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Homage Paid To Jim Henson, Muppet & Kermit Creator

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Jim Henson, the creator of "The Muppets," grew up in Maryland and attended the University of Maryland, College Park.

Jim Henson, the creator of “The Muppets,” grew up in Maryland and attended the University of Maryland, College Park.

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — As “The Muppet Movie” opens, Kermit the Frog sits on a log in a swamp and sings “The Rainbow Connection,” a song reprised at the end of the 1979 film by a host of the Muppet family.

“We in Leland know in our hearts that is Deer Creek,” said Ashley Zepponi, project director of the Jim Henson Boyhood 20th Anniversary Celebration.

It is that creek, said Dot Turk, who has written a book on the history of Leland, along which Jim Henson played and lived until the age of 12 when his family moved to Maryland.

On Saturday — on what would have been Henson’s 75th birthday — the town of Leland will celebrate with the renaming of the Broad Street Bridge over Deer Creek as “The Rainbow Connection.”

The celebration also marks the 20th anniversary of the Jim Henson Museum, which includes a tableau honoring Kermit, photographs from the Henson family album and various Muppet memorabilia.

The Henson estate has granted approval for the bridge renaming.

Zepponi said Deer Creek was chosen because it is the heart of the community. During the Christmas season, local residents gather at the river to await Santa Claus who floats down the river on his sleigh.

“It is also where Jim played and spent countless hours as a child,” Zepponi said.

Turk said playing along the creek was where Henson gained his love of nature. Zepponi said that was one of the reasons the bridge site was chosen.

The span already has been painted Kermit green.

The dedication gets under way at noon Saturday and among the speakers is puppeteer Fran Brill. Brill, one of the original puppeteers on the “Sesame Street” TV show and the first female puppeteer hired by Henson, will speak at the noon event at the Broad Street Bridge.

The local arts festival will celebrate what would have been Henson’s 75th birthday and the 20th anniversary of The Jim Henson Boyhood Exhibit.

Zepponi said plans are to ultimately refurbish the bridge and add a sculpture at the site. She said a celebration is being planned to coincide with the release of a Henson biography next year.

Kermit the Frog debuted in a 1955 television comedy called “Sam and Friends,” which aired locally in Washington, D.C., but he looked more lizard-like then. Kermit was fashioned from an old coat belonging to Henson’s mother and Henson named the frog after a childhood friend, Kermit Scott, who died in 2008 in Monroe, La.

Henson and his 2-foot tall puppet joined “Sesame Street” in 1969. “The Muppet Show” followed in syndication 1976 and ended its run in 1982.

Henson gave Kermit a voice and a life for 35 years, until his death in 1990.

Turk said Henson’s family moved to the Leland area in 1931. His father worked at the Stoneville agriculture experiment station. Henson was born in 1936. In 1948, the family moved to Maryland where “he stumbled into his career,” Turk said.

The University of Maryland, where Henson went to school, has a statue of the famous puppeteer and Kermit on campus.

Turk said Henson had been invited back to Leland several times but couldn’t attend. Once he sent a photograph of Kermit and himself inscribed to the city with the notation “the birthplace of the frog.”

“The city has picked up on that,” Turk said. “He was absolutely attached to us even though he didn’t have much chance to get back here.”

Turk said Henson was known for his humility. She said in one of his letters to the city, Henson wrote: “My regards to anyone in Leland who may still remember me.”

“The Rainbow Connection” was written by Paul Williams and released in June 1979. The song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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