Having launched his television career right around the time of his high school graduation in 1954, Jim spent the next four years in constant motion. He enrolled in the University of Maryland, full-time at first and eventually switching to a more manageable part-time schedule, and began performing several times a week that fall. By spring 1955, with the debut of Sam and Friends, Jim was on the air daily, often twice each evening, and spent his time away from the studio planning and writing shows, painting sets, building puppets, doing schoolwork, running a silk-screen poster business out of the Student Union, and seeing family and friends. At the end of 1957, Jim began making television commercials for the Wilkins Coffee Company, and by June 1958, he was ready for a break and planned his first trip to Europe.
Jim had already enlisted the help of a high school friend, Bob Payne, to work on Sam and Friends, and Bob and Jane took responsibility for the show while Jim was away. On June 19th, Jim left for Europe with a friend, landing in Frankfurt, and went on to Zurich, Switzerland on June 27th. They stayed until July 2nd and flew on to France. At some point, Jim’s friend went back to Washington, and Jim continued on alone. He was in France until July 25th and spent the following week in Belgium, visiting Expo ’58, the first World’s Fair since the memorable 1939 World’s Fair in New York. There Jim would have seen examples of the latest in contemporary architecture, technology exhibits by IBM, Kodak, and Bell Telephone, demonstrations of handicrafts and galleries of fine art, explanations of modern manufacturing and industries, African art from the Belgian Congo, and international culture and foods at the national pavilions. The Cinerama, a widescreen movie exhibition hall utilizing multiple projectors, would have been of great interest to Jim, and he must have marveled at the centerpiece of the fair, the Atomium, a monumental structure celebrating scientific progress designed by André Waterkeyn to represent the atomic structure of iron crystals, magnified 165 billion times. Brussels was also home to the historic Toone Puppet Theater, but inside the fair, Jim would have seen (according to puppet historian John Bell), “Josef Svoboda’s Laterna Magika company from Prague, which combined film, slide projections, recorded sound, and live actors and dancers in performances that announced the dawn of a new genre in search of a name: multi-media performance.” Clearly, there was a lot to digest on the flight home. Jim flew out of London on August 1st, arriving back in Washington the following day. Energized and inspired, Jim got back to work with renewed vigor.