Museum of Pop Culture Celebrates the Magic of Jim Henson

Jim Henson with Fraggle Rock puppets

The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited

Jim Henson once said, “The most sophisticated people I know–inside they are all children.”

And he was right.

Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) celebrates his creative legacy with the world premiere of the traveling exhibition, “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited.” It opens Saturday, May 20th.

Jim and Jane Henson on the set during the filming of a Wilkins Coffee commercial in 1960. The nine-second commercials were so successful that more than 200 were eventually produced. Photo by Del Ankers, courtesy of The Jim Henson Company.

Jim and Jane Henson on the set during the filming of a Wilkins Coffee commercial in 1960. The nine-second commercials were so successful that more than 200 were eventually produced. Photo by Del Ankers, courtesy of The Jim Henson Company.

The exhibition features a broad range of artifacts related to Henson’s career, including more than 20 puppets, character sketches, storyboards, scripts, photographs, film and television clips, behind-the-scenes footage, iconic costumes, and interactive experiences that allow visitors to try their hand at puppeteering on camera and designing a puppet.

Learn how Henson and his team of builders, performers, and writers brought to life the enduringly popular worlds of “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street,” “Fraggle Rock,” “The Dark Crystal,” and “Labyrinth,” among others..

“Imagination Unlimited” begins with a brief look at Henson’s early life through images of Henson as a young man and reproductions of some of his early drawings and sketches. It follows his steady rise and immense contributions to the art and industry of the moving image.

Highlights include a Kermit the Frog puppet from 1978; handwritten scripts from Henson’s first television series, “Sam and Friends” (1955–1961); and a clip from his Academy Award-nominated experimental film “Time Piece” (1965).

The MoPOP exhibition features an exploration of “The Muppet Show” from a concept Henson first developed in the early 1960s, which he turned it into an internationally beloved series.

Richard Hunt (left), Jim Henson (center), and Frank Oz (right) performing Ernie and Bert, on the set of Sesame Street, 1970s. © Sesame Workshop

Richard Hunt (left), Jim Henson (center), and Frank Oz (right) performing Ernie and Bert, on the set of Sesame Street, 1970s. © Sesame Workshop

You’ll also see the beloved “Sesame Street” puppets, including Grover, Ernie & Bert, and Count von Count. And of course, you’ll see Kermit the Frog the much-adored star of “The Muppet Show,” named after Henson’s childhood friend. FYI: All of Henson’s puppets have a back story.

Other exhibit items showcase Jen and Kira puppets from “The Dark Crystal” (1982) as well as Jareth (David Bowie) and Sarah’s (Jennifer Connelly) ballroom costumes from “Labyrinth” (1986).

Another section features iconic puppets that helped define this world-wide brand, including Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker, and Scooter, as well as material from the Muppets’ transition to the big screen, with set models and storyboards illustrating how the sets were designed to accommodate puppets and performers.

Three years after the start of “The Muppet Show”, the Muppets appeared in their first theatrical feature film, “The Muppet Movie”. The movie became a critical and financial success. It made $65.2 million domestically and was at the time the 61st highest-grossing film ever made.

A song from the film, “The Rainbow Connection”, sung by Henson as Kermit, hit number 25 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

In 1981, a Henson-directed sequel, “The Great Muppet Caper”, followed. After that, Henson ended the still-popular “Muppet Show” to concentrate on making films.

Jim Henson and Kathy Mullen performing Jen and Kira in The Dark Crystal, 1981. Photo by Murray Close. (c) The Jim Henson Company. All Rights Reserved.

Jim Henson and Kathy Mullen performing Jen and Kira in The Dark Crystal, 1981. Photo by Murray Close. (c) The Jim Henson Company. All Rights Reserved.

He founded the Jim Henson Foundation in 1982 to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. Around that time, he began creating darker and more realistic fantasy films that did not feature the Muppets but displayed “a growing, brooding interest in mortality.”

