Muppet Master Jim Henson’s puppet fantasy world is explored at the Museum of the Moving Image’s new exhibition in Astoria

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If The Muppets were interviewed on The Today Show, what would they say about their creator, Jim Henson? Well, spokeswoman and diva Miss Piggy would probably blurt out, “He was sooo hot!” Big Bird might say, “And he made the whole world smile.” Burt and Ernie would both agree that, “without him, we wouldn’t be here!”

And, if the master puppeteer himself was there, he would say, “I’ve always tried to present a positive view of the world in my work. It’s so much easier to be negative and cynical, and predict doom for the world than it is to try and figure out how to make things better. We have an obligation to do the latter.” In fact, he’s already said it.

Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, a major exhibition devoted to his wondrous legacy, opened at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria on July 16 and will continue through Jan. 16, 2012.

Muppet magic

A special-effects wizard and technical innovator, Henson created the original Kermit the Frog out of his mother’s old coat and a ping-pong ball. A father of five, his talkative, know-it-all, loveable puppets were his other kids. They came to life and became famous when their boss, in one of his many flashes of genius, realized that there was no reason to hide the puppeteers behind a structure while the puppets were in front of the camera. By instructing the camera people to focus on the puppets, and keep the puppeteers out of the frame, the plush and fuzzy stars dominated the image.

And so, in 1969, the first of two generations of delighted tots, learned to say their ABCs and count to 20; they discovered what it meant to share, as they watched real people interact with puppets on a special inner city street like their own, called Sesame Street. Then, with Muppet shows and Muppet movies, Henson characters burst on the scene and took over American culture, in the late ‘70s.

But Henson’s creative soul wouldn’t rest, and before long his mind conjured up images of other-worldly creatures and beings, like Kira, a Gelfling, and Aughra, a Keeper of Secrets, who dwelled in a surreal place outside time, as the powers of good and evil struggled to possess “The Dark Crystal” (1982).

And still driven, Henson tossed and turned in his bed as images of cute but strange inhabitants from an underground civilization, swirled in his head. In an “Ah ha!” moment, he named this imaginary village Fraggle Rock (1983). The hit fantasy TV series was specifically designed to appeal to many diverse cultural groups, and as with most of Henson’s brilliant creations, captured the hearts of kids and adults alike.

Colorful and playful

Upstairs at the museum, visitors are greeted by a video montage, and over several months, will be treated to an amazing lineup of programs, talks, and performances, including special screenings, personal appearances by members of Henson’s family and his close collaborators, and educational programs for visitors of all ages. Elmo himself will be shaking hands with fans for the screening of Being Elmo on Sept. 25. Henson’s experimental Academy Award-nominated short film, Time Piece (1965), will also be featured. Most programs and films are free with price of admission — a real gift from the city of New York.

“It is rare for the museum to present an exhibition devoted to a single individual, but there is no more fitting subject than Jim Henson,” said Carl Goodman, executive director of the Museum of the Moving Image.

Additional events will include an anniversary screening of a newly restored 35mm print of Labyrinth, with special guests. Educational programs will include 30-minute guided tours (every Saturday and Sunday at 3:00 p.m.), and family workshops.

“It’s such a treat to get to know Jim Henson through his doodles and drawings, his puppets, and his fantastic performanc­es,” said Karen Falk, curator of the exhibition and archivist at The Jim Henson Company. “How perfect that Jim Henson’s Fantastic World exhibition has come to New York, where Jim based his corporate and production facilities. Now, visitors viewing his original work firsthand will have the opportunity to experience his creative thinking, and learn about the man who made the whole world smile.”

Jim Henson died in 1990, on the weekend he was going to sell his company to Disney. His funeral in New York City was attended by over 1,000 people, and Muppets.

In the words of Henson: “If our ‘message’ is anything, it’s a positive approach to life — that life is basically good. People are basically good. Simple is good. The most sophisticated people I’ve ever known had just one thing in common: they were all in touch with their inner children.”

Museum of the Moving Image is the only institution in the United States that explores the art, industry, and innovation of screen culture in all its forms. A major renovation and expansion completed in January 2011 doubled the size of the museum and added two new theaters, an education center, and new galleries. More information at movingimage.us.

Updated 11:10 am, October 12, 2011
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Reader feedback

katy from cambria says:
I ust say, as a child growing up with Jim around, it was amazing and special. I lived in Cambria California where Jim rented an apartment from my parents so that he had somewhere quiet, and beautiful to work. The rule was, don't bother the man upstairs, he's very special and working there. It was a few years later that we got a Christmas card from Jim. my mother had cooked, cleaned and laundered his clothing for him for so long, that even when he no longer was a renter, he cared enough to say hello and for me to look for a new muppet. I kept his cards until my mother died in 1987. All the rush and hurry of moving out and packing, they were lost. I remember the man and wondering if he were actually holding Kermit the Frog hostage. It was lovely to know him and special in the ways that he touched so many lives.
Nov. 13, 2011, 6:05 pm
Dave from Nazareth PA says:
It was so interesting to read the article, and especially the note.
My Mom lived in Cambria, on Pineridge, and said once that she was friends with someone who was involved with the Muppets. Today I did some searches just to see what was there, and this note showed up. What a small world, really.
Strangely, also, that my Mom passed away in 1987.
Anyway, thanks for the note.
Feb. 26, 2012, 5:13 pm

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