Jane Nebel Henson knew Kermit before he was the Frog, saw the Cookie Monster before he lost his "fiendish" teeth and was around for the pre-diva days of Miss Piggy.
Ms. Henson, the longtime artistic collaborator of the late legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson, died Tuesday at her home in Greenwich, Conn., after a long battle with cancer, the Jim Henson Co. announced. She was 78.
As the first partner to the famous Muppeteer, Ms. 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.
"She was seminal to the whole creation of the Muppets," Vincent Anthony, founder and executive director of the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, told the Los Angeles Times. "Her legacy is a shared vision with Jim for what puppetry can be, and a shared love of the artistry itself."
Though she took a less active role in creating the Muppet characters while raising five children and teaching art, Ms. Henson found a new role in encouraging young artists to pursue the craft.
Jim Henson went on to create such iconic 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. As their family expanded, however, Jane Henson stepped out of the limelight.
The Muppets evolved into a television show and later a series of movies and earned her husband multiple Emmy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Several of the original characters, including Kermit the Lizard, are now in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Jane Anne Nebel was born June 16, 1934, in New York City, the youngest of three children of Winifred Johnson Nebel and Adalbert Nebel, an astrologer 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.
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 creator. As his partner, she helped design the characters, sew the puppets, and performed with them on "Sam and Friends" and, as they gained popularity, on the top variety shows of their time. They married in 1959 and had five children, who have all maintained active roles in the company and its foundations.
The two separated in 1986, but Ms. 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.
After Jim's death in 1990, she established the Jim Henson Legacy to conserve his works, and helped identify and mentor promising young puppeteers through his foundation.