For decades, the Muppets, created by Jim Henson, have captured the imagination of children and adults worldwide.
A traveling exhibit, “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited,” is now at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. It features some of the most beloved Muppets and shows what happens behind the scenes for characters such as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and The Count from Sesame Street to come to life.
“If you learn from Sesame Street, he (The Count) teaches you how to count. There’s Cookie Monster, he does the ABCs every episode,” said 9-year-old Elli Fire, who worked on a hands-on display that shows how a puppet character is created.
“We’re excited for people to understand that he was a very multifaceted artist, a very adventurous, creative mind,” said Jim Henson’s eldest daughter, Lisa, who is the president and chief executive officer of The Jim Henson Company, which is also based in Los Angeles.
Lisa Henson described what it was like to be in the Henson family, which included five siblings.
“As family members, we were always quite included in the productions. He [Jim Henson] was encouraging us to be with him on set all the time,” she said. “He would love to tell us how the best techniques of puppet building or the new innovations that they would make in terms of mechanics or electronics and how he was advancing the technology.”
The universal appeal of Henson’s work launched shows such as Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock onto the international stage.
Barbara Miller, senior curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Museum of the Moving Image in New York, shared some observations.
“His work became so popular worldwide, and he understood that he had an audience of children and adults in countries around the world — remember The Muppet Show was seen in 135 countries at its height.
“The international co-productions of Sesame Street are seen around the world,” said Miller, whose museum houses a permanent Jim Henson exhibit.
Promote good values
Lisa Henson said of her father, “He felt a responsibility to be positive and to promote good values like acceptance, tolerance, promoting individualism and diversity.”
The exhibit not only showcases more than 100 objects and 25 historic puppets, visitors also see what it takes to bring these characters to life.
“You can see original sketches, actually notes of the very beginnings of ideas all the way through to finished puppets,” Henson said.
The exhibit is a creative archaeological experience that tells the life story of Jim Henson and his work from the 1930s to 1990, when he died.
Although computer generated imagery may have replaced some puppets in Hollywood, Lisa Henson said the art of puppetry is still relevant today.
“It gives it a kind of immediacy in performance and intimacy that people connect to that and they kind of feel like the puppets are a little more alive, and so I don’t think puppets will go entirely out of style,” she said.
Miller said the aim is to continue to take the Jim Henson exhibit on tour to other U.S. cities and abroad.