The Rainbow Connection

My mother was a longtime admirer of John and Bobby Kennedy. She would tell me stories about them constantly. Our talks about the Kennedys intensified as November 22, 1983 approached, marking the 20th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Like many, my mother could recall exactly where she was and what she was doing when she heard the news. She described her shock, sadness, and the sense of loss that impacted her and so many others.

Now its my turn to reflect on the sudden death 20 years ago of a man I never knew but had an immeasurable effect on my life. Like my mother with President Kennedy, I remember learning the tragic news like it happened yesterday. But for me the loss was not of a president, world leader, or any kind of politician. It was Muppet creator Jim Henson. On May 16, 1990, I was interning for my local Congressman in Baltimore, Maryland. In those pre-Internet days the office received news on a computer through the AP wire. I was checking the wire as I had so many times before when I read that Henson died of pneumonia. “That can’t be right,” I thought. Henson was only 53 and I hadn’t even heard he was sick. I read the story over and over again. I confirmed his death on the TV news before I finally accepted the truth. Later that evening I told my mother that I felt like a big part of my childhood died that day. Twenty years later, I feel the same way.

I don’t remember life without the Muppets. My mother introduced me to “Sesame Street” as a baby. Maybe I didn’t know Jim Henson then, but I sure knew Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and, of course Kermit the Frog. To me they were just funny, but through them I was actually learning ABCs, which I knew before I could walk. I also learned how to Count from The Count.

When I grew a little older I discovered that Kermit had a different set of friends on something called “The Muppet Show.” Poor Kermit was trying to hold everything together while Fozzie, Gonzo, Miss Piggy and all the others drove him crazy. To me and my brother the Muppets were hilarious. But, as a kid, I could not understand why my mother liked them too.

It was only later that I realized that it was Henson’s genius and creativity that made the Muppets come alive. His technical innovation alone was remarkable. With the Muppets Henson combined features of marionettes and puppets, giving the creatures movement and expression that hadn’t been seen before. But the craft was only part of the appeal. The Muppets were fun three-dimensional characters with intelligence, wit, and flaws. While they were outlandish and funny, they felt real. After a while, you forgot they were made out of cloth. They seemed more human than many actual human beings.

Perhaps that’s why, while I left many childhood favorites behind, the Muppets stayed with me as I grew older. Another reason may be that the Muppets spoke to the best of us. Henson’s work was satirical at times, but never cynical. He respected his audiences and never talked down to them.

Many writers have reflected on Henson’s death recently. They have pointed out that he was never content. He was always pushing himself to new frontiers. Putting the Muppets in a full-length movie was a risk, but he took it and succeeded. Later he made The Dark Crystal, a film with entirely animatronic characters. One can only imagine what Henson might have done with computer animation. Indeed, it’s the Pixar studio that’s best carrying on his legacy, combining state-of-the-art technology with smart, funny, soulful storytelling.

Thankfully his legacy is being kept alive in other ways. The Muppets are still around, and Jason Segel is developing another Muppet movie. Still, I often miss Henson and wonder what works he may have been created if he had not been denied the gift of years. In the post-9/11 world that seems more fractured than ever, we could have really used someone who believed that all races, nationalities, and cultures could work together. In Jim Henson’s world it made no difference whether you were white, black, Asian or Hispanic, just as it made no difference whether you were a bird, frog, pig or a bear. We sorely need Henson’s talent and vision, and it’s just not fair that he was taken too soon.

In the end though, Henson accomplished more in 53 years than most could in several lifetimes. His work has timeless appeal, and, now that I am 37, I can understand why adults enjoy it as much as children. This was reinforced as I saw my young niece and nephew discover “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” while I rediscovered those shows right along with them. I felt a real connection as they got into the Muppets just like I did those many years ago.

Speaking of connections, one of Kermit the Frog’s best songs was “The Rainbow Connection.” All of these years after Henson’s passing, that song could not be more resonant. Henson’s work was a rainbow that included so many colors. The song includes the line “the lovers, the dreamers and me.” Jim Henson was a lover of his audience and he always dreamed of new and better worlds. While he may be gone, the Rainbow Connection endures.

Adam Spector
June 1, 2010

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