Without Commercials, There’d Be No Muppets: How Jim Henson Used Ads As A Creative Laboratory

We go behind the scenes of the new Museum of the Moving Image Exhibition

A permanent exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens devoted to the life and creative output of Jim Henson pays homage to the master puppeteer and legendary filmmaker’s storied career, celebrating—as fans would expect—television series like Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock and films such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and the worlds and characters Henson and his collaborators created for those projects.

Lesser known is the work Henson did in advertising during the early, formative years of his career when he was developing his skills in character creation, puppetry and filmmaking, and this exhibit ties it all together, showcasing Henson’s early spot work and related memorabilia. “The commercial thread runs through a lot of his work—it’s not easily separated,” says Barbara Miller, curator of The Jim Henson Exhibition.

Henson’s initial foray into advertising grew out of Sam and Friends, a five-minute late-night series he created with fellow college classmate Jane Nebel, whom he would eventually marry, for a local Washington, D.C. station. The show had puppets, including an early incarnation of Kermit the Frog, lip-synching to popular songs and performing comedy bits as a way to warm up viewers for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “This is such an interesting part of his story,” Miller says. “He had his TV series on the local NBC affiliate starting in 1955, and it quickly caught people’s attention. These puppets were funny. They were charming. People wanted to watch them, and they were sort of a natural fit for TV commercials, so a local advertiser approached him about making a commercial in 1957, and it started from there.”

The local advertiser was Wilkins Coffee Co., and Henson ultimately made nearly 200 spots for the brand over a four-year period. They were brief ads—only 8 seconds long—featuring the puppet characters Wilkins and Wontkins, but they were impactful. “Wilkins was the company spokesman, and he was always trying to get Wontkins to drink coffee,” says Karen Falk, archives director for The Jim Henson Company. But Wontkins won’t drink the coffee and suffers consequences, Falk explains—in one spot, a foot stomps on him; in another, he gets blasted by a cannon. Henson came up with all kinds of creative ways to punish Wontkins, and the darkly funny spots were a hit with viewers.

Jim Henson's Wilkins Coffee Commercials

Henson soon began using Wilkins and Wontkins and their routine in spots for other advertisers, according to Falk, and in 1958, he started making commercials for clients around the country, including Calso Water in San Francisco (Wilkins and Wontkins appear as Cal and So in those spots) and Philadelphia’s Frank’s Beverages (the puppets are called Fink and Frank).

By 1959, Sam and Friends had a sponsor, Esskay Meats, and Henson started incorporating product endorsements within the show.

In the early 1960s, Henson got even more ambitious with his commercial production, producing longer spots—20 and 30 seconds in length—and creating specific characters for each advertiser. To wit: Rowlf the Dog was created for a series of Purina Dog Chow commercials that aired in Canada. “Within nine months of the Purina commercials, Rowlf started making regular appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show and was really the first breakout Muppet star,” Falk says. “He was the first one that really had a following on national television because of those weekly appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show.”

Muppet Commercials - Purina Dog Chow

Commercials—and he made hundreds of them throughout the 1960s—were financially lucrative for Henson, but he wasn’t just doing them for money, both Miller and Falk say, pointing out that making spots provided a puppet laboratory of sorts for Henson, allowing him to develop characters and puppetry techniques that would prove instrumental in the creation of many characters beyond Rowlf for Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

Like Rowlf, Cookie Monster also originated as a character in a commercial, first seen as a purple creature called the Munching Monster in a commercial for Munchos in 1969 before morphing into the blue cookie-eating monster who went on to Sesame Street fame.

Munchos - Commercial

And a tall, walking dragon character named Delbert that Henson created for a 1967 La Choy Chow Mein spot was a prototype for Sesame Street’s Big Bird in terms of the technology involved in how that puppet performed.

It was Henson’s work in advertising that led to his company being called upon to create puppets for Sesame Street. “[The Children’s Television Workshop] was trying to figure out how you could have children learn from television beyond the sort of Romper Room classroom model,” Falk says. “Everyone knew that children memorized commercials and were singing commercial jingles, so they wanted to take those techniques from Madison Avenue and apply them to educational concepts and sell those concepts to children. When they were looking for somebody to provide puppets for Sesame Street, Jim was an obvious candidate because his puppets were terrific and funny, but also because he knew how to sell with his characters.”

When Henson started working on Sesame Street, which debuted on PBS in 1969, he stopped making television commercials. “He didn’t want anybody to feel like his characters were trying to sell anything to children besides educational concepts,” Miller says.

In 1977, Henson did agree to appear as himself—along with a few Muppets—in the original American Express “Do You Know Me?” campaign, and he allowed Muppet characters, including Kermit and Miss Piggy, to appear in spots for Polaroid in the 1980s because “some of his earliest experiences in the ’50s were with his new Polaroid camera,” Falk says, “so it was a product he could really get behind.”

Another Ogilvy & Mather advertising classic - American Express with Jim Henson

Henson, who died in 1990, protected his characters and his brand throughout his career. “I think what’s interesting for people in various businesses is how amazingly he created his brand and what an incredible steward of it he was,” Miller says. “We’re still talking about Jim Henson’s characters because he cared so deeply for them, and the team that he worked with were really working in service of them, keeping the integrity of them very, very strong. That’s why they are so long-lasting.”