Music, Movies & Moods is a monthly, free-form column in which Matt Melis (@MistaMelis) explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. Previous columns have delved into the Ferguson aftermath and Robin Williams’ suicide.
Jim Henson died 25 years ago this week. I was only six at the time and don’t remember my parents mentioning anything about him being sick or passing away. In fact, I didn’t learn that the creator of the Muppets had died until a classmate told me a few years later.
There are likely a couple simple explanations for why nobody broke the news to me, even in a household where Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies dominated television time. Although Henson was by far the most visible Muppet performer, I doubt I would’ve recognized his now-iconic, bearded face back then. After all, despite being one of the most popular performers in television history, Henson, like his fellow Muppeteers, spent the bulk of his airtime just a few inches off camera. And, of course, within a few months after his death, the Muppets returned with Kermit still at the helm, gentle and steadfast as ever in his role as amphibious leader, ringmaster, and relative voice of sanity.
Kermit had carried on, so why tell a child to say goodbye?
Twenty-five years later, a span that has included several cycles of drifting away from and rediscovering Henson’s various creations, I’ve come to develop a deep appreciation for how his work has shaped the person I eventually became. My personality, imagination, and general outlook owe a significant debt to that young performer who once turned his mother’s discarded coat and a couple of halved Ping-Pong balls into a frog and went on to create silly, endearing, and, ironically, realistic worlds where chickens could sing, bears could tell terrible jokes, and frogs could ride Schwinns. Maybe it’s this sense of gratitude that has made me feel about as articulate as Animal (“Woman, WOMAN!”) while trying to cobble together this belated farewell. My words feel slight.
But there’s an old trick writers fall back upon: when your own words fail, begin with someone else’s. And that’s what I’ve aimed for here.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran across two pieces of archive footage that I hadn’t seen in several years: the May 21st public memorial service for Jim Henson at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, an hour-long tribute that aired on CBS in late November of that year. After rewatching these programs, it’s clear that those who lived, worked, and played with Henson, including the Muppets themselves, had already said everything I could ever hope to say, and with far more eloquence and silliness than I could ever manage to muster. Their reflections are worth revisiting and truly capture Jim Henson’s singularity as both a person and artist.
The public memorial at St. John’s feels like the type of celebration Henson would’ve enjoyed attending. Head Muppet writer Jerry Juhl remarked that Henson was “a man who was balanced effortlessly, and quite eloquently, between the sacred and the silly,” and so was his memorial. As the congregation entered and the procession began, Paul Williams’ “Rainbow Connection” wafted through the air courtesy of the cathedral’s pipe organ. Attendees dressed brightly, in accordance with Henson’s wishes, and Steve Whitmire, who soon took over performing Kermit and other Henson characters, paid tribute by wearing a Kermit-green suit and tie. Family, friends, and colleagues shared touching thoughts, stories, and jokes, and, of course, there were Muppets and music. Big Bird, wearing a green bowtie, sang “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”, tearing up near the end, and the principal Muppeteers performed an extended medley of Henson’s favorite songs — beginning with a ridiculously silly, arm-flapping chorus of chicken clucks and byoks and concluding with the uplifting “Just One Person”.
The moment that stands out most, though, is a story told by Frank Oz — Fozzie and Miss Piggy to Henson’s Kermit and also Bert to Jim’s Ernie. Before a Saturday Night Live taping, Henson told Oz that he needed to take some photos of Oz naked with a shocked facial expression. Oz, despite being skeptical of the strange request, obliged. A couple months later at Christmastime, Henson presented Oz with a wall sculpture of Bert called “Bert in Self-Contemplation.” Oz noticed Bert’s pupils were cut out, and when he peeked inside, there were the photos of him posing nude. In addition to showing a playfully twisted sense of humor at work, that gift, Oz explained, describing the great detail and labor involved in its crafting, revealed so much about Henson. “That’s when I knew that he loved me, and I loved him,” he said, his words trailing off as he began to cry and left the stage.
