Arts, Culture & Media

Jim Henson blazed a new trail for artists when he created the Muppets

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From left, Walt Disney Studios president Rich Ross, Lisa Henson, CEO of The Jim Henson Company, and her brother Brian Henson, chairman of The Jim Henson Company attend ceremonies honoring the Muppets with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California March 20, 2012.

Credit:

Fred Prouser/Reuters

Puppets have been around for thousands of years — but when we hear the word, a whole lot of us immediately think of Jim Henson's Muppets.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Throughout his career, Henson used technology — and innovative, low-tech techniques — to offer audiences new experiences in the nascent years of television. "He had got his first TV in 1950; five years later, he was on TV," explains Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, author of “Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career

“I think his most important achievement was the monitor feedback system that he set up,” says Hyde. “So the system is a closed-circuit TV and what it does is it allows him to actually see exactly what the viewer at home sees.”

This advancement shouldn’t be underestimated. On Sesame Street, it allowed the characters to talk directly to the camera, making kids at home feel that much more connected.

Stevens says that long before computer animation, Henson visited a workshop in Denver and created some very early graphics for some commercial work. “Then he worked with Pacific Data Images, who later became the Dreamworks Studio, to create the first computer generated puppet character.”

"He always wanted to get bigger and bigger and break barriers. If someone said, 'it can't be done,' he would try to do it," Hyde explains.

Sam & Friends became The Muppets, which then went to Hollywood and became a huge brand. "He started small with what he could do, which was puppetry, and then got to this amazing place."

In order to achieve his success, Henson embraced not only technology, but also the business side of artistic endeavors. 

“He had a really unique role as both an artist and entrepreneur. He was different from most artists, he thought differently because he made a lot of money. He thought differently from most businessmen because he spent a lot of money on art, on developing it,” says Stevens.

Seeing is believing, so go “behind the fabric” and watch Jim Henson describe the “Secrets of the Muppets” in this video 

Some 45 years later, Sesame Street is still appealing to both adults and children.

This segment, “True Mud,” parodies the first episode of HBO’s “True Blood.

This interview first aired on PRI's Innovation Hub, a new public radio show that challenges conventional wisdom and showcases creativity.