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Vol. LXIII, No. 52
 
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
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Art

James A. Michener Art Museum
The World in His Hands: Jim Henson’s Muppet Magic

Stuart Mitchner

One of the nice things about puppets is that it’s your own hand in there. You can make it do anything you want it to.

— Jim Henson

Sad to say, but in all the visits I’ve paid to the Michener Art Museum, through six years of quality exhibits, I’m struck by how few people appear to be taking advantage of this attractive, intelligently curated resource, even on weekend afternoons. I’ve always assumed that it must be the steep admission price, which, at least for this show, has gone up to $10 for adults; $5 ages 6-18; free for kids under 6. Based on my own experience, the two most notably well-attended shows were the children-friendly “That’s All, Folks!” exhibit of Warner Bros. cartoon art in May 2005 and the current attraction, “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” which will be on view until November 29 in the new Syd and Sharon Martin Wing of the museum, part of a $12 million expansion that has added 11,000 square feet, including the 5,500-square-foot Della Penna-Fernberger | Paton | Smith Galleries where the Henson exhibit is located.

Besides being the roomiest gallery at the Michener, the new venue offers an interactive area where kids can create storyboards, make a puppet, add facial features to canvas characters, and essentially conceive, construct and perform their own versions of Muppetry in a makeshift television studio with a real puppet theatre and a live TV monitor both backstage and out front so that somebody’s parents or siblings can see sister or brother playing puppeteer live and on television simultaneously. Among other interactive elements is a 30-minute podcast that features a former writer for the Jim Henson Company and Mr. Henson’s daughter, Cheryl, president of the Henson Foundation.

Henson’s Alter Egos

Many of the parents trooping through the new gallery were probably kids themselves when my son was living on Sesame Street and in Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood. Whether it was preschool, after-nursery school/kindergarten or even after-school, this was where you wanted to be. Here you could relax and watch your child actually sitting still for a full hour, maybe more. Like most parents, I became attached to both these programs, though I never enjoyed the humans who interacted with the Muppets as much as I enjoyed Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch. As you find while exploring the exhibit, if you like the Muppets you’re actually liking Jim Henson, or the various aspects of his personality being played out by his puppets. His primary alter ego, of course, was Kermit the Frog, whose prototype appears in his work as far back as 1961. You can see early Kermit in a video called “Visual Thinking” from Henson’s Washington, D.C. television show Sam and Friends, where spoken words or letters appear above the heads of the ur-Kermit and a shaggy hipster in shades. When the hipster, who looks like Oscar the Grouch’s second cousin, scats a fragment of Beethoven as a demonstration of visual word jazz, he improvises so elaborately that the squiggles and curlicues engulf both frog and hipster. It was this sort of brash zany business that one day would make Sesame Street the gold standard for childrens’ television.

Liking Fred

While there was nothing brash or zany about the touchy-feely Mr. Rogers, with his methodical morality and relentlessly soothing voice, he served his purpose so well that I developed a real fondness for him. Who else but this cardigan-wearing human tranquilizer could induce something like serenity in that avatar of hyperactivity, “Space Kitty,” as my son was calling himself in those days. Sesame Street delighted him (and wound him up); Fred Rogers calmed him down.

Comic Dynamics

Henson’s rowdier, more anarchic sense of fun was there from the beginning and can be seen at the Michener in his animated short, “Cat and Mouse,” with music by Chico Hamilton (both Henson and Mr. Rogers had a taste for jazz). Years later stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Rich would show up on Henson’s Laugh-In style hit, The Muppet Show. You get a sense of the movement of Henson’s imagination from early doodles to an experimental film from 1965 screened next to shots of its storyboards, in which Henson, in own words, “was playing with a flow of consciousness form of editing.”

The comic dynamics that would eventually take a more sophisticated form are also in play in the series of TV commercials Henson created (“We tried to sell things by making people laugh”), wherein a Cookie-Monster creature who doesn’t like Wilkins Coffee is blithely blown up, shot, clubbed, or mowed down by a cannon manned (or frogged) by a proto-Kermit. Another advertising creation is the iron-footed knight for Linit, a spray fabric finisher, who/which can be seen at the Michener in full-sized form along with other larger-than-life-size figures such as King Goshposh and Featherstone and Bert and Ernie.

Kermit’s Progress

According to the posted notes, Henson’s influences included Edgar Bergen, Stan Freberg, and The Wizard of Oz. As Kermit progressed toward his job hosting The Muppet Show, he naturally picked up some of the bantering comic style of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett, who hosted Henson and his friends numerous times (clips from Cavett and Ed Sullivan are shown at the Michener). There are conceptual drawings for an unproduced precursor to the Muppets called The Zoocus (1960), which Kermit emceed. Henson also wanted to do a live stage show and proposed one to Lincoln Center in 1977, but it too was never produced.

Henson left such a paper (and celluloid and puppet) trail behind him that only several tours of the show could take it all in. There’s the original sketch for Cookie Monster with the note “able to feed himself” written beside it; an illustration of how to operate Big Bird; and several pen or watercolor drawings from the 1960s featuring creatures only Henson—or contemporaries like Seuss or Sendak—could have dreamed up (Big Uglies, Elf Rockettes, Frackles, and more). Puppets and preparations for TV’s Fraggle Rock and the landmark fantasy film The Dark Crystal are on display for fans of Henson’s later work.

Henson’s Philosophy

As I try to zero in on what’s important for the Muppets, I think it’s a sense of innocence....Even the most worldly of our characters is innocent. Our villains are innocent, really. And it’s that innocence that I think is the connection to the audience.

I’ve had to make do with only two out of the many quotable messages in Jim Henson’s little book It’s Not Easy Being Green (Hyperion 2005), co-written with Kermit, the Muppets, and Friends and available at the Princeton Public Library. Among other Henson homilies displayed at the Michener: “The most sophisticated people I know — inside they are all children” and “We’re not inheriting the world from our parents; we’re borrowing it from our children.”

Celebrating 40 Years

As of 2009, Sesame Street has received 118 Emmy Awards, more than any other television series. An estimated 77 million Americans watched the program as children.This week’s season premiere of Sesame Street celebrated the show’s 40th anniversary with First Lady Michelle Obama.

The museum will be open until 9 p.m. every Friday night through November. To order tickets, call (800) 595-4849 or purchase online at www.michenermuseum.org.

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