In 1964, Jim and Jane Henson purchased a house on Round Hill Road in Greenwich, Connecticut. The seven years Henson spent living there would be some of the most industrious and influential years of his early career; it was during his Greenwich years that he developed experimental films that included his own children, worked in New York on commercials, and helped refine the iconic and long-lasting public television program, Sesame Street.
Jim’s Early Years
Jim Henson was born in 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi. As a child, his grandmother—who was a creative crafter—taught him an appreciation for crafting and working with various media, and as a young teen, he experimented in puppet show performances. Henson also loved television and the famous puppeteer Burr Tillstrom of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” influenced Henson’s early work. His interest in puppets grew through middle and high school, and in college, Henson worked as a puppeteer on a local DC morning children’s program. In 1955, he began appearing on Sam and Friends, for which he received a local Emmy. It was on Sam and Friends that Henson first introduced his early Muppet characters, with some gaining such a large following that they appeared on the Today Show and the Ed Sullivan Show. Jim also met Jane Nebel, a fellow classmate and puppeteer, while studying at University of Maryland; they married in 1959. When Jane quit puppeteering to raise their children, Henson hired Jerry Juhl and Frank Oz to replace her, setting the foundation for the future Henson-Oz partnership.
Creative Years in Greenwich
During his Greenwich years, Henson created some of Sesame Street’s most iconic characters including Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Elmo, Mr. Snuffleupagus, and Grover. Sesame Street was a departure from regular children’s television programming of the time; it had an educational component and the characters discussed cultural topics and social issues on a child’s level. As the show evolved, it became the foremost children’s show on television in the 1970s.
Henson’s creativity, however, was not limited to the studio and the public. He also created a home life filled with family, art, music, and film. The Henson’s Greenwich house was built in 1845. The house was once owned by American impressionist painter John H. Twachtman and later remodeled by architect Stanford White. The Henson family added their creativity to the home, too, including a tiled bathroom painted with an underwater mosaic and custom-painted kitchen cabinets. Notably, Henson filmed a short movie entitled Run, Run that featured his daughters Cheryl and Lisa. The film incorporated images with music to “evoke an emotional response,” a technique Henson used in the future. While in Greenwich, Jim and Jane also helped found the Mead School, a progressive education school that his children attended (the school moved from Greenwich to Stamford in the late 1990s). The family sold the house in 1971 and moved to nearby Bedford, New York, but Greenwich remained a Henson haven until the 1990s.
Henson’s Later Years
By 1976, Henson, Oz, and their team were producing the Muppet Show, a weekly sketch comedy show with both new and old characters. Three years after its first airing, they released The Muppet Movie, a critical and financial success. Henson and team continued their work in film in the 1980s, contributing to such films as The Dark Crystal and the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.
Jim and Jane Henson separated in 1986, although they remained close until Jim’s death on May 16, 1990. Jane died in 2013 of cancer at her Greenwich home. The Hensons’ work and passion continues through the organizations that Jim and Jane founded to promote puppetry—the Jim Henson Foundation and Jim Henson Company. In 2011, Henson posthumously received the Disney Legends Award; at the awards ceremony Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog performed “The Rainbow Connection” in his honor. A few weeks later, to honor Henson’s 75th birthday, Google honored his life with its Google Doodle. Jim Henson’s legacy lives on through his remaining four children (his son John died at age 48 from a heart attack), colleagues, puppets, and millions of admirers.