Jim Henson’s Legacy

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By Rhiannon Turnbull

Jim Henson was an American puppeteer and filmmaker who became famous when he joined the creative team of Sesame Street and helped to develop the iconic Muppet characters for the series. Henson’s work has been enjoyed by generations of fans, and to commemorate the 25th year since his passing, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) has programmed a film season of documentaries, films and shorts from the Henson Foundation’s vaults, screening until 11 October, for fans of all ages.

Early in his career, Henson directed television commercials, taking a different approach to the hard sell by trying to instead sell things by making people laugh. In 1958 he created Muppets, Inc. (which later became Jim Henson Company) and was able to realise his dream of using the Muppets to create ‘entertainment for everybody’. At a time when many puppets were made of wood and moved with the use of string, Henson had begun to make characters from flexible, fabric-covered, foam rubber, and used rods to move his Muppets arms. Both of these innovations allowed them to express a wider array of emotions.

In 1969 Henson and his staff were invited to work on Sesame Street, the now-iconic children’s television program. Known for its educational content, Sesame Street uses Muppets, animation, short films, humour and cultural references to engage and educate children. Since its premiere in November 1969, Sesame Street has become a cultural phenomenon, being broadcast in over 140 countries and has won 159 Emmy Awards. In 2008 it was estimated that 77 million Americans had watched the series as children.

During the first year of Sesame Street, Henson also directed Tales from Muppetland, a short series of television movie specials in the form of comedic tellings of classic fairytales aimed at young audiences.


Jim Henson

Jim Henson

During this time, worried that they were being typecast solely as children’s entertainment, Henson’s team targeted adult audiences with a series of sketches in the first series of the comedy series Saturday Night Live. He also began to develop more Muppets programs, eventually moving his creative team to England, where they began taping The Muppet Show. Three years later they released The Muppet Movie, to great critical and financial success.

In 1982 Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the U.S. Around that time he began creating darker and more realistic fantasy films, releasing The Dark Crystal to great commercial success. In 1986 Labyrinth was released, which was considered (in part due to its cost) a commercial disappointment, but has since become a cult classic.

In 1990 Henson passed away, but his legacy has lived on. The Jim Henson Company and Jim Henson Foundation continued producing new series and specials. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop continues to build creatures for a number of other films and series and is considered one of the most advanced and well-respected creators of film creatures. Henson is also honoured both as himself and for Kermit the Frog on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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