From the Collections: Sam and Friends Return to Their Place of Invention :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Dwight Blocker Bowers, Curator, National Museum of American History
Jane and Jim Henson with Sam and Friends puppets. Courtesy of the Jim Henson Company

Late last summer, Jane Henson and her five children (Lisa, Brian, Cheryl, John, and Heather) donated ten puppet figures to the Museum--the earliest examples of the global phenomenon known as the Muppets. Created by puppeteer-innovator Jim Henson while he was a nineteen-year-old student at the University of Maryland, the characters represent the cast of Sam and Friends, a Washington, D.C., television show that Jim Henson and his then-future wife Jane (née Nebel) created and performed between 1955 and 1961. The five-minute show screened twice a day on weekdays: first at 6:25 p.m. just before the news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report, and at 11:25 p.m., before The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen.

The series offered Jim Henson the opportunity to invent, direct, design, and perform, and grew out of his fascination with the seemingly limitless possibilities offered by broadcast television. He later remarked, "I just wanted to work in television ... and puppets were just a way to get into TV." In fact, the technology of broadcast television informed many of Jim Henson's innovations. Previous TV shows featuring puppets had merely placed the camera in front of the proscenium of a traditional puppet stage, but Henson's imaginative use of television cameras to animate his figures transformed the art of puppetry.

Kermit on the set of Sam and Friends. Courtesy of the Jim Henson Company

While manipulating the puppets, Jim and Jane watched their actions on a television monitor, enabling them to see their performances as television audiences would see them. In his efforts to develop a performance style tailored for the camera, Henson also devised an element that would become integral to the construction of his puppets; he created patterns with each figure's eyes, nose, and mouth--he called it "the magic triangle"--that established the central focal point essential to bringing a puppet to life in the eye of a television camera.

It was during the era of Sam and Friends that Henson came up with the word Muppet. Seemingly a combination of the words puppet and marionette (a puppet operated by strings), Henson insisted that he adopted the term simply because he liked the way it sounded.

Chief among the cast of endearingly eccentric and comic Sam and Friends characters is the first incarnation of Kermit the Frog, made by Henson from remnants of his mother's discarded spring coat, with two halves of a Ping-Pong ball for eyes. Not yet a frog, Kermit was identified by his creator as "a lizard-like creature." Sam, the nominal star of the television show, is made of papier-mâché and fabric, and has the bulbous nose, jug ears, and wide-eyed, blank expression of a prizefighter. Sam never spoke, but would often lip-synch to popular music, as in his duet with Kermit (the latter in a blonde wig) to the Louis Prima-Keely Smith recording of "That Old Black Magic."

The Sam and Friends puppets donated to the Museum: (1) Harry the Hipster, (2) Kermit, (3) Sam, (4) Moldy Hay, (5) Pierre the French Rat, (6) Professor Madcliffe, (7) Chicken Liver, (8) Icky Gunk, (9) Mushmellon, and (10) Yorick. Smithsonian photo by Hugh Talman

Yorick is a purple, hollow-eyed creature, his name clearly derived from the character mentioned in Hamlet. Known for his voracious appetite, he is a precursor to hungry monsters like Sesame Street's Cookie Monster. Harry the Hipster is a sock puppet made of black plush whose white-rimmed sunglasses and love of jazz make him a proponent of the beat generation. Professor Madcliffe, made of pale pink fabric, has a fringe of brown "hair" and an enormous moustache. He is known for his loud, rambunctious demeanor. Chicken Liver is an abstract humanoid character with a large nose. Mushmellon, a rotund, monster-type creature with a broad mouth and scowling eyes, bears some resemblance to the more famous Oscar the Grouch. Icky Gunk is a green snake-like creature with bared fangs protruding from his red-felt mouth. The comically named Moldy Hay suggests the goofy look of Ernie of the Sesame Street duo Bert and Ernie. The final character in the ensemble is Pierre the French Rat. The oldest surviving puppet created by Jim Henson, Pierre originated in a comic strip that Henson drew for his high school yearbook.

The original Kermit and his friend Sam in the Museum’s conservation lab. Smithsonian photo

From the early beginnings of Sam and Friends--of which only a few episodes survive--the Muppets evolved and went on to achieve worldwide popularity. As products of Jim Henson's fertile imagination, they have reached across generations and communities with elements of warmth, wild humor, and fantasy, rooted in Henson's love of American popular culture. Now the Sam and Friends Muppets have a home in the Museum's collections. At the donation ceremony, Jane remarked, "It is wonderful that Sam and Friends should find themselves back here in Washington, D.C., where they first appeared."

From Prototype, December 2010

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