Jim Henson And His Muppets Have A New ‘Furever’ Home
“Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.”
So sang Kermit the Frog in “The Rainbow Connection”, in a now-iconic opening credits sequence from 1979’s “The Muppet Movie”.
And now a new kind of rainbow connection lives in the Museum of the Moving Image, in the form of a permanent exhibit of Jim Henson’s legacy as an innovator, of puppetry, television, film, as a voice artist, as a designer, as an illustrator, and an all-around creative.
Located around the corner from the actual set of “Sesame Street”, the Museum of the Moving Image is the only such institution in America dedicated to the history, education, and appreciation of film, television, and digital media.
And the Jim Henson Exhibition hits all of those notes. Visitors will learn about Jim’s life story, from being born in a small town in Missouri, to traveling to the University of Maryland, College Park, where he got his start in performing puppetry for television, in the form of shorts for Washington, D.C’s NBC affiliate, called “Sam & Friends”. And it was there Jim met future collaborator and muse Jane Nebel, whom he married.
From there, the exhibit, whose narrow-ish galleries fork between “Sesame Street”, “The Muppet Show”, to his films “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal”, to his experimental work (did you know Jim spent four years working on a multimedia nightclub concept called Cyclia?) allows the visitor to choose their own adventure in exploring Jim’s 30 year career trajectory, viewing over 300 puppets, artwork, 3-D models, film clips, and more.
To this lifelong Muppets fan, the most exciting feature of the exhibition is the interactive portions geared towards children (and children at heart), allowing visitors to build their own Muppet from the “Fat Blue Anything”, a nondescript, unassuming base which transforms into a multitude of Muppets characters, by combining different eyes, noses, ears, and hairstyles.
Or the puppetry practice corner, allowing guests to assume the role of a Muppet performer (yes, they’re called “Muppet performers”, not “Muppeteers”) by holding puppets over their heads, operating arm wires, and observing their actions in a television screen, just as Jim did, and now his legacy company, perform to this very day.
In a world of entertainment now heavily reliant upon CGI and other technologically-produced special effects, it’s refreshing to see and remember the practical, real-world, supremely creative solutions Jim and his colleagues created to defy gravity, reality, and practically space-time itself. I’m hopeful the exhibition will inspire a new generation of Muppets and puppetry lovers, to continue Jim’s work, and to advance an art form that doesn’t need to die, despite technological objections to the contrary.
By 1990, by the time of his tragic (and some say entirely preventable) death at age 53, Jim’s career was certainly headed in the direction of more computers and fewer real special effects. Once visitors round the corner intersecting “The Muppet Show” with “The Dark Crystal”, they’re greeted with the smallest display in the entire exhibition. It’s the few bits of work curators decided were notable enough to exemplify the end of Jim’s career, such as Waldo, the entirely 3D-generated Muppet, best known for his role as protagonist in Walt Disney World’s “Muppet*Vision 3D” attraction.
If you’ve never heard of Waldo, or don’t remember him from your visit to Disney (and I didn’t either, my boyfriend had to remind me), you’re not alone. The Muppets, outside of the roster exclusive to “Sesame Street”, just aren’t a part of the cultural lexicon like they were in the 80s and 90s. (There is, however, a roaring online trade of Kermit memes.) And there was a Muppets renaissance of sorts, thanks to the 2011 Jason Segal-helmed “The Muppets” movie, which grossed $165 million worldwide, and earned it the honor of being the highest-grossing Muppet movie to date.
But the flagship troupe of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and crew have stumbled in their quest for their place in the hearts and minds of post-millennials. A sequel to the Segal movie, “Muppets Most Wanted”, only grossed $80 million worldwide. A 2015 ABC sitcom, also called “The Muppets”, featured our favorite childhood friends drinking, having sex, and generally acting like actual adults. It was canceled after one season. To wit, Steve Whitmire, who performed Kermit and Ernie after Jim’s death, was fired last month by Disney in a very uncomfortable, and very rare public spat with The Haus of Mouse.
To this Muppets fan, who holds tight to her copies of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” and “Jim Henson’s Doodle Dreams”, using them as a guidebook for life, it’s been a disappointing few years. But the Jim Henson Exhibition reminded me of not only the greatness of the man, but of his work, and the legacy carried on by The Jim Henson Company, “Sesame Street”, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and the Jim Henson Foundation. Their work has certainly been cut out for them; they’re certainly trying.
But, as with most things, I think Kermit, and therefore Jim, said it best. Before leaving the exhibit, visitors are treated to a constellation of wall-mounted televisions, playing hundreds of highlights from Jim’s career. And then, one by one, each television flickers to Jim and Kermit, with a parting message:
“Goodbye!” Jim/Kermit says, waving you out. “And good luck!”
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