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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