With “The Dark Crystal,” which he co-directed and co-wrote with Frank Oz, Henson was “trying to go toward a sense of realism” He wanted to create a visual style distinct from the Muppets, so “The Dark Crystal” puppets were based on conceptual artwork by Brian Froud.

The film was a financial and critical success. A year later, “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” directed by Oz, did fair box-office business. It grossed $25.5 million domestically and ranked one of the top 40 films of 1984.

However, “Labyrinth”, the Crystal-like fantasy that Henson directed by himself, was considered a commercial disappointment, in part due to its cost. Despite some positive reviews—“The New York Times called it “a fabulous film,” its commercial failure demoralized Henson to the point that his son Brian described his father as the “the closest I’ve seen him to turning in on himself and getting quite depressed.”

Labyrinth” was the last feature-length film directed by Henson, and featured Jennifer Connelly, Brian Henson, and David Bowie as the Goblin King, Jareth. The film later became a cult classic.

Jim Henson, David Bowie, & Jennifer Connelly on Labyrinth set

Jim Henson with David Bowie (Jareth) and Jennifer Connelly (Sarah) on the set of “Labyrinth” (1986). Photo by John Brown. (c) The Jim Henson Company.

In addition to his own puppetry projects, Henson collaborated with others. In 1979, he was asked by producers of the “Star Wars” sequel “The Empire Strikes Back” to help make-up artist Stuart Freeborn in the creation and articulation of Jedi Master Yoda. Henson suggested to creator George Lucas that he use Frank Oz as the puppeteer and voice of Yoda.

Oz voiced Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back and each of the four subsequent “Star Wars films. The naturalistic, lifelike Yoda became one of the most popular characters of the “Star Wars” franchise. Lucas even lobbied unsuccessfully to have Oz nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Frank Oz performing as Yoda in "The Empire Strikes Back"

Frank Oz performing as Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back”

In the beginning of his career, Henson never planned to make a name for himself in puppetry. It was just a way to get on television. His star rose when he was approached to use his Muppets for the revolutionary educational show “Sesame Street” (1969). It was a smash hit, and Henson’s characters become staples on public television.

Unfortunately, he was typecast as an entertainer for children. He decided to develop a variety show format that had the sophisticated humor of “Sesame Street.” American broadcasters turned it down, but British producer Lew Grade did not.

This lead to “The Muppet Show” (1976). At first, it struggled for ratings and guest stars were hard to come by. But the second season was a smash hit. The show became the most widely watched series in TV history. And stars lined up to be part of it.

A genius of puppetry, Henson achieved success without sacrificing his artistic integrity and his social conscience. He died too soon in 1990—a few days before he was to sell his company to Disney for $150 million. He was 53.

“When I was young,” Henson explained, “my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave this world a little bit better for my having been here.”

And he did.

The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited is a traveling exhibition organized by Museum of the Moving Image (Astoria, New York) in cooperation with The Jim Henson Company, The Muppets Studio LLC, and Sesame Workshop. The exhibition features puppets and other objects donated to the Museum by the family of Jim Henson, plus works on loan from The Henson Company’s archives. For membership details and information, call 206-770-2772, M-F, 10am-4pm or visit membership@mopop.org. For more details, visit MoPOP.org.

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About Starla Smith

Starla Smith is a career journalist, writing features for such publications as The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily News, The Des Moines Register, Vibe and a prize-winning Gannett Newspaper. She helped launch Theater Week Magazine and eventually became its publisher. As a regular contributor to Playbill, her interviews and photos were featured in Playbill and Playbill-on-line. Smith was featured in the New York Times “Style” section for her “Word Portraits,” specialized tributes, speeches, and presentation profiles. And she covered theater and features for City Search, Digital City, and the Tena Duberry WOW! Radio show. She previously served as astrology guru for Out Magazine, and she hastens to assure her readers that “Starla” is indeed her real name.

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