Show Business: The Man Behind the Frog

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Jim Henson's Christmas present last year from Muppeteer Dave Goelz was a diver's weight belt, which Goelz called a "metabolic equalizer." The idea was that Henson, suitably ballasted, might slow down. That seems not to have happened; as Henson ricochets off New York on his way from Los Angeles to London, he spins out titles for the 50 or so Muppet books he has decreed: Miss Piggy's Foolproof 14-Day Diet, The Swedish Chef on How to Cook a Chicken.

His style is not frenzied—he is notably calm, in fact—but it is unusually intense. It suits a man widely deferred to as a wizard, but it would not do, say, for a renowned comic performer, a wisecracking green frog. And the curious truth about this gaunt, bearded, rather ascetic-looking craftsman, as he admits, is that "my nature is not particularly witty." He is funny only with Kermit on his arm, and the same thing seems to be true of Frank Oz and the other Muppet people.

Puppetry released something in Henson that had not been noticeable before. During his senior year at a Maryland high school, he heard that a local TV station was looking for puppeteers. He knew nothing about puppets, but television fascinated him. He and a friend sewed together a rat puppet that looked French and was called Pierre and a couple of cowboys. They were put to work on The Junior Morning Show, which ran for three weeks and then sank without a Variety trace. Henson's career was moving, however, with an ease and certainty that now seem almost eerie: a nearby NBC station hired Pierre and friends to help out on a cartoon show. By this time Henson was attending the University of Maryland, where he found a course in puppeteering. One of his fellow students was a New York girl named Jane Nebel, and when Henson's TV job expanded to include an afternoon variety show, she signed on to help. By the end of the semester, they had two five-minute nighttime spots. Their star puppet was a baldheaded, popeyed fellow named Sam. He didn't talk, but he clowned around while they played novelty records. Sometimes Sam was funny and sometimes he was dreadful, and the viewers generally didn't know the difference. Says Jane: "It was local television."

Henson and Nebel began experimenting to see what effects they could get by synchronizing mouth movements with the words of the records they played. They used TV monitors from the start, which allowed them to edit their performances as they went along. The elements that would form the Muppet style were coming together. Only dialogue was missing, and this appeared in primitive form when they signed to do a series of commercials for Wilkins coffee. In the first of these, a happy character asked a grouchy type what he thought of the coffee. The grouch said he had never tried it. Happy produced a cannon and blasted Grouch. Then he turned his cannon on the audience and asked: "What do you think of Wilkins coffee?" Sounding weary in the recollection, Henson admits, "We did about 160 of those."

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