On May 9, 1955, audiences in Washington, DC, were introduced to Harry the Hipster, Yorick, Professor Matcliffe and a light green lizard-like creature named Kermit. On this day, the five-minute television show Sam & Friends debuted, and 18-year-old Jim Henson’s television career was just beginning.
Jim Henson didn’t set out to be a puppeteer; instead, he had ambitions to work in television, and puppetry was his first step into the industry at age 16, when he responded to a casting call for puppeteers for a new local morning show. Fast forward to Sam & Friends and beyond, and it’s safe to say his programming was revolutionary, and his impact on the small screen is immeasurable. Read on for some highlights of Jim’s television career, all of which are documented in our Worlds of Puppetry Museum:
Sam & Friends: Sam & Friends was Jim Henson’s first television show and first long-running puppeteer job. It aired twice daily on WRC-TV, a Washington, DC-based NBC affiliate. The show was just five minutes long, but that was enough to captivate audiences during its six-year run. It won a number of awards—including Jim’s first Emmy—and introduced viewers to Kermit, who at that time was more lizard than frog.
Rowlf: Rowlf the piano-playing dog got his big break in a Purina Dog Chow commercial in 1962. While Sam & Friends was a hit locally, Rowlf was the first of Jim’s puppets to appear on network television when he regularly appeared as Jimmy Dean’s sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show. He was so popular that he received more fan mail than the host!
Sesame Street: When she was developing Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney approached Jim Henson about joining the team for this groundbreaking educational program. She had a vision to engage children in education the way commercials sold products, and was inspired by Jim’s creative advertising work. The show premiered in November 1969 and has since aired in more than 120 countries. It is now among the longest-running television shows in the United States and has won more than 160 Emmy awards, more than any other children’s show.
The Muppet Show: After Sesame Street's success, Jim created The Muppet Show to appeal to a broader primetime audience. The show was filmed, produced and broadcast in England, and it premiered in 1976. It eventually made its way into syndication in the United States, and it has become a globally iconic franchise. Fun fact: Miss Piggy wasn’t a main character in the beginning; her soaring popularity eventually brought her top billing. The Muppet Show had 120 episodes and it aired in 100 countries.
Fraggle Rock: In 1983, Henson’s work expanded to premium networks when Fraggle Rock debuted as HBO’s first original series. The character groups—Gorgs, Fraggles and Doozers—all worked together in a mutually beneficial society, and the show promoted ideas of tolerance, and cultural and ecological diversity. The show was internationally successful, airing in 90 countries and translated into 13 languages. It has the distinction of being the first American TV show to air in the Soviet Union. Fraggle Rock utilized new Chroma Key technology (the precursor to green screen), and was the very first film or TV series to do so. And, in case you missed the news, Fraggle Rock is set to return to HBO soon!