Photo: Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog in 1978 on the set of THE MUPPET MOVIE. Photo courtesy of The Jim Henson Company/MoMI. Kermit the Frog © Disney/Muppets. The Jim Henson Company / MoMI.
My very first crush was on Animal, the wild-eyed drummer for Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem, the house band on The Muppet Show. I might have been somewhere around three or four, and Animal was the most relatable guy I had ever seen. He spoke no words and was a creature of pure id. That he was a rock star added to his allure, as his flying mane and choke chain.
You might think to yourself, perhaps this is a bit extreme for a children’s television show. But that’s the joy of The Muppet Show—it spoke to people of all ages at the same time, reaching different audiences without offending anyone. Jim Henson, the mastermind who created the show, skillfully weaved subversive humor into the classic vaudeville format, and then added the perfect twist: all the characters were puppets, and yet they were drawn from life.
Kermit the Frog, the soulful leader, was inspired by jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins; his girlfriend Miss Piggy was the perfect incarnation of the chauvinist pig, whose appearance during the 1970s exemplified the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of the gender wars that had been raging for years. Fozzie the Bear was a classic Yiddish comedian who played the Borscht Belt and was woefully out of sync with the times yet as lovable as any wacky uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.
Children might miss all of the cultural clues and still appreciate The Muppets for the sheer joy that a madcap troupe of performers promises. Plus there’s a slight twinge of utopian ideal at play: no matter what walk of life you come from, you are welcome here, so long as you put your heart and soul above all.
Now, in tribute to the man behind it all, the Museum of the Moving Image, Queens, presents The Jim Henson Exhibition, a permanent exhibition on view that showcases the brilliant legacy that continues to inspire and entertain children around the world with classic television shows and films including Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth.
The exhibition feature more than 300 objects from Henson’s vast archive, beginning with his letter known and experimental film projects and following his career as it took flight. With 47 puppets including Kermie, Piggy, Rowlf, The Swedish Chef, Statler and Waldorf, Big Bird, Elmo, Cantus Fraggle, and Skeksis, everyone’s favorites are fully represented.
The exhibition traces the life’s work of Jim Henson (1936-1990), an extraordinary artist and visionary whose lifelong love of art began when he was a child in Leland, Mississippi. He was particularly close to his maternal grandmother, a painter, quilter, and needleworker who encouraged her grandson to use his imagination to create new worlds. While in high school, Henson did just that, getting his television start performing as a puppeteer on a local Washington, DC, Saturday morning show in 1954. Most notably, the show featured the earliest version of Kermit—who would come to fruition two decades later.
In the intervening years, Henson set the stage with the creation of Sesame Street in 1966, a groundbreaking children’s television show that was as educational as it was engaging. Henson’s puppets, including Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Cookie Monster, and The Count—among so many more—were iconic personalities that you could easily imagine yourself hanging out with at home.
By the time The Muppet Show hit the airwaves at 7:30 p.m. September 5, 1976, the world was poised for an evening show on Sunday nights. The show ran for five seasons, with 120 episodes in total, each featuring a fantastic guest star—from Diana Ross to Rudolph Nureyev, Alice Cooper to Vincent Price, Debbie Harry to Elton John. By the time it went off the air in 1981, it had spawned a franchise that eventually produced six feature films.
By the 1980s, Henson took to the silver screen to create The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, remarkable fantasy films that went beyond the childlike charm of his television shows, digging deeper into the possibilities for puppetry and animatronics. Labyrinth was a particularly remarkable feat, produced by George Lucas and starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly.
Throughout the decade, Henson was unstoppable, creating Fraggle Rock and Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies for the ‘80s generation. Then, on May 186, 1990, Henson died at the age of 53 after a brief illness that stole him from our lives. But his genius was too great and too pure, and so it is for the past three decades his work has endured.
Sesame Street, which has aired on PBS since its inception 51 years ago, moved its first run to HBO last year—a testament to the power and profitability of great children’s educational programming. As of 2014, it has won 167 Emmy Awards—more than any other television series—and 8 Grammy Awards.
The Jim Henson Exhibition reveals the mastery of imagination at work. In addition to the puppets, the show features character sketches, storyboards, scripts, photographs, and iconic costumes—as well as film and television clips and behind-the-scenes footage on 23 monitors, 3 large-scale projections throughout, and 2 video installations at entry and exit.
As if that were not enough the show invites you to bring your fantasies to life, with two interactive experiences allow visitors to try their hand at puppeteering on screen and designing a puppet character. The exhibition is one of the greatest gifts to the city of New York, an opportunity for anyone who lives or visits to return to the joy and pleasures of childhood.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.