has written an extensive biography of Jim Henson’s life. Its 495 densely filled pages tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Henson, his life and his puppets. The text sometimes reads like an encyclopedia, but his story is fascinating and well worth taking the time to read.
Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on September 27, 2013