We are mourning the loss of a wonderfully creative and supportive collaborator, Jane Nebel Henson, who passed away last week. SITES had the great fortune to have partnered with her on the incredibly popular traveling exhibition, Jim Henson's Fantastic World, on the road from 2007 to 2012. The exhibition celebrated the creative genius of Jane’s late husband and creative partner, Jim who is known world-wide as the force behind Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, the Fraggles, and so much more.
As we worked with Jane, it became clear that although she was promoting Jim’s legacy, his genius didn’t stand alone. She was by his side from the beginning. They met in a puppetry class at the University of Maryland and together preformed on the program “Sam and Friends,” a 5-minute series of segments that aired on Washington, D.C.’s NBC affiliate. Side-by-side they created characters and performed. Jane took a break from performing to raise their five children, but was never far from the action becoming a talent scout and training many of the puppeteers who would perform on Sesame Street and other productions. She had an eye for talent . . . something we witnessed at the opening of Jim Henson’s Fantastic World at the Atlanta History Center. A number of local puppeteers were performing at the event and Jane gravitated to one in particular whom she thought had something special. They chatted and she even picked up a puppet of her own to perform a little impromptu skit with him.
When you saw that twinkle in her eye and that warm smile grow, you just knew some great stories were about to be shared. And she shared those stories, with us here at the Smithsonian, with the nearly one million museum visitors who saw Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, and with the ever-growing millions everyday who are entertained and educated by the characters that she and Jim created.
Deborah Macanic, project director for Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, fondly remembers Jane Henson:
My first introduction to Jane Henson was through photographs. I was leafing through dozens of photographs, preparing for a meeting about a potential exhibition on the “Muppet man,” Jim Henson. One photo in particular held my attention—a brightly colored image of Jim and Jane Henson, wearing matching royal blue sweaters and surrounded by their first group of cloth hand puppets, on the set of the 1960 TV show “Sam and Friends.” Jim, obviously confident and looking every bit the future star, stared boldly into the camera; Jane, her soft, shy smile in perfect contrast, held an early version of Kermit perched cross-legged on her shoulder. The hand-scribbled caption read: Puppeteer Jim Henson and his wife on the set . . . .
Months later, after finally meeting Jane Henson in person, I listened spellbound as she walked the exhibition team through a magnificent story of love and dedication that grew from a dream shared by two young students at the University of Maryland into a world-wide phenomenon that has touched millions of lives. From that point on, I could not imagine Jim Henson’s Fantastic World without Jane in it. If she at times chose the background, it was a sweeping landscape for a grand parade of characters, human and “puppoid” to dance across. If ever there was a dream whisperer, she’s it. My high regard and respect for her will inspire me forever.
Last week I picked up one of many newspapers that ran articles about her passing. The headline began—“Jane Henson, co-founder of the Muppets . . ."