Behind the scenes with the Muppets
Jane Nebel was a student at the University of Maryland in 1955 when she began working as a puppeteer on the live show “Sam and Friends.” It was there she met Muppets creator Jim Henson. They married in 1959.
In conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibit “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” Jane Henson is delivering a behind-the-scenes presentation about her late husband’s work.
Q: From where does the title of your presentation, “Look Both Ways and Go,” come?
A: I first gave the talk in Atlanta, and we hoped to create a museum there in connection with puppetry. So the title comes from looking at the past and then looking to see what the future could be.
Q:Tell us about the video clips you’ll show.
A: They’re from the archives, and are a lot of my favorite pieces over the years. We started in 1955, so the clips are from the mid-’50s, a little look at the work and some personal clips. I was much more active in the business in the ’50s.
Q:Who coined the term “Muppet” and who was the first Muppet?
A: Jim named it. In 1955 we started with a five-minute show on twice a day in Washington, D.C. Kermit was very young and very early; Jim made him when he was 18. Rowlf came in 1964. Then we were doing appearances on national TV – the “Today Show,” “The Steve Allen Show” and with Rowlf on “The Jimmy Dean Show.” Rowlf was originally made for a dog chow commercial.
Q:Are all of your children involved in the business?
A: All of them are somewhat active in puppetry in different ways. My daughter, Cheryl, is in charge of the foundation that gives money in the field of puppetry. ... My sons, Brian and John, and daughter Lisa run the company, which is in Los Angeles now. They own the Charlie Chaplin lot in the middle of Hollywood, so I think that’s a great thrill. Two shows they produce are “Sid the Science Kid” and “Dinosaur Train.” And my daughter Heather travels showing other people’s puppet films she supports.
Q:Which Muppets are your favorites?
A: I do enjoy them all, but I like Sam the Eagle very much.
Q:Have you been traveling with the Smithsonian exhibit?
A: They like me to come and give this little talk at the venues. They’ve been very successful, with large and enthusiastic crowds. We’ve been exceedingly pleased at the response, especially with the Smithsonian people. On that same day, I’m bringing the puppeteer Jonathan Cross of The Cosmic Bicycle Theatre to perform. He’s a favorite puppeteer of ours.