While most Muppet fans never got the chance to meet Henson, let alone collaborate with him for 27 years as Oz did, it’s easy to understand what Oz meant when he suggested that Henson expressed love through work. Isn’t that warmth the first thing we feel when we sit down to watch the Muppets? Henson imagined and built such rich worlds populated by characters full of complexity and humanity – joyous and hopeful but often tinged with shades of sadness and disappointment – and the care, generosity, and love that went into that caliber of work always shines through. Each project that he left us feels as lovingly rendered and thoughtful as that Bert sculpture. It’s why his creations still feel welcoming and magical decades later.
If the St. John’s memorial was an opportunity for Henson’s family and friends to pay tribute to him, then The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson was a chance for his foam, felt, and furry co-stars to do the same. The special includes a look back at Henson’s life and career via highlight reels and messages from celebrity friends like Carol Burnett, John Denver, and Steven Spielberg, but it’s the shenanigans backstage at the Muppet Theater, as usual, that steal the show and touch us.
The premise has Kermit, who remains absent until the special’s finale, send ahead a message to Fozzie and the gang instructing them to create a tribute number for Jim Henson. And if ever poor Fozzie actually landed a punchline, he does so here: “Who’s Jim Henson?” he asks, staring blankly at the camera. Robin, Kermit’s nephew, then remembers that Henson always used to be “hanging around … down there.” The Muppets all look to the floor and finally notice their performers beneath them. “Hey, look. When we move, they move. Try it!” Gonzo interjects. It’s such a brilliant little moment, madcap and meta in the best possible way, and, even more importantly, that much needed cue telling us it’s alright to laugh through the sadness – that don’t worry, the Muppets will endure, and we will too.
As the Muppets learn (and misinterpret) more and more about Henson through film clips and celebrity visitors, Fozzie readies a production number complete with a Dixieland pig band, singing penguins, Vikings, a tap-dancing whoopee cushion, and Miss Piggy as a closer. But then the pendulum swings in the other direction, maintaining that yin and yang balance between the silly and sacred that Juhl had mentioned. The Muppets find a folder of sympathy letters from Henson’s fans and realize that Jim has died. “But we were just starting to get to know him,” says Gonzo, a heartbreaking line that could’ve been uttered by any of Henson’s family, friends, or fans at the time. At the St. John’s memorial, Muppeteer Richard Hunt explained that “the Muppets spoke to the part of kids that was grown up and to the part of grown-ups that was childlike.” That overlap where childhood and adulthood meet often occurs during laughter and tears, and how fitting that this special manages to evoke both.
After learning that Henson has died and how much people loved him, Fozzie decides to cancel the tribute. “All we have are silly songs and whoopee cushions,” he tells Robin. “Well, maybe that’s enough,” Robin replies, before beginning to sing “Just One Person”, with the other Muppets gradually joining him. During the song, Kermit enters the backstage area, and we get the first glimpse of him since Henson’s passing. “What a good song,” he says. “I knew you guys could do the tribute for Jim.” At Henson’s memorial, his wife, Jane, said: “He’s stayed with us long enough to give us all that we need if we’re strong enough to carry on.” And that becomes the true takeaway from The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. Robin and the Muppets find the strength to endure based on the lessons they’ve learned from Jim, and in that way, Kermit comes back to us to stay.
“It’s a good thing that there are people who can do Jim Henson’s job,” reads another sympathy letter from the special. “He’ll be with us every time we watch the Muppets.” It’s a beautiful idea and one that feels all the more comforting as the Muppets have recently made it back to the silver screen, cherished cult properties like Fraggle Rock are being reimagined for new audiences, and ABC will be reuniting the frog, pig, bear, and “whatever” on television this fall for an Office-style comedy. Maybe now more than ever we’ll find ourselves surrounded by those endearingly silly characters, and that fan letter makes me realize where the focus of this column should really be. It’s not about saying goodbye. It’s about saying thank you.
At the memorial, Henson’s children shared some words their father had left them in private letters. His daughter Cheryl read the following passage: “When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who makes a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave this world a little bit better than it was when I got here.”
To borrow a few more words, this time from an 8’2” yellow canary: “Thank you, Kermit.”