Jane Nebel Henson knew Kermit before he was the Frog, saw the Cookie Monster before he lost his jagged teeth and was around for the pre-diva days of Miss Piggy.
Mrs. Henson, the wife and early artistic collaborator of Muppets creator Jim Henson, died April 2 at her home in Greenwich, Conn.
The cause was cancer, the Jim Henson Co. announced. She was 78.
As the first partner to the famous Muppeteer, Mrs. Henson was instrumental in the creation of the earliest characters in the brood of marionette-puppet hybrids.
The initial crew of zany foam personalities included Kermit, who made his 1955 debut on the TV show “Sam and Friends” not as a frog, but as a green-hued lizard made from an old coat belonging to Jim’s mother.
Mrs. Henson took a less active role in creating the Muppet characters while raising five children and teaching art.
Jim Henson went on to create such characters as the Cookie Monster (who lost his teeth and became less vicious when he moved to public television’s “Sesame Street”), Big Bird, and Bert and Ernie.
The Muppets evolved into a television show and later a series of movies and earned her husband multiple Emmy Awards. Several of the original characters, including Kermit the Lizard, are in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Jane Ann Nebel was born June 16, 1934, in Queens, the youngest of three children of Winifred Johnson Nebel and Adalbert Nebel, an astrologer who was better known as Dal Lee.
At the University of Maryland, she studied fine arts. In 1954, her senior year, she took a puppetry class and met a gangly, dark-haired freshman named Jim Henson. “I hardly knew puppetry existed,” she told the Detroit Free Press in 1998.
A year later, when he was offered a show that ran five minutes twice a day on local TV, he asked her to be his co-performer and co-creator. As his partner, she helped design the characters and sew the puppets. She performed with them on “Sam and Friends” and, as they gained popularity, on the top variety shows of the era.
The Hensons married in 1959 and had five children, who have active roles in the company and its foundations. The couple separated in 1986, but Jane Henson continued to be a driving force in maintaining her husband’s legacy, donating the original Kermit and nine of his more obscure buddies to the Smithsonian in 2010.
Jim Henson was 53 when he died of pneumonia in 1990. His wife established the Jim Henson Legacy to conserve his works, and she helped identify and mentor promising young puppeteers through his foundation.
Besides her five children, survivors include a sister, a brother and eight grandchildren.