Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz and Rosita. / Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop
Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz shares her journey to becoming a professional puppeteer, how she met Jim Henson, and what it’s like being a part of the Sesame Street family.
As a curator at The Henry Ford, I gained renewed appreciation for Jim Henson while researching the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street in 2019, then again while commemorating Henson’s legacy on the 30th anniversary of his passing in 2020. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to interviewing Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz, puppeteer for the Sesame Street character Rosita and someone who had worked for and personally known Jim Henson.
Carmen enchanted us with her stories: growing up in Mexico; her personal interests and love of family; her passion for puppetry and how this turned into her involvement with Jim Henson Productions; how she helped create her Sesame Street character, who was vibrant, outspoken, and passionate—much like Carmen herself.
Carmen struck us as fearless—a young, raw talent beating out more seasoned professionals for work, leaving Mexico behind to attend a puppetry workshop in New York City because she desperately wanted to learn more, and staying there because Jim Henson himself asked her to. She regrets that she never returned home, but recognizes that, through her work, she can proudly represent and keep close to her heart her love of her homeland, community, and family.
—Donna R. Braden
Did you know from an early age that you wanted to work with puppets, become a professional puppeteer?
No. Of all my friends growing up in Mexico City, I was the one who had no idea what she wanted to do. Nothing that gave me a sign. At one time, I thought I wanted to go to the Olympics—I was good in sports, very competitive. I even wanted to work with and talk to the dolphins until I found out about all the science I would need.
When I was 5 or 6 years old, I did love to watch Topo Gigio [a character on a children’s puppet show on Italian television in the early 1960s] every Monday on TV. He was so alive. And then when I was 8, I remember having a playdate at a friend’s house watching Plaza Sésamo [Mexico’s Sesame Street, one of the first international co-productions of the show, which started running in 1972] for the first time. We laughed and sang.
I think my curiosity was there—I wanted to know how they did it. I watched the Muppets, too, when that show came out. But I didn’t know much about Jim Henson until a friend of my brother brought me a book, Of Muppets and Men [Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show, written by Christopher Finch], when I was in high school. The book had pictures of the puppeteers and explanations on how they did it. It was the first time I saw how it worked, and it blew my mind that they had to work with their arms above their heads, that they did the voices themselves.
Was reading that book your light bulb moment?
The light bulb really went on for me when my brother, who was working for Televisa [a Mexican mass media company] at the time, invited me and my friends to attend a workshop with Americans for a children’s show that had puppets. I was the only one called back. I was with a bunch of professional actors from university—the youngest in the group at 18 with no idea of acting. On the third day of the workshop, they brought the puppets out, and we had to work with the cameras and monitors and learn how, when you move the puppet one way, it appears the other way on the monitor—it’s inverted. That is when it really clicked for me. I started remembering all I had watched on TV, how the puppets breathe and walk. They live. I was mesmerized by the challenge to make this thing with no expression have expression.
While working on the children’s television show Super Ondas for Mexican mass media company Televisa in the 1980s, Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz (at right) was one of a small group of professional female puppeteers in the industry. / Photo courtesy of Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz
I loved it. I was in heaven. While the professional actors were having problems because their expressions were happening below, not above, I was making this puppet come alive. It didn’t matter that I was shy or didn’t have the acting skills.
I think my brother knew when he invited me to that workshop. After that, it all came together for me—why I loved the puppets, the magic, the joy, the curiosity.
And I got a job working for Televisa.
How did you cross paths with Jim Henson?
I was working as a puppeteer at Televisa on The Treasure of Knowledge show when I met Kermit Love from the Henson group. He was in Mexico to train puppeteers from Plaza Sésamo. I asked him if he could help me. I felt that I was the only person in Mexico that was passionate about the puppets, that I had respect for them that no one else did. Most puppeteers were actors who were quick to move on to other things. I started asking questions about why we couldn’t do our own voices. I wanted to get better at my craft. I wanted our work to be better.
Kermit invited me to the U.S. to attend a workshop. So I went to Manhattan. One day, he came by and said, “We’re going to a party. Here’s your mask.” Suddenly, I was at a masquerade party thrown by Jim Henson at the Waldorf Astoria. That’s when I met Jim for the first time. It was so amazing. He was so amazing. He invited me to come observe production of his next season of Sesame Street. Just to see them working as a team. They were brilliant, geniuses, magicians. I thought to myself I would love to stay here. This is a dream.
