Remembering Jim Henson, Part 1

When Jim Henson passed away from pneumonia in 1990 at the age of fifty-three, it was the first time a celebrity death came as a hard blow. Henson was relatively young, was nowhere near retiring, and had potentially years ahead of him to produce the kind of delightful work that had made me a fan. Since his passing, many have tried to capture his unique creative sensibility — an exact blend of whimsy and bite, warmth and incisiveness, the sublime and the ridiculous — but though some might have come close, none has quite managed it. What made the loss worst of all was that Henson and his work had been a part of my life since… well, since I was born. Sesame Street and I entered the world the very same year: 1969.

I remember being entranced by Sesame Street. I remember being just a little less scared of the monsters that might be living under my bed because one of them could have been Grover, my first introduction to the notion that monsters could be superheroes. I remember admiring Kermit the Frog, laughing with Ernie, and imitating Cookie Monster. I remember singing “Rubber Duckie” and counting to ten in Spanish. I remember that the first Christmas my parents, sister, and I spent in the house where I did most of my growing up, and getting a thrill at unwrapping packages that contained Sesame Street books, Sesame Street blocks, and Sesame Street puzzles. If it had anything to do with Sesame Street, I loved it.

I remember my favorite record when I was a young child: the Muppet version of The Frog Prince. I remember getting “They Call Me Sir Robin the Brave” stuck in my head for hours on end, talking in Spoonerisms like the cursed Princess Melora, cackling like the evil witch Taminella (performed with spicy relish by Frank Oz), and pretending to fall asleep like Sweetums the Ogre (“Nitey-nite!”). Years later, my parents showed my then four-year-old nephew this special on television, and I got to see him imitate Sweetums’ unique way of falling asleep. I confess his mimicry was better than mine.

I remember being a little bit flabbergasted by The Muppet Show when it first came on the air. Some sequences creeped me out, like the Muppet News Flash that reported furniture transforming into monsters. (Today that’s one of my favorite bits.) All the same, I remember smiling till my mouth hurt at such segments as a group of penguins aboard the Mayflower singing and dancing to “Alabammy Bound” and Viking pigs belting out their inimitable cover of the Village People’s “In the Navy.” I remember mimicking the announcer’s opening cry of “Piigs iin spaaaaace!” I remember laughing till I couldn’t breathe at all the Great Gonzo’s impossible stunts, especially the bit where he tries to jump his motorcycle so it will land “safely between those two elderly gentlemen” in the theater box, Statler and Waldorf. Later in my life, when I first started dating Matt, I learned we could laugh together over classic Muppet Show episodes. It was an early indication that I’d found The One. (I could never have fallen in love with anyone who didn’t love the Muppets.  In fact, when he helped me move into what is now our home, the first thing we watched together after he set up my DVD player was the Paul Simon episode of The Muppet Show!)

I remember seeing The Muppet Movie in the theater, and then watching it again every time it later aired on HBO. Instead of “Sir Robin the Brave,” it was “Movin’ Right Along,” Kermit and Fozzie Bear’s joyous road trip anthem, that I couldn’t get out of my head. These days, my husband and I watch it together and sing along as loudly as we please.

(If you were watching the reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix, keep your ears open for a reference to this song in the first episode!)

I remember watching Fraggle Rock when it first appeared on HBO in the early 1980s, and liking it a lot but being hesitant to say so because I was entering adolescence and thought myself too old to embrace it. But when TNT re-aired it about ten years later, I watched the whole series in my dorm room in college. We have the whole five-season set on DVD. (Remind me to tell you the story about meeting Karen Prell and Kathryn Mullen, the Muppeteers behind Red and Mokey Fraggle, at Dragon Con 2013 one of these days…)

My reaction to Fraggle Rock turned out to be typical of my responses to Henson’s work in the 1980s. It bounced off me when I was a teen, as I was too proud for it, too pseudo-sophisticated. But later on I found it and took it to my heart — The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Storyteller, and even The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Last year, my husband and I attended a screening of Labyrinth at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, shortly after we learned of David Bowie’s passing. It was the most bittersweet time we had all year, not to mention the hottest ticket in Atlanta.  The CPA had to add several more screenings due to the demand!

Generation X-ers, those like me who were young when Sesame Street was young, will probably find it easiest to understand my strong sentimental connection with Henson and his work. But for those of you who need convincing, have a look at the clips included here.

Coming next: A Visit to the Center for Puppetry Arts.

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