Jim Henson’s Farewell: Revisit the “Nice, Friendly” Memorial Service at St. John the Divine (1990)

Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it. — Jim Henson

Born in Greenville, Mississippi, Jim Henson spent his youth practicing the tenets of Christian Science, a faith he would officially renounce in 1975. But the power of positive thinking his early religion years instilled would persist, romanticized by his alter-ego, Kermit the Frog, and tempered by foils like the earthy, irascible Ms. Piggy. For every foul-mouthed Oscar the Grouch, there was always a lovable Big Bird, “Jim taught us many things: to save the planet, be kind to each other, praise God, and be silly,” said Muppet writer Jerry Juhl at Henson’s 1990 New York City memorial service. “That’s how I’ll remember him — as a man who was balanced effortlessly and gracefully between the sacred and the silly.”

Henson’s first memorial, held at the cavernous Cathedral of St. John the Divine bore witness to Juhl’s portrait of the late, brilliant creator’s legacy. In true Henson fashion, the puppeteer directed the event himself from beyond the grave, a final lighthearted joke, as he had written in a letter to his family four years earlier: “It feels strange writing this while I am still alive, but it wouldn’t be easy after I go …. This all may seem silly to you guys, but what the hell, I’m gone and who can argue with me?”

By “this all,” Henson meant a funeral service in which guests were forbidden to wear black and asked to mourn and celebrate to the tunes of a Dixieland brass band: “A nice, friendly little service,” he wrote in his instructions, with a “rousing” soundtrack.

To the sounds of jazz, his friends and family added — of course — the songs that defined Henson’s career, including “Sunny Day,” the Sesame Street theme song, Muppets anthem “The Rainbow Connection,” and — in a second memorial service held two months later at St. Paul’s in London — Kermit the Frog’s anthem, “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (above) sung by Big Bird and Oscar puppeteer Caroll Spinney. (Spinney passed away in 2019.) Both Henson memorials were solemn (unavoidable given the occasion and the venues) but also decidedly silly, as story after story about the man poured forth from those who knew him best.

In the Defunctland video at the top, you can see Henson’s friend and frequent collaborator Juhl take the pulpit at St. John the Divine to tell his favorite Henson story of working on their first show in 1955, Sam and Friends, a local Washington, D.C. live-action/puppet program that gave birth to Kermit. Doubting the joke at the heart of a sketch, Juhl went to Henson with his misgivings; and Henson replied, “It’s a terrible joke, but it’s worthy of us.” The laughter that rumbles through the crowd is characteristic of both funeral services, which feel far more intimate than they are. Or as Henson’s son Brian says in his tribute, “Sorry Dad. Little service, big place.” See the full New York funeral service for Henson just below.

Related Content:

Witness the Birth of Kermit the Frog in Jim Henson’s Live TV Show, Sam and Friends (1955)

Jim Henson Creates an Experimental Animation Explaining How We Get Ideas (1966)

The Creative Life of Jim Henson Explored in a Six-Part Documentary Series

Watch Blondie’s Debbie Harry Perform “Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show (1981)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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