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Hundreds Remember Muppets Creator With Statue Dedication at UMD

Crowd at the dedication ceremony. (Maryland Newsline photo by Stephen E. Mather
An inflatable Kermit the Frog greets the dedication crowd. The university renamed Campus Drive "Sesame Street" for the day. (Maryland Newsline photo by Stephen E. Mather)

By Stephen E. Mather
Maryland Newsline
Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003, 3:30 p.m.; photos added Sept. 25, 2003

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog appear locked in conversation, perhaps discussing Kermit’s rocky relationship with Miss Piggy.

The duo, cast in 450 pounds of bronze, sit on a bench at the University of Maryland—the latest tribute to Henson, a Maryland alumnus and creator of the Muppets, whose characters have been enjoyed by audiences around the world.

The statue and a memorial garden were dedicated Wednesday as Henson’s family joined several hundred students and officials to celebrate the film and television puppeteer, who died in 1990.

Before the ceremony – which featured a giant inflatable Kermit and the singing group “Colours” from Northwestern High School – Henson’s wife, Jane, remembered the old days with NBC’s Willard Scott.

Scott, the master of ceremonies, said he knew the couple when they were students at the University of Maryland and worked with Henson on early NBC shows. “I never saw Jim when he wasn’t wearing a long plaid shirt,” Scott said, laughing.

During the ceremony, Henson said her husband “expressed his joy with life through his puppets.” She said the Adele H. Stamp Student Union was a “fitting place” for the memorial because Henson had designed poster art there as an undergraduate.

Statue of Jim Henson and Kermit outside the student union. (Maryland Newsline photo by Stephen E. Mather
Sculptor Jay Hall Carpenter's rendering of Henson and his most famous creation, Kermit the Frog. (Maryland Newsline photo by Stephen E. Mather)

Wednesday’s dedication was scheduled to coincide with Henson’s birthday; he would have been 67.

The idea for a Henson statute came from the Maryland class of 1998, whose members wanted to remember Henson with a gift for the important influence he had over children’s lives. The classes of 1994 and ’99 later joined in on the $217,000 project, along with the university and the student union, according to university spokesman Dave Ottalini.

Project backers selected sculptor Jay Hall Carpenter in a national design competition in December 2000. Carpenter was a sculptor for the Washington National Cathedral, creating more than 500 sculptures of gargoyles, saints and angels.

Fans of Henson’s Muppets, such as Dr. Lawrence E. Mintz, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and director of the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, have described the characters as edgy but fun.

"What Henson gave the Muppets was a sweetened sharpness," Mintz said in an e-mail interview before the ceremony. "The Muppets could be a little tougher, more cynical, sarcastic, combative, but without being mean or nasty.

"I don't know of any children's show per se that was as funny as the Muppets."

Jim Henson and Jane Nebel in 1957. (Courtesy the Hearst Corp.)
Jim Henson and his future wife Jane Nebel performing "Sam and Friends" in 1957. (Courtesy the Hearst Corp.)

Henson got his start in television in the 1950s, performing puppets on Washington’s WTOP-TV while he was attending Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md. He worked for an NBC affiliate, WRC-TV, while in college.

His twice-daily five-minute NBC show, “Sam and Friends,” which he performed with fellow student and future wife Jane Nebel, featured an early version of Kermit the Frog, the famous Muppet character that helped propel Henson and his creations to television fame in the 1970s.

Audiences in more than 100 countries watched "The Muppet Show" from 1976 until 1981.   

Henson also worked on Muppet feature films, early “Sesame Street” shows, creating characters such as Cookie Monster and Big Bird, and other non-Muppet movie projects.

Other area events are scheduled to remember Henson. The American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring is holding a tribute to Henson on Thursday, at 8:15 p.m., and is planning a month-long Muppet movie festival.

The university is currently exhibiting Henson's artwork at Hornbake Library.


Copyright © 2001, 2002, and 2003 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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