Carmen’s Calls to Action
Go Ahead and Dream
“Never be afraid of your dreams. And if things don’t work out quite the way you hoped now, you will find a way to make them work in the future.”
Making Mistakes Is OK “Making mistakes is actually more than OK. It’s wonderful. It’s how we learn.”
Keep Growing “Don’t be scared to try something new. Even now, I feel like me and Rosita still have a lot of space to grow, and we’re always learning new things, talking about topics I never thought we would be.”
Be Prepared to Work Hard “Being a puppeteer in the Muppet style is so much fun, but it is difficult, hard work. If you like a challenge, teamwork, laughing a lot, and throwing out ideas and solving problems all the time, then this is for you.”
When Jim did call me and said he decided he wanted me to be a part of the Muppet family, that he wanted a strong female puppeteer, I raised my hands and was like, “WAAAWWW!”
That was 1989, just a year before Jim died.
What role did you play in bringing your Sesame Street character Rosita to life?
When Jim was alive, he told me he always wanted a bilingual character for Sesame Street. I told him I didn’t really speak a lot of English. I was probably at 25%. He said no worries. We will work together. It will come out naturally. It’ll be fun.
Designer Ed Christie first asked me to help write a bio for my character because he wanted to create someone I would be comfortable with. So I told him I wanted her to be colorful and present. We Latinos like to hug and kiss. She needs to be cuddly with flowing hair. I wanted her to play the guitar and be musical like I was.
I wanted to name her Rosita, after my best friend in Mexico City, Rosa. I really liked the idea of how people could R the R’s—RRRRRosita.
Meet Rosita, a Bilingual Turquoise Monster
Full name: Rosita la Monstrua de las Cuevas (the Monster of the Caves) Age: 5 Birthday: December 7 Birthplace: Mexico Parents: Rosa and Ricardo Puppeteer: Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz Designer: Ed Christie First TV appearance:Sesame Street, season 23, episode 2888 (1991) Favorite Friends: Zoe, Elmo, Grover, Telly Monster, Prairie Dawn, and Abby Cadabby Likes: Presenting the Spanish Word of the Day and playing her guitar. She’s very good with history as well as geography.
Ed heard all that and made a puppet that wasn’t tiny but had a presence. She has a round belly, live hands and wings like a flying squirrel. He said he designed her like that thinking of a flamenco skirt. And she’s turquoise, which is an important color in Mexican culture, representing life and hope.
I just loved her from the start. Rosita is my immigrant girl, a happy, family-oriented monster that speaks better English than I do. She’s confident, doesn’t mind making mistakes and has explosive feelings.
Is it difficult to bring Rosita’s explosive personality to life?
When you’re a puppeteer, you quickly learn that it is not just about your character above. It’s also about the layer underneath.
We are in a very physical situation that is often very uncomfortable. You can’t be claustrophobic and you can’t be smelly. We all joke about eating no onions or garlic, brushing your teeth.
With Rosita, I have someone else doing her right hand as well, so he has to match what I am doing so carefully. If you move the puppet slightly the wrong way, for example, it won’t look like it is listening. It is very specific, and you’re sharing a small, cramped space with others, looking at monitors and trying to work in extremely coordinated ways.
Carmen bringing Rosita to life on the set of Sesame Street. / Photo courtesy of Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop
As puppeteers, we are solving physical problems all the time, learning new ways to trick the cameras into presenting our characters as living, breathing things. It’s about subtle movements, creating reactions that match with the other characters.
In your creative community, in the entertainment industry in general, do you feel as if Jim Henson’s legacy is still alive and well?
Jim was amazing. His mind was brilliant. He was curious and put together this world around all the things he liked. He was ahead of his time, and we keep trying to keep his legacy alive because he had it right.
For me, I can see that he still touches people. I have so many young people come up and say, “I want to be a puppeteer. Jim Henson changed my life.” And so many of them are very, very clever. They are bringing all of these new ideas and technologies to the conversation. I’m so proud of everyone that comes to us that were inspired by Jim. It’s so rewarding.
What about with audiences? Does Jim’s vision resonate with the next generation?
I know animation is where it’s at today, but it’s just so flat, and Jim’s characters are just so alive. When we did Sesame Street’s 50th anniversary concert live a few years ago, I was so worried about the audience’s reaction to seeing us rolling around, sweating on the stage. What I felt instead was absolutely incredible. I saw grandparents with their grandkids, parents with their children singing and crying, connecting with each other. Because of Jim. It was so touching, so inspiring.
