Muppets Co-Creator Jane Henson Dies at 78

Del Ankers/Disney
Jane Henson

She and future husband Jim Henson created "Sam and Friends," a forerunner of the famous puppets, for a TV station in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s.

Jane Henson, who with her future husband and fellow puppeteer Jim Henson was instrumental in bringing the Muppets to life in the 1950s on a TV station in Washington, D.C., died Tuesday at her home in Greenwich, Conn., after a long battle with cancer. She was 78.

Jane met Jim in a puppetry class in 1954 when she was a fine arts education major at the University of Maryland. While still an undergraduate, Jim was offered a job on NBC affiliate WRC-TV in Washington, and he asked Jane to join him as a co-performer and creator.

Their television show, the five-minute Sam and Friends, aired before the national news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report and then again before The Tonight Show Starring Steve Allen on the D.C. station. Their characters were forerunners of the Muppets, and the show included a prototype of the Hensons' most famous puppet, Kermit the Frog.

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The puppets' first national television guest appearance would come on Allen’s Tonight Show, and soon they were making guest appearances on the top variety shows of the day on their way to eventual international acclaim.

The couple married in May 1959 and legally separated in 1986. Jim died in 1990. Two years later, Jane funded and founded the Jim Henson Legacy to conserve, preserve and present the artistic contribution of her late husband. In 2001, she created the Jane Henson Foundation for philanthropic work.

After the couple split, she continued her association with the Jim Henson Co. and actively participated in the company as it became a global family entertainment organization, collaborating with Jim on projects that included the traveling museum exhibit "The Art of the Muppets" as well as "The Muppet Show on Tour" and "Sesame Street Live" arena shows.

Known for her keen eye for spotting puppeteer talent, Jane also became the point of entry to the company for many top puppeteers.

A native of Queens, N.Y., Jane also served on the board of the Jim Henson Foundation, founded in 1982 to promote and develop the art of puppetry (now headed by their daughter, Cheryl). Each year, the foundation introduces thousands of adults and families to puppetry through grant-making and public awareness efforts. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded more than 675 grants to more than 300 American puppet artists for the creation and development of new work.

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During her career, Jane also served as an assistant art teacher at the Mead School for Human Development in Greenwich and co-founded the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn.

In addition to Cheryl, survivors include daughters Lisa and Heather and sons Brian and John. A memorial mass is planned for next week.

Donations may be sent in memory of Jane Henson to the Center for Puppetry Arts, the Jim Henson Foundation for the support of puppetry or the Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theater Center.