At the end of “The Jim Henson Exhibition,” now on permanent display at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, the visitor is faced with a wall of screens bearing slideshow episodes from the Muppet Master’s career. Henson himself naturally figures large in the collage, but so do his collaborators. Performer Caroll Spinney is seen half harnessed into his Big Bird rig, Frank Oz mugs as Fozzie Bear, and puppet maker Don Sahlin is captured in a candid moment adjusting a few of his creations. Over these images Henson’s voice can be heard saying “All the work that I do is very much a group effort. It’s a lot of us that do this.” Like the Muppets, Henson’s team was an ensemble whose labors, and much of the technical work on view, have, until now, largely gone unseen.
The exhibit, made up of an immense collection of finished pieces donated by the Henson family, reveals Jim’s many roles: as director, writer, performer, artist, and, along with his colleagues, a technical innovator and craftsman. By the entrance is a display of puppets spanning his creative life, from the primitive Pierre the French Rat, the puppet he used to audition for his first gig in television, to experimental creatures of latex and flocked foam, like the taxidermy-eyed vixen, Vazh from the doomed Saturday Night Live segment, “The Land of Gorch.” Moving away from the display, a chronology unfolds with welcome interactive demonstrations suitable for tykes.
In an alcove, hand-and-rod puppets, the prototype for the major players in the Muppet-verse, can be manipulated (arms with the plastic rod, mouth with the sleeved hand) in view of a camera and TV screen to recreate clips from Henson’s first show, Sam and Friends. Lip-synching to arias with these puppets proves difficult, but hint at Jim and his partner (and later wife) Jane Nebel’s, early efforts at puppetry on the air. As recounted in Christopher Finch’s 1994 book, Jim Henson: The Works, Jane and Jim would watch from onset monitors that “enabled them to see not only their own performances as they were happening, but also exactly what the audience would see.” The use of the monitors led Henson to experiment with perspective and camera angles and ultimately develop a uniquely telegenic style of puppet that was flexible and expressive in close-up. The original Kermit (then a lizard) made of a cardboard skeleton, Henson’s mother’s old coat, and a halved Ping Pong ball for eyes, had a malleable head well suited to the full articulation of the human hand, offering a wider range of expression.
It was Don Sahlin, however, whom Henson credited with the “basic style“ of the Muppets. First joining Jim in the creation of Rowlf the Dog (on display alongside Henson’s original sketches) Sahlin’s background in puppetry and special effects, when matched with Henson’s designs, produced a rare alchemy of imagination and function. Their creative union produced new creatures like the first full-body Muppet, a dragon that spewed fire in an ad for La Choy.
While commercial work throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s provided a nest egg for Henson’s young studio (and an equally invaluable incubator for experimenting with puppetry in a pre-taped environment), its biggest test would come with the advent of Sesame Street. The demands of the show gave rise to a new kind of Muppet, a felt factotum called an “Anything Muppet.” Designed by Henson and puppet maker and performer Caroly Wilcox, the Anything Muppet is a background player that, by Mr. Potatohead-type self-adhesive features, can assume a different look on the fly. In the exhibit, a “fat blue” Anything is perched on a lazy susan with sundry eyes, noses, and wigs visitors can apply. Though designed to serve one-off characters, a placard indicates that Sesame regulars Count Von Count and Prairie Dawn are Anythings.
Sesame also brought about the development of headsets for puppeteers and allowed Henson to work on more experimental fare in the form of brief, interstitial learning segments featuring unconventional puppets and animation. Nonetheless, the show’s success chafed, as he feared his medium was establishing a hard-to-shake association with kiddie entertainment. This changed with The Muppet Show which, while short on formal innovation, provided the cast and formula for one of Henson’s earlier ambitions: a feature film.
The last stretch of the exhibit is devoted to Henson’s films and the concurrent addition of machinery in his puppets. Among the first uses of radio control in Henson’s puppetry featured in the bike riding scenes in The Muppet Movie and Muppets Take Manhattan, and culminated in puppets that were, in part or largely, controlled remotely. Technical wizard Franz “Faz” Fazakas, incorporated swiveling servos into the anatomy of the Doozers from Fraggle Rock and later used “Waldos,” mittens that map to the mechanical face of a puppet, to breathe remarkable life into the creatures from The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, a computer-generated puppet named Waldo C. Graphic for Disneyworld’s 3D Muppet Movie, and the Sinclair family from Dinosaurs, which aired shortly after Henson’s early death.
Upon exiting, one is struck by the variety of work produced by Henson, and sobered by all the advances he has missed. What would he make of 3D printing? How might his continued influence have pushed back on Hollywood’s overreliance on CG over practical effects? Thankfully, Henson’s legacy survives in the family of collaborators that helped him make his mark.
The Jim Henson Exhibition is now on permanent display at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.