In terms of your impact, how has your career influenced others? Can you speak to the appreciation you have for how your role as Rosita is helping children learn and grow?
What this job has brought to me has been amazing, and impact really goes both ways. The impact Rosita has had on others and the impact people have had on my life because of her.
Rosita. / Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop
Rosita is part of lots of outreach within communities where so many see her and the other characters as friends. Today, we are working on racial justice messages, and Rosita and I have also been working with military families for 10 years. We’ve created videos for young parents so they can help explain deployment to their children. We’ve also had a script where Rosita’s dad comes back home from a tour of duty and is injured and in a wheelchair. The words in that video—how military families have to deal with both invisible and physical injuries, the suffering they face and sacrifices they make—I took it very personally. I even asked myself if I thought I was ready to become an American citizen. It was something I had researched before, but I was never sure if I was ready—I’m so proud of my Mexican heritage. After working with military families, though, I said to myself that I was definitely ready, and I became an American citizen.
Several stars of The Muppet Show pose for a group shot on one side of "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187292
By the time The Muppet Show premieredin 1976, numerous Muppet characters had already been introduced to the public through a host of TV shows and commercials. However, this new weekly TV series that lasted for five seasons offered the opportunity for Jim Henson and his collaborators to further develop certain characters while introducing several new ones. The relatable personality traits of the main characters in The Muppet Show became part of their unique charm and lasting appeal.
What character from The Muppet Show are you most like? To find out, look at the following character traits of eight main characters from The Muppet Show, choose the group of traits that best fits you (or most intrigues you), then see which character matches those.
You have your own hopes and dreams, but you often find yourself helping others in need. Because of this, others gravitate to you. You, in turn, treat them with patience and kindness. Well, at least you try.
In school, you were the class clown, always trying to make people laugh. Even though they often didn’t get your unique sense of humor, that never deterred you from trying again. And again. Underneath that wise-cracking exterior, you are a friendly, loving, sensitive soul.
You may be willing to go along with the crowd for a while, but underneath, you crave attention. You are bold, strong-willed, and, when pushed around, you have a tendency to be stubborn and single-minded. You know what you want and possess the steely determination for go after it.
You are a risk-taking adventurer. You prefer excitement and thrills to patience and planning. This may not always turn out the way you had hoped, but you don’t give up. You are on a continual search for the meaning in life and have a strong desire to find a place where you belong.
With a steady hand and a level head, you make sure that everything is functioning behind the scenes. You enjoy solving problems and assisting others. Staying in the background lets you get involved, in a low-pressure way, with everyone and everything. Which is not to say that you don’t enjoy the limelight every once in a while.
You are extremely enthusiastic in everything you do. While some might say that you get carried away too easily, or are too obsessive about certain interests, you just think of yourself as passionate and devoted. Because why go just halfway when you really love something?
Unlike friends and colleagues whose talents are hidden or still evolving, you already have real talent! This gives you the confidence to be calm, steady, easygoing, and charming. You are friendly with most everyone and willing to lend a hand when needed.
You are studious, serious, and thoughtful. You feel that it’s important to live by the rules and you have little patience with those who don’t. Some might say you are judgmental, but you just feel that you have high standards—without those, everything would just descend into chaos. Unfortunately, it usually does.
Pick your set of traits, then scroll down to discover which Muppet you are most like!
Kermit the Frog
Closeup shot of Kermit, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187305
If you chose #1, you are like Kermit the Frog. Introduced in 1955 on Jim Henson’s first TV show, Sam and Friends, Kermit evolved from a sort of abstract lizard-like creature to a definite frog with flippers, a fringed collar, and a distinct personality. Kermit was not initially intended to host The Muppet Show, but his warm personality and ability to get along with others won him the starring role. Only occasionally did he panic, get annoyed, or become frustrated by the chaos around him before he would once again resume the calm, easygoing demeanor that drew others to him in the first place.
Closeup shot of Fozzie Bear, featured on one side of "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187309
If you chose #2, you are like Fozzie Bear. Fozzie is known as The Muppet Show’s resident stand-up comedian and Kermit’s best friend. In fact, the full range of his personality took a while to emerge. At first, his inability to deliver a punchline made him seem inept, embarrassing, even depressing. Eventually, as Fozzie developed a wider range of emotions, audiences began to connect with his newfound sense of optimism, enthusiasm, and just plain fun-loving nature.
