Washington, DC , May 4, 1955: Jim Henson, a creative 18 year old puppeteer, who just completed his freshman year at the University of Maryland and who was born in Greenville, Mississippi and who spent most of his young life in Leland, Mississippi, has just been given what he considers a huge break in his career. He has been given a puppet show called “Sam & Friends” on WRC-TV, the NBC owned station here in the nation’s capital.
What makes this puppet program unusual is that it is not designed for kids. It is produced for adults, but kids, of course, can watch, too.
“Sam & Friends” will air twice daily. First, it will air in the unheard of time slot of 6:25 PM, as a lead in to the top rated Huntley-Brinkley News Report at 6:30, and, then, it will air at 11:25 PM, just before the new, popular Tonight Show, hosted by Steve Allen. “Sam & Friends” debuts next Monday, May 9.
Henson doesn’t call Sam and his friends puppets. He calls them Muppets. The word “Muppet” seems to be a cross between a marionette and a puppet. Henson himself says he just likes the way the word “Muppet” sounds.
Henson, along with his assistant and fellow university student, Jane Nebel, says they are excited about introducing their many extraordinarily humorous Muppet friends to a very grownup audience.
Henson traces much of his “Muppet” creativity back to where he spent his formative years through the sixth grade in Leland in the Mississippi Delta. Even though his parents, Paul and Betty Henson, encouraged him, it was his maternal grandmother, Sarah Brown, who encouraged him most to use his imagination and to take delight in exploring virtually everything in the world around him. So, Jim was involved in art, theater, creeks and woods and, in general creativity since he was old enough to walk. Today, Grandmother Brown is proud. Her emphasis on creativity paid off.
Naturally, his parents are proud, too. Paul Henson, who works for the US Department of Agriculture was transferred here from Leland six years ago. They all live in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Jim Henson and the folk at WRC-TV are certainly glad his dad made that transition from Mississippi.
Beginning next Monday evening, they all hope the DC audience will be equally glad that Jim Henson and his Muppets have arrived on the Washington TV scene.
The Muppet show, Sam & Friends, was, indeed, a hit in Washington, DC and was on the air twice each weekday from 1955 to 1961. Obviously, the program spawned the career of the most successful puppeteer in history.
But, Jim Henson was not making enough money simply doing the local TV show, Sam & Friends. He wanted more—both in terms of money and creativity. So, in 1957, he started doing TV commercials with his Muppets for such well known brands as Purina Dog Chow, IBM, Ivory Snow, RC Cola, and many more. He made a fortune, quickly. So much so, that he went to his graduation ceremony at the University of Maryland in a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud that he paid for in cash.
Henson and Jane Nebel, who was with him at WRC-TV, were married on May 28, 1959.
Henson’s creativity seemingly knew no bounds. His life is difficult to document in a brief summation because virtually everyday he produced successes that a normal person would have thought were the culmination of an entire career. In 1969, he inked his incredible deal to move onto PBS’s “Sesame Street.” Throughout the late 1970’s and 1980’s he had a string of successful movies with Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and all the rest of his wonderful array of Muppet characters. And, in 1990, just as he had started negotiating to merge his entire Muppet empire into the Walt Disney Co. for hundreds of millions of dollars, it all ended—at least for him.
Tragically, it has been suggested that his grandmother who instilled in him all the motivation to pursue the creativity in his legendary career, also produced in him the possible cause for his death. Henson contracted streptococcus pneumonia in May, 1990. He waited five days before going to the hospital because his grandmother had inculcated in him the doctrine of a Christian Scientist and taught him to avoid the use of doctors, if at all possible. The five day delay could have cost him his life. He died May 16, 1990 of pneumonia at the young age of 53.
Prophetically, Henson once said, “When I was young my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in the world. My hope is still to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here.” Did he accomplish his goal? Either way you answer that question, Jim Henson from Leland, Mississippi, is still a major part of Southern Memories.
Sam & Friends Image Gallery