Much like the Boy Meets World post from earlier, this post is dedicated to an almost forgotten world: Jim Henson’s imagination.
Jim Henson was a man responsible for many of my childhood memories and who helped shaped yet another part of who I am today. His work in the world of puppetry, film, television, and education of minds young and old still continues to this day despite his absence. His legacy has had a lasting impression on both Pop Culture.
I say he is like the David Lynch of Children’s Entertainment because when you view his earlier work, The Muppet Show or his films and television of the mid to late 1980s, as an adult you begin to see that underneath the surface, Jim Henson had a dark side that unknowingly drew you in and makes you wonder if these programs were really meant for children in the first place.
Campy and absurd, The Muppet Show (1976-1981) featured an array of celebrities from the 1970s to early 1980s. However, when watching years later, there are aspects of the show that make you kind of tilt your head to the side and say, “huh…I don’t remember that being so dark??” You’re Always Welcome at Our House is a sketch from Season 3, Episode 10, is the perfect example of how Jim Henson was essentially a Pied Piper; he came out of nowhere, really, and lead you to believe that he was a good natured man but then suddenly you notice that his darkness lead into a weird world that was exciting and strange. In it, the Muppets and guest host Marissa Berenson sing a sickly sweet poem by Shel Silverstein. At first glance and listen, you think it’s an innocent piece about welcoming guests “at any time of the day” but when given another viewing, you realize this is about basically MURDERING you guests whenever they dare to cross your threshold.
Of course everyone remembers, either vividly or vaguely, The Dark Crystal (1982). This was a film that really showcased Jim Henson and his team’s genius. The entire film is comprised of puppets. The Skeksis are mutilated and grotesque vulture-like creatures who worship a crystal shard which also prolongs their life. It’s up to a Gelfling named Jen to repair the cracked crystal to bring balance and order back to the world. The Dark Crystal definitely falls under the “kids movies that weren’t meant for kids” category. It’s dark and the creatures and scenes unnerve you yet you can’t stop watching. I grew up watching this on the Disney Channel and remember being enthralled with what I was seeing. I hated when it went to a commercial break because I didn’t want to leave the world I was in even for a 30-second break. The Dark Crystal, as well as The Labyrinth (1986) are now what some would call “Cult” films. They have a following of, pardon me, weirdos, who love the movies so deeply that whenever there is even a new release of a DVD or a mention of these creations anywhere they leap at the chance to keep these spectacles alive.
Jim Henson not only did films, as we all know, he also did–and improved on–the often overlooked genre of Children’s Television. Sesame Street is the longest running Children’s TV show, currently celebrating its 48th year on air. Sesame Street provides a chance for children to learn numbers, colors, shapes, and the alphabet, but as well as about social issues, accepting people from all walks of life, and embracing who you are. The Street is one of the children’s shows that is also broadcast all over the world, including characters that relate more to those children in the country they live in. Though with its movement to HBO for new episodes with them later running on PBS, Sesame Street now feels like an elite show for more privileged children and then becoming a hand-me-down item when it has lost its sparkle. Either way, you and your kids can still Follow That Bird.
Sesame Street was not the only children’s programming that this brilliant man was behind. Fraggle Rock (1983-1987), Muppet Babies (1984-1991), Dinosaurs (1991-1994), and Bear in the Big Blue House (1997-2006) were all great television shows that are a part of your childhood whether you remember them or not. Fraggle Rock taught children and adults alike about teamwork, exploration of things unknown, that though you may have different interests you can always find friends, environmentalism, and to eat your vegetables–radishes being a central part of the Fraggle diet. Jim Henson himself had a pivotal character within the show, Cantus the Minstrel. He and his Magic Pipe wander around Fraggle Caves, singing songs and passing goofy, yet wise insight and knowledge. What could make this show seem dark, in some respects, is the Trash Heap, Marjory, that the Fraggles took advice from. The Trash Heap was all knowing yet never really gave straight answers, letting the Fraggles interpret her wisdom and figure things out for themselves. I say that this can seem dark because you were left not knowing if Madam Heap actually gave sound advice nor if she had the Fraggles best interests in mind. You can take that how you will, that really is just my opinion.
One television series not listed above is The Storyteller (1987-1989) and The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1989). These anthology series, especially the first incarnation featuring the late Sir John Hurt, brought folk tales and mythos from all over the world into the living rooms of children. The Storyteller was particularly dark in its content, featuring stories and folklore that, not necessarily frightened or weren’t meant for kids, but that maybe you should watch with at least a light on. Sir John Hurt with his faithful and snarky canine companion, voiced by Brian Henson, wove tales and yarns about demons, dragons, kings and princesses, and fear–or lack thereof.
Jim Henson’s lasting legacy was his brilliant mixture of the absurd and fantastical, the humorous and the serious, and above all, the light and the dark of the world. He transported you into worlds and places both real and new where anything could happen and nothing was what it seemed. Beneath his fatherly face and strong voice, you went blindly into his mind even if you had your apprehensions. You came out for the better: you knew what the world had in it and were prepared to love and respect the differences between light and dark. Thankfully, his vision is continued through avid fans, his company and Foundation, and his children. It is saddening knowing that he is not alive to see that his creations and visions are still loved to this day, but it is comforting to think that he is in the Universe somewhere inspiring new generations to Keep Believing, Keep Pretending.
To learn more about the Henson legacy, please visit The Jim Henson website.
If you’re ever in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, be sure to visit the Center for Puppetry Arts, which is currently running an exhibit on Labyrinth.
This short story is brought to you by the letter C, for Cap City Video Lounge. Thank you for you tribute to Sir John Hurt this morning with your showing of The Storyteller.