Closeup shot of Miss Piggy, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187310
If you chose #3, you relate to Miss Piggy, The Muppet Show’s resident diva, best known for her unrequited love for Kermit the Frog. Miss Piggy was also The Muppet Show’s most unexpected breakout character. Just like a true Hollywood movie star, she got her start as a little-known background singer and chorus girl named Miss Piggy Lee (a homage to singer Peggy Lee). But during the first episode of The Muppet Show, her true character began to emerge—that trademark determination hidden behind a coy exterior. Her newfound stardom pushed hapless Fozzie Bear to the background as a supporting character.
Gonzo the Great
Closeup shot of Gonzo, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187306
If you chose #4, you are like Gonzo the Great. Gonzo traces his origin to the purple hook-nosed creature, Snarl, who appeared in Jim Henson’s 1970 TV special, The Great Santa Claus Switch. Newly recycled and slightly remodeled, Gonzo appeared on The Muppet Show as its resident stuntman. Well, Gonzo would not consider himself merely a stuntman. He would describe his stunts as avant-garde acts of performance art.
Closeup shot of Scooter, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187307
If you chose #5, you are like Scooter, The Muppet Show’s gofer and jack-of-all-trades. Scooter appeared most frequently in scenes that took place behind the scenes at the Muppet Theatre. He ostensibly got the job as the show’s backstage assistant because his uncle owned the theatre, but over the years—despite his moderate pestering of Kermit—he proved his worth and stayed on. He also occasionally appeared on stage, even hosting the show once. He was one of the few true aficionados of Fozzie Bear’s jokes, and the two occasionally performed acts together.
Closeup shot of Animal, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187311
If you chose #6, you have the tendencies of Animal, the exuberant drummer of The Muppet Show’s house band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Despite popular legend, he was not based upon any real-life drummer. However, he does consider Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Keith Moon of The Who, and Ginger Baker of Cream and Blind Faith to be among his musical influences. His most memorable moment on The Muppet Show was when he performed a drumming contest with legendary jazz musician Buddy Rich. Animal’s unrestrained style made him popular not only with young people but also among many of the guest stars on the show.
Closeup shot of Rowlf, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187308
If you chose #7, you are like Rowlf, the resident piano-playing dog of indeterminate breed who performed on several episodes of The Muppet Show. Rowlf’s origins date back almost as far as Kermit’s—he first appeared on commercials for Purina Dog Chow in 1962. He gained fame soon after, making regular appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show—a variety show hosted by the country singer of that name, who became famous for his hit, “Big Bad John.” Rowlf’s confidence lent an air of stability to The Muppet Show, as he brought his years of experience to the cast of new, unformed, and unproven characters.
Closeup shot of Sam Eagle, depicted on "Jim Henson's Muppets" Lunchbox, 1979 / THF187297
If you chose #8, you are like Sam Eagle—short for Sam the American Eagle. With that name, it goes without saying that Sam is ultra-patriotic, especially about all things American. He also fashions himself as The Muppet Show’s moral compass, always on the lookout for acts of dignified, high-brow culture. The fact that he knows nothing about culture and never finds these types of acts on The Muppet Show does not seem to deter him.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Hallmark "The Divine Miss Piggy" Christmas Ornament, 1981 / THF178755
In the imaginary worlds that Jim Henson created, Miss Piggy could fly like an angel—and she could sing, dance, and ice skate.
How did Henson accomplish this? He turned to anthropomorphism, endowing an animal or an inanimate object with human characteristics. And he created fanciful situations that helped members of the audience share in the fun.
Pigs don’t fly…. Oh, but they can, in the hands of a master of imagination like Jim Henson.
Sheet music for “The Rainbow Connection,” 1979 / THF182956
How do the Muppets retain their appeal after all these years? Yes, they’re silly. And entertaining. And very clever. But I would argue that part of their enduring—and endearing—quality is that it doesn’t take much to imagine that they are real. Sure, you can see the materials they’re made out of. And occasionally catch a glimpse of the rods that make their arms move. But sometimes—when they talk like us, act like us, even think like us—we can suspend disbelief for a moment and believe in the magic. Nowhere is this feeling stronger than in the opening scene of the 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, in which Kermit the Frog sits alone on a log in the middle of the swamp, plucks his banjo, and wistfully sings “The Rainbow Connection.”
