Mr. Muppet

IT started with a stick, a piece of his mother's spring coat, and a Ping-Pong ball sliced in half for eyes. Jim Henson once told me he was really just fooling around at the time, trying to come up with another puppet to improve his chances in local television. He didn't realize the green, goggle-eyed fellow he was creating would become the most familiar pop image of its kind since Mickey Mouse and preside over a whole passage of early childhood for two generations.

It was, of course, Kermit the Frog - or a lizard-like precursor - whose wistful, croaky voice would echo the longings and dreams of kids around the globe.

Henson himself always did that voice, and Kermit became Henson's alter ego. But back then - more than 30 years ago - Henson didn't know Kermit was a Muppet. That name would come later. And Henson certainly didn't know he would go on to make puppetry a mass media art form, one that would people world culture with indelible images like Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, or that odd couple of the puppet world, Bert and Ernie.

For more than three decades, the career that ended when Henson died last week sustained and vitalized an ancient, symbolic art that children naturally respond to. On public TV's ``Sesame Street'' - the Muppets' home ground - broad reactions playing across muppet faces have enthralled fans since 1969. Joan Ganz Cooney, creator of ``Sesame Street,'' told me the historic children's series wouldn't have existed in the form we know it without Muppets. When she first saw them in action, she fell on the floor laughing, then picked herself up and insisted they be on the show.

Muppets could also be big business. ``The Muppet Show,'' launched in 1976, reached an estimated 235 million viewers in 100 countries, reputedly the biggest audience for any television program in the world. And you knew the ``The Muppet Movie'' would be a smash the minute you heard those shrieks of delight from the young audience when Kermit bicycled on screen.

Maybe the creatures have been marketed a bit opportunistically at times, but Muppets themselves have a decency nearly all children put their trust in. They aren't cheerful warriors, like the Ninja Turtles - though Henson had a hand in that current film hit. They aren't battery-driven robots programmed for destruction. And they are free of ethnic limitations. Henson said he deliberately made them abstract and nonracial.

My younger son says he thinks it's hard for adults to understand how much Henson meant to his generation, whose attitudes were partly shaped by Muppet morality tales. But Henson aimed for grown-ups too. He was reaching, he says, for an innocence that he felt lay behind the most sophisticated people. In all people, as a matter of fact, he saw a basic goodness. It was that part of them he knew would respond to Muppets. And something in the familiar Muppet voices does invite basic and often tender feelings along with the mirth.

With Muppets, Henson was able to streamline and exaggerate little allegories in a way that would be awkward and boring with real actors. His characters work in an arena of simplified human motives - greed, materialism, love. He didn't want them to be topical, to talk about Bush or the New Kids on the Block. It was much deeper human concerns he was after.

Like other artists who have become hugely successful entrepreneurs, Henson had a decision to make: Was he a businessman or a creator? Despite media interests all over the globe, he leaned toward the creative, remaining fascinated with little cloth creatures and what they could do. If I spoke business with him, he was friendly but matter-of-fact. On the subject of puppets, his voice lit up, with Kermit's looping tones detectable somewhere beneath the enthusiasm.

Henson felt the US had no puppet tradition and hoped to fill the gap. His figures have now partly done so. But at the moment, no one with Henson's genius and understanding seems ready to carry on his rare and vitally needed art, so close to the inner life of children.

``Can you imagine an America without Kermit,'' Henson said. ``Kids cannot. He is certainly our puppet heritage.''

It is hard to picture a time when both children and adults won't be watching Kermit and company in some form, and smiling inwardly.

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