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Celebrating a master puppeteer

A new exhibit featuring the work of Muppets creator Jim Henson has gone on permanent display in New York City to celebrate the career of the American puppeteer who brought to life such characters as Miss Piggy and Big Bird.

‘The Jim Henson Exhibition’ includes nearly four-dozen puppets, plus hundreds of sketches, videos and props from “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” early commercials, misfired experiments and cult films of the 1980s.

Another substantial chunk of Henson’s archive is at the new Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, which Henson supported during his lifetime, though the Museum of the Moving Image has a home-court advantage: Henson’s workshop is nearby in Long Island City, while Sesame Street itself lies around the block at Kaufman Astoria Studios.

‘The Jim Henson Exhibition’, housed in a new gallery space funded by the City of New York at the Museum of the Moving Image, features more than 300 artefacts related to Henson’s career, including 47 puppets, character sketches, storyboards, scripts, photographs, iconic costumes and more.

Film and television clips and behind-the-scenes footage are presented on more than 27 monitors and projections throughout the gallery. Interactive experiences allow visitors to try their hand at puppeteering on screen and designing a puppet character.

The exhibition at hand promises to entertain children although — like many of Henson’s shows — the exhibition is mainly for adults, concerned with the craft of puppetry and the expansion of broadcast media as much as with lovable frogs and monsters.

Henson, born in Greenville, Miss., in 1936, had an early gift for landscape drawing, but he cottoned on quickly to the potentials of a new medium – and to the branding opportunities that the medium would allow. In 1950, he convinced his parents to buy a TV set, and before he was out of his teens, Henson had created ‘Sam and Friends’, a puppet show that ran in five-minute segments on a local Washington station.

Barbara Miller, curator of the collections and exhibitions at the museum, says the exhibit explores Henson’s work for film and television and his transformative impact on popular culture. It also includes material from some of the puppeteer’s lesser-known film projects.

“Of course, there’s familiar favourites like Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, and all the things you would expect to see at an exhibition about Jim Henson and the Muppets,” said Miller.

“But there’s also a picture that emerges of Jim Henson as an experimental filmmaker, as someone who was always creatively restless and looking to do the next thing,” she said, adding that museum staff wanted to “permanently tell this story”.

Henson’s characters helmed The Muppet Show on TV between 1976 and 1981, before appearing in numerous films including 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, and 2011’s The Muppets.

Henson, who died in 1990 at the age of 53, was also the creative mind behind the long-running children’s show, Sesame Street.

Henson was a young man in a young medium, and both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show would later bear the patent legacy of early television – above all the variety show, with its swift succession of skits and songs. His puppets were ideal guests for variety hosts in those early years; one of them, Rowlf the Dog, appeared on The Jimmy Dean Show between 1963 and 1966.

At the same time, Henson was producing rapid-fire, often mischievous commercials. Eight-second spots for supermarket coffee featured Wilkins, a smiley cylinder, and Wontkins, a grumpy cone who got bopped on the head or set on fire. Instant chow mein was hawked by a red and pink dragon, one of Henson’s earliest full-body characters, who looks like a carnivalesque prototype for Big Bird.

Henson was a voice actor as much as a puppeteer, and, with Sesame Street, whose first episode aired in 1969, you can fully see the brilliance of Henson’s comic timing – and the more frenetic gifts of Frank Oz, the Laurel to Henson’s Hardy.

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They pulled off some of the great double acts, whether as strait-laced Bert and wisecracking Ernie, or as antic Grover and flummoxed Kermit, now officially a frog.

Henson initially demurred when he was asked to join what became Sesame Street, and he was always wary of seeing puppetry as only children’s entertainment.

A fascinating gallery at the Museum of the Moving Image is devoted to Henson’s experimental work of the 1960s, which included live-action shorts, peace-and-love documentaries, and designs for a psychedelic nightclub that would have featured kaleidoscopic projections.

His two films from the 1980s, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, skew darker and more fatalistic. But though the puppets his studio designed could inspire awe in cinematic settings, as a performer and writer Henson always did best with the intimacy and rapidity of television.

He died young, succumbing to a bacterial infection. In the years since his death in 1990 his studio, known as the Creature Shop, has produced increasingly sophisticated animatronic characters, notably for the television show Dinosaurs (1991-1994), as well as digital characters for the children’s show Sid the Science Kid.

But there is something about the simplicity of the Muppets – low-tech dummies in a young broadcast medium – that brought out a new kind of virtuosity from Henson and his team, who threw so much into their performances that whole generations became their intimate friends.

The exhibit was organised by the Museum of the Moving Image, located in New York’s borough of Queens, in collaboration with the Henson family, who donated many of the show’s artefacts in 2013, The Jim Henson Legacy and The Jim Henson Company, and in cooperation with Sesame Workshop and The Muppets Studio.

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