John Henson, We Hardly Knew Ye

Aimee LoSecco pays tribute to an unsung artist — John Henson.

It’s not comics, but we don’t just celebrate comics here. Sometimes it just makes sense to widen the tent a little. Here’s Aimee on John Henson, who died of a heart attack earlier this year at the far-too-young age of 48:

By AIMEE LoSECCO

With the The Jim Henson Company enjoying a resurgence with the new Muppet movie and the Syfy show “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop,” I felt it was time to honor an unsung hero of the puppet world: John Henson.

The youngest son of the late Jim and Jane Henson, John would follow in the family footsteps of bringing inanimate objects not only to life, but into our lives as characters we know, love, and consider a part of our families. We all know iconic characters like Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse, and Yoda, but there’s something different about Muppets. Muppets are real and tactile; they have life in their limbs and a light in their eyes that tug on our heart strings (pardon the puppet pun).  The Henson family, and puppeteers by extension, bring that spark to the public.

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Now, most people are familiar with the elder siblings, Brian, Lisa, and Cheryl through their work helming The Jim Henson Company, various TV and film productions, and philanthropic work with The Jim Henson Legacy. John was a quiet artist, most known for donning the full-body puppets for the Coca-Cola polar bear and Sweetums. Ah yes, Sweetums. There really was no better person to embody this gentle giant. Goofy, boisterous, lovable. … Sure, he gets a little carried away at times and can demolish a wall easier than the Kool-Aid Man, but Sweetums is a well-meaning monster.

Sweetums and Milton Berle

Sweetums and Milton Berle

Similarly, John created work that was larger than life, yet completely relatable. John let the actions and work speak for itself. A true master craftsman, he immersed himself in sculpture, architecture, and furniture design. John had an uncanny eye for spatial relations and would build incredible sculptures to not only occupy, but transform the space they inhabit. An incredible example of this is his piece “The Great Hot Air Balloon Circus.”  Built over the span of 1982-1983 with the help of his friend John Kahn, this four-story sculpture graced the Henson New York corporate headquarters with its’ whimsical presence until it was relocated to Disney’s New York flagship store.

 "The Great Hot Air Balloon Circus"

“The Great Hot Air Balloon Circus”

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This mammoth sculpture was designed to fill the the empty air space in the spiral staircase  from the fourth floor down to the lobby, which itself acted as a vertical telephone. Hot air balloons connected by ladders, airways, and walkways are adorned by dozens of Muppet figurines peering out and down, climbing ladders, or tangled in ropes. The attention to detail is staggering and truly stands as a testament to John’s love of structure and architectural design.

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John was a master of all media. He released a series of guache prints in the early 2000s that depicted Kermit the Frog in various golf scenarios. Yes, I own several and yes, they reside next to my John Lennon prints. Pay close attention to the watch on Kermit’s wrist. Recognize a familiar face?

"Play It Where It Lies"

“Play It Where It Lies”

"Knock On Wood"

“Knock On Wood”

What more can I say about this incredibly talented man who stepped aside to let his work do the talking?  I’ll leave you with an anecdote from Craig Shemin, president of The Jim Henson Legacy:

“When Jane Henson started to do her presentations, she wanted to show audiences what the Henson workshop was like so she asked me and John to put together a little video. So we spent the day at the shop and John ran the video camera and we went all over the place and interviewed people. And John would always find the funniest things to shoot. He saw things from a different point of view and you could hear him laughing offscreen. He was always looking for the joy in life and while I didn’t spend a lot of time with him, we worked together several times and I always remember him smiling and having a great time — even when he was sweating inside of Sweetums.”

Sculpture by John Henson in the New York Muppet Workshop

Sculpture by John Henson in the New York Muppet Workshop

Author: 13th Dimension

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8 Comments

  1. Aimee, thank you so much for sharing this side of John Henson. I have always appreciated him as the quiet one. As I am rewatching “Creatureshop Challenge” I have bouts of wonder if John was supposed to be a part of the show and if they edited out his bits. My heart breaks a little, each time I see Brian on the show. John was an incredibly wonderful talent and we lost him too early, just like their dad. again, thanks for giving us a little bit of such a private man.

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  2. Being a fan of all things Muppets, I’ve been proud of my extensive knowledge. That is, until I read this article. I knew the names of Jim’s children and their involvement with the company, but I knew so little about John. Thank you for this beautiful tribute. I wish I had researched him before today. His work is simply stunning.

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  3. Yoda was a Jim Henson puppet….

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  4. Yeah, thanks Zoe – “We all know iconic characters like Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse, and Yoda, but there’s something different about Muppets.” is a weird thing to say when Yoda WAS a muppet!

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    • Very sweet article. He was clearly a talented and lovely man.

      The author was correct. Yoda was not any sorf of Muppet. Jim Henson was consulted about the character by George Lucas, and or course Frank Oz performed him, but Yoda was not a Henson creation.

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      • And even if he was, he may not have been a Muppet but instead a Creature from The Creature Shop. He’s more like a Creature than a Muppet.

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      • I did not know that. Thanks looked it up.

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  5. Great article! I appreciate John’s contributions to the Muppet legacy.

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  1. News Update: June 13, 2014 | The Muppet Mindset - […] folks over at The 13th Dimension website recently posted a fantastic tribute to the late John Henson. The tribute goes …

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