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Creativity Beyond Kermit

Early Jim Henson Works Live on at UMD

By Liam Farrell

Henson

In December 1955, students and spectators gathered in the auditorium of Maryland’s Skinner Building to be transported to a spooky vision of the Smoky Mountains, where a young witch begs a pair of conjurers to turn him into a human and let him win the love of a blue-eyed girl with copper hair.

Nature itself is practically another character in “Dark of the Moon,” evoked back then by the shadowy and spiky trees adorning the cover of the University Theatre program designed by one James Henson.

It’s not hard to envision an alternate scenario in which the undergraduate, listed in the program under Publicity and Scenery Crew, would have applied a cast of puppets instead of students.

Dark of the Moon

It’s been 25 years since Jim Henson ’60, the pop culture visionary and creator of the Muppets, died of a bacterial infection. His legacy extends from “Sesame Street,” entering its 46th season, to a reinvention this fall of “The Muppet Show,” following the same cast of characters introduced in 1976.

Henson is a permanent fixture at UMD, but not just because of his statue (with Kermit, of course) outside the Adele H. Stamp Student Union and a digital collection of his television and film work. Here, Terp showcases the lesser-known examples of Henson’s creativity that are still housed in University Archives. They are the breadcrumbs that led to a career of extraordinary impact.

As detailed in the 2013 book Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones, Henson’s life was, literally, the product of UMD. Henson’s father, Paul Henson M.S. ’30, was studying genetics and plant biology in College Park when he met and eventually married Elizabeth “Betty” Brown, secretary to the dean of what was then the College of Agriculture.

Following graduation, the Hensons shuttled between Maryland and Mississippi as Paul worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, eventually landing in a house in University Park. After graduating from Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School in 1954, Jim Henson enrolled at UMD.

The budding puppeteer had already begun performing on local television, but at that point still assumed his future would be behind the camera. Most of his college work was building sets and printing posters for drama productions and other events; as one of the few males to major in home economics, he took advantage of courses on advertising, art and costume and interior design.

In fall 1954, a chance meeting in a UMD class proved to be one of the most fruitful creative pairings in local history. In a new course on puppetry taught by recent hire Ed Longley, Henson met collaborator and future wife Jane Nebel ’55. The two would create “Sam and Friends,” which debuted in spring 1955 on WRC-TV and helped launch the Muppets to fame.

Longley, who taught art education at Maryland for more than 30 years, received two original paper collages by Henson that are now housed in the university’s Special Collections in Performing Arts. One is a Christmas card with a string-bean, Beaker-esque figure dancing against a backdrop of bright ornaments with the label, “A Joyful Yuletide.” The other depicts a series of notably amphibian figures playing leapfrog.

Paper Collages

Henson didn’t have a linear career at UMD, taking some time off as his popularity grew. In 1958, “Sam and Friends” won an Emmy for best local entertainment program, and more than 25,000 pairs of his Wilkins and Wontkins characters from coffee advertisements were sold during the Christmas season.

By the time he graduated, Henson’s potential was already being realized. A sucker for flashy cars, he showed up at commencement in a used Rolls Royce he purchased for $5,000 (more than $40,000 in today’s money). Two months later, Jim, Jane and their 8-week-old daughter, Lisa, went off to the 1960 Puppeteers of America convention.

Graduation

Much of the rest of the story is well known. But for the new and curious, a good starting spot is also here in College Park: the Jim Henson Works at the University of Maryland.

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