Jim Henson and Kermit|Mississippi guy, alter ego proved it’s a wonderful life

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 6, 2009

LELAND — Some say he was born in Deer Creek in the Mississippi Delta, but he was conceived in the mind of a boy playing in the murky waters of the stream that ran close to his family’s Leland home in Washington County.

He emerged green with bulging eyes, his body made from a discarded spring coat and his eyes from a ping pong ball split in half.

The world knows him as Kermit the Frog.

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“He was really the alter ego of Jim,” said Dot Turk, who helps operate the Jim Henson Delta Boyhood Exhibit at Leland.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

The exhibit, just off Highway 61, began as a display about Henson and Kermit. The 1970s structure is fittingly on the banks of Deer Creek. It’s filled with memorabilia and several exhibits — and a gift shop.

“It grew when his family became involved,” Dot said. “They consider it their gift to Jim’s hometown.” His growing up in Leland (he was born in Greenville where there was a hospital) “had never been any big deal, but suddenly, when he died, Leland was on the map.”

Jim’s mother and her mother’s family were from Leland, and his father, Paul Henson, was a soybean expert who worked at the nearby South Delta Experiment Station. In 1948, when Jim was 12, the family was transferred to Maryland.

If you go

The Jim Henson Exhibit is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. If going north on U.S. 61, take the Leland exit. The Exhibit is on the right, several blocks from the highway. There is no admission cost but donations are appreciated.

Another exhibit, “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” will open Dec. 19 at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson and run through March 14.

His most formative years were in Leland, Dot said, “and he always felt these were his roots. He never got away from that. No matter how far away he went, his heart was here.”

The strong-est influence on Jim in those years was his grandmother, Sarah Brown of Leland, “an artist, who did needlework, made quilts and other things for the house,” Dot said. “She also loved nature, and she passed all this on to Jim.”

Sarah Brown and her grandson spent a lot of time together — his brother, Paul Jr., was two years older and in school -—and she encouraged Jim’s creativity.

“From a very early age,” Dot said, “he would bring home his pets — frogs, turtles, and even snakes — they were water snakes and perfectly safe, and the family kind of got used to finding a frog underfoot or a turtle in a chair or that sort of thing.”

His mother was very understanding, and they were a playful family, Dot said.

Jim loved to draw. He collected pictures of birds for a scrapbook, then he would draw pictures of them that his imagination came up with. He was anxious to go to school, to learn to write his name, “so he could sign his art.”

The idea of puppets that made Jim famous began as a project for the Cub Scouts. He loved radio shows that featured puppets, like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCar-thy. He and his friends came up with the puppet show, most making their own puppets and dreaming up ideas, practicing in front of a mirror. It was strictly a kids’ production and was so popular it was the main event for the following year.

The move to Maryland didn’t diminish Jim’s creative bent, and by the time he was 19 and in college he was determined to get on the new media, television. He was considering commercial art for a living — nobody would decide one day that he was going to be a puppeteer and make a living that way, he once said —  but he made a few characters to see if a D.C. station would hire him. His first character was the frog, more of a light turquoise than the bright green he became. He made a few other puppets to go with it, and he landed a job at a Washington station with prime-time exposure — 5 minutes each evening before the news and again close to midnight. Edward R. Murrow’s newscast included a segment, “Person to Person,” and Jim had his own version, “Poison to Poison,” and his frog, like Murrow, had a cigarette constantly in his mouth. Jim would interview famous people, via puppets, using real names. The show was  a smash hit and remained on the air for years, but Jim wanted to go on to other things, for he was trying to pay for his college education.

He was the first person to make witty commercials for TV, making a 6-second one for Wilkins Coffee, featuring two characters, Wilkins and Wantkins. Another was for Purina Dog Chow with Rowlf the piano-playing dog who was on the Jimmy Dean variety show for three years.

Jim’s puppet shows were so successful that in college he bought several convertibles and rode to his graduation in a Rolls Royce — a used one, but a Rolls. Jim had earned his diploma in several ways. Today there’s a full-sized statue of Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog on the campus at the University of Maryland.

It was also in college that he met Jane Nevel, also an artist, and what began as a casual relationship blossomed into a romance and a marriage that produced five children, who, like their parents, have artistic talents.

Forty years ago, the idea for “Sesame Street” was born when someone at PBS wanted a program for preschoolers that would be educational and entertaining. Puppets were suggested, so the network turned to Jim Henson. He liked the idea and agreed to populate Sesame Street. He already had thought of Big Bird, just as a lark waiting in the wings, but it was obvious that with huge numbers he couldn’t do them all, so he turned many of his sketches over to fellow artists.

Some had their own ideas: an example was Miss Piggy, created by his friend Frank Oz. Her famous Karate chop —  “What would she be without it?” — was unrehearsed, but it became a part of her personality.

Jim didn’t want to just entertain children, and he came up with the idea of “The Muppet Show.” He took it to every network, appeared on every popular talk show, but nobody would buy until Lew Grade in England entered the scene. Grade proposed producing 214 shows if Jim, Kermit and cast would move to England. Grade, who was later knighted by the queen, was an astute businessman, and he decided on immediate syndication, so when “The Muppet Show” premiered, it was being watched in 108 countries. In its five seasons on the air, it was seen by as many as 235 million people a week.

And there in all of it was Kermit.

There was another Kermit — not the frog — but Kermit Scott, one of Jim’s friends when they were both kids, swimming past the fish in Deer Creek. Jim was fascinated by the name, but it was years later, when Scott had a doctorate and was teaching at Purdue, before he realized he had been honored with Jim’s most popular figure being named for him.

Jim’s career came to an abrupt end in 1990 when he was 53. He developed a rare form of pneumonia and died unexpectedly. He never expected a long life, so he had made some funeral plans — a happy little funeral, he said, with the mourners to wear bright colors. More than 5,000 attended the service that began with a jazz band marching down the aisle playing “When The Saints Go Marching In.” All the muppets were there except Kermit, Jim’s alter ego.

“When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better from my having been here. It’s a wonderful life, and I love it,” Jim once wrote.

Frank Oz said of him, “He was the fellow who uncorked the bottle. He not only uncorked it, he shook it up.”