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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

September 24, 1936

It's time for the final Tuesday Timeline entry for the month of September 2013. And, I think you'll agree (well, hopefully at least) that the topic that I have chosen for today is a great one.

In the meantime, I think that we should flip through the pages of the history books to discover what else happened on this date in history. There's a lot to talk about on this, the 24th day of September.

1664 – The Dutch Republic surrenders New Amsterdam to England

1780 – Benedict Arnold flees to British Army lines when the arrest of British Major John Andre exposes Arnold's plan to surrender West Point.

1789 – The Judiciary Act is passed by United States Congress, which ultimately leads to the creation of the office of the U.S. Attorney General, as well as the United States Supreme Court

1852 – The first airship powered by steam engine travels seventeen miles from Paris, France to Trappes

1869 – Gold prices plummet following the decision by Ulysses S. Grant to order the Treasury to sell large quantities of gold after Jay Gould and James Fisk plot to control the market in a day that will come to be known as “Black Friday”

1896 – “The Great Gatsby” author F. Scott Fitzgerald (d. 1940) is born in St. Paul, Minnesota

1914 – The Siege of Przemysl begins as World War I continues

1917 – Actress Audra Lindley (d. 1997), best known to fans as Three's Company's Mrs. Roper, is born in Los Angeles, California

1935 – The first ever outdoor rodeo is held under electric lights in Columbia, Mississippi

1941 – Singer/photographer Linda McCartney (d. 1998) is born in New York City

1948 – The Honda Motor Company is founded on the same day that comedian Phil Hartman (d. 1998) is born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada

1950 – A series of forest fires emit enough black smoke to block out the sun in some parts of Canada and New England

1957 – President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends 101st Airborne Division troops to Little Rock, Arkansas in an effort to enforce desegregation

1962 – James Meredith becomes the first African-American person to enroll at Mississippi State University following a decision made by the United States court of appeals

1968 – CBS debuts its news program “60 Minutes”

1979 – CompuServe launches the first consumer Internet service which also features the first time that e-mail is provided as a service

1991 – Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known by his pen name of Dr. Seuss) dies of throat cancer at the age of 87

2005 – Hurricane Rita makes landfall in the United States causing devastation to the already hurricane ravaged states of Louisiana and Texas

September 24 happens to also be the date in which a lot of famous faces were born. So, join me in wishing the following people a very happy birthday. Happy birthday to Herb Jeffries, Jack Costanzo, Chick Willis, Gordon Clapp, Alan Colmes, John Kessel, Kristina Wayborn, Kevin Sorbo, Steve Whitmire, Amy Sky, Luc Picard, Rosamund Kwan, Nia Vardalos, Robert Irvine, Stacy Galina, Megan Ward, Peter Salisbury (The Verve), Stephanie McMahon, Justin Bruening, Jessica Lucas, Spencer Treat Clark, and Kyle Sullivan.

Okay. So, which date in history are we going to go back in time to?

Today's date is September 24, 1936. And if you're a huge fan of puppets of any kind, you're definitely going to love this entry.

Today's blog subject is a master of his craft. Although most of his work was associated with children's programming, he made sure that his top priority was creating entertainment for everybody. He helped create some of the most recognizable symbols in the history of pop culture, and as of 2013, these creations are still going strong.

And had he lived, this man would be celebrating birthday number 77.

Seventy-seven years ago, James Maury Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi...though most people called him Jim. And during his whole life, all he wanted was to make people laugh and entertain a wide variety of people. And you know what? I think he succeeded.

This is Jim Henson's story.

Henson was the youngest of two children born to Betty and Paul Henson, and Henson's childhood was marked by one huge event – the day the Henson family received their very first television set. Young Jim Henson was heavily influenced by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the puppets that Burr Tillstrom presented on “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”.

While he was a student at Northwestern High School, Jim ended up getting a job at WTOP-TV designing puppets for a Saturday morning children's show, “The Junior Morning Show”. After graduating from high school, Jim enrolled as a student at the University of Maryland, College Park initially majoring in studio arts. But when Henson discovered a puppetry class was being offered in the applied arts department, Henson began enrolling in classes specializing in crafts and textiles, eventually graduating with a degree in home economics in 1960.

