Shocking news from The Jim Henson Company last week: John Henson, the fourth child of famed puppeteer, Jim Henson, has passed away. John was responsible for the body suit puppetry and voice of one of my favorite characters, Sweetums, for almost 25 years. John also did the puppetry for the original Coca-Cola Polar Bear. According to Muppet Wiki, this meant many times for performances he performed as the bear sledding and skiing.
In a statement on the company’s Facebook page:
It is with great sadness that we confirm that John Henson, son of Jim and Jane Henson and brother to Lisa, Cheryl, Brian and Heather, died at age 48 of a sudden massive heart attack on Friday, February 14, while at home with his daughter. John served as a shareholder and board member of The Jim Henson Company. He leaves two daughters, Katrina (15) and Sydney (10) and his wife Gyongyi. A private service is being planned.”
I know I am not the only who grew up watching The Muppets and benefitting from the magic this family brought to the world. Just last summer I took my son to see a performance by Heather Henson and was amazed how the art of puppetry had evolved over the generations. We are still captivated, still in awe.
Growing up I always gravitated towards the Muppet characters that were struggling with their differences. Grover was furry and lovable, but he was also constantly searching for his place in the world bouncing from job to job. He even created a super persona to align with his deep, deep philanthropic needs. Gonzo was a Muppet who was proud of being unique. His large nose was unlike any other Muppets and that was just fine by him.
Sweetums was a character who always wanted to fit in and rarely did. His size alone made it difficult. Then there was the rest of his appearance which, let’s face it, the guy looked scary. That was his message though — what we seem to be on the outside isn’t always who we are on the inside. I grew up, consistently, as one of the tallest kids in my class, certainly the tallest girl. Many times I was clumsy and awkward in my growth spurts, a less than graceful duck in a pond of swans.
During The Muppet Movie I completely related to Sweetums. The Muppet gang met him on their journey out West and asked him to join them. He was so overwhelmed by the gesture that he didn’t know how to properly respond like a, well, like a normal Muppet would with a gratuitous song and dance. Instead he ran off and we assumed he was offended or insulted by the offer. But of COURSE he wasn’t. It’s what he’d been waiting his entire life for — to be included, welcomed, invited into the Muppet gang! When he came running back with his suitcase and discovered that the Muppets had left without him … oh my heart. I got it.
I won’t spoil the end of the film for you, but it works out for Sweetums. It truly does. Muppet moments like that were significant for me. It helped me realize that people can misunderstand you, that not every action is against you, and sometimes you need to work to be more clear. I learned this from watching Sweetums learn this.
We send our heartfelt condolences to the entire Henson family and those feeling the loss of this great artist.
Watch Sweetums perform in “Professional Pirate”
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