On the Other Hand
By Jon Irwin
Summer, 1990. Steve Whitmire was inside his home north of Atlanta when he received a package in the mail. He pulled the contents out of the box. He stared at the mouth, the hands, the green felt body and limp legs. He smelled … his friend and colleague, Jim Henson. Months after the public memorial, and after Henson’s body was cremated at Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum, this empty, lifeless form held the slightest scent of his famous creator within its frog shape, first stitched together nearly 40 years prior. A teen Jim cut scraps from his mother’s old turquoise coat and accidentally started an empire. Now the familiar face stared back at Steve, its mouth open for no reason. Henson’s son Brian and then-interim company president was asking Whitmire to continue his father’s legacy. Whitmire was 30 years old. He stuck Kermit in a cupboard and did not look at him for weeks.
Jim Henson died early in the morning on May 16, 1990. His creations entertained children and their parents even before joining Sesame Street in 1969, developing The Muppets into unlikely felt superstars. With his trademark beard and 6-foot-3-inch frame, Henson appeared from a distance like a lanky, affable lumberjack. As a human, he was charming and driven, ambitious yet calm. But as one of his puppets—strange creatures that beguiled audiences into learning and loving a bit more than before—he became something else. When he died, so too did the voice and body of bathtime-loving Ernie and Kermit the Frog.
Of course, Ernie and Kermit didn’t die. A puppeteer’s job is to make an audience forget he or she exists. The most well-loved proprietor of an art form hinging on not being visible could no longer hide, because he was gone. Someone else had to hide for him.
Since November 1990, Steve Whitmire has performed as Kermit, Ernie, and dozens of Henson’s famous roles, among the most well-loved and recognizable characters of the last half-century. Before that he spent over a decade inhabiting Thogs, dancing food, singing chickens, and Fraggles. Yet outside of Muppet fanatics and industry insiders, Whitmire is relatively unknown.
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