Sunday, May 16, 2010

Today is May 16

If you're reading this you are probably a puppeteer (or you know one). If you're a puppeteer,you probably already know the significance of May 16. If you're a puppeteer and you don't know the significance of May 16, you will get exposed to its meaning rather quickly today.

On May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died.

Today is when many people will take a moment to remember Jim. Those who worked with him, those who met him, those who wished they met him, and mostly those whose lives were effected by his talent in one way or another. And being Jim, it will be positive, even life changing. "Genius," "inspirational," "the 'Walt Disney' of puppetry," and more will describe him.

I knew Jim. I worked with Jim. To me, he was all those descriptions I mentioned. And he did have a life changing effect on me; he (and the rest of the Muppets) convinced me that if he could make a living, a life long career, as a puppeteer, so could I. And I have.

But the other title most people don't think of when thinking of Jim is the other "career" I have also. Jim was a dad.

It was the late 80's (I can't remember which year). We were holding a puppet, with what’s known as “practical hands.” This means the principal performer puts his hand, usually the right, up through the body into the head, to open and close the mouth in time to the words spoken. The other hand goes into a sleeve made of the same material as what the puppet is wearing and into the puppet’s left hand. In this case, the puppet in question was Ernie and I was “right handing” for him — Jim Henson. And in the middle of rehearsal, the Sesame Street lighting crew needed to make a quick adjustment, so, rather than take Ernie off, we just sat down on two wooden boxes near the set. And I remember thinking, “I’m sitting next to Jim Henson. Jim Henson! This man is the 'Walt Disney of puppetry,' even better than Disney. He’s Kermit the Frog. He’s Ernie. I’m attached to Ernie! I should say something. Say something! You’ve got a chance most puppeteers would give their right arm for — and how stupid would that be — couldn’t “right hand” without your right arm . . . . Jeez, Noel! Focus! FOCUS! Think of SOMETHING to SAY!!!"

And then in that multi-second of panic, I remembered what my mom would always do to get someone to talk; if they're a parent, ask about their kids. "People will always talk about their kids." So that's when I turned to Jim Henson and asked, "So... how are the kids?"

And the man looked at me and said, "Oh. they're great," and proceeded to tell me what each one was up to at the time; their projects their interests, where they were. And I could feel the pride this man had in sharing the news of his children with someone else. Being a dad now, I can now see what was in his eyes; him watching them at growing-up and becoming their own persons.

I had other opportunities to chat Jim up. But I'll always remember that first time I really got to talk to him.And today, I feel proud to be a puppeteer and a dad.

Thank you Jim.


  1. That was a great story, Noel! You know I'm a puppeteer geek/nerd/fangirl, so I would have given anything to meet Jim Henson! (although I'm sure I would have just blathered something incoherent) I remember feeling horribly sad when he died, at what the world would miss with him gone. I also remember sitting at work a week or so later and looking at a magazine that had an editorial cartoon of Mickey Mouse and Kermit silhouetted at the end of a dock at sunset, with Mickey's arm around Kermit to comfort him... I can't remember if there was a caption, but I remember bursting into tears at the image. It's wonderful that you and so many others are carrying on his work and legacy.


  2. Noel, what a fantastic story. I believe, all too often, that people forget that for all of Jim's successes, he was still a normal man with a father's sense of pride and love for his children. I am thrilled that he was willing and happy to talk with you about his family. I sincerely wish I could have met him.

    That said, I am very happy to have met you and been inspired by your work and your dedication to your family (Yay Susan and Mattie!)

    Here's to the unofficial, international Love of Puppets Day!

    Take care,


  3. What a lovely story, Noel. Thank you for sharing. A year or so ago, the Smithsonian did a really wonderful exhibit on Jim Henson's legacy; I went to see it several times. Included was a short documentary that was running on a loop, and it was always packed. It never failed that when I looked around that room, every single person, no matter their age, was laughing and smiling. What an incredible gift, and even better legacy. How lucky you were to know him.

  4. Great story Noel! I tweeted about the significance of yesterday. It's amazing what a difference one man made to our world. Of course he couldn't to it all by himself, but he he had enough vision to involve talented people like yourself to help his vision live on without him.
    I'm proud that I can help his vision live at WDW. Because we care, our children will care, and it will continue on!

  5. OMG! You were Ernie's right hand!? And spoke with JIM HENSON!! I feel a little faint...I went to high school with someone who married someone who WAS ON SESAME STREET! wow....That's way cooler than if you'd worked with, say, Shawn Cassidy, or Olivia Newton-John. And a great story!

  6. Simple words do little to express the love and admiration I had for a man I never met. When I hear a story like the one you shared, I am reassured that my affection for Jim was never misplaced and I should continue to follow his example in pursuing my dreams.