Celebrating Jim Henson and the Art of Puppetry

Puppetry is alive and well and loved at Dragon Con.

Cheryl Henson, the second daughter of the late—and beloved—Jim Henson, joined Dragon Con for the first time on Friday to talk about her family’s most recent contributions to her father’s legacy and walk through some of his greatest contributions to pop culture via puppetry. She brought along a slide show complete with family photos.

Jim Henson, who died suddenly in 1990, created the Muppets, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock. He also helmed several children films in the 1980s that adults today still adore, such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

Jim Henson’s first show, though, was Sam and Friends, which was broadcast in the 1950s in Washington, D.C. He met his wife, Jane, on the show.

Together, they created the Muppets, which were the first made-for-TV puppets. They were innovative puppets that, unlike their theatre counterparts, had lips that moved with the actual words and eyes that could focus on the camera.

“They were doing what they thought was funny,” Cheryl said of the original Muppet show.

In the 1960s, Jim Henson created Sesame Street. It broke ground in puppetry with its full-bodied puppets, namely Big Bird, who was based on a toy Chinese dragon.

In the 1970s, Jim Henson began exploring more colorful characters and innovating with scale. He followed with creating Fraggle Rock, where he introduced radio control and mechanical puppets into his gaggle of his creatures.

One of his most beloved creations came in the 1980s with the feature film The Dark Crystal, which took over five years to realize and faced several production delays. “It was always a challenge to get people to understand it.”

The Henson family owns the film now and helps run the fan site, which hosts frequent contests. Last year, it ran a short story contest and a creature creation contest. Up next is a short-film contest using puppets. The family is also drumming up support for a Dark Crystal sequel.

Puppetry was a family affair for the Hensons. They travelled to numerous puppet festivals yearly in both Europe and America. In fact, Jane Henson went into labor on the car ride home in 1961. And they travelled with Jim as he participated in or created numerous festival or international exchanges focused on the art of puppetry. In the 1980s, Jim Henson sang “Rainbow Connection” with John Denver at the American Embassy in Russia.

Today, all five Henson kids—Lisa, Cheryl, Heather, Brian, and John—work in puppetry and on behalf of their father’s work.

Lisa has ushered a lost script—Turkey Hollow—by her father to the screen. It will show on Lifetime on November 1, 2015. Brian runs several puppet shows online, including Puppet Up!, a high-tech puppet improv show as well as an R-rated show.

Cheryl has been instrumental in ensuring that Jim Henson’s work is sewn into the fabric of America. Starting in 2017, the original Sam and Friends puppets, along with 35 more contemporary puppets, will be on display at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y. will showcase Jim Henson technological contributions to puppetry. And, in Atlanta, the Center for Puppetry Arts is opening the Museum of Puppetry. It will feature 450 items from Jim Henson. A hundred are personal items—such as his desk and toys he made for his kids—and three hundred and fifty are puppets, many of which have been in bags for 30 or more years. They have been restored and refurbished for display.

“I find puppetry infinitely fascinating,” Cheryl said.

Cheryl Henson will present again on Saturday at 1PM in the Hyatt.

Author of the article

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occasional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except Game of Thrones because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled--such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.