Northwestern dedicates arts wing to Jim Henson
Oct. 10, 2002
Julia Oliver
Staff Writer

A rainbow connection was made Saturday as the Colours dance troupe welcomed Jim Henson's family and officials named Northwestern High School's new arts wing after the famed puppeteer.

In an afternoon that alternated between memories of the beloved Muppets creator and celebration of the county's young talents, officials christened the building the Jim Henson School of Arts, Media and Communications.

The tribute was capped off by a suggestion from School Superintendent Iris Metts that the high school would soon be named an arts magnet.

She told the audience to pay attention in the coming weeks, because "Northwestern will play a very important part in the expansion of our magnet program, particularly in the area of the performing arts."

Henson, who graduated from Northwestern High School in 1954, hinted at his future career when he joined a puppetry club there. While studying art and theater design at the University of Maryland, he met his wife, Jane, who helped him produce "Sam and Friends," a five-minute program that aired on NBC before the news and "The Tonight Show." He went on to create such fondly remembered characters as the Muppets and the puppet cast of Sesame Street.

In 1990, Henson, then 53, succumbed to a severe case of pneumonia.

School Board Chair Beatrice Tignor applauded the naming, "not only because it will inspire our young people, but because Jim Henson probably lived in all of our children's lives through the media."

Colours, a Northwestern-based youth theater group, sang "one small voice can teach the world a song," in reference to Henson's far-reaching influence.

Jane Henson, who spoke about her late husband at the ceremony, said although the family has had many requests to use Jim Henson's name, "this is the only time we said 'yes.' It's such an obvious choice. It's great to see Jim's name up here."

Jim Gray, a fellow Northwestern alumnus who took art classes with Henson, remembered the puppet-maker's painting talent.

"A lot of Jim's work disappeared because the teachers wanted it," he said, adding that he recalled at least one Muppet's simple beginning.

"The first Kermit was made out of [Henson's] mother's coat," with Ping-Pong ball eyes, he said.

Jane Henson remembered making the characters for "Sam and Friends" out of clothing scraps Jim Henson's mother kept in a bag.

State Delegate-elect Victor Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Mount Rainier, who graduated from Northwestern in 1992, recalled watching the Muppets. Kermit was "outspoken, but at the same time very humble. I think Miss Piggy kept him in line," he said, adding that the Muppets helped him learn English.

Today's students also spoke of Henson creations.

"I love Miss Piggy. She's my favorite," said Colours dancer Monty Rivers, 12, who attends the dance program in Hyattsville Middle School's arts magnet, which began this year.

County Council Chair Peter Shapiro, who has helped designate the area as an "Arts District," said the naming would help build community through arts and culture. The Gateway Arts District, which encompasses Mount Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood and Hyattsville, offers tax breaks to arts-related businesses.

Northwestern Principal Bill Ritter said although a magnet designation--which would bring his school funding for the music, drama and media programs--has not yet been approved for Northwestern, he is optimistic.

"It's true that [Metts is] going to request this from the school board. It's really their choice," he said, adding that Metts would not have mentioned the possibility if it were not probable. "She usually vets this stuff before she brings it up at a public meeting."

After Colours danced to a Michael Jackson medley, Ritter pondered how much talent was out there waiting among today's students.

"I wonder where the next Jim Henson or Jane Henson is in that group," he said.

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