Henson was O'Neill puppetry conference 'guardian angel'

Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot The Day Jane Henson, widow of Muppet creator Jim Henson, shown at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's Puppetry Conference in 2009, was one of the founders of the conference. She died Tuesday at the age of 78 at her home in Greenwich.

Jane Henson, the Muppets co-creator who died this week, was a co-founder of the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford in 1990. But she actually was much more than that.

"Jane was truly the guardian angel of the conference," said Pam Arciero, the conference's artistic director.

Henson invariably would be at the June conference each year in some capacity. She might teach the whole week. Or she might come in for the last few days and watch the performances. One year, she staged her own show, directing puppeteers in a performance based on the Nativity.

During the rest of the year, she could be counted on for advice.

"I would look to her for guidance and ideas about who we should bring in and how many people we should have and who she might want to see in the conference. So she was a huge influence on the conference," Arciero said.

And, she noted, Henson was involved back when the O'Neill Center was founded by George C. White nearly five decades ago. Photos show Jane and her then-husband Jim Henson helping to clean out the barn on the O'Neill campus to make it a theater space.

The Hensons were introduced to the area and the O'Neill by their friends Rufus and Margo Rose. The Roses, who lived in Waterford, were puppeteers, too, and were the team behind Howdy Doody. (The aforementioned barn at the O'Neill is now called the Rose Barn.)

The Hensons, of course, worked together in the development of the Muppets.

O'Neill Center Executive Director Preston Whiteway said that, despite being an international figure, Jane Henson had no airs. When she would visit the O'Neill, she'd always stay at the Motel 6 in Niantic and didn't want anything fancier.

She was generous with others. Arciero said Henson was a tremendous financial supporter of the conference. And it wasn't her only focus. She was committed, too, to supporting such venues as the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta and the University of Maryland, where she and Jim Henson met in a puppetry class.

"Her passion was to promote the next generation, so she was a wonderful mentor to hundreds of puppeteers across this country," Whiteway said.

She would take time to talk with each of the neophyte puppeteers at the O'Neill conference, being kind and encouraging.

Henson also was honest when she critiqued their projects. Whiteway said she was a straight shooter who would say what she truly thought of a piece.

"What I always deeply appreciated was, you knew exactly where you stood and exactly how she felt about everything, and that's rare," Whiteway said.

Behind it all, he added, was an enormous warmth and kindness - and a wry sense of humor.

She was a tremendous storyteller, too.

"You could mention one thing, and she'd have a whole story about it, especially (about) the early days of the Muppets - a whole story would roll out almost immediately," Arciero said. "So she was very fun to sit with in a bar and talk. We would sit up there in the (O'Neill's Blue Gene) pub and just have conversations."

Henson, who had cancer, died Tuesday at age 78 at her home in Greenwich.

She founded the National Puppetry Conference along with the Roses, George Latshaw, Richard Termine, Bobbie Nidzgorski and Bart P. Roccoberton Jr.

The goal of the conference is "to encourage puppet artists to create and communicate through the visual and kinetic form of the puppet, to push beyond their personal boundaries, and to develop new works for puppet theater, while reinforcing strong dramatic structure."

k.dorsey@theday.com

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