As it so happens, his time in college was very much life-changing for Henson. Not only did he meet his future wife Jane Nebel (through a collaboration they did together while Henson worked at Washington D.C. based station WRC-TV), but while he worked on a puppet show that aired on the same network (a little show entitled “Sam and Friends”), Henson would debut the character that would make him absolutely famous.

That character? Kermit the Frog.

Well, okay, okay. The character wasn't exactly the way that we all know him as now. It was merely a prototype. But that prototype exploded into a cultural phenomenon that featured dozens of characters known as “The Muppets”.

The Muppets were among some of Jim Henson's finest works. The creation (named after a portmanteau of the words marionette and puppet) were created almost by experiment. You see, while Jim Henson worked at WRC-TV, he began experimenting with various techniques in creating and animating puppets. Rather than using felt, wood, an old sock, or any traditional puppet making materials, Henson used flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber as a way for the puppets to appear more human and to show more emotion. Instead of strings, Henson inserted rods inside of the arms of the Muppets to allow more movements.

Basically, Jim Henson's Muppets revolutionized the way that puppet shows were presented. No more lifeless Punch and Judy scenes for us!

(Well...unless you liked Punch and Judy.)

Of course, Jim Henson would voice the Muppet that made him the most famous – Kermit the Frog as well as Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, The Swedish Chef, and Waldorf. But for the Muppets to really pop, Henson knew that he had to gather a group of talented voice actors and puppeteers to bring the Muppets back to life. And by the 1970s, his team was firmly in place.

Frank Oz would voice the characters of Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam the Eagle and Miss Piggy
Dave Goelz would voice the characters of Gonzo, Zoot, and Bunsen
Richard Hunt voiced the characters of Scooter, Beaker, Statler, Janice, and Sweetums
Jerry Nelson voiced the characters of Robin, Dr. Julius Strangepork, Floyd Pepper, Lew Zealand, and Camilla the Chicken.

And, in the late 1970s, all of the Muppets would end up getting their shot at stardom when this program debuted on September 5, 1976.

I absolutely LOVED “The Muppet Show” growing up. In fact, at some point before the year is up, I want to do a whole feature on this particular program. For now, I'll just talk a little bit about it. The show was hugely successful on television. It ran for five years, concluding its run in 1981, and the best way I can describe the show is sort of like Saturday Night Live with Muppets. It was like watching a sketch comedy program with each Muppet presenting a series of sketches. Gonzo would do a sketch with chickens and a cannon. Fozzie would tell lame jokes. Miss Piggy would sometimes board a spaceship to become one of the “Pigs in Space”. Oh, and the Swedish absolute favourite. Watch a clip of Swedish Chef in action below, voiced by Jim Henson himself!

Of course, everyone knows that “The Muppet Show” was hardly the only time that we saw Jim Henson's creations at work. After all, how could you forget the fact that the Muppets were featured in seven feature films between 1979 and 2011? And, an eighth movie is set to be released in March of 2014! Yes, the Muppets have gone to Manhattan, they've celebrated Christmas, they've re-enacted Treasure Island, and they've even been launched into outer space! Not bad, huh?

There was even an animated version of the Muppets known as “Muppet Babies” which aired near continuously for seven years!

And that's not counting the other television shows and movies that Jim Henson and his production company were involved in.

Of course, one of those television series is the long-running “Sesame Street”, which has been on the air since 1969. Admit it. You couldn't have Sesame Street without the monster characters, could you? Of course, Kermit the Frog was a huge part of Sesame Street as he would pose as a news reporter for those “News Flash” segments. Have a look at one below.

Yes, without Jim Henson's presence on Sesame Street, there would be no Big Bird or Snuffleupagus. There would be no Cookie Monster or Oscar the Grouch.

There would be no Bert, Ernie (whom Henson also voiced), Prairie Dawn, Elmo, Grover, Telly, or the Yip Yip aliens.

Another side project that Henson created after “The Muppet Show” wrapped up was a little show known as “Fraggle Rock”, in which Gobo, Wembley, Mokey, Red, Boober, Sprockett, and Traveling Matt became household names. I know that I absolutely loved watching the show, and that theme song was just so catchy. You know what, let's just go ahead and watch the I can get it inside of your heads too!

And, there's so much more that Jim Henson did in the world of entertainment!

