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Exhibit shows the man behind the Muppets
NEW YORK — It seems so familiar to us now — puppet characters on television that are so real, so expressive, so alive that we forget there’s a human being doing the actual work behind the scenes.
There’s a reason that’s so familiar, the organizers of an exhibit opening this weekend in New York say: Jim Henson.
The master puppeteer and media innovator behind pop culture icons such as Kermit the Frog and Big Bird was a creative thinker who understood the opportunities that television and technology presented, said Karen Falk, archivist for the Jim Henson Co. and curator of “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World.”
“Jim was the first one to recognize that you can use television and get these incredibly expressive and believable performances out of puppets,” Ms. Falk said. “This was his innovation; he was the one who started this whole thing. This is why puppetry looks like this on television, because of this man.”
The touring exhibit opening Saturday is making its last stop of a multiyear trip at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, where it will be on display into January. It’s fitting that the final stop is in New York — the museum is near Kaufman Astoria Studios, where “Sesame Street” is taped. Henson’s puppet creations, including Big Bird and Bert & Ernie, have been a vital part of what has made the children’s show a global success for decades.
The final stop is also getting something other locations didn’t. Joining the drawings, cartoons and puppets on display is Miss Piggy, decked out as a bride from her stint in “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”
“She wasn’t traveling with the exhibit. She’s very sensitive,” Ms. Falk said with a laugh.
The exhibit gives visitors a window into Henson’s creative process. It touches on his youth and family life, his influences, his artistic endeavors from a young age through the years before his unexpected death in 1990 at age 53.
There are sketches that show Henson’s original ideas for some of his puppets, like a drawing that shows how the Big Bird puppet would be operated (with a puppeteer’s arm and hand stretched upright to function as the neck and head.) There are video clips showing early incarnations of Kermit, as well as samples of the work Henson did while in college and the commercial work he did after that. His movie efforts, such as “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” also are included. And of course, there are Muppets.
It all showcases a man who spent his life thinking visually and sharing those images with others.
“Even as a child this man thought differently,” said Deborah Macanic of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, who was the exhibit developer. “It was probably quite an effort for him to adjust himself to the way that people expected him to be, but look at what it created.”
Visitors also will come away with an understanding of who Henson was as a person, said Bonnie Erickson, who worked with him and was the creator of the Miss Piggy puppet.
He was patient, great to work for, and extremely positive, she said. “He created stuff that lightened people’s lives.”
And that was part of his gift, presenting a positive, optimistic message without preachiness and making it entertaining, said Carl Goodman, executive director of the museum.
“You do have to be a very specific kind of talent to get it pitch perfect,” he said.
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