There aren’t many things I am sure of these days, but one thing is certain: the world needs more puppets. Such an affirmation became apparent to me when I had the incredible opportunity to tour the set of Sesame Street. As you can imagine, I was beyond thrilled, talking my mom’s ear off about how I would get to see Oscar’s trashcan and Grover’s stoop. The tour went smoothly, until two security guards politely asked me to remove myself from Big Bird’s nest. I know what you’re thinking: “What an unruly child.” Actually, I was 27 years old, thank you very much.
There’s no shame space here. If you’re like me — someone who attends screenings of Pixar cartoons with an entire box of Kleenex, recognizing you may need therapy for empathizing more with animated animals than humans — there is probably some corner of your heart reserved for the adoration of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Fortunately, to satiate the fans of tooled felt and beady eyeballs, The Smithsonian has curated a touring retrospective entitled Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, currently stationed at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.
The retrospective begins in Jim Henson’s days as a young boy with a creative clan. “When I was a child, my mother’s family would gather at my grandmother’s house,” he explained. “They would tell a tale, and somebody would try to top it.” Dozens of Henson’s sketches show his evolution in style and subject matter, beginning with tame landscapes and portraits that eventually developed into a taste for the wild, wacky and macabre. Yet it was his break into local television in 1954 when he discovered and cultivated his love for puppetry. In subsequent years, he created the first iteration of Kermit, cut from his mother’s old coat. Had the coat not been green, Henson admitted that a frog might not have been the creature that is now considered the leader of The Muppets.
The exhibition reveals several facts that even I, a self-proclaimed Muppet fanatic, did not know. For instance, a single piece of paper bearing an architectural rendering is the only proof of Henson’s interest in building a night club. With the name Cyclia, Henson’s night club was infused with his love for psychedelic art in the late ’60s. Had it been built, it would’ve been the trippiest place on the planet. Other stand-outs in the exhibition are the early drawings of Big Bird. Henson initially struggled with building puppets that could be operated by a person from within. In Big Bird, he found the answer — the puppet operator’s right arm extends up into the neck of the bird, with the right hand controlling the mouth movements. A small TV screen is mounted within Big Bird’s belly, allowing the operator to see what he’s doing from the audience’s perspective. Henson desperately tried to build a version of the puppet where Big Bird’s knees bent backwards, much like a real bird. Though he gave up such aspirations, his sketches in the exhibition are proof of his wild determination.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Jim Henson’s Fantastic World is seeing the early days of Henson’s career when he created television advertisements. It was a time when commercials were just plain fun — coffee companies had no problem being represented by a pistol wielding fluff ball, as seen in Henson’s work for Wilkins Coffee. Yet a personal favorite would have to be a spot for La Choy Chow Mein, featuring a delightfully destructive dragon (above). “We tried to sell things by making people laugh,” Henson explained.
The biggest compliment I can give to the exhibition and its curators is that I walked away feeling like I’d just had a conversation with Jim Henson himself. I understood why Frank Oz, Henson’s long-time collaborator responsible for creating and originating Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, Fozzie and others, recently described The Muppets as “affectionate anarchy.” I also felt inspired to run out and build puppets, maybe even sketch my own fur-ball creatures with googly eyeballs. Now, with the exhibition situated in Astoria, Queens, possibly the most culturally diverse pocket in the U.S., never has there been more proof of Henson’s lasting influence. Multiple languages may swirl around you as you tour the museum gallery, but the laughter is universal.