NEW YORK -- Muppets creator Jim Henson, 53, whose puppets built a multimillion-dollar entertainment empire, died unexpectedly early Wednesday at New York Hospital.
A hospital spokesman said Henson died of 'massive bacterial infection' at 1:30 a.m., only 21 hours after he was admitted as an emergency case.
Henson died as a result of an advanced stage of pneumonia, which he reportedly had for three days, said Dr. David Gelmont, director of the hospital's medical intensive care unit.
Henson, with the help of his wife and business partner, Jane, created a gallery of creature characters, including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, who were beloved by children of all ages in more than 100 countries.
When the Walt Disney Co. acquired Henson Associates Inc. in 1989 for a reported $100 to $150 million, Henson became a consultant to Disney under a long-term agreement for producing television shows and films exclusively for Disney.
Henson's creations also spawned a vast merchandizing program introducing 700 new products, from dolls to T-shirts, made by 100 licensees in 1989 alone.
'The world has lost a creative genius and a warm and gentle man,' said a statement issued by Disney executives Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. 'We vow to do all we can to see that the extraordinary legacy of this great friend and colleague will live on.'
Henson was most recently involved in costume design for 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,' currently the No. 2 movie at the boxoffice.
Henson, who designed the Muppets and was the voice of most of them, ntroduced them to the TV public in 1969 on Children's Television Workshop's 'Sesame Street.' Twenty-one years and many prestigious awards later, 'Sesame Street' is seen regularly in more than 80 countries.
'How the warmth and honesty of his images were translated into the hearts of millions and millions of kids is hard to describe, except to say Henson was a genius,' commented William Baker, president of New York's WNET, one of the public broadcasting stations that carried 'Sesame Street.'
'His programs will go on and live forever,' Baker said.
Henson's own show, 'The Muppet Show,' televised from 1976 to 1981 and now in re-runs, reaches an even larger audience of some 235 million viewers in 100 countries, with the Soviet Union soon to join its audience. It has won two TV Emmys and many other awards.
In addition to puppets, Henson was a master animator. His first animated series, 'Muppet Babies,' won four consecutive Emmy Awards starting in 1984 andis currently in its sixth season on CBS-TV. The show airs internationally in more than 50 countries.
The bearded puppeteer was born Sept. 24, 1936, in Greenville, Miss., the son of an agronomist. He took up puppetry, performing with a stocking on his hand, on WRC-TV, Washington, D.C., between high school and college. A five-minute segment titled 'Sam and Friends' introduced Kermit the Frog.
When he was graduated from the University of Maryland in the early 1960s, his creations such as Rowlf the Dog and other Muppet siblings began appearing on 'he Ed Sullivan Show' and other network TV variety programs.
Henson's wife and onetime puppetry student, Jane Nebel, was his collaborator on all of his projects. Their success did not come quickly, but by 1968 they were programming for NET and won the National Educational Television Award for the year's outstanding children's show.
The Hensons didn't achieve their ambition for a separate 'The Muppets Show' until they took the act to Britain in the 1970s and got the backing of impresario Sir Lew Grade, which helped them attract guest stars such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
'The Muppets' moved to the United States and received immediate syndication. The Hensons, by now big business, worked out of an office and factory in two converted brownstones on Manhattan's East 69th Street.
They also produced 'Fraggle Rock,' HBO's first original children's program and now shown on cable network TNT and in more than 40 countries, including Russia and Japan.
There followed three films -- 'The Muppet Movie, 'The Great Muppet Caper,' which marked Henson's directorial debut, and 'The Muppets Take Manhattan' -- which grossed $132 million, and 'The Dark Crystal' and Labyrinth,' which introced a host of new characters.
'The Jim Henson Hour,' a family entertainment series, aired recently on NBC to critical acclaim, winning its creator an Emmy for outstanding direction in a variety or music program and a TV Critics Association Award.
Henson also has a 13-part series airing on HBO, 'The Ghost of Faffner Hall,' which explores the world of music with live-action puppets and celebrity guests.
Due for release later this year is 'The Witches,' a feature film based on the Roald Dahl children's classic.
He is survived by his wife and five children, including a daughter, Diana, who is president of the Harvard Lampoon. The family will announce plans for a memorial service in the near future.