The Jim Henson Fund Reviving Puppetry: how UMD carries along the legacy of a notable alumnus

By Ally Tobler

Puppetry isn’t just for children. And thanks to the Jim Henson Fund Reviving Puppetry, which awards grant money to students through the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies,  students can prove that this art form isn’t simply juvenile.

Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, was a a UMD alumni who graduated in 1960 with a degree in home economics.

“I think fairly recently, [the university] started to sort of reinvigorate the puppetry program in the theater school,” said senior theater major Natsin Scharf, a recipient of the Jim Henson Fund this year and last year. “I think it is such a diverse and versatile art form. You can tell any story you want with it really, and it’s a shame that it’s [seen] as just for kids when people think of puppets.”

A statue of Jim Henson and his famous creation, Kermit the Frog, sits outside of Adele H. Stamp Student Union. The class of 1998 gifted the statue to the university. Photo courtesy of Flickr

Recipients of the Jim Henson Fund for Puppetry had to apply for the money to fund their puppetry performances by providing a proposal and abstract for their performance, as well as other details such as an itemized budget and a list of their needed visuals.

In addition to Scharf, whose performance combined a mix of puppetry and solo acting to portray the life of war squirrel Tommy Tucker and the propaganda of World War II, the Jim Henson Fund also subsidized projects by graduate students Kelly Colburn, an MFA candidate for projection design, and Brandi Martin, an MFA candidate for lighting design.

Martin also showcased her unique take on puppetry performance with her stop-motion film, “Organic.” The short video focuses on the issue of body dysmorphia, featuring a variety of vegetables as characters who secretly envy one another’s physical features.

“This is constant,” said Martin in reference to the unresolved ending of her film and the issues surrounding body image. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in middle school, it doesn’t matter if you’re in college. It doesn’t matter if you’re going back to grad school and you gained thirty pounds.”

Jim Henson started at the university in 1954 as a studio art major, according to the University Libraries website. He first developed his puppetry skills in a course within the home economics department his freshman year. In 1955, he started working at WRC-TV, creating a puppet show, “Sam and Friends.” Two years before graduating, he received his first Emmy due to the show’s success.  

Brandi Martin showcases her puppetry performance, funded by the Jim Henson Fund for Puppetry, on March 14. Photo by Ally Tobler

Archives UM contains a collection of his works that are open to the public.

The university offers a course called Special Topics in Advanced Theatre and Performance; Puppet & Mask Design and Performance (THET428W), which teaches students the art of puppet and mask-making through inspiration from examples by Handspring Puppets and the Jim Henson Company.

The university also offers Jim Henson: Art, Media and Muppets (FILM319J), which centers around the life and history of Jim Henson, as well as international media transitions during the time of his puppetry career from the 1950s to the 1990s.

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