The Muppet Movie (1979) was the Muppets’ first foray into feature films. Muppet characters had already been known for more than two decades. The particular Muppets who starred in The Muppet Movie had become familiar to us through The Muppet Show, the breakout television series that ran from 1976 to 1981. But, unlike the rapidly changing vaudeville show format of the TV series, the full-length feature film needed a plot, character development, and several songs to keep the story moving. That’s where The Rainbow Connection came in. Through this song, we find out that Kermit—The Muppet Show’s “straight man” around whom all the mayhem and the other characters’ antics revolve—has hopes and dreams of his own. This was something new, something deeper, something more serious and spiritual than we had seen from a Muppet before.
The Henry Ford’s 1951 Studebaker Champion, a cousin to Fozzie Bear’s 1951 Commander. / THF90649
Cars and movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, or cake and ice cream. It’s only natural. The two industries appeared almost simultaneously around the turn of the 20th century. Southern California became a major center of American automobile culture and, of course, the center of the U.S. film industry. Over time, certain movies even came to define certain marques. Aston Martin had Goldfinger, DeLorean had Back to the Future, and Studebaker had… The Muppet Movie.
For those who haven’t seen The Muppet Movie, which brought Jim Henson’s creations to the big screen, for the first time, in 1979, stop reading and go watch it right now. Seriously. I’ll wait.
But if a summary has to suffice, then I’ll tell you that The Muppet Movie is in the tradition of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movies, where a simple trip turns into a series of misadventures. But instead of Bing and Bob, you get Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. (Well, you get Bob too, but I digress.) The movie follows Kermit as he makes his way from the Florida swamps to the bright lights of Hollywood, chasing his dream to “make millions of people happy” in show business. Along the way he meets Fozzie, the Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and all the usual Muppet favorites.
Paul Williams, seen on a 1980 visit to The Henry Ford, co-wrote The Muppet Movie’s songs. He’d previously penned hits for Three Dog Night, the Carpenters, and Barbra Streisand. / THF128260
Kermit begins his journey on a bicycle, but, after meeting Fozzie Bear, the two continue the trip in Fozzie’s uncle’s 1951 Studebaker Commander. The Stude doesn’t make it all the way to Hollywood—they trade it in for a 1946 Ford station wagon partway through—but it features in two of the movie’s memorable musical numbers: “Movin’ Right Along” and “Can You Picture That?,” both co-written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.
The Muppet Movie is more than great songs and story. The film set new standards in puppetry by convincingly putting its characters into “real world” settings. Prior to Henson’s work, puppets were largely stationary figures, stuck behind props that hid puppeteers from view. Even early Muppet projects, notably The Muppet Show, suffered from this limitation. But in The Muppet Movie, Kermit rides a bicycle, Gonzo floats through the sky below a bunch of balloons, and Fozzie, of course, drives his Commander.
The Studebaker’s “bullet nose” served a practical purpose for the filmmakers. / THF90652
In a way, these elaborate special effects were responsible for the Studebaker appearing in the film. The 1951 Commander’s most distinctive feature is the chrome “bullet nose” between its headlights. The special-effects Commander used in The Muppet Movie had its bullet removed and replaced with a small video camera. The car’s trunk was fitted with a TV screen connected to the camera, a steering wheel, throttle and brake controls, and a seat. With these modifications, a small person was able to operate the car, hidden from view and able to see the road ahead via the camera. With Fozzie placed in the driver’s seat; his puppeteer, Frank Oz, hidden under the dashboard; and the car’s operator concealed in the trunk, it appeared as though the comic bear himself was driving the Studebaker in several scenes. The trick worked so well that, more than 40 years later in the age of computer-generated special effects, Fozzie’s driving is still remarkably convincing. The crew used a second, unmodified Commander for shots where driving effects weren’t needed.
Practical concerns weren’t the only reasons a Commander was used in the movie. In comments published in Turning Wheels, the newsletter of the Studebaker Drivers Club, The Muppet Movie screenwriter Jerry Juhl described the ’51 Commander as perhaps the “goofiest” looking car ever put into production. Goofiness, Juhl added, was a highly-respected quality in the Henson organization, so it seemed only fitting that Fozzie should drive that particular car.
Studebaker’s bullet nose was part of a long, productive relationship between the automaker and industrial designer Raymond Loewy. / THF144005
That bullet nose is a story unto itself. Credit for the feature goes to designer Bob Bourke, working for Studebaker contractor Raymond Loewy Associates at the time. As Bourke later recalled, Loewy told him to model the car’s appearance after an airplane. Bourke responded with the bullet, more properly described as a propeller or a spinner, since it’s a direct reference to that crucial aviation device. And a divisive device it was. People either loved the Studebaker bullet nose or they hated it (and so it goes today).
