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Remarkable funerals: Jim Henson – Muppet Creator

The Muppets were created by Jim Henson in the early 50s, making their first appearance in American TV series Sam and Friends back in 1955. The first Muppets created were Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog who both appeared in that first TV appearance and went on to appear on several chat shows throughout the late 50s and early 60s including The Ed Sullivan Show. Muppets popularity peaked during the time of The Muppet Show (1976-1981), which received Emmy Awards. Today, the Muppets are still going strong with sold out first live shows outside of America at London’s O2 Arena.

When it came to their creator’s funeral, the Muppets played a major part.

Jim Henson had insisted that no one would be allowed to wear black at his funeral, and when the day came this was put into action by all guests and officials, including the Muppets themselves. Two funeral ceremonies were held with one in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and one in New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine.

The Muppets took a starring role in paying tribute to their creator with Big Bird providing the moment of the ceremony singing a Bein’ Green solo. The ceremony began with the theme to Sesame Street, with funeral goers given colourful Muppet butterflies on sticks to wave along in time to the songs performed. Other performances included the chickens singing Baby Face, Fozzie Bear singing several numbers and Elmo singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady. The Finale featured many muppets and their performers singing Just One Person, with many of the muppets involved earlier in the ceremony joining in at the end. Most notably Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy were absent from the ceremony for unknown reasons.

The ceremony ended with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band playing When The Saints Go Marching In.

Frank Oz Eulogy

At the London ceremony the eulogy was performed by Frank Oz, the man who played many of Henson’s characters including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Cookie Monster and Bert.

His eulogy went as follows: “After the service in New York… I wandered around for days and weeks like many of us did. And, while I worked, and while I was with my family, I thought about Jim. I couldn’t help but think about Jim.

“I thought of course about what an insane, profound loss it was. And then of course so many images and memories of Jim came back to me. So many images. But one image kept coming back to me just a fleeting moment. And it was not of Jim performing or directing. It was not of Jim with his family. It was not of Jim with his colleagues. And it was not Jim working so hard, and it was not even of the great, stupid, silly fun that we all had with Jim, that I had with Jim.

“But this one image kept coming back to me… Just of Jim, standing, with his arms folded, just having a very warm smile, looking. And, it wouldn’t go away. It just kept on coming back. I realized it was Jim, appreciating. I know where I got that image from, I think. It was from The Muppet Show here at ATV or The Dark Crystal, the movie, or wherever we were shooting when we would look back at the playbacks. The television monitor would be right there. We would shoot the movie or shoot the performance, as many of you know. And then we would play it back and judge it. Often we would judge it and say, ‘Oh, that was terrible. Let’s do it again.’ But so many times I would see Jim, just appreciating it.

“Many people see Jim as an extraordinary creator. I realise that I see Jim first as an appreciator. He appreciated so much. He loved London. He loved walking on the Heath. He loved, Parliament Hill, flying kites. He appreciated it so much. He appreciated his family and his colleagues and his Muppet family. And he appreciated the performances and design of a puppet. He appreciated the art objects that he might buy. He appreciated the detail in a Persian rug. He appreciated, just beauty.

“Many times we would have meetings. I’ve known Jim for 27 years now and this would always happen. And I’m sure some of you will remember. We would have a meeting and if it was a pretty day outside, he’d say, ‘Gee, couldn’t we go outside? Couldn’t we? It’s nice out there. Couldn’t we just go outside? Why sit in here?’.

“And he appreciated the day. He didn’t realise why, why sit in a stuffy room when you could appreciate beauty out there? And I remember when we had meetings he would…often say, ‘Gee, can’t we eat? Why don’t we, I mean isn’t it time to eat? Can’t we eat while we meet?’.

“And it wasn’t because he was hungry. He just, it was a time to appreciate eating and it was a time to appreciate working. And even when he ate, I remember, he would always take dessert. He loved dessert. And he would, I just have this image of him when you brought the tray over, I remember him saying, ‘What, what’s that thingy there?’ He was always wiggling his finger and saying, ‘What’s that little dessert thing?’ I don’t know why, but he couldn’t order dessert without wiggling his finger. I’m not quite sure why that is but then he’d say, ‘I’ll, I’ll take that, that thingy there.’ And he would have it. And then he would eat it. And when he was eating it, you’d hear these little ‘mmms’ from him, as he ate the dessert. ‘Mmmm. Mmmm’.

“And it wasn’t just that it tasted good, which it did. But it was the time at that moment to appreciate it. To appreciate where he was at that moment, eating that dessert. And I think life was just this dessert for him. I really don’t believe that Jim could have been such an extraordinary creator if he hadn’t been such an extraordinary appreciator.”

Muppet Mourners

Big Bird

Big Bird provided what many consider to be the moment of the ceremony when he sang Bein’ Green solo at both ceremonies. The giant canary is the main protagonist of Henson’s Sesame Street, the multi talented bird could skate, ride a unicycle and sing, along with many other things. The character was named a ‘Living Legend’ by the US Library of Congress in 2000.

Oscar the Grouch

Oscar the Grouch was involved alongside his performer Caroll Spinney, in singing the finale song of Just One Person. Oscar was a green monster that lived in a trash can on Sesame Street, in the first season of Sesame Street he was orange. The monster’s trash can abode was much bigger inside than it looked, with the character telling viewers it contained items such as a piano, swimming pool, ice rink and bowling alley.

Gonzo

Gonzo’s performer Dave Goelz sang I’m Going to Go Back There Someday in Gonzo’s voice during the ceremony before joining his Muppet for the finale. Gonzo was an insect-like creature however his true species was never revealed (a running gag in the show). The character had a love of performance art and was also known as Gonzo the Great during his many stunts and tricks.

Fozzie Bear

Fozzie Bear and his performer Frank Oz (a great friend of Henson’s) sang a number of songs throughout the ceremony as well as being involved in the finale. The bear was one of the most well known muppets for his iconic pork pie hat and necktie, along with his many failed comedy routines. The original Fozzy Bear puppet that attended the ceremony is on display at Stratford Upon Avon teddy bear Museum.

The Chickens

The Chickens sang Baby Face during the ceremony, however they didn’t return for the finale. The Chickens have usually remained nameless during their performances, with the exception of Camilla who became Gonzo’s girlfriend. The characters featured across almost all of Henson’s productions including The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Mopatop’s Shop.

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