I always think of Jim Henson whenever I see anything involving the Muppets, but for some reason the most recent movie, with its premise of "getting the old gang back together," with its poignant solo number by Kermit about friendship and loss, strongly evoked my memories of Jim Henson's life and, particularly, of his death. Like most people, I knew him primarily through the Muppets. I never even knew what he looked like until he made a cameo appearance in a TV special in 1987. Nevertheless, I--along with many others of my generation--can count him as one of my first teachers because of his involvement in Sesame Street, which was part of my daily routine for as far back as I can remember until I started school. This makes me a very small part of his legacy, a thought that makes me feel simultaneously honored and humbled.
From what I've read about him, particularly over the past few months, from interviews that he gave and from what people who were close to him have said about him, the impression that I get of Jim Henson is that--in a gentle, optimistic way--he expected the best from everyone around him. He led by example, inspiring those around him to give their best by always giving the best of himself. He didn't play to the lowest common denominator. When he was working on something like Sesame Street, for which the primary audience was children, it wasn't simplistic or banal, and when he was working on something like The Muppet Show, which was targeted more to adults, it wasn't rude or crude or nasty. The Muppets' material works on multiple levels; to paraphrase Anthony Minghella, it doesn't exclude children and doesn't insult adults, or vice versa. In a world where entertainment, and particularly puppet acts, are almost exclusively for children or exclusively for adults, the Muppets are unique because they appeal to everyone and therefore have the power to bring people together.
In my case, the Muppets are one of the bonds that connects my family. I am the fourth of five children. My three older siblings were teenagers when my younger brother and I were preschoolers. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to my older siblings sing songs from The Muppet Movie; I think I knew all the words to "The Rainbow Connection" before I ever knew that there WAS a Muppet Movie. My older siblings had all grown up watching Sesame Street and they would happily watch it with my younger brother and me when they were able. More than that, they were always enthusiastic about singing Sesame Street songs with us or joining us in recreating Sesame Street skits. And it wasn't just a matter of them humoring the little kids: my sister and my older brother once performed a Sesame Street sketch for the annual high school talent show. To this day, some of my fondest family memories involve the Muppets, and most of my fondest Muppet memories involve my family.
In all of Jim Henson's work, but particularly with the Muppets, he fostered imagination. In a way, he gave the entire world license to make believe. For example, when I was a little kid watching Sesame Street, I think I always knew that the Muppet characters were puppets, but it didn't take away from my enjoyment. I think I always understood that the bumps on Kermit's head were actually somebody's knuckles, but somehow that only made it even more magical. Similarly, even today when the Muppet characters go out into the world, everyone who encounters them plays along with the premise that they are real, living, sentient creatures and not just puppets. Maybe some of those are just humoring the rest of us (i.e., the lovers, the dreamers, and particularly the children) but for the most part, the people who work and/or interact with the Muppets do so with a great deal of genuine joy and enthusiasm and affection for the characters. And just as Jim Henson inspired the people around him to give their best, it seems to me that the Muppets tend to bring out the best in the people that they encounter.
Jim Henson's daughter Cheryl says of him, "Jim always had respect for children, and so his characters never talked down to them." Even as a little kid watching Sesame Street, I always had a sense of this respect. As a child, I always hated being condescended to (and I hate it even more as an adult) so I had very little patience with kids' shows that I found condescending. Sesame Street was never condescending. Although I could not have put it into these words at the time, I always felt that there was a unique sincerity/authenicity inherent to it that was lacking in a lot of other kids' shows. This is another case of Jim Henson's teaching by example: by showing respect for children, he taught children to have respect for themselves.
When Jim Henson died, I learned about genuine heartbreak. I was very nearly ten years old, and it was one of my first significant experiences with death. I find that a lot of the specific details are completely muddled in my memory, and that what I remember best are the emotions. Certainly it was a devastating shock, and there was a sadness so deep that it would more rightly be called sorrow. More than anything, though, what I felt was anxiety. You have to remember, at that point none of us knew how--or even if--the Muppets would go on without him.
You sometimes hear people refer to significant (usually negative and often traumatic) events in their lives as "the end of my childhood." I wouldn't say that Jim Henson's death marked the end of my childhood, but I think it was the beginning of the end. When you're a kid (or, at least, this was my experience) there's a wide gap between what you know and what you believe. You know about mortality; you know that you, and everybody you know, and everybody you don't know, is going to die sometime in the murky, abstract, indetermine reaches of the future, but you try not to think too much about it. You believe in the permanence of the routine fixtures in your life and you take for granted that your heroes are invulnerable. Jim Henson was (and still is) one of my heroes, so when he died, it changed my perception of the world; it narrowed that gap between what I knew and what I believed. Death became less of an abstract concept and more of an unescapable reality.
One of the things I remember most significantly about the immediate aftermath of his death is that everyone around me, all my family, was just as devastated about it as I was. I don't specifically remember this part, but my mom has said since then that Jim Henson's death is one of few celebrity deaths that she has ever cried about. It was as though we had lost a close family friend...from a certain point of view, we had.
At the time, I wasn't sure which was the worst-case scenario: a world without Kermit, or a Kermit who wasn't "really" Kermit. I remember that, more than anything, two questions dominated my thoughts as I tried to comprehend this tragedy: would someone else take over performing Kermit? And if so, would it be the same Kermit I knew and loved? I sometimes wish that there was a way that I could go back in time and reassure my nearly-ten-year-old self that the answer to both questions was "yes," thanks to the superlative Steve Whitmire, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect.
About six months after Jim Henson died, there was a TV special called "The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson". Toward the end of that special, once the Muppets understand the terrible truth, Gonzo says, "Jim died? But we were just starting to get to know him!" And that's exactly the way that I felt when he died, that I was just starting to get to know him as the man behind (and beneath) the Muppets. Nevertheless, I'm very grateful to be old enough and lucky enough to remember him. I'm even grateful for the sorrow that I experienced at his death because it allows me to appreciate the Muppets, and the joy that they have to offer, so much more deeply than I would otherwise.
Jim Henson once said, "My hope is still to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here." Even though he left the world far too soon, under bewilderingly tragic circumstances, he achieved that hope. I say that with absolute confidence because my own life has been so enriched by his having been a part of it. I have the sense of humor that I do in part because of Jim Henson. I have the love of music that I do in part because of Jim Henson. I have the love of literature/films/theatre that I do in large part because of Jim Henson. The foundation of love on which I have constructed and reconstructed my self-concept was built in part by Jim Henson. I learned about cooperation from Jim Henson, and because of him, I always want to call it "Shirley."