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.