The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry hosted a puppet forum on the early Jim Henson production “Sam and Friends” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 29.
The event featured Craig Shemin, author of “Sam and Friends: The Story of Jim Henson’s First Television Show” and president of the Jim Henson Legacy, detailing the story of “Sam and Friends” and the writing process for his book. Dr. John Bell, museum director of the Ballard and Stoph Scheer, the Ballard’s graduate assistant, were also on the panel with Shemin.
“Sam and Friends” was the beginning of Henson’s television career, featuring various Muppets in a twice daily, five-minute show aired as a local series in Washington, D.C. on WRC-TV from May 9, 1955 to Dec. 15, 1961. Henson worked on this production with various other performers including Jane Nebel, who he would later marry.
While “Sam and Friends” was on for almost seven years, there are only about 15 surviving episodes of the show nowadays. When they were originally airing, the episodes weren’t often recorded, Shemin said.
Shemin went through the various characters that appeared on “Sam and Friends,” including Sam, the only humanoid Muppet on the show, Kermit, who at that point was not a frog and more so a general reptile-like creature, Harry the Hipster, Yorick and Omar. Other characters included Kermeena (Kermit in a wig), Moldy Hay, Professor Madcliffe, Mushmellon, Chicken Liver, Bernice, Icky Gunk and Hank and Frank.
Originally, the series started as the various Muppets giving lip-syncing performances; the Muppets only started speaking in “Sam and Friends” when the series started doing advertisements, Shemin explained. Some of the most famous of these commercials were for Wilkins Coffee, featuring the “Wilkins” and “Wontkins” puppets — performed by Henson himself.
Following the introduction of these spoken advertisement sketches, voices and dialogue were introduced to comedy sketches on “Sam and Friends,” Shemin explained.
Holly Richmond, an eighth-semester theater studies major and puppetry minor who attended the event said she’s always been a big Jim Henson fan.
“Learning about ‘Sam and Friends’ and the impact that it’s had on his work and subsequently the impact that it’s had on my work and my peers’ work, it’s just something I felt like I had to come see,” Richmond said.
Shemin also shared many little-known facts about the series and the beginnings of Henson’s work at the forum. Specifically, Shemin emphasized Jane Henson’s role in the series – which she often downplayed, he said.
“Jane Henson was a very nice lady — I got to know her over the years that I worked at the company — but one thing that was a constant was that she always deflected attention away from herself and towards her husband Jim, even though they had been separated for many years,” Shemin said in an interview.
According to Shemin, Jane wanted Jim to be the focus, as creator of The Muppets, and any time that anyone tried to give her some of the credit, she would shy away from that and call herself a “helper.”
“When I started writing this book, I wanted to give her some of the attention and credit she deserves because after talking with her in several interviews, I learned more about how involved she was,” Shemin said. “She built some of the puppets, which we didn’t know, and she kept the show going when Jim took a trip to Europe, which we had known about, so after talking to her I thought that that story had to be told.”
Additionally, it is not well-known that “Sam and Friends” was broadcast in color beginning in 1959 and featured multi-episode story arcs, said Shemin.
Further, Shemin explained how his book came together, including the challenges of there being only 15 surviving kinescopes of the series nowadays, many of the primary creators of the show having passed away and the fact that “Sam and Friends” was — in its time — just a little known local broadcast.
“Sam and Friends: The Story of Jim Henson’s First Television Show” is based on Shemin’s extensive interviews with Jane Henson, scripts and acetate recordings, newspaper clippings on the series and TV listings, photos and home movies, more than 400 reel-to-reel tapes of “Sam and Friends” audio and interviews from Jim Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones that he shared with Shemin.
All in all, Shemin explained in this forum that though “Sam and Friends” was on for so long, Henson did not discuss it much. But from Shemin’s perspective, Henson’s later, much more well-known work “The Muppet Show” “is sort of a big-budget ‘Sam and Friends.’”
This story has been updated to correct a name spelling.