In 1965, Jim and Jerry Juhl got the idea for a sketch featuring a troop of goofy reindeer that would work well for a five-minute appearance on Perry Como’s Christmas show scheduled for December 20th. The first draft of the script was ready by mid-November, and Jim designed the puppets which were then built by Don Sahlin. In the bit, as they were led forth in military fashion by their leader Charlie, the other four reindeer — Dancer, Prancer, Donder and Blitzen — sounded off and cracked a few jokes. Calling his squad “twig-heads” and “branch-brains,” Charlie exhorted them to get serious and figure out how to make it snow. Jim and Jerry reveled in using every “snow” pun available (snow use trying to pretend you don’t know any!) and had the reindeer do a snow dance. The result was rain – they were reindeer after all – but eventually, they met with success and were buried in a pile of snow.
In 1968, Jim contracted with Ed Sullivan to do six appearances on his show. Even though the Muppets had appeared on Sullivan’s show about a dozen times during the previous two years, it appears that Jim did not commit right away for 1968. He was working on an array of experimental film pieces at the time and may have wanted to focus his efforts in that arena. In a note to Jim accompanying various contracts, his representative Bernie Brillstein wrote, “I am glad you have decided to take the six Sullivan shots for next year for, as you know, I feel you need television exposure.” Brillstein really understood the long-term potential for the Muppets and while supporting Jim’s other efforts, wanted to make sure they were in the best position possible to sell a Muppet variety show.
So, for December 1968, Jim and Jerry Juhl dusted off the script from their earlier Reindeer appearance, which had been well received on Como’s show, and, making a few small revisions, readied the bit for Sullivan. With Frank Oz, they arrived at the Ed Sullivan Theatre at the corner of 53rd Street and Broadway on December 22nd and, lining up the reindeer troops, made it snow inside.
Given the Muppets’ popularity with young audiences, it was no surprise that Jim and his Sesame Street colleague Joe Raposo were invited to perform at the White House children’s party in 1978. Still, it was a huge honor, and Jim was gratified to be there to perform with Joe. Their hostess, first lady Rosalynn Carter, enjoyed the show, sitting right down on the floor with the children, and she sent Jim warm thanks and a photo of the event. Jim crossed paths just a few days later with the Carters – both Kermit and President Jimmy Carter appeared on the cover of Time magazine the following week.
When Jim created the Henson Foundation in 1982, he hoped to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. His dream has been a success and for more than three decades, the Foundation (now called The Jim Henson Foundation and under the leadership of his daughter Cheryl Henson) has introduced thousands of adults and families to the magic of puppet theater through grant-making and public awareness efforts.
Since its inception, the Foundation has awarded over 600 grants to more than 250 American puppet artists for the creation and development of innovative, contemporary puppet theater. Past grant recipients include MacArthur Fellow Julie Taymor, director of the Broadway smash The Lion King; Roman Paska, whose dramatic interpretation of Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata was a hit at the 1994 Henson Festival; Ralph Lee, whose production A Popol Vuh Story was also presented at the 1994 Henson Festival and went on to tour New York City public schools; MacArthur Fellow Lee Breuer’s company Mabou Mines, whose production Peter & Wendy was featured at the 1996 Spoleto Festival USA and the 1996 Henson Festival, followed by two runs at New York’s New Victory Theater; Basil Twist, whose productions Symphonie Fantastique and Arias with A Twist each had acclaimed runs in New York; and award winning children’s book author and illustrator Brian Selznick for his 2006 project The Christine Jorgenson Story.
Jim supported the puppetry community in additional ways. He was active in both the Puppeteers of America and the international puppetry organization, Union Internationale de la Marionnette (UNIMA), hosting festivals and meetings. And in the 1980s, Jim produced a six-part television series, Jim Henson Presents The World of Puppetry, which highlighted international puppet masters. Puppeteer and founding Henson Foundation board member Allelu Kurten remembered, “Jim’s generosity of spirit was always there. He cared and he listened and his quality of listening had an intensity and focus that made his advice and any eventual solution right on the mark. After the 1980 UNIMA Congress and World Puppetry Festival which showed so much great work from the U.S. and abroad, Jim and Nancy Staub focused their attention on the needs of the field and especially the needs of emerging U.S. artists creating puppet theatre for adult audiences. Jim started the Foundation in response to those needs so that an artist would have a bit of money and breathing space to develop his own vision without having to give up or copy some one else’s. The Foundation is an embodiment of Jim’s caring and, for those of us who knew and loved him, the thought that his unique generosity of spirit continues in the positive and on-going way is immensely cheering.”
Jim’s participation in the global puppetry community was far reaching. The next UNIMA festival was held in 1984 in Dresden, East Germany, as described by puppeteer Roman Paska: “For the puppeteers of my generation, Dresden (the 1984 UNIMA Festival) was a watershed. Awed by the previous, 1980 Festival in Washington, which celebrated the grand old world of puppetry as we knew it from our libraries and journals, Dresden opened the gates to a new generation of experimental companies and performers, and while primarily European, a few of us (that is, younger American artists) were confronted for the first time with significant new ideas and trends, particularly in what was then a rapidly changing Eastern Europe. It seemed like everyone who was anyone in the puppet world was in Dresden, an atmosphere that fueled a contagious euphoria that I myself have rarely experienced elsewhere. With performers from throughout the world we felt that we were on the brink of something awesome, something momentous, something even magnificent, maybe a brave, O brave new world that has such Puppets in it!; and we left Dresden convinced that the stakes were finally high, that the puppet could and would proclaim a new era, that puppeteers would pave the way, and that puppet theatre was indeed destined to be the theatre of the future. The Hensons were there, and the work of the Henson Foundation and its Festivals has continued to build on that energy and experience ever since, helping the puppet world to remain a place of exalted ideals and exuberant prospects.”
By December 1975, Jim was on the verge of production of his own prime time Muppet series. The year had started with post-production and a March airing of his Muppet Show pilot Sex and Violence, and his Land of Gorch characters began appearing on Saturday Night Live that October. He made a deal with Lord Lew Grade and his ATV Company in London to produce The Muppet Show, and plans were in the works for a January 1976 shoot of the first two episodes.
Between a trip to London with his agent Bernie Brillstein and producer David Lazer to set up the show and a trip to Vermont to ski with his family, Jim met freelance magazine writer Henry Weil at NBC’s SNL studios at Rockefeller Center and at the Muppet offices and workshop on East 67th Street. Their conversations and Weil’s observations became the cover story for the March 1976 Eastern Airlines’ magazine Pastimes, profiling Jim’s twenty years in the business and anticipating the explosion of media interest on the horizon.