The Jim Henson Company earned a decades-long reputation as both a treasured source of quality family entertainment, and the United States' most notorious exploiter of foam-rubber-based performers.
The Early YearsEdit
While exploring the swamps of Alabama for a high school science project, student Jim Henson encountered a banjo-playing frog named Kermit, who dreamed of making it big in Hollywood. Immediately realizing the money-making potential of such a novel performer, the young Henson immediately signed on as Kermit's manager. The two began to produce television programs, first for local channels, then in national markets, and eventually achieved nationwide fame as contributors to The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jimmy Dean Hour. Their rising stardom attracted more and more puppet performers to sign with Henson, and the young entrepreneur was soon the top name in puppet representation. In private, Henson referred to his stable of talent as "Muppets," a combination of "money" and "puppets."
However, unbeknownst to Kermit, Miss Piggy Lee, Fozzie Bear, or any of the other Muppet performers, Henson had shrewdly written obscure clauses into their contracts, all but enslaving the performers, and guaranteeing that the vast majority of the income they generated went directly to Henson. In the late '60s, as dissent among the Muppets began to simmer, a group of performers successfully broke away from Henson through a loophole in their contracts. Relocating to New York City, they formed an urban commune known as Sesame Street with the help of a group of sympathetic humans.
Enraged, Henson exerted ever-tighter control over his remaining performers. Muppets who attempted to defy him would frequently suffer a grisly fate; at the 1992 Muppet Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, Rowlf the Dog recalled seeing Henson drag a fellow performer, never to be seen again, off to "a room where scissors hung on racks on every wall, and an industrial shredder sat in a far corner." Working conditions quickly became intolerable, with the overbooked Muppets being worked into exhaustion to generate more money for Henson's growing empire.
Freedom and FailureEdit
Tensions reached a breaking point in 1976 with the beginning of the extraordinary five-year strike that led to The Muppet Show. The worldwide popularity of those broadcasts, and the public attention drawn to the Muppets' plight, forced Henson to clean up his business practices and renegotiate the Muppets' contracts on more equitable terms. He grew ever more embittered by the setback, falling deeper into drug abuse -- as anyone who has seen The Dark Crystal, a film Henson described in one interview as "my deliberate attempt to traumatize young children for life," can attest.
Henson died in 1990 under mysterious circumstances, and rumors persist to this day that his death may have been revenge on the part of one or more Muppets still bearing a grudge for their treatment in previous decades. Sadly, without Henson's admittedly brilliant entrepreneurial skills, the Muppets have fared poorly creatively and commercially following his death, most recently reduced to appearing in Pizza Hut ads and a series of increasingly subpar TV movies. In 2005, suffering from crippling debt, they agreed to be purchased by The Walt Disney Company.
Separated from the Muppets and their dark legacy, the reformed Jim Henson Company continues to produce movies and television shows such as Farscape and MirrorMask, that are universally imaginative, innovative, and ignored by a majority of the viewing public.