Jim Henson and the Birth of the Muppets

Rewind looks at the legacy of Jim Henson and the creation of his Muppet empire.
The Muppets (John Barrett/Sesame Workshop/Associated Press)
Dennis Lee, 2011. (The Canadian Press)
Sesame Street hosts Matt Robinson (Gordon), Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) Loretta Long (Susan) and Bob McGrath (Bob) with Big Bird, circa 1969. (Children's Television Workshop/Getty Images)

This edition of Rewind celebrates Kermit, the Frog, Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, Fozzie Bear, Bert and Ernie, all creations from the fertile mind of Jim Henson. It's been twenty-five years since Henson died suddenly of a bacterial infection. But his legacy of children's' television, especially the groundbreaking Sesame Street, lives on in living rooms everywhere. He was also the genius behind The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, various Muppet movies and feature films such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.     

Big Bird reads to Connor Scott and Tiffany Jiao during a taping of Sesame Street. ((Mark Lennihan/Associated Press))

In May 1990, when it was announced that the beloved creator of Kermit the Frog and Sesame Street had died, the world was shocked. Here on CBC Radio, poet Dennis Lee, who wrote for the program Fraggle Rock for several years, talked about his friend and mentor Jim Henson. 

Canadian indie musician Feist gets cuddly with the residents of Sesame Street. ((Theo Wargo/Sesame Street Workshop) )

For many children, their first exposure to the world of the Muppets is on the program Sesame Street. When Sesame Street first came to television in 1969, it was a big hit. And a major development in educational television programming for children. At a time when television was seen as strictly entertainment, it tried to do something else: to educate. And particularly to educate preschool children. 

One of Canada's most beloved children's performers, Lois Lilienstein (pictured centre) of Sharon, Lois, and Bram has died at age 78. (CBC)

The experiment was a resounding success. Generations of children learned their ABCs and 123s from Sesame Street. Soon countries around the world created their own version. Canadian Sesame Street debuted in 1972. 

Sesame Street was a huge success in Canada, especially after the program got its own Canadian characters… you may remember Louie the French Canadian otter, Dottie the pilot, and Balou the polar bear? 

But TV critic Morris Wolfe didn't think Sesame Street should be "Canadianized" at all. He even accused Sesame Street of "cultural imperialism." He spoke about this with Harry Brown and Maxine Crook on Morningside in 1976.

There was also concern expressed by Monica Sims of the BCC and Vera Good from the Ontario Educational Television Authority who tallked about it with Barbara Frum on As It Happens in 1971.

By 1996, Canadian Sesame Street became so Canadian that its name was changed to Sesame Park. The show's producers Duncan Lamb and Julie Strassman-Cohn talked about the change with Andy Barrie on CBC Toronto's Metro Morning in 1997.

Twenty five years ago, the entertainment world lost this powerhouse of puppetry and comedy. Jim Henson died suddenly of a rare pneumonia on May 16, 1990.

On this program we also talked to and about about other icons of Canadian children's entertainment like Fred Penner, the Kids of Degrassi Street and Sharon, Lois and Bram

We had to leave Raffi for another shows... sorry.