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APPRECIATIONS : The Man Who Gave Soul to the Muppets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Catapulted to fame by “Sesame Street,” Muppet creator Jim Henson, who died Wednesday at age 53 in New York of a massive bacterial infection, left behind a dynasty of remarkable foam-and-wire creations--Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Big Bird among them--that live on with a beguiling independent reality of their own.

The flamboyant vanity of Miss Piggy (“Moi?”), the endearing greed of Cookie Monster, the shy sweetness of Big Bird and Kermit’s bemused voice of reason are familiar to audiences worldwide through television, films, records, books, toys, computer software, clothing and other Muppet merchandise.

More significant than the marketing bonanza it became, was the fact that the special world of the Muppets offered a haven to children growing up in an increasingly troubled era, a haven where reading and numbers were fun, a haven without peer pressure or violence or drug dealers. Parents encouraged their children to walk down “Sesame Street” or soar with “Pigs in Space,” secure in the knowledge that no harm would befall them.

Although the characters will survive, the sorrow is that their future will lack the guiding hand of their gentle creator.

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Henson’s genius flowered in his original exploitation of television as a visual medium. Earlier television shows with human and puppet characters, such as “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” were set up like little theater performances, with a human host and puppeteers behind a curtain.

Henson created interaction between humans and Muppets--his term for a cross between puppets and marionettes--with complex, three-dimensional settings and crew members concealed in trenches or behind walls.

Instead of seeing a human simply talking to a puppet, viewers were offered a new dimension, one where Muppets were firmly in control and human visitors had to cope with the eccentric surroundings as best they could.

Muppets could appear above, below, behind or in front of their human guests. The effects wouldn’t have worked for a live audience--the scaffolding would have been visible and the cameras would have gotten in the way--but the results were spectacular to home viewers.

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Without their endearing, humorous, all-too-human characteristics, however, the Muppets would have been just another technological surprise, to be exclaimed over and then dismissed.

Henson gave them more than technical life; he gave them soul. Sweet, petty, crusty, jealous, greedy, grumpy, wise and funny, each possessed an individuality with which their human counterparts could identify.

And identify they did. Henson’s Muppets became a merchandising and media phenomena, second only to Disney characters in their instant visual identity. Last year, Kermit and Mickey Mouse became a mega-team, when Henson’s production company and the rights to his Muppet characters were purchased by the Walt Disney Co.

Henson’s stunning artistic and commercial success were light years away from his high school puppet club days and a career that began in the ‘50s with “Sam and Friends,” a local puppet show on a television station in Washington.

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That show, the first major outing for Kermit the Frog, won an Emmy in 1958. Quirky guest appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show” and “The Jimmy Dean Show” followed.

Then, in 1969, came “Sesame Street,” and Henson’s Muppet dynasty proliferated with instantly appealing blue and green monsters, shaggy dogs and round-headed, goggly-eyed creations, helping millions of children learn letters, numbers and social skills.

The first generation of “Sesame Street” viewers are now watching Oscar the Grouch and Bert and Ernie with their own toddlers. (This is the second major creative loss for “Sesame Street.” Joe Raposo, its remarkable composer and musical director, died last year.)

But Henson wanted to reach a wider audience, and “The Muppet Show,” a star-studded variety program, premiered in London in 1976, before moving to the United States. Feature-length movies came later, and still more television series--"Fraggle Rock”; “The Jim Henson Hour,” an innovative mix of live action, computer graphics and puppetry; the Saturday morning cartoon “Muppet Babies”; and the HBO music appreciation series, “The Ghost of Faffner Hall.”

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Not all brought commercial success--the movies “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal” didn’t do well--but Henson’s fantastic creations continued to earn wide-eyed raves.

Kermit the Frog, the reasonable mediator, frequently perplexed by an unreasonable world, was often referred to as the soft-spoken Henson’s alter-ego (he was one of Henson’s earliest creations and Henson supplied his voice). Henson, who preferred staying out of the limelight, denied that his award-winning creations spoke for him. In a 1984 Times interview, he said, “They don’t do or say things I wouldn’t otherwise do or say. I don’t see myself as a repressed person hiding behind the characters.”

Yet during that interview, Henson only became voluble when he spoke as Kermit. To a little green frog, the spotlight was a warm and wonderful place to be.

Free-lance writer Charles Solomon contributed to this article.

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