Not wanting to load up its galleries with every multicolored Muppet out there, the Smithsonian is paying tribute to the late Jim Henson by exploring his creative thinking — and one can only imagine how kaleidoscopic that might have been.
Aside from bringing Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog to life as a puppeteer, Henson was an artist, film director and producer whose visionary ways helped lay the bedrock for today’s eye-catching films. Perhaps for that reason, attendance at “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” in the Smithsonian’s International Gallery in Washington has been “off the charts,” since the exhibition bowed July 12, said project director Deborah Macanic. Perusing a body of work that includes 100 drawings, cartoons, experimental shorts, storyboards (many of which were used for commercials, TV shows and films) and, yes, Muppets, many visitors have been surprised by references to the storyteller’s much more adult-friendly feature films “The Dark Crystal” and “Labryinth.” Henson died in 1990.
“His interests were not primarily in doing children’s TV or children’s projects even though he was so good at that, and innovated ‘Sesame Street.’ ‘The Muppet Show’ was actually done for a family audience. He was also interested in projects for adults,” Macanic said. “A lot of films seen today use advances that Jim developed. He had a hand laying the foundation for a lot of what’s happening today with animation, digitization and all the other special effects that we take for granted today.”
Eager to feature larger-than-life characters on the stage, he developed mechanical puppets using animatronics. In fact, The Jim Henson Creature Shop was established to do just that. He also developed a TV monitor system that enabled puppeteers to see their actions as they were happening. Contrary to public speculation, “Muppet” is not a combination of marionette and puppet, but “just a word” Henson chