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Jim Henson’s Little Known Connection to Greenbelt

Muppet’s creator Jim Henson is universally beloved, I think it’s safe to say, but he’s also a local hero here in Prince George’s County. We claim him because:

Henson attended a variety of grade schools in his youth, including Hyattsville High School until it was closed in 1951. He completed his high school career at the newly opened Northwestern High School, where he joined the puppetry club.

He enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, the following fall as a studio arts major, thinking that he might become a commercial artist. As a freshman at the university, Jim took a newly offered puppetry class mostly populated with seniors, including his future wife Jane Nebel. He graduated in 1960 with a Bachelor of Science degree in home economics. Source.

Henson is in the news now because of the new documentary about him by Ron Howard, titled “Jim Henson, Idea Man,” now streaming on Disney+.

Henson’s studies in College Park toward that degree (in home economics – who knew?) will always be remembered by the students, faculty and staff on that campus, thanks to this wonderful statue of him in front of the Stamp Student Union. I take classes there myself and sometimes go out of my way to see and photograph the statue in different seasons.

Together the statue and bench comprise the Jim Henson Memorial, which was a gift of the class of 1998. Surrounding the memorial is the Henson Memorial Garden, which was designed by landscape architect Philip Cho as a gift from the classes of 1994 and 1999. Of the $217,000 total cost for the memorial and garden, the three classes donated twenty percent, and the university and student union provided the remaining funds.

The idea for a Henson statute came from the Maryland class of 1998, whose members wanted to remember Henson with a gift for the important influence he had over children’s lives.

A committee composed of representatives from the university, the class of 1998, and the Henson family, and presided over by Jane Henson and Bonnie Erickson, held a national competition to select a sculptor for the project. In December of 2000 the committee chose Jay Hall Carpenter from a small pool of finalists after he presented a miniature clay model of his design.

“I think everyone else sort of had them in the traditional pose of Kermit sitting on Jim’s shoulders. My idea was a little different. Jim always presented Kermit as a separate entity so I wanted to do that as well…The way I see it, they’re talking about their next big project and so they’re in this animated discussion, and in the middle of it, Kermit reaches over and touches Jim, as a little gesture of solidarity.”

The finished statue was then joined to the bench on site on September 22, 2003, two days before the unveiling ceremony. Source.

But what I bet even the Henson experts don’t know is that the model for the statue is Greenbelter Charles Smith! Here he is demonstrating the (reportedly uncomfortable) pose during the New Deal Cafe’s Masquerade Gala last fall, as captured by photojournalist Danielle Towers.

So how did Charles get this (unpaid) modeling gig? He happened to know the sculptor, who asked him to pose because of similarities between his height and build and Henson’s. Though Charles teaches policy at the UMD Graduate School of Social Work, it’s located not in College Park but in Baltimore, so he hasn’t seen the stunning result of his pose in years.

UPDATE: More Henson local info!

Thanks to commenter Catherine Plaisant, I’ve found the Walking Tour of University Park brochure (which she and her husband John worked on), with two of the Henson homes identified.

The brochure reveals that Henson lived in University Park from age 3 to 7 and then 10 to 23, but the family moved “back and forth” between here and Mississippi.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog weekly at GardenRant.com.

3 Responses

  1. Susan Harris
    | Reply

    How cool! I’ll check it out and add it to the post.

  2. Catherine Plaisant
    | Reply

    If you are big fan of Jim Henson you can take the Walking Tour of University Park and see the 1st and 2nd house of Jim Henson:
    Here is the PDF of the (2011) Walking Tour brochure : https://www.upmd.org/DocumentCenter/View/236/University-Park-Walking-Tour-PDF?bidId=
    And search for “Henson”.
    John and I loved contributed to the creation of that brochure 🙂
    Sadly, one of the notable trees I included has now disappeared.

  3. David Lange
    | Reply

    Wonderful article & lots of details – with one exception. Who decided to teach the unusual class – “Jim took a newly offered puppetry class??”

    After I retired from my traditional job, I took classes at the UMd for 20 years more.
    I never saw an offering for a puppetry class.

    I wonder if retired Greenbelters know of the very-low cost classes and free buses.

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