Life’s A Happy Song: The Whimsical World of Jim Henson

It’s been over 60 years since the Muppets made their television debut. Since their 1955 appearance on Sam and Friends[1], the Muppets have brightened the lives of millions from the television and movie screen alike. The man responsible for bringing life to colourful characters like Kermit the Frog, Ernie, and The Swedish Chef is Jim Henson With his passion for music, comedy, education, and puppetry, Jim Henson developed his craft with selfless intentions: “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[2].”

Born in Mississippi in 1936, Jim Henson first took up the role as an entertainer in high school performing puppet shows on a local television station. It didn’t take long for Henson’s passion to grow. Teaming up with fellow puppeteers Don Sahlin and Frank Oz, the group set out to bring the Muppets from the relatively small market of Sam and Friends to a wider audience. Awareness of Jim Henson and the Muppets came largely from Sesame Street, where children learned the ins and outs of the world around them. The joy of teaching and entertaining children carried on in Henson’s later work, most notably in Fraggle Rock. For many, helping children to understand the world around them would surely constitute making a difference. For Jim Henson, however, this was only the beginning; with the Muppets’ success on the small screen, Jim set his sights on the silver screen.

In 1979, the Muppets made their theatrical debut in the aptly titled Muppet Movie. The movie saw Kermit and the gang on a trek to Hollywood to get their big break in show business. On their journey, the Muppets are met with action, danger, and romance; entertaining millions along the way[3]. Career-wise, Jim Henson had accomplished something that so many entertainers only dream of; he found great commercial success through his art. These achievements were the result of his continued drive to improve the world in some way: “If you care about what you do and work hard at it, there isn’t anything you can’t do if you want to[4].” Despite the success found with children’s entertainment, there was little time to sit back and celebrate; Henson was convinced that his Muppets could brighten the lives of older audiences as well[5].

In the 1980’s, Jim Henson took two giant leaps forward in his career: 1982’s Dark Crystal and 1986’s Labyrinth. Both films contained Henson’s trademark puppetry but now with a darker tone, the former in particular. Dark Crystal tells the story of a young Gelfling’s quest to restore the titular stone and bring balance back to the universe[6]. With its PG rating, Dark Crystal was many older movie goers’ introductions to the world of Jim Henson. While Labyrinth contained a similar tone to Dark Crystal, the adventure movie contained a great deal of Henson’s earlier aesthetic. Co-starring David Bowie, the movie was ripe with musical comedy in the middle of action and fantasy. These two films proved Jim Henson’s conviction that Muppets could bring joy to people of all ages.

Jim Henson continued to produce movies and television shows that featured his unique creations until 1990 when he passed away at 53 following a short battle with bacterial pneumonia. In such a time of grief, it would be understandable for family and friends to be overcome by darkness. Jim, however, hoped his loved ones would celebrate his life and work. The service held in his honour was right in line with what Jim had in mind. Henson’s funeral featured performances by many of his beloved characters, with their puppeteers dressed in the bright, colourful attire that the Muppets creator had come to be associated with[7].

The magic is not gone. Although Jim Henson is no longer with us, his legacy lives on through the characters he created. Since his passing, the Muppets have appeared in over a dozen movies and television shows. The Muppets have continued to entertain adults and children alike, still presenting the values and qualities that we, as a society, hold in high regard. Most importantly, Jim Henson made a difference, leaving the world a better place because of his presence.

Author: Justin Bruce

Justin Bruce is a graduate from the University of Saskatchewan where he studied Medieval and Modern English. When he’s not writing or playing music, he can be found behind the stack of comic books he’s trying to keep up with.






[4] It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider



[7] Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey