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Smiling woman with long blonde hair stands with blue furry puppet over one shoulder

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 OlympicsI 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 thereI 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 universitythe 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 monitorit’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.

Group of people in tight space, several holding puppets
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 mewhy 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.

Group of people, two holding furry puppets, on TV set designed to look like a street
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.

Blue furry puppet standing on one leg and holding yellow maracas
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 videohow military families have to deal with both invisible and physical injuries, the suffering they face and sacrifices they makeI 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 readyI’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.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Jennifer LaForce is Editorial Director at Octane and Editor of The Henry Ford Magazine. This article was first published in the June–December 2021 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

The Henry Ford Magazine, women's history, TV, popular culture, Jim Henson, immigrants, by Jennifer LaForce, by Donna R. Braden

Lunchbox with images of Muppet characters, including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and others

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 premiered in 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.
  8. 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

 

Green frog puppet

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.

Fozzie Bear


Bear puppet wearing brown hat and white scarf with pink polka dots around neck, holding banana to ear
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.

Miss Piggy


Pig puppet with blonde wavy hair wearing white hat with black ribbon, elbow-length purple gloves, and a purple dress with white collar
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


Head and shoulders of purple puppet with long hooked nose and large eyes
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.

Scooter


Yellow puppet with orange hair, glasses, and green satin jacket
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.

Animal


Puppet face with wispy red hair and mustache, bushy black eyebrows, round red nose, and pointy lower teeth
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.

Rowlf


Brown dog puppet with long, floppy ears
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.

Sam Eagle


Corner of lunchbox with image of eagle puppet in center and other puppets on either side; also contains text
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.

Muppets, TV, quizzes, popular culture, Jim Henson, by Donna R. Braden

The Henry Ford’s archives contain a great deal of material about radio and television shows produced or sponsored by Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company. Here is just a small sampling of the types of items and shows covered.

Henry Ford began broadcasting over his WWI radio station in 1922. Early broadcasts featured musical acts from company bands, such as the Ford Motor Company Band and the Ford Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra. Later broadcasts expanded the talent pool to acts across the United States, including singers, bands, soloists, and even the California Bird Man.

Men sit at desks with typewriters and equipment
Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, February 1924. / THF134739

The Ford Sunday Evening Hour was a popular radio show produced by Ford. This show was broadcast from 1934–1942 (and then again from 1945–1946). The show was performed live in Detroit, first at Orchestra Hall and then at the Masonic Temple, and broadcast over the CBS radio network. Musical pieces were played by 75 members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the name the Ford Symphony Orchestra, with each show featuring guest star soloists and singers.

Page with text
Ford Sunday Evening Hour program, October 7, 1934. / THF137776

Display with image of orchestra on stage above a car dashboard, including radio; also contains text
Ford Sunday Evening Hour Dealer Display, 1938. The program was broadcast across the U.S. and was advertised by Ford dealers all over the country. / THF269154

In the summer, the Ford Summer Hour offered lighter, more popular tunes. This program used a smaller 32-piece orchestra and sometimes featured Ford employee bands such as the River Rouge Ramblers and the Champion Pipe Band.

Poster with images of three people's heads and text of varying sizes/colors, against a backdrop of a silhouetted orchestra with conductor; also contains musical notes
The Ford Summer Hour poster, 1939. / THF111542

Yellow sheet with text
Ford Summer Hour program, August 24, 1941. / THF134690

Ford Motor Company sponsored their share of television programs in the 1940s and 1950s as well. The Lincoln-Mercury division sponsored Toast of the Town, later The Ed Sullivan Show. The archives holds this scrapbook of reviews of the first season of the show (or shew) in 1948.

Teal-colored cover with curved text "Toast of the Town"
Teal colored page with TV Guide cover and page pasted onto it
Toast of the Town scrapbook, 1948-1949. / THF622224, THF622504

The 50th anniversary of Ford Motor Company in 1953 was a big celebration. Paintings were commissioned by Norman Rockwell to depict the company history, calendars were assembled, banquets and celebrations were planned worldwide, and the company put together a TV special to celebrate its 50-year history.

Page containing text, some of it arranged in a spiral, with small image of three faces
Advertisement, "Ford 50th Anniversary Show," June 15, 1953 / THF622247

The TV program featured many well-known performers, many of whom signed Benson Ford’s personal copy of the script.

Page with a small amount of typewritten text and many signatures
Page with typewritten text
Script for the Ford Motor Company 50th Anniversary TV Show, Broadcast June 15, 1953
/ THF622239, THF622240

These are only a few of the radio and TV shows produced or sponsored by Ford over the years. The archive at the Benson Ford Research Center has additional material, including scripts, ratings, and public relations analysis reports, for several of these shows. Some of these items may be viewed in our Digital Collections, while others have yet to be digitized. While the reading room at the Benson Ford Research Center remains closed at present for research, if you have any questions, please feel free to email us at research.center@thehenryford.org.


Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford. This post is based on a February 2021 presentation of History Outside the Box as a story on The Henry Ford’s Instagram channel.

Dearborn, Michigan, Detroit, archives, TV, music, radio, Ford Motor Company, by Kathy Makas, History Outside the Box

When production of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation began in 2013, we knew the show would provide a tremendous opportunity to share our stories with new audiences. We also knew it would require tremendous resources. But we couldn’t have predicted the show’s longevity or success, with six seasons and three Emmy awards to date – or the important role our digital collections would play in the project. From planning to post-production and beyond, the images and information we’ve made available through digitization have become TV stars in their own right.

GIF scrolling down webpage with images and text
Digital Collections pages are a handy resource for the Innovation Nation producers. They provide information about artifacts – like this tomato harvester, which will be featured in season 8 – and help the stories take shape.

Our Digital Collections factor into the earliest stages of story development for Innovation Nation. Even before the show’s producers begin to discuss potential angles for a particular topic with the experts at The Henry Ford, they’ve often explored related Digital Collections pages. This provides background information, helping to guide the story and ground it in solid historical research. It also shapes the producers’ vision for the story, helping to determine where it will be filmed and what we might need to bring out for the cameras.

Three chairs in video screenshot
Photographs showing a range of chairs from The Henry Ford’s furniture collection made an Innovation Nation appearance in season 2.

After a story is filmed, our work is just beginning. We add any featured artifacts that aren’t already online to our queue for digitization. Including them as part of our Digital Collections makes them accessible to wider audiences and gives us the option to include them in future digital content. In addition to the “on camera” collections, supporting graphic and video assets from our holdings often appear in the final cut. We research our collections, digitizing new material as needed, and provide high-resolution image and video files to the story’s producer and editor. Sometimes, the producer will even write a script that highlights these supporting assets. An artifact doesn’t have to be two-dimensional or in video format to be considered – photographs of our three-dimensional collections may be featured, as well.

Webpage detail with images and text
The “Dig Deeper” section of the J.R. Jones General Store episode webpage features brand-new digital content and newly-digitized material.

Though informative, the short-form stories that air on Innovation Nation can only say so much. Our Digital Collections and content offer viewers a chance to dig even deeper. Each episode has a dedicated webpage on thf.org that provides links to resources – such as blog posts, expert sets, or groups of related digital collections – that provide context for a particular topic and further highlight our holdings and expertise. Often, the “Dig Deeper” section of an episode webpage contains brand-new content, created specially to support that Innovation Nation story. So, whether you’re a long-time viewer or just learning about the show, it’s worth visiting thf.org to explore more. To get started, consider checking out content related to some of our most recent episodes here, or browse featured artifacts from all the seasons of Innovation Nation in our Digital Collections.

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#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, by Saige Jedele, digital collections, digitization, TV, The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation

thf304042
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.

thf300204
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.

thf38105
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.

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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.

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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.

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Fraggle Rock characters Wembly and Boober in a pickle-shaped vehicle from a 1988 McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion.
THF308672

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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!

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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.

Muppets, TV, popular culture, movies, making, Jim Henson, by Donna R. Braden

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DC’s superhero stories, like this 1961 issue of
The Flash, invariably ended happily—with problems resolved and loose ends neatly tied up. THF305327

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Marvel superheroes often questioned both their superpowers and their general existence, as suggested on this dramatic cover of issue#50 of The Amazing Spider-Man.*

The Flash, the Hulk, the Thing; Batman, Ironman, Spider-Man; the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy.  On and on it goes.  The list of comic book superheroes can seem almost endless.  How do you tell them apart?  To get you started, it helps to know their origin—their company of origin, that is.  With a few exceptions, all comic book superheroes trace their origins back to the talented writers and artists who created them at only two companies—DC and Marvel.  From their beginnings, these companies differed radically in their approach to superheroes, and these differences can still be discerned today. 

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Superman comic book, 1951 THF141569

DC Comics

Comic book superheroes originated back in the 1930s with Superman.  This superpowered alien was the brainchild of two shy but talented teenage boys from Cleveland, Ohio—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  Pooling their drawing and writing talents, they devised the story of a he-man they simply called “The Superman,” who crash-landed on earth from another planet.  To keep his true identity safe, Superman needed to adopt a secret identity.  Enter Clark Kent, a meek, mild-mannered reporter with a personality remarkably similar to the two boys who had created him. 

Siegel and Shuster originally thought their character would lend itself to a great newspaper comic strip.  But they had no luck selling the idea to newspaper publishers, so they reluctantly agreed to sell their story in 1937 to the just-formed Detective Comics, Inc. (later shortened to DC).  Comic books—especially those featuring single characters rather than simply being collections of comic strips—were as yet an untested medium and both the young creators and the publisher took a risk.  Superman first appeared in Action comics (published by National Allied Publications, another corporate predecessor to DC) in June 1938.  Surprising everyone involved, he was immediately so popular that the publishers decided to feature him in his own comic book the very next year.  This marked the first time a comic book was devoted to a single superhero character. 

During the hard times of the Great Depression, Superman’s unprecedented popularity can be attributed to both his secret and his super identities.  Clark Kent represented the regular, unassuming common man that people could relate to, while they could happily dream and fantasize about being as infallible and invincible as the larger-than-life Superman.

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Wonder Woman comic book, 1948 THF141561

The formula was potent and durable.  Superman established the essential vocabulary for all DC comic book superheroes to come.  He, like superheroes who came after him, represented courage, humility, steadfastness, and a natural sense of responsibility to serving others in need.  He placed lofty principles above personal advantage, seeking nothing for himself.  As the Great Depression shifted to the patriotic World War II era, new DC superheroes like The Flash and Wonder Woman similarly placed the greater good above their own personal needs.  They never questioned their role in defending American democracy.  And, following the DC formula, they always triumphed in the end.

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During the late 1940s and 1950s, young readers were more likely to purchase a comic book about the humorous adventures of teenager Archie Andrews than one about a superhero. THF141542

During the 1950s, sales of comic books declined, especially those about superheroes.  Not only were adults concerned about the harmful effects of comic books on children, but superheroes seemed to lose their sense of purpose.  During the war years, it had been easy to know which side they were on.  What were they fighting for now?  Who exactly was the enemy?  Only Superman’s popularity continued apace, due to the popular TV series, The Adventures of Superman, which aired from 1951 to 1957.  It was through this series that the American public came to know Superman as championing “truth, justice, and the American Way.” 

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The Legion of Super-Heroes, a group of super-powered teenagers who join together to fight villains in the 30th century, have been popular DC superheroes since 1958. THF305330

By the late 1950s, DC superheroes were making a comeback, with both new and revived characters and a host of new supervillains for them to face.  New stories were created to fit the times, usually focusing either on scientific advancements (always seen as a positive force) or science fiction.  DC superheroes were competent, in control, and single-minded in their devotion to simply being heroic.  They solved any problem they encountered in a well-ordered world—a world that, for each character, had to be internally consistent.  Stories were comforting, positive, optimistic, reassuring, rational, and moral.  Superheroes used their powers responsibly, inevitably siding with established authority.

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This DC series, which started way back in 1941, featured Superman and Batman teaming up to battle villains. THF305328

The popularity of DC superheroes continued through the 1960s, spiking again with the trend-setting Batman TV show (which aired 1966-68), as well as their being featured on Saturday morning cartoons, in Broadway productions, and through related merchandise.  By this time, DC had settled on a standard and successful formula for its superhero stories: colorful and dramatic covers that grabbed kids’ attention, then a focus on plot development that would inevitably lead to a happy ending.  Little room was left for developing individual characters.  The editors at DC felt that this formula appealed to kids and young teenagers—their core market.  Why mess with success?

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Tales to Astonish #60, from 1964, featured two stories of classic Marvel superheroes: Giant-Man (introduced in 1962 as Ant-Man) with his female partner the Wasp, and The Incredible Hulk, re-introduced after his own series had been cancelled the previous year. *

Marvel Comics

In the late 1930s, following quickly upon the success of Superman over at DC, Timely Comics (later to become Marvel) introduced The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner.  The ultra-patriotic Captain America followed them during the World War II era.  But Marvel superheroes truly came into their own in the early 1960s. 

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The Comics Code Authority stamp of approval
THF141590 (detail)

The public attack on comic books in the 1950s had put a damper on the comic book industry, forcing several companies to go out of business.  It was risky even being in the business at the time.  But partly because he figured he had nothing to lose at that point, talented Marvel writer (and later visionary editor) Stan Lee tried a new approach to superheroes that would change the course of comic books forever.  He decided he could work within the constraints of the industry’s new self-censorship board, the Comics Code Authority, while at the same time dealing with more serious topics and stories. 

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This Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics from 1965 marked the first time that early classic Marvel stories were reprinted—in this issue, Fantastic Four #2 (January 1962); The Amazing Spider-Man #3 (July 1963); the Ant-Man story from Tales to Astonish #36 (October 1962); and Journey to Mystery featuring The Mighty Thor #97 (October 1963). *

The new superheroes that Lee created had relatable personalities, human flaws, and real-life problems.  Their stories were purposely aimed at a new audience of older teenagers, who were wrestling with their own insecurities and feelings of alienation.  These stories also questioned the scientific advancements of the Atomic Age that DC had embraced as positive forces in people’s lives.  What if science ran amok?  What if things went horribly wrong? What if there were dire consequences?  Many Marvel superheroes, in fact, gained their superpowers because of horrific scientific accidents. 

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Even though the Human Torch and the Thing were both members of the Fantastic Four, in this issue of Strange Tales from 1964, a villain named the Puppet Master manipulated them into fighting each other. *

It started with the Fantastic Four in 1961—Lee’s answer to an assignment to come up with a team like DC’s recently created and very popular Justice League of America.  Lee had long thought that typical superheroes were too perfect, that “the best stories of all…are the stories in which the characters seem to be real.  You feel you know them, you understand them, you can relate to them.”  This “Fantastic” superhero family had four distinctive personalities.  Furthermore, they did not act like the polished, restrained, polite superheroes with which comic book readers had long been familiar.  They argued, mistrusted each other, had tempers, expressed opinions, led complicated lives.  Rather than the public cheering them on in the stories, people feared and were suspicious of them. 

The Fantastic Four were a revelation—like no other superheroes that had come before.  Older teenagers—for whom DC superheroes had come to seem shallow and one-dimensional—found them original, realistic, exciting.  One fan remarked that turning from the Justice League and Superman to the Fantastic Four was like “stepping through a gateway into another dimension.” 

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The Green Goblin, one of The Amazing Spider-Man’s most hated enemies, planned to reveal Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world in issue #39 from August 1966, but in the process, he dramatically revealed his own true identity. *

Marvel quickly followed the popularity of the Fantastic Four with The Incredible Hulk (1962), who not only turned into a brutish monster as the result of a nuclear accident but didn’t even look, act, or sound like a superhero.  In 1963, Marvel introduced its most quintessential superhero—The Amazing Spider-Man, an ordinary teenager beset by ordinary teenage problems who, having acquired super-powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, only reluctantly sets out to fight crime and villains.

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Dr. Strange, introduced in Strange Tales in 1963, gained his own title in 1968 and made regular appearances across the Marvel universe. *

A quick succession of superheroes followed, each character with his or her own manner of speech, personality, values, and quirks.  By the late 1960s, Marvel had woven together an integrated mythology of all its superheroes, in which stories continued, superheroes made guest appearances in others’ stories, and characters could be heroes one day and become villains the next (and vice versa). 

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Marvel’s The Silver Surfer was introduced as a tortured soul, permanently exiled to Earth on a surfboard-like craft as punishment for betraying the evil Galactus on his home planet. *

The Marvel formula, as laid out with Fantastic Four in 1961, became the standard.  Stories and characters often focused on alienated and even neurotic individuals with character flaws, inner struggles, and personal grudges.  Endings weren’t always happy or satisfying.  Superheroes didn’t always get along or leverage their powers to help others.  In Marvel superheroes, readers recognized their own failings, struggles, and anxieties.  As opposed to DC’s black-and-white world, the Marvel world was gray—more like the real world.

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This DC comic book series, about a group of misfit and alienated superheroes, was conceived in the Marvel mode but was never as popular as Marvel’s stories of similar outcast groups of superheroes like The X-Men. THF141602

Since the 1960s, most superhero stories in comic books have become darker, more complex, and more serious—often tackling social issues with a gritty realism.  This trend has brought DC and Marvel stories, characters, and mythologies closer together in content and tone, though the differences between them are still definable because these are so deeply embedded in their DNA.

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The King Kon Comic & Fantasy Convention, which ran from 1984 to 1986, was the first regular comic book convention in the Detroit area after the demise of the multi-genre Detroit Triple Fan Fair (that had run from 1965 to 1977).  King Kon was a predecessor to the current annual extravaganza, Motor City Comic Con, which began in 1989. *

Superheroes can now be found pretty much everywhere, from Comic Cons to an expanding array of movies, TV shows, mobile games, action figures, and other merchandise.  Their worlds are constantly growing, expanding, and changing.  It’s easy to get confused.  But don’t worry. If you’re trying to make sense of it all, start with the superheroes’ origins.  Are they DC or Marvel?  Knowing that will set you off on the right track.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.  See her other blog posts, Hooked on Comic Books and Comic Books Under Attack.  Items marked with an asterisk (*) are from the author’s collection.

TV, popular culture, by Donna R. Braden, comic books

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

childhood, TV, popular culture, Jim Henson, education, by Donna R. Braden

Cover of a 1977 Early Reader THF 126319

It would not be a proper Christmas season without at least one viewing of the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Every year, we can enjoy the antics of Lucy, Schroeder, and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang as they get ready (or not) for the Christmas play; sympathize with Charlie Brown as he passes up all those bright shiny aluminum trees and picks the sorriest tree on the Christmas tree lot; and cheer when the gang transforms Charlie Brown’s sad little tree into one of beauty and elegance at the end. Today, we can watch the special any time we want. But, back when it first aired on TV in 1965, we could only watch it once—Thursday, December 9, at 7:30 p.m., on CBS. And it was a revelation! Continue Reading

TV, holidays, Christmas, popular culture, by Donna R. Braden

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This year, many transformative things have been set into motion at The Henry Ford. One of the most rewarding projects has been all of the hard work that has culminated with the first season of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, an educational television show produced by Litton Entertainment. Perhaps you’ve been watching the episodes on CBS, Saturday mornings? If not, you can view them here.

When we entered into a partnership with Litton, we also took the opportunity to turn our gaze inwards, to research the history of our own involvement with broadcast media. A dive into the archives of the Edison Institute revealed some gems—photographic collections that captured the visual history of media events on our campus spanning 60 years. Previous blogs detail how in 1955, Marion Corwell began hosting Window to the Past, our first live television show. That same year, NBC filmed an all-day live event using the then-new medium of color broadcasting; episodes of The Howdy Doody Show were captured that day. Other discoveries revealed Gladys Knight and the Pips on the Phil Donahue Show in 1973. Continue Reading

events, actors, acting, Edison, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Kristen Gallerneaux, The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, popular culture, technology, TV

Edison vs. Pathé and the Rise of the Movie Rental
Just a few years after cinema made its public debut in 1893, the marketing of home projectors began. Though by 1912 the market was flooded with them, the appeal had been limited. That was about to change. Soon two of the biggest companies in the movie business—one French, one American—went head-to-head, marketing their own home projectors as well as offering films for rent by mail, making them available through pioneering delivery systems. Yet only one of these companies would succeed.


Edison Kinetoscope, 1912-1913, object ID 29.460.14. (THF36602).

Thomas Edison is considered the father of motion pictures. He invented the original movie camera, the kinetograph, which was used to film movies shot at his movie studio, the Black Maria, the foremost of its kind. His lab developed the earliest films in motion picture history, and those movies were exhibited on a peep hole-like device, the kinetoscope—yet another Edison creation. On November 30th, 1897, Edison’s Projecting Kinetoscope was used to show movies on a screen in a commercial setting for the first time. In December 1903, the Edison Manufacturing Company released The Great Train Robbery, which would go on to be the initial motion picture blockbuster. The film industry would prove to be successful, yet rocky, for Edison over the next few years, but in 1912, the year his company launched the Home Projecting Kinetoscope, optimism was in the air.

Details of the new Edison Home Kinetoscope were announced in the magazine "Edison Works Monthly," Vol. 1, No. 2, October 1912, object ID 84.1.1630.9, page 11. (THF112041)

Charles Pathé, previously a phonograph importer, established the French company Pathé Frères in 1896. In 1902, the company introduced an improved movie camera, and soon it would become the leading model used in filming movies across Europe and America. The same year, they began shooting their own productions—completing them at a very fast clip—and distributing them, as well. They would soon dominate the European industry, so much so that Pathé Frères had few serious rivals. The Pathé K-O-K home projector was launched in 1912 in Europe, and the following year they introduced the device in the United States under a different name: the Pathescope. It was in this environment that home projectors finally became a product that the public could get behind.

The Pathescope and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope (also known as the “Home P.K.”) were similar products in many ways, yet had distinct differences. Both Edison and Pathé produced their own unique film size, which meant the films they rented out could be played only on their respective projectors. The companies also introduced a non-flammable film stock—a positive development in the minds of the general public—thus playing a major role in the appeal of the projectors to homeowners. The cost of the machines differed significantly, with Edison’s Home P.K. selling in the $75-$100 range (roughly $1,770-$2,360 in 2013 dollars), while the budget-priced Pathescope would set one back set one back $150 (about $3,540 today). Pathe's premium offering was priced at $250 (a whopping $5,900 in today’s dollars), making it far and away the priciest home projector available.

Details on Edison's motion picture rental plan also appeared in the same edition of "Edison Works Monthly," page 12. (THF112042).


Kinetoscope Film "Professor and the New Hat," Thomas A. Edison Co., 1913, object ID 63.85.3.

The fact that the companies offered movies for rent was also of considerable appeal to consumers, as was the system of home delivery by mail. In order to accomplish this, both Edison and Pathé established “exchange” hubs to ship and receive their films. Owners of the Home P.K. initially had to purchase a film, which ran in the $2.50 to $20 range ($59-$472 if priced today), and then pay an exchange fee of $0.30-$1 ($7-24 in 2013) when swapping one movie for another. Pathé’s method differed, as Pathescope owners instead paid a yearly subscription of $50-$100 ($1,180-$2,360 today), fees based on how many movies were rented at a time. Edison offered 50 films at launch, a number that grew to 160 by 1914; Pathé had 700 films by that time—a momentous disparity.

Due to a number of factors, including that it was notoriously difficult to operate, the Home P.K. never caught on. Edison’s company manufactured 4,600 projectors, but in the end sold just 500 (more than 8,000 Pathescopes had been sold at that point). Pathé Frères had a huge advantage not only in the number of titles available, but because their projectors were superior. It seems quality and quantity was just too much for Edison, and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope was retired in 1914.

Fast forward to the home video era: 1972 marked the year films became available on videocassette to rent, but it would take the arrival of the DVD format in 1997 before an entity had great success with home delivery of movie rentals. That same year, a new company called Netflix was founded. Their concept of offering films for rent by mail seemed revolutionary, and for modern America it most certainly was an innovative (and appealing) model. It was also an idea whose time had come—again.

Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.

Bibliography

 

Edison, movies, TV