This 1960 shows Jane Henson, right, with Jim Henson and the cast of Sam and Friends, in Washington. (Del Ankers./AP)

Washington is the town that knew Jim Henson when.

In the summer of 1954, before "The Ed Sullivan Show," before "Sesame Street," before "The Muppet Show" and the Muppet movies, before they won so many Emmys and made so much money that Walt Disney Co. simply had to purchase them, the cloth creations that Henson called "Muppets" made their debut on a WRC-TV program called "Afternoon."

The show didn't last long -- "five or six months," recalls Mac McGarry, the veteran announcer who was its host -- but it launched an extended engagement at the station for "Sam and Friends,"Henson's original Muppets. For the next eight years, they appeared in five-minute segments that closed the evening news, first at 6:30 p.m. and again at 11.

When news of Henson's death reached some of his old colleagues yesterday, they were put in mind once again of an 18-year-old kid whose sweet, exuberant irreverence put a charge into the sometimes gray world of local television in the mid-'50s.

"Jim Henson was a very nice young guy," McGarry says. "Thoughtful. Obviously a genius in the making. Everybody loved his characters."

"He was very shy, a retiring sort of person," says Bryson Rash, who anchored the evening news at the time. "But he was vigorous and he had a great imagination, of course, and he did a wonderful show."

Henson performed his skits with Jane Nebel, a classmate in a puppetry class at the University of Maryland whom he married in 1958. "They might have had four Muppets and each of them worked with one on each hand," says Mel Clement, who played piano in the "Afternoon" quintet.

"The Muppets would lip-sync to a recording and then present a wild skit to the music," McGarry says. "The one I remember is 'Hey There {You With the Stars in Your Eyes}' by Rosemary Clooney.

"As you looked at the screen, there was one character on the left who was the singer. Then, gradually from the right, came this character called Yorick and he was this skull-like creature, very menacing with a tremendous maw of a mouth. And Yorick is not seen by the character singing this Rosemary Clooney song, as he gradually makes his way across the screen.

"We're falling down watching this thing and as she finishes the song, this great maw of a mouth grabs her and takes her below and that's the end of the skit."

"They were really pretty corny," says Helen Ver Standig. "The commercials we got him into were more sophisticated." She and her husband, M. Belmont Ver Standig, ran the advertising agency that offered Henson the opportunity to create commercial characters for Wilkins Coffee, a locally based company that still has offices in Capitol Heights.

The proto-Muppets that Henson came up with were called Wilkins and Wontkins. In each spot, Wilkins asked Wontkins if he drank Wilkins Coffee. When Wontkins said no, Wilkins stabbed, shot, clubbed or electrocuted him.

"He had the creative ability of being able to get his audience to identify emotionally with his Muppets," Ver Standig says. "Everybody early in the morning feels like killing their husband or wife anyway."

The commercials, which were broadcast regionally, gave Henson broader exposure than he'd had before. "People went mad for these puppets," Ver Standig recalls.

Despite his success on television and in advertising, Henson still hustled for publicity in those years. Peter Masters, former art director at WTOP-TV, remembers Sam and Friends entertaining at the International Monetary Fund's Christmas party in 1961. He also worked with Henson on an exhibit for the U.S. Information Agency that instructed American tourists how not to behave in a foreign country.

Edward R. Murrow, director of the USIA at the time, didn't like the display, which featured talking puppets -- a Hawaiian-shirted cigar-smoking man who wanted to buy an Alp on which to build a motel, and his gum-chewing companion who said she liked to learn a few words of every language to make the natives feel more at home.

"I remember him {Murrow} going through with his entourage and shaking his head, because he didn't approve of it," Masters says. "Still they were immensely popular with people, because whoever had seen such a thing in those days?" 

When Henson left WRC for New York in 1964, he asked Masters to design the stationery for Muppets Inc. He asked for something that would reflect his aspirations. Masters remembers him saying: "I want to be far out, very very very original, but I also want to be prestigious."

Mac McGarry says the key to Henson's success, even then, was not merely that he put a lot of himself into his puppets, but that he also gave them spirits of their own.

"He subdued his own being and he made his characters come to life," McGarry says. "It was not too long on the show before I realized I was not talking to Jim Henson. These characters were there, independently. They have their own being."

Particularly in the minds of Henson's former colleagues. "I remember just like it was yesterday cuz those kids knocked us allout," Mel Clement says.

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