When my last semester in college rolled around, I had finished all my requirements except for a science class. After quickly filling that with a general environmental science class, I embarked on a mission to find three classes with the perfect mix of fitting in around my work schedule and being incredibly easy.
That was when I came across a class listed as "Puppetry in New York City."
It was three hours, one day a week and the description said most of the grade was based on 'class participation.' I was sold.
On the first day of class my professor wore a structured, lime-green felt beret and a cape. My fellow classmates' interest in the subject matter spanned from 'just here to graduate' to 'my dream job is puppeteer.' I was, of course, in the former category.
Our professor started the class by asking each of us to name a puppeteer.
Despite our varied interest and education in puppetry, there was one person who came up in every single answer: Jim Henson.
September 24, marked Jim Henson's birthday and got me thinking about the man who is at the core of so many of my childhood memories.
Henson, who would have been 74 years old Friday, started creating puppets in high school and introduced his most iconic character Kermit the Frog in 1955 when he was just 19. His landmark kids TV show "Sesame Street" started in 1969 and is still going strong, making it the longest running children's television show to date.
After his early success with kids TV, Henson wanted to make puppets more accessible to adults. He started doing puppet skits on "Saturday Night Live" and eventually started "The Muppet Show" in 1976. He ended that project to focus on making films for the big screen. His two most notable films were "Dark Crystal" in 1982 and "Labyrinth," starring David Bowie, in 1986.
In May of 1990, Henson was rushed to the hospital after having trouble breathing and coughing up blood. He would be dead within 24 hours. He was 53.
This year it was announced that two upcoming books would center on the late Muppets creator. Publisher's Weekly reported that a screenplay Henson and his longtime collaborator Jerry Juhl wrote almost 30 years ago will be turned into a graphic novel called "A Tale of Sand." The book is set to be released next summer with Henson's daughter Lisa reportedly attached to the project.
The second is a detailed biography of Jim Henson that will be written by Brian Jay Jones (writer of "Washington Irving: an American Original") and published by Ballantine Books. The biography is being written with the blessing of the Henson family and has no exact release date yet. One thing I noticed while doing research for this post is the lack of biographies on Mr. Henson, which means this upcoming book will definitely be filling a hole that should have been filled long ago.
Now that you and I both have an updated view of Henson (and my spring 2010 college schedule), here are a couple more books to continue your education on Henson and the art of puppetry:
"It's Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider"
Edited by Cheryl Henson
Hyperion, 2005, 208 pages$16.95
This book is a collection of quotes from Jim Henson, your favorite Muppet characters and other Henson friends and collaborators. It is less about the Muppets and more about Henson's general outlook on life. The book was edited by Jim Henson's daughter Cheryl, who told Publisher's Weekly that some of that material comes from Henson's previously unpublished personal notebooks. For me, the book is reminiscent of the heart-warming, "The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember" by Fred Rogers.
"Street Gang: The Complete History of "Sesame Street""
By Michael Davis
Penguin USA, 2008, 384 pages$27.95
The title says it all - this is a book about the history of "Sesame Street." The book gives a behind-the-scenes account of how the momentous show got started, its ups and downs and what the future may look like for the famous show.
"Jim Henson, The Works: The Art, the Magic, the Imagination"
By Christopher Finch
Random House, 1993, 268 pages$49.95
This was written with the permission of the family and, therefore, includes a ton of never-before-told-stories. Besides talking about the obvious successes of Henson, the book also talks about his lesser known works such as his short experimental puppet films. The book also includes almost 500 color illustrations.
"Puppetry: A World History"
Harry N. Abrams, 2005, 272 pages$65.00
Yes, this is a coffee table book, but it is also a great look at the history of puppetry. Starting from the era of cavemen and ending in the present, Blumenthal's book gives a small introduction of the many different types of puppetry that exist worldwide.