How Muppets creator Jim Henson changed puppetry without ever seeing a puppet show. : NPR

Creating the two of the most famous eyes on television. A scene from a new Disney+ documentary from Oscar-winning director Ron Howard. It's called 'Jim Henson: Idea Man'.

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Muppets creator Jim Henson never played with puppets as a child. In fact, he had little interest in puppetry until he created his first puppet show for television. That is one of the revelations in a new documentary on Disney+ by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard. It's called 'Jim Henson: Idea Man'.

Henson was born in 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi.

“Television would transport him beyond Mississippi, beyond America, you know,” Ron Howard told NPR.

“People knew he was creative and that he really wanted to work in television, but he didn't know how to get in,” Howard said.

Shortly after graduating high school in Maryland, Henson saw an advertisement for a television station looking for a puppeteer. Henson recalls in the documentary, “I don't remember ever seeing a puppet show when I was little… and I never had any dolls to play with.”

Howard said Henson never intended to be a puppeteer.

“He discovered puppets not out of a love of puppetry, but out of the recognition that this was something that connected his voice to the audience.” he said. 'He recognized that [puppetry] was a great creative outlet…. that could express his kind of crazy sense of humor.

Jim Henson works on the very first Kermit before he was a frog in the 1950s.  It was made from an old winter coat of Henson's mother.

Jim Henson is working on the very first Kermit (before he was a frog). It was made in the 1950s from an old winter coat of Henson's mother.

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Henson's first television show premiered in 1955. It was called 'Sam and Friends'. It aired on a Washington, D.C. TV station after the 11 p.m. news.

It was a mix of parodies of popular songs, satire and experimental puppetry, tailor-made for the new medium of television.

The show featured a cast of abstract puppets, including a lizard-like character named Kermit, who helped transform the art of puppetry. Until “Sam and Friends,” most puppets seen on television were designed for live theater. They were made of wood, papier-mâché and other hard materials. They were intended to be viewed by an audience seated many meters away.

Kermit (who became a frog years later) was made from his mother's old green winter coat. The fabric made his face very soft and supple, which Ron Howard said was perfect for the close-up lens of television.

“It fit Jim's large hand in a way that allowed him to do something most dolls didn't do, which was be flexible,” Howard said. He could bend his fingers and so on. and really make that doll come to life and respond. And you know, a lot of comedy is reaction and the way he was able to make that doesn't deliver much [puppet] You know, his face puckering or wincing or opening his mouth in shock is really one of the reasons why Kermit is such a great comedic character and truly a world-class straight man.

The Muppets who came years later would follow this flexible formula. Think of Miss Piggy, Grover, Elmo, Statler and Waldorf, the two old boys on the balcony of “The Muppet Show”.

More than thirty years after Henson's death, puppet makers still use many of the same materials that made the early Muppets so expressive.

The head is usually made of foam rubber, the same material found in seat cushions or air filters. The foam is often covered with a soft fleece or faux fur fabric designed to maximize expressiveness.

A ventriloquist doll made from the same soft materials as Kermit and many other Muppets

A ventriloquist doll made from the same soft materials as Kermit and many other Muppets

Barry Gordemer, handemonium.com/handemonium.com


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Barry Gordemer, handemonium.com/handemonium.com

Henson-style puppets also changed the art of ventriloquism. For decades, ventriloquists gravitated toward puppets made of wood or other hard materials. Today, many performers who grew up with Muppets prefer so-called “soft figures,” dolls with flexible faces that hark back to the Mississippi boy who transformed his mother's coat into a beloved, enduring character.

The broadcast version of this story was edited by Olivia Hampton. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.

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