When I found out that a special exhibit of Jim Henson's works was going to be in Chicago at the same time I was there for a conference, I knew I had to go. The morning before my panels, I was on the bus heading out to the museum. Once again, tears welled up in my eyes the moment I saw Kermit sitting there to greet me. I was further overwhelmed with emotion as I watched parents and children, generations really, enjoy and interact with the exhibit, which included pieces and clips from as far back as Henson's commercials produced for the Washington, D.C. market.
I was struck by a number of things in the exhibit. One was how determined Jim Henson was to get into television. He would do whatever it took, including taking up puppetry. Contrary to popular belief, puppetry was not Henson's first passion; it was one that he picked up out of necessity and then fell madly in love with. He was open; art, puppets, commercials, late-night tv, children's shows, whatever it took. And once he had made it, he pushed himself and those around him to new creative heights.
That is the other element that really struck me; how much collaboration took place within the Henson family. Henson was someone who had a very unique perspective, could be difficult to work with (what creative person isn't?) but ultimately he inspired and helped everyone around him become more than they perhaps ever thought they could be. Without Jim Henson, Sesame Street may have only been an interesting footnote in the history of television. Instead, it has gone on to educate and entertain generations of children.
I picked up the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street while at the museum. The book opens at Jim Henson's funeral and it shows the impact that his life (and death) on the group of people who worked in their way to create Sesame Street. Time and time again, the people who were involved in the show had little to no interest in children's television. But, there they ended up, working together to create television history. For Jim Henson, it wasn't just about being creative and innovative, it was about helping as many people as possible achieve their dreams, too.
I'm also reading Kermit Culture, an academic collection of essays that deal with The Muppet Show. In the first essay, Ben Underwood discusses how Henson manages to turn the viewer into a Muppet when they watch the show, bringing them in on the joke, in on the collective experience that was The Muppet Show. Television is a blend of a collective and solitary experience. When Henson was growing up, television was rare and so the entire neighborhood would gather in the living room of the one house that owned one, turned viewing into an experience similar to live theater or performance. Today, with hundreds of channels and multiple TVs per household, this is not a very common experience. But the performers and audience have always been cut off from each other. Jim Henson managed to bridge that gap.
Jim Henson changed the face of TV with a bunch of puppets. His legacy isn't just the people who worked most directly with him, but the millions of us whom he welcomed into his world, changing us into Muppets. The best dreams, Kermit once said, are the ones we share. Shouldn't we, in higher education, be aspiring to the same things?