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Remembering Jane Henson (1934 - 2013)

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Remembering Jane Henson (1934 - 2013)

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It has often been said that "... behind every great man, there's a great woman."

Well, that certainly wasn't the case with Jane Henson. Take a look at these pictures from the early, early days of the Muppets. Back when these characters starred in their own late night television series, "Sam and Friends" on WRC-TV. Please note that Jane isn't standing behind Jim. But -- rather -- that this then-21 year-old was standing beside her future husband, puppeteering right alongside him.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved

Now this was the mid-1950s, folks. The era of "Father Knows Best." A time when the little woman was supposed to be at home, keeping house. Not out in the world actually having a career.

But Jim Henson, he never thought of Jane Ann Nebel as a little woman. From the very moment that he met this talented 20 year-old in a puppeteering class at the University of Maryland, he saw her as an equal. Someone who not only shared his somewhat twisted sense of humor, but also believed in Jim's unique vision when it came to the way that puppets might work on the then-relatively new medium of television.

Now you have to understand that it was the exposure that Henson's characters got through "Sam and Friends," this 5 minute-long program that was presented nightly on the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., which ultimately led to the Muppets' worldwide success. So without this TV show, there would have been no Kermit the Frog. No Big Bird. No Fraggle Rock. No Dark Crystal or Labyrinth. Nothing.

Bob Payne and Jim & Jane Henson as they celebrate "Sam and Friends"
winning a  Local Emmy Award in 1959. Copyright The Jim Henson
Company. All rights reserved

Which is why all us Muppet fans owe an especially large debt to Jane Henson. You see, during the Summer of 1958, Jim actually left "Sam and Friends" for a couple of months so that he could then travel in Europe prior to graduating from college. And it was Jane -- with the help of puppeteer Bob Payne -- who kept this TV show going on WRC in Henson's absence.

One has to wonder what might have happened if Jane had dropped the ball while Jim was away. If WRC-TV had then decided to cancel "Sam and Friends" (which was being presented twice nightly at this point on that NBC affiliate. Once at 6:25 p.m. and then again at 11:25 p.m.), would the Muppets still have appeared on "The Jack Paar Show" in late 1958?  The national exposure that these kooky characters (More importantly, Henson's style of puppeteering) received as a direct result of that Paar appearance eventually turned out to be a crucial turning point in Jim Henson's career.

But Jane didn't drop the ball while Jim was away. She made sure that the "Sam and Friends" episodes that were shot while Henson was away in Europe were equal in quality to the ones that Jim had personally produced.

Richard Hunt and Jane Henson. Copyright The Jim Henson
Company. All rights reserved

And as the decades flew by and the Muppets went from being a favorite of Washington D.C. television viewers to becoming a worldwide phenomenon, Jane was still concerned about quality. She always wanted to make sure that the new people that the Henson Company was hiring to  perform the Muppets still met Jim's high standards when it came to infusing this colorful group of characters with distinct relatable personalities.

Many was the time in the 1970s & 1980s where Jane (often with the help of the late, great Richard Hunt) would spend weeks reviewing video tapes and personally interviewing prospective puppeteers, as they slowly worked their way through a thousand hopefuls before finally arriving at that handful of truly talented individuals who could then really bring the Muppets to life.

And Jane ... No matter what the venue was, she still had the ability to spot a puppeteer with real potential. Steve Whitmire loves to tell the story of how he auditioned for the Muppets in the Fall of 1977. He actually had to go out  to the airport in Atlanta, GA. and catch Mrs. Henson between flights. Steve then performed for Jane while the two of them were seated together at a restaurant in one of that airport's terminals. But she immediately saw Whitmere's potential. Which is why -- just a few weeks later -- Steve was formally invited to come audition for Jim.

(L to R) Jane, Heather, Jim's Dad Paul, Lisa, Cheryl, Jim, Brian and John in 1971.
Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved

Now please keep in mind that Jane is doing all this while still riding herd on the five Henson children -- Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John and Heather. Not to mention maintaining the Greenwich, CT farmhouse where Jim & Jane raised this brood.

Which isn't to say that the Hensons (who were married in 1959) had this ideal existence. Jim and Jane actually legally separated in 1986. But even after that, she remained supportive of Jim's career and his vision for the future of puppeteering.

Which is why -- following Henson's untimely death in May of 1990 --  Jane established The Jim Henson Legacy to help preserve & perpetuate her late husband's work. She also served on the boards of the Jim Henson Foundation and the American Center for Children's Television.

Jane directs Tim Lagassee and Peter Linz in 1991 at an O'Neill puppeteering conference.
Photo by Richard Termaine. Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved

And for the next decade or so, Jane was a dynamo. She co-founded The National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Where -- just as she did back in the days when Jane & Richard Hunt were weeding through those piles of audition taps -- Jane displayed a notable knack for discovering new talent and then supporting their work. Some of this was done through the Jim Henson Foundation, where -- over the years -- she helped more than 300 American puppet artists through the awarding of various grants.

But at the same time, Jane always made sure to make time for her children and grandchildren. Hers was a very full life that was tragically cut short by cancer earlier today.

On a personal note, I was lucky enough to get the chance to meet with and then talk with Jane Henson a couple of times over the past 15 years. And each time we met, Jane was always very kind & gracious. Not mention being incredibly modest whenever it came to discussing the part that she played in the Muppets' success. Whenever this topic was raised, Mrs. Henson always insisted that Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin and Frank Oz had a far bigger role than she did.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company. All rights reserved

But pictures don't lie, my friends. And if you look at these images for "Sam and Friends" from back in 1955 & 1956, you can see that -- back then -- it was just Jim and Jane, working side by side. Together creating a brand-new style of puppeteering for television that would eventually take the world by storm.

And Jane clearly enjoyed that time and recognized the important role that "Sam and Friends" played in the Muppets' eventual success. Which perhaps explains why -- in August of 2010 -- Mrs. Henson donated 10 of the puppets from that old WRC-TV show to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's permanent collection.

Which is just one of the many generous things that this woman did over her 79 years on this planet. Which is why the world is genuinely going to miss Jane Henson.

Jane Henson with the cast of "Sam and Friends" at the Smithsonian in August of 2010.
Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty Images. All rights reserved

The entire JHM family wishes to extend its condolences to Jane Henson's friends & family during their time of sadness.

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  • Great article, Jim. Sad to see Jane pass away, but her legacy will live on. By the way, it was Steve Whitmire (not Whitmere) that auditioned for Jane in the Atlanta Municipal Airport in 1977.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks for the kind words as well as pointing out that typo. It's since been corrected.

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