Puppetry Before Jim Henson
“Puppets are things which have been with us for hundreds, even thousands of years”
– Jim Henson
Puppetry basically means a human or humans creating the illusion of life in an inanimate object, usually for storytelling. It is believed that puppets have been around since sometime between 30,000 and 21,000 B. C. E. Over time, a few main types of puppetry developed: hand puppets, Bunraku puppets, rod puppets, marionettes, finger puppets, shadow puppets, and over-life-size puppets. Puppets have been used in Europe, Asia, and many other parts of the world for entertainment and religious performances all throughout history. In Medieval Europe, animated altarpiece figures could be found in churches, and these early European puppets were followed by hand puppets and by marionettes, which performed plays and operas all over Europe. Puppets generally had to stay within a puppet theater, which did not change when, after thousands of years of puppetry, puppets started to appear on television.
Puppeteers such as Remo Bufano and Burr Tillstrom were exploring the possibilities for puppets in television as early as 1939. Frank Paris was one of the most successful American nightclub puppeteers, and he too brought his performances to television in the late 1940s. Tillstrom became famous for his puppet show Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, which debuted in 1947, the same year that Paris produced The Adventures of Toby, which led to Paris’ popular Howdy Doody Show.
“Burr Tillstrom and the Bairds had more to do with the beginning of puppets on television than we did, but they had developed their art and style to a certain extent before hitting television. Baird had done marionette shows long before he came to television. Burr Tillstrom’s puppets were basically the standard hand-puppet characters that went back to Punch and Judy.” – Jim Henson
In the 1950s, puppetry was all over television, but it was nothing like television puppetry today. The first puppets designed specifically for television were made by Jim Henson, who changed everything.
“As children, we live in a world of imagination…. Certainly I’ve lived my whole life through my imagination.”
– Jim Henson
On September 24, 1936, James Maury Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi. Jim (or Jimmy) Henson grew up around Stoneville and Leland, Mississippi. He received good grades in school, and in his free time, he drew cartoons, or, ironically, killed frogs by Deer Creek, among other hobbies. He took part in school plays by designing sets and acting – he loved making people laugh. Jim developed a sense of humor pretty early, mostly from spending time with family, like his brother Paul. His family lived close, so he also was influenced by his jocular Uncle Jinx.
“…I’ve always felt that these childhood experiences of my family sitting around the dinner table, making each other laugh, were my introduction to humor.”
Jim was also an artist from the beginning. He loved to be with his grandmother, whom he called Dear. She was an artist and a big influence on Jim. Interested in hearing Jimmy’s thoughts and ideas, Dear was one of his main influences, urging him to be the best at whatever he did. He also picked up some basic sewing skills from her.
Jim enjoyed the animated films of Walt Disney, and his favorite movie, the first movie he ever saw, was The Wizard of Oz. He listened to radio programs, such as the performances of Edgar Bergen, whom he greatly admired. When Jim was in the fifth grade, his family moved to Hyattsville, Maryland. “My mother told me I drove ’em all crazy until they bought a television set,” said Henson. “Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie were on when we got our set. They were on half an hour every night about dinner time. They made an impression on me.”
He had to get on television.
“As soon as I was old enough to get a job, I went out and approached all the small studios in Washington [D. C.] to apply for work.” He was hired as a puppeteer. The Junior Morning Show, Jim’s first break in television, lasted only a few weeks, but it was enough time for Jim to receive good reviews. So, he was hired to perform on WRC-TV, a local station in Washington D. C. that was owned by NBC. One of his first assignments was a show aimed at housewives called Afternoon. The station eventually gave Jim and his working partner Jane Nebel (who later became his wife) their own spot to do just about whatever they wanted to do. They were given a five-minute time block at 6:25 P.M., and another at 11:25 P.M. Their show was called Sam and Friends, and it was the first Muppet show.
Sam and Friends
“In the beginning, puppetry was merely a way of working on television. When I heard that a local station was looking for a puppeteer, I built some puppets with another young guy and got the job.”
– Jim Henson
Sam and Friends debuted on May 9, 1955. It was a ground-breaking puppet show because it completely changed all of the rules. Sam, the completely bald lead character who never spoke, was not a hand puppet nor a marionette, but a combination, with a head inside the head and a wire for operating the arm. Muppet is an amalgam of the words puppet and marionette, but Jim later said that he chose it just because he liked the sound of it. While other puppet shows kept the puppets in a puppet theater, Jim used the camera frame as the puppet theater. This way, his puppets seemed more free and real. Another way that he made them more real is by using flexible fabrics to show more expression than puppets had been able to before. Jim and Jane had a different performing style that has been imitated ever since – they kept their top four fingers still, trying to only move the thumb. Jim had to have good lip-sync (opening on all vowel sounds and closing on all consonants) and subtle movements because, without the traditional puppet theater, he had to do close-up shots, but no puppeteer had ever bothered with lip-sync before.
The techniques that Jim and Jane borrowed from other puppeteers are staying out of the frame, and, from Burr Tillstrom, watching a monitor to see one’s performance. The characters on his show included Sam, Mushmellon, Yorick, Harry the Hipster, and a little green creature called Kermit. Kermit would eventually become a frog, and later, an icon. At first, the Muppets would lip-sync to records, so there was no live sound, but Jim grew more confident, and he started writing his sketches and using his own voice.
In 1957, the Muppets also starred in commercials, which made Jim some more money for his work. In 1958, Sam and Friends won a local Emmy, and in the same year, Jim traveled in Europe to learn more about puppetry. He left the puppets to Jane and his friend Bob Paine, but soon returned with new ideas for puppet acts. In 1961, Sam and Friends ended, and Jim had met a new partner, Jerry Juhl. Jim’s wife Jane had to take care of their children, so Jerry became one of Jim’s puppeteers, though he later stopped puppeteering and became the Muppets’ writer.
“These things weren’t even puppets – not as I had ever seen or defined them,” recalled Juhl. “This guy was like a sailor who had studied the compass and found that there was a fifth direction in which one could sail. When he offered me a berth on the ship, I signed on.”
What Jerry Juhl signed on to turned the world around.