On This Day: ‘The Muppet Show’ and ‘Sesame Street’ Creator Jim Henson Dies in 1990

by Jacklyn Krol

Legendary creator Jim Henson died 21 years ago to date.

The Sesame Street creator passed away on May 16, 1990, at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was taken to the emergency room less than 24 hours prior after he began experiencing “acute respiratory distress and symptoms of pneumonia.”

His cause of death was an intense bacterial infection, streptococcus pneumonia.  Jim Henson Productions spokesperson, Arthur Novell, clarified that Henson waited three days to seek treatment after he first began experiencing symptoms. By the time he did go to the hospital, the infection progressed to the point where he was experiencing multiorgan failure. It was too extreme for any medicine to cure it.

The Muppets creative was born as James Maury Henson in Greenville, Mississippi on September 24, 1936. His family moved to Hyattsville, Maryland where he grew up. His father Paul worked for the United States Department of Agriculture and his mother Betty stayed home with Jim and his older brother Paul Ransom Henson.

In high school, Jim Henson decided to join his high school’s puppet club. His passion progressed from there and it turned into work.

“It was the early 1950s and I was between high school and college and needed a job,” he said. “There was this job available for a puppeteer on a local NBC station in Washington. I figured it would be a pretty good job, so I applied for it and got it,” Henson recalled.

Jim Henson’s Beginnings And Career

While working, he also attended the University of Maryland, studying acting, staging, and scenic design. While still a freshman, he landed a five-minute local TV show entitled “Sam and Friends.” The children’s program featured some of the characters on the future show and films, The Muppets. The show managed to win a local Emmy in 1958 and was on the air for eight years.

While in college, he met a fellow student, Jane Nebel. She was also interested in puppeteering and marionettes and became his partner on the show. Their friendship and work relationship evolved into love and they married in 1959. Nebel was able to raise their five children (Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather) while still working on projects like The Muppets.

The Muppet characters and show earned numerous Grammy nominations and wins. It also won three Emmys. Additionally, the show received the prestigious Peabody award for “excellence in children’s programming.” At the time, The Muppet Show held the title for the most widely watched television show in the world.

Finally, Sesame Street began in 1969 as a quest to discover if children can be educated through television. The show is still on to date and earned almost every award under the sun. The program has been broadcasted in more than 80 countries. Fans may remember Jim Henson’s vocals in the Ernie song, “Rubber Duckie.” The track reached number 16 on Billboard’s “Hot 100 Singles” chart. Ironically, the song was nominated for the Grammys Best Recording for Children and lost to The Sesame Street Book & Record. The winning album featured the same song on it.