Jim Henson, the creative genius behind The Muppets and Fraggle Rock, has today been commemorated with an English Heritage London blue plaque, in the lead up to what would have been his 85th birthday. The plaque marks 50 Downshire Hill in Hampstead, Henson’s London home from 1979 onwards. The property lies opposite the former ‘Jim Henson’s Creature Shop’, where the creatures of Henson’s many fantasy classics including The Dark Crystal, The Storyteller and Labyrinth were created.
Brian Henson, Jim’s son and chairman of the board at The Jim Henson Company, commented, “My father moved to London to make The Muppet Show, and then chose to stay because he was so impressed by the UK’s many gifted artists and performers. It was with this amazing creative community that he produced ambitious projects including The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and so many more. It’s an honor to have Jim Henson’s British home recognized with a blue plaque, knowing that he so admired and respected the talent in London, and that this is the place he called home when creating some of his most memorable productions.”
Dr Rebecca Preston, Blue Plaques Historian at English Heritage, added, “Best remembered as the man behind beloved characters on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, Henson produced and directed a wide range of television programmes and films, with many of his most successful filmed in the UK. A talented puppeteer, he was also skilled in storytelling, and had an innate ability to spot and nurture talent. His creations continue to influence popular culture globally. The immense body of work that he created and awards that he won are even more impressive considering his untimely death at the age of just 53, and we are delighted to recognise his connection to London with an English Heritage blue plaque.”
Born in Mississippi on 24 September 1936, James (Jim) Henson explored art throughout his childhood. In 1954, at age 17, he answered an advertisement seeking puppeteers to perform on Washington, DC’s WTOP TV’s Junior Morning Show, creating the ancestors to The Muppets for his successful audition. He then studied graphic design and worked with the theatre department at the University of Maryland, where he met his future collaborator and wife, Jane Nebel, on a puppetry course. In March 1955, Jim and Jane were given their own TV show, Sam and Friends, on WRC-TV starring their creations, The Muppets, and quickly gaining a following.
The Hensons married in 1959 and, by the early 1960s, Henson had expanded his team to include writer Jerry Juhl, puppet builder Don Sahlin, and puppeteer Frank Oz, who became a lifelong performing partner and friend. Along with making hundreds of television commercials and dozens of Muppet appearances on variety shows throughout the 1960s, Jim also experimented with film, garnering an Academy Award nomination for his short, Time Piece, in 1965. In 1969, Jim was part of the creative team that launched the educational show Sesame Street, introducing a community of Muppet characters that are still beloved around the world
In 1976, Henson-fever rocked the UK as The Muppet Show, filmed at Elstree Studios, hit British screens. Aimed at family audiences, the show featured new characters including Fozzie Bear and Kermit’s love interest, Miss Piggy. It was a wild success, popular in more than 100 countries. Henson made the UK a creative home for many of his subsequent projects and bought the Downshire Hill House in 1979.
At Elstree, Henson directed a second Muppet movie, The Great Muppet Caper and his fantasy masterpiece, The Dark Crystal. There he also met George Lucas, for whom he contributed some creative insight on Lucas’ creation of Yoda, the Star Wars character that would be performed by Frank Oz. Along with a third Muppet movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and TV specials like A Muppet Family Christmas, the 80s saw Henson making classics such as the TV shows Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller, the film Labyrinth starring David Bowie (executive produced by Lucas), and a movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, starring Angelica Huston.
Unexpectedly, after a short illness, Henson died in New York on 16 May 1990 from septic shock. A colourful service was held on 2 July at St Paul’s Cathedral for Henson’s British friends and colleagues. Fortunately, his creative legacy continues, entertaining and inspiring new generations across the globe.