It’s worth noting that the feature wasn’t without precedent. Ford had used a similar device on its groundbreaking 1949 models. (In fact, Bob Bourke later said that he had contributed informally to the design of the 1949 Ford. You can read Bourke’s reminiscences here.) Studebaker used the bullet nose for just two model years, 1950 and 1951, but it remains one of the company’s most memorable designs.
Studebaker emphasized the aviation influence on the bullet nose design in this 1950 advertisement. / THF100021
The Henry Ford’s collections include a Maui Blue 1951 Studebaker Champion coupe. The lower-priced Champion featured a six-cylinder engine, while the Commander came with a standard V-8. Other than their different badges, the look of the two models is nearly identical. But if you’d like to see the actual car that Fozzie and Kermit used in The Muppet Movie, then head over to South Bend, Indiana. The effects car survives in the collections of (where else) the Studebaker National Museum. It still wears the psychedelic paint scheme applied by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in a clever plot device—faded with age, but unmistakable.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
An early version of Kermit the Frog appeared in Henson’s Sam and Friends TV puppet show, but Kermit became a breakout star during The Muppet Show. THF304042
It’s hard to believe that May 16, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson’s passing. His influence can still be seen in so many places: on-demand TV shows, movies, and specials; related books, toys, games, and other merchandise; and modern-day puppets, puppet performances, and puppeteers.
In his lifetime, Henson’s titles included puppeteer, writer, director, producer, and entrepreneur. But titles can be misleading because he was so much more than these. A brilliant innovator, he continually questioned the status quo, broke boundaries, and experimented with new ideas. By stretching the known capabilities of both puppetry and the medium of television (and, then, of motion pictures), he created a new art form. And, in the process, he inspired us—the viewers—to use our imaginations, to take ourselves less seriously, and to treat others with greater tolerance.
Jim Henson (born 1936) was drawn to the arts at a young age, including an early fascination with puppetry. When he entered college, he thought about majoring in fine arts. But he found—buried in the course list of the home economics department at his school—a class on puppetry. So, even though most of the students majoring in home economics were females learning domestic skills for future homemaking, he decided that would be his major.
Henson was inspired by early radio and TV puppets, including Charlie McCarthy, a “cheeky” boyish dummy voiced by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.THF106436
As a freshman in college, Henson developed his own TV puppet show called Sam and Friends, which appeared briefly twice each evening. While working on this show, Henson started questioning many long-standing puppetry traditions. Why not, for example, use the entire frame of the TV screen as the actual puppet theater stage rather than bringing a separate puppet stage into the TV studio? Wouldn’t it follow, he then asked, that the puppet operators could work from off-camera rather than appearing to viewers on the screen?
Henson moved from there to questioning the puppets themselves. Why not make them more lifelike, with flexible fabric-covered foam rubber rather than the traditional carved wood? Why not use rods to move their arms—rather than the more traditional strings—to give them greater flexibility? Why not make the puppets’ mouth movements more precise to match their dialog—enhancing their believability and letting their full range of emotions be conveyed through words as well as actions? Finally, why not give the characters distinct personalities? Better yet, imbue their personalities with whimsy, playfulness, and humor. As Henson continued to refine his ideas and his characters, an entirely new kind of puppet was born—part puppet, part marionette, and all Henson. He called his new creations Muppets.
During his early career, Henson studied the artistry of traditional wood-carved marionettes when he spent time in Europe. THF38105
The publicity that Henson gained with his Sam and Friends show led to his invention of a host of new Muppet characters for a range of TV commercials. By this time, the 1960s, it seemed that people were coming to appreciate humor, irony, and satire more than the serious “hard sell” that had been the norm.
Adding life-size Muppets like Big Bird to the regular cast of Sesame Street increased the show’s popularity. THF97451
Though he was initially reluctant to collaborate on a TV show aimed specifically at kids, Henson experienced their first major breakthrough with Sesame Street, which premiered in 1969 (for more on Sesame Street, see this post).
But Henson’s greatest claim to fame came with The Muppet Show (1976-81)—produced in England because American TV networks wrongly assumed that Muppets would just appeal to kids. Hosted by his somewhat “bolder” alter-ego, Kermit the Frog (whom he controlled and voiced), this show introduced millions of viewers to Henson’s unique blend of humor and imagination. The Muppet Show would go on to air in more than 100 countries, win several Emmy awards, and lead to several spin-off motion pictures.