If it weren't for Jim Henson and Frank Oz, we would never have been so charmed by Yoda in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”.

If it weren't for Jim Henson, the movie “Labyrinth” would have never been of Jim Henson's finest film projects ever made (even though at the time of its release, it bombed terribly). Jim Henson would also produce the 1982 film “The Dark Crystal”.

And Jim Henson came up with the idea for this bizarre, yet wonderful sitcom, which aired on ABC during the 1990s.

Dinosaurs” was a wonderful show. I admit that I still chuckle at Baby Sinclair whacking his father with the frying pan screaming “NOT THE MAMA!”. But note the date that it debuted. April 1991.

Dinosaurs” was an idea hatched from the ever creative mind of Jim Henson. And sadly he would not live long enough to see it come to fruition.

In May of 1990, Jim Henson began to experience flu-like symptoms, which at first he ignored, as he felt that it wasn't anything serious. He made an appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show” on May 4 – which you can actually watch if you click HERE. It would become the last appearance that he would ever make on television again.

Just a week later after visiting his father and stepmother in North Carolina with one of his children, he began to feel ill and he went to a doctor to see what was wrong. The doctor examined him, but couldn't find any sort of evidence that he was suffering from pneumonia (what Henson initially suspected that he had), and prescribed him nothing except the odd dose of aspirin. He flew back home to New York after canceling a scheduled recording session on May 14.

The very next morning, Jim was beginning to have difficulty breathing, and he was starting to cough up blood. Henson was concerned that something was terribly wrong and he confessed to his wife (whom he was separated from at that time) that he might be dying, but for whatever reason did not want to go to a hospital to get checked out.

Two hours later, Henson changed his mind, and was admitted into New York Hospital shortly before five in the morning on May 15. By this time, Henson was unable to breathe on his own, and had to be strapped to a ventilator to help him breathe. Over the next twenty-four hours, doctors did everything they could to reverse the condition, but when Henson went into septic shock, the writing was on the wall.

On the morning of May 16, 1990, Jim Henson passed away at the age of 53. The cause of death was organ failure linked to a streptococcal infection. He was survived by his wife and his five children, Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather.

And, let me tell you. The news of Henson's death hit me hard. I was just two days shy of my ninth birthday when Henson died. He was the very first celebrity death that I remember, and I remember not taking it well at all. I think I cried the day I heard the news. He was so influential in my childhood. I grew up watching all of his shows, I watched all the Muppet Movies, I dressed up as Kermit the Frog on Halloween 1989, and ironically enough, my 9th birthday party was spent at the movie theatre watching a screening of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” - a film that “Jim Henson's Creature Shop” collaborated on. It was just so surreal that someone who was a huge part of my childhood was no longer here.

A public memorial service was scheduled for May 21, 1990 in New York City, and a second one was held in London on July 2. And I would say that Henson's memorial service honoured him beautifully. As per Henson's final wishes, nobody in the congregation was allowed to wear black. As well, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band played “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Carroll Spinney (who voiced Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street”) also performed at the service, singing Kermit's signature song “Bein' Green”.

(Which NOW explains why I have turned this entry green.)

But perhaps one of the most moving moments of the whole service was at the very conclusion of the service, when six of the Muppet voice actors gathered together to pay tribute to their friend by singing a medley of songs in their characters' voices. The actors were Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Kevin Clash, Frank Oz, and the man who would succeed Henson in voicing Kermit and Ernie, Steve Whitmire (who also happens to be celebrating a birthday today).

The last song of the medley was entitled “Just One Person”. The song was originally sung by one person (at the funeral, it was Richard Hunt as Scooter), and as the song progressed, more people would join in until the whole cast was together.

That whole moment also became the final scene in the 1990 television special “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson”, which saw a reunion between “The Muppet Show” characters, “Sesame Street” characters, and “Fraggle Rock” characters singing that very song as Kermit watches over them from a distance. It remains one of the most epic television scenes that I remember watching. Even at thirty-two, my eyes still well up when I watch this scene.

So, as we close the book on another Tuesday Timeline, I can't think of a better way to pay my respects to Jim Henson and celebrate his seventy-seventh birthday more than posting that final song. Be warned. Have Kleenex handy.

Happy birthday, Jim Henson...and thank you so much for all you gave us. I'll never forget you.

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