“I think Jim Henson helped to keep imagination alive. Kids start out with wonderful imaginations then get squelched tot hunk into straight lines, and I think he helped keep imagination alive for several generations.” — Eileen Blumenthal
The biggest juggernaut in children’s-television history sprang forth from mundane origins. At a Manhattan dinner party in 1966, a Carnegie Foundation executive named Lloyd Morrissett mentioned that his young daughter was so enthralled by television that she would park herself in front of the family’s set to gaze at early-morning test patterns. That story prompted a public-television producer named Joan Cooney to investigate how television could be used to package education as entertainment: “What if it went down more like ice cream than spinach?” The ensuing creation — in which kids learned everything from empathy to arithmetic under the tutelage of colorful creatures like an 8-ft.-tall canary and a misanthropic garbage-can dweller — was greeted with acclaim by parents, teachers and even President Richard Nixon. Four decades later, it’s a cultural touchstone that remains required viewing for millions of youngsters in 120 countries.
The Muppets’ TV history starts long before Sesame Street. From 1955 to 1961, Henson’s Sam and Friends, a five-minute live show, aired twice nightly on WRC-TV, Washington, D.C. Sam and Friends afforded Kermit’s debut; it also featured several Muppets that didn’t make the cut for The Muppet Show. In 1961 the Muppets began making regular guest appearances on NBC’s Today. The following year, Rowlf made his debut in a Purina dog food commercial; in 1963, the affable canine began regular appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show. The Muppets also made regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show from 1966 to 1971. In 1975, the year Henson formed an agreement with Lord Lew Grade to produce 24 episodes of The Muppet Show, he also created an entirely new set of Muppets who were featured on Saturday Night Live in its first season. During The Muppet Show’s heyday in 1979, The Muppet Movie was released in the United States, beginning the Muppets’ transition from TV to film. Three more movies featured The Muppet Show cast: The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. A fourth, The Muppets’ Treasure Island, was released in February, 1996. Henson also produced several other TV shows featuring the Muppets after The Muppet Show ended: Fraggle Rock, focusing on an underground community of fun-loving Fraggles, hardworking Doozers and odious Gorgs; The Storyteller, which aired only in England; Muppet Babies, a children’s cartoon featuring baby versions of The Muppet Show’s cast; and several other short- lived productions.