The song “Rainbow Connection,” first written to provide depth and humanity to Kermit the Frog’s character for the 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, has gone on to become a sort of Muppets anthem. THF182956
Jim Henson went on to contribute his talents and ideas to new fantasy/adventure films, most famously aiding in the creation and articulation of Yoda for the 1980 film, The Empire Strikes Back. He tried his hand with a few of his own fantasy/adventure films, including The Dark Crystal (1981) and Labyrinth (1986)—both of which were destined to become cult classics. He also created two additional popular TV series—Fraggle Rock (1983-87) and the Saturday morning animated show, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies (1984-91). Just before his passing, Henson worked with The Walt Disney Company to develop the themed attraction, Muppet*Vision 3D at Walt Disney World.
Fraggle Rock characters Wembly and Boober in a pickle-shaped vehicle from a 1988 McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion.THF308672
Inspired by a flashback sequence in the film, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies were represented in the McDonald’s 1994 Happy Birthday Happy Meal promotion.THF319291
Today, Jim Henson’s Muppets delight children of all ages. Henson once claimed that, with puppets, you can deal with subjects in a way that isn’t possible with people. The Muppets may not be people, but they certainly reflect who we are as people, providing a mirror to our thoughts, hopes, and dreams.
Jim Henson had plenty of his own dreams. He wanted to make a difference in the world, to change people’s lives in positive ways—through laughter, delight, and imagination. Henson once said that, “I decided that there are many situations in this life that I can’t do much about: acts of terrorism, feelings of nationalistic prejudice, cold war, etc. So what I should do is concentrate on the situations my energy can affect.” Wise and timeless words for the times we live in today!
Appearing in short segments on Sesame Street, ultra-serious Bert and fun-loving Ernie demonstrate to kids that good friends can be tolerant of each other’s differences. THF309817, THF309818
During his lifetime, Henson was deeply committed to encouraging, mentoring, and recognizing the talents of a new generation of puppeteers. In 1982, he established the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop puppetry in the United States. Today, the Jim Henson Foundation’s web site is the go-to place to find out what’s happening in contemporary puppet theatre and currently features extensive listings of online puppet shows to “help people collectively navigate the COVID-19 Health Crisis.” Instructions for making your own puppets are included here as well. Through his efforts, and those of his family who carry on his vision, Jim Henson’s legacy has ensured that puppetry is no longer relegated simply to home economics classes but has become a highly respected art form.
Jim Henson and his legacy live on, through Muppet programs and specials; Muppet operators and performers; those who have cherished memories of growing up with Muppet characters and pass these on to younger generations; new audiences who have discovered the old classic characters and shows; and the modern-day puppeteers Henson has inspired.
At a special tribute by the Muppets for Jim Henson back in 1990, Robin the Frog (Kermit’s nephew) remarked that, “Jim Henson may be gone, but maybe he’s still here too, inside us, believing in us.”
I like to believe this is true.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Additional Note: Just down the road from The Henry Ford, The Detroit Institute of Arts recently brought out on exhibit a 1969 version of Kermit, donated to them by Jim Henson himself in 1971. See more here.
Big and Little Bird reinforce the concept of contrasting sizes in this 1973 Playskool puzzle. THF97463
No television show has influenced how we think about children’s learning and thought processes as much as Sesame Street. For 50 years, this innovative TV show has continually broken barriers in its portrayal of diverse human interactions and relationships, its clever integration of Jim Henson’s wildly creative Muppets, and its rapid-fire approach to teaching basic educational concepts.
The idea for Sesame Street began back in 1966 at a dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney, a TV publicist turned documentary producer, and her husband Tim. In attendance was Lloyd Morrisett, who was both Vice President of the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation and an experimental psychologist interested in children’s education. At the dinner, Morrisett described his three-year-old daughter’s fascination with television—which included not only tuning in to Saturday morning cartoons, but also watching the pre-programming test patterns on the screen and reciting every commercial jingle by heart. Talk turned to the potential of television as a medium for educating young children. Could the seemingly addictive quality of TV be harnessed to both entertain and instruct?
