Jerry Houle, the Henson Company’s first licensing director, twenty-fifth employee and later Vice President of marketing, met Jim through his position in marketing at Fisher-Price. In 1976, with the launch of The Muppet Show, Jim made a deal giving the toy manufacturer world-wide rights to Muppet Show dolls and figurines. Despite the numerous Sesame Street toys already on the market, Kermit was considered a guest on that show and thus unavailable for consumers to take home. Fisher-Price was happy to exploit the pent-up demand and immediately began making products featuring Kermit. And because Jim’s staff did the initial design work and prototypes (rather than leaving it to the licensee’s research and development area), Fisher-Price’s ad manager, Houle, was the main contact between the two groups.
When Fisher-Price wanted to learn more about Muppet consumers, Houle suggested creating a Muppet Show fan club application that asked consumers questions as part of their filing to join the club. As he remembers, “I pitched it to Jim and he gave a thumbs up. Thus, the fan club was born and it bore fruit – proving that adults were tuning into the show and purchasing products – though on the sly, I believe.” The process of coming to the Muppets to review packaging and other marketing materials was a joy for Houle, “I would trundle down to the old office, climb the stairs and present the stuff to Jim and Michael Frith. We would often go to lunch afterward (to my great delight)! It was AWESOME!”
When it became clear that The Muppet Show licensing efforts were going to need a lot of attention, Jim hired Houle away from Fisher-Price to run the operation. At the time, Houle noted recently, Henson had, “…about five licensees in the US and agents in England, France, Germany and Italy. Within ten days of joining, I was in Paris with our agent and then to England. The Muppet Show caught fire immediately in England. We had HUGE pressure to get quality products designed and to market before it was over-run my knock-off junk T-shirts and shabby puppets. Within the year we added agents in Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and later Japan.”
From the start, Houle had a positive experience with Jim and his creative team. When asked about those first days, he reminisced: “The first thing I did was to study the industry to develop a strategy about how licensing would work and present it to Jim. His response was simple and elegant. He said, “We don’t need the money, just make me beautiful products.” With the amazingly talented Mike Frith, the art department and our fledgling licensing team, we accomplished this goal, made a lot of scrumptious products and a bucket of money. Oh, and had a ball doing it!”