January 6, 2010 — If I were the type of person to contribute to our culture instead of just writing about everybody else’s contributions, one of the first things I’d do is rewrite the Old Testament book of Job using Muppets as characters.
I have a loose definition of “contribute to our culture.”
In my version, Kermit would be sitting in abject misery on his lily pad in the swamp, looking down at his felt-webbed hands and moaning, “It’s not easy bein’ green. Why hast thou made me thus?” To which a divine and ferociously bearded Jim Henson would appear in a roaring whirlwind and declaim, “Where were you when I googled the eyes of the Cookie Monster? When I coifed Miss Piggy and moustached the Swedish Chef? Behold Gonzo, whose nose I sagely crooked?”
People do important things every day. Few, though, have done anything as God-like as imbuing a limp piece of fabric with an animate life that has, in turn, enriched the actual lives of millions in this world. Maybe farther. Not sure how deep into space the television signals from The Muppet Show have penetrated over the past three and a half decades.
Although I don’t live there anymore, I grew up and spent most of my life in the state of Maryland, and while I rarely have reason to be proud of that, near the top of the list of the reasons I am is that it was there that Jim Henson became Jim Henson®. Also, regardless of where he grew up and learned puppetry, my home state was the first and so far only one to honor him with an anthropomorphic piece of stone graven in his image.
Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on September 24, 1936, and spent his early years in the nearby town of Leland. When Henson was in fifth grade, his father, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, moved the family to Hyattsville, Maryland, the hometown of Jim’s mother and a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Henson finished high school there in Hyattsville, at the end of which he was given the opportunity to put on a Saturday morning puppet show for a local D.C. station. Henson had no real interest in puppets, but did have one in TV, so he went for the job. The show was short-lived, but somehow set him up for another puppet gig while attending the University of Maryland in College Park. Prestigious schools have given us prestigious people. UM jumpstarted Henson. UM wins.
While at the University of Maryland in the 1950s, he developed a television puppet show called Sam and Friends for a local network affiliate. Meanwhile, he switched his degree interest from the studio arts program to home economics and received a BS in that field. Because suddenly sewing was that important to his life. After a few years, Sam and Friends, which included an evolutionary antecedent of Kermit the Frog, landed him other gigs on television shows and in commercials.
You know the rest of this story. Henson’s innovative use of an ancient craft yielded a collection of characters, stories, series, and movies whose impact on the population of the entire world is immense to the point of unquantifiability and whose influence has probably been the only thing keeping superior alien races from scouring our own defective one from the universe. These programs included The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and a range of technologically advanced darker fantasy movies and shows, including Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and The Storyteller. Henson was even influential in the creation and animation of Yoda. Who knows how Lucas would have messed up that character otherwise.
Jim Henson died on May 16, 1990, of an extremely pissed-off strain of pneumonia. Even as a stupid child verging on stupid teenager, I knew enough at the time to be sad. Inevitably, though, his beloved creature creations are all still around, even Kermit...who since Henson’s death has had to get used to somebody else’s hand in his ass and air in his lungs.
In 2003, the University of Maryland, which is known more for its turtles than its frogs, honored Henson and Kermit with their own statue in a large ceremony featuring Henson’s wife (whom he met at the University of Maryland), his (human) children, a giant inflatable Kermit (like parade-float giant), and a bunch of people whose arms ended in famous puppets. Just kidding on that last. From the pictures it looks like lots of people in suits or Muppet T-shirts. I guess it’s one of the few events where both are appropriate attire.
Created by local sculptor Jay Hall Carpenter, whose work adorns the famous Washington Cathedral in D.C., the statue and surrounding bit of landscape and walkway known as the Henson Memorial Garden is a combined gift from the University of Maryland graduating classes of 1994, 1998, and 1999.
The bronze sculpture is beautifully unassuming and features a simple stone bench with a casually dressed Jim sporting a Frogger-shaped belt buckle seated on one side of the bench and a nicely textured Kermit perched on the back of it, each turned toward the other in conversation (I assume exchanging lines of dialogue from Job). Kermit’s hand fondly rests on Henson’s wrist, and a spot on the bench is left open for whoever wants to join them. I’d tell you more about the garden, but both times I visited, it was in the winter. On one of those occasions somebody had wrapped a University of Maryland scarf around Henson’s neck. Kermit was on his own with his jester’s collar.
You can find the Jim Henson Memorial at the intersection of Union and Campus Drives, right in front of the Adele Stamp Student Union building, a place where Henson had actually designed poster art during his time there.
In addition, only 10 miles away (as the Studebaker drives) in downtown D.C., you can actually see Kermit himself at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The NMAH features quite the collection of pop culture artifacts, including the multi-city sign post from M*A*S*H, Archie Bunker’s Chair, Kunta Kinte’s manacles, the Lone Ranger’s mask, and Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Kermit’s on perpetual display there in a happy little pose at the National Treasures of Popular Culture exhibit, a testament to what wonders a man can work with a woman’s coat, a pair of ping pong balls, and a home economics degree.
I like the way this article ends, but I couldn’t help but add an alternate DVD ending to it. Instead of going to D.C. from the Henson Memorial, it goes to Hollywood...like the whole Muppet gang in The Muppet Movie. There, on Hollywood and Vine’s Walk of Fame, you can see the star-shaped plaques featuring the names of Jim Henson and Kermit. Tellingly, each one received his own star.
In addition, a lot of the shops that line the Walk of Fame feature more or less monochromatic murals of the famous on their roll-up security doors. As a result, if you go before or after business hours, you can see the faces of a small percentage of the names that you are walking across. One of those murals that further adorn the area with the famous depicts Henson and Kermit posing together. I think Henson must’ve had more “family pictures” done with his creations than with his actual family. But if I were his child, I’d trade family time with him for an estate of Muppets any day.
And speaking of Movieland, this story of a man and his puppet really should have already gotten its own movie treatment. I’d be okay contributing that, too. In my version of his biopic, I would rewrite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Henson as Raoul Duke and Kermit as (amusingly enough) Dr. Gonzo. There would be less drugs in it, though. Or more. I don’t know.
...a woman’s coat, a pair of ping pong balls, and a home economics degree.