This monster with the insatiable appetite—especially for cookies—has, under adult pressure, increasingly shown an awareness for healthy eating habits. THF97460
Cooney quickly developed a proposal entitled, “The Potential Use of Television in Preschool Education.” Her goal was groundbreaking at the time—to test the premise that TV could help level the playing field in education, preparing less advantaged three- to five-year-olds for school by teaching basic academic skills, self-esteem, and positive socialization. In March 1968, Cooney and Morrisett announced the formation of the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) and set out to create an educational TV show that would both appeal to young children and help them get a jump on learning. With an eight-million-dollar startup grant from private foundations and government agencies (including the rather skeptical Department of Education), Cooney was able to test ideas for the type of show she had in mind.
The colorful, fast-paced Batman TV show, which premiered in January 1966, provided one of many inspirations for Joan Ganz Cooney in creating Sesame Street.THF6651
Cooney’s reference points included the rapid-fire pacing of the hip new adult-oriented TV show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The campy breakout TV show Batman also provided a model, with its fast-paced action as well as its bright, bold colors and even its use of cartoon balloons. Cooney drew additional inspiration from short TV commercials, with their simple melodies in bright major keys. She did not get inspiration from most children’s TV shows, which she thought were dull, slow-paced, and seemed more oriented to adults than kids—with the possible exception of the kid-friendly Captain Kangaroo.
This 1970s Fisher-Price music box plays the song, “The People in Your Neighborhood,” while the Sesame Street scene moves horizontally across the “TV screen.” THF135804
Cooney soon realized that, while she had plenty of vision, she needed help in writing, directing, and producing the show. For this, she called on several veterans from Captain Kangaroo—most significantly Jon Stone, who played such a significant leadership role in shaping Sesame Street that he took over as executive producer for the next 20-odd years. Other talented and dedicated scriptwriters, composers, and directors also joined the team, while psychologists and educators lent their support from the beginning.
Cooney and her collaborators initially created a show that included brief skits, musical numbers, cartoons, and live-action video footage—all basically teaching school-readiness concepts. The idea of portraying a diverse group of people living and working together in a community was intentional, providing a hopeful real-life model for an integrated society, which encouraged respect, mutual tolerance, and cross-cultural friendship. The live action scenes were interspersed with pre-taped “commercials”—that is, short “bits” about letters and numbers presented either as animated segments or featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets. The live-action segments were purposely kept separate from the pre-taped “commercials,” as researchers felt that combining these “reality” and “fantasy” elements would confuse children.
Having the sweetly quizzical Big Bird live in a nest near, and interact with, the live actors on Sesame Street became a key to the show’s success. THF97451
Initial testing, however, revealed that children thought the live-action scenes were boring, the dialog tedious and lengthy. On the other hand, they found the short “commercials” to be catchy and memorable. Pushing back on the researchers’ advice, Cooney and Stone brought in Jim Henson as a full-time producer, while his Muppet creations Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch joined the live-action human cast. The resulting interaction between humans and Muppets—seamless and convincing—provided the missing alchemy. The foundation was laid for Sesame Street as we know it today.
Ongoing episodes about ultra-serious Bert and fun-loving Ernie reinforce to children that vastly different personalities can still be good friends. THF92308
The first episode of Sesame Street premiered on November 10, 1969 and the show aired weekdays on the new Public Broadcasting System (PBS) network. It was immediately hailed as a groundbreaking blend of learning and fun, despite some criticism about its high entertainment quotient, its threat to teachers for undermining early school lessons, and—in Mississippi—its initial banning because of its integrated cast. Time magazine featured popular Sesame Street character Big Bird on its November 23, 1970 cover, next to the headline, “Sesame Street: TV’s Gift to Children.” This issue devoted nine pages to the show’s impact and importance, calling it “the best children’s show in TV history.”
Puppeteer Kevin Clash breathed new energy and vitality into Elmo in the 1980s, but this furry red Muppet became a breakout star in 1996, when comedienne Rosie O’Donnell featured both Clash and this doll on her TV show. THF176791
As Sesame Street has continually changed and grown with the times, its popularity and impact have endured. Comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, whose remarks on her own TV show helped transform Elmo from a minor character to a superstar, described the show’s unique contributions this way:
"From the beginning Sesame Street encouraged imagination and playfulness. It always felt like a show to me about freedom, and it has always spoken to children in a pure and truthful way. Children are children, rich or poor, and there is a language of truth that is innate to these tiny, undeveloped beings that they can hear. Sesame Street had respect for its audience and respect for itself. They never cut any corners and they stuck to their democratic ideals."
Innovative, groundbreaking, and radical when it was introduced, Sesame Street has become nothing short of an American institution.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.