“When we were children my friends heard that my father was a puppeteer and they just felt sorry for us,” says Lisa Henson, daughter of the late Jim Henson and CEO of his namesake the Jim Henson Company. “They thought he was like a birthday party puppeteer or something,” she adds with a laugh.
It wasn’t until 1969, when Lisa was 9 years old, that her father’s name entered the pop-culture psyche with the debut of the affable, puppet-driven PBS children’s television show Sesame Street, home to the likes of Big Bird, Ernie and Kermit the Frog. Almost a half-century later, Jim’s legacy lives on, not only in his world-famous cast of Muppets and otherworldly characters but also in the company’s pioneering, award-winning work in the fields of puppetry and animation.
“It was a very informal household, with art projects and all of us making things in our free time,” says Lisa, the eldest of five children Jim shared with his wife, Jane. The pair met as students at a puppetry class at the University of Maryland, College Park, and went on to work together on Henson’s first TV show, Sam and Friends, in 1955. After marrying Jim, Jane eventually hung up her puppeteering hat to become a stay-at-home mom but nurtured her artistic side, serving as both a mentor for up-and-coming puppeteers and as a volunteer art teacher at her children’s school.
“I think we all embraced the fun of having an art studio or a woodworking shop in the garage, or a playroom where you could get all the art supplies out,” says Lisa of a childhood spent in Greenwich, Connecticut, and later in Westchester County, New York. And despite Jim’s ever-expanding ragtag cast of Muppets (which grew to include Muppet Babies and Fraggle Rock), her father’s creations rarely made an appearance in their daily home life. Instead, Jim’s imaginative streak manifested itself in other forms. “He carved spectacularly ornate Halloween pumpkins and made special handmade Christmas ornaments every year and added them to the collection,” recalls Lisa. “Some of that creativity that he was always overflowing with was seen in the projects that all families do—but they were done a little more wildly and creatively in our house.”
While puppeteering came second nature to her youngest sister, Heather, Lisa—a self-described “shy, anxiety-filled youth”—was more drawn to the behind-the-scenes creative process. Armed with a degree in folklore and mythology from Harvard University (where she also served as the first female president of the Harvard Lampoon), Lisa received a job offer upon graduation as a junior executive at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles, where she worked her way up the ranks for the next 10 years to the position of executive vice president of production, lending her name to blockbuster films including Lethal Weapon (1987), Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).
“I feel like my work at the studio was actually too exciting at that time to give it up. I was also enjoying being independent from the family business,” explains Lisa, now a mother to two teenagers, who also went on to serve as president of Columbia Pictures. “I felt that, if I ever did go back to work in the family company, I would like to bring as much knowledge and experience that you can pick up on the outside and bring that in.”
And in 1999, she did just that joining the leadership ranks as an official staff member of the Jim Henson Company, nine years after her father’s untimely death in 1990. “My father asked me to come work at the company every year until he died, which is a little sad for me that I never did make that decision while he was alive,” says Lisa.
Continuing her father’s legacy in children’s programming, Lisa’s proudest career moment to date is Sid the Science Kid, an Emmy-nominated preschool show that started airing in 2008 and broke new technology ground with its merging of digital animation with hand puppetry. “It was very exciting to start making a program for PBS when it’s been so many years since Sesame Street first aired,” she says. (The Jim Henson Creature Shop still creates the characters for the show, which is now owned by Sesame Workshop, which just signed a five-year partnership with HBO.)
And while children’s television programming remains at the heart of the Jim Henson Company (Dinosaur Train, Pajanimals and Hi, Opie! to name a few), the company has a history of bringing state-of-the-art puppetry and animation to the big screen, too, from classics such as Labyrinth (1986) and MirrorMask (2005) to an upcoming sequel to 1982’s The Dark Crystal. Meanwhile, the company’s Henson Alternative brand is geared toward an adult audience, with projects including the staged improv show Puppet Up!—Uncensored.
So what makes her father’s work live on? “He clearly created a cast of characters that lived on beyond him,” says Lisa (her own favorite being Rowlf the Dog, not only for his piano-playing skills but also for his all-American sensibility and folksy nature). “I always love the diversity of the characters, and I think people respond to the way that they are a mixed-up troop. He didn’t try to design a perfect cast of ideal individuals. They would be forgettable if they were just perfect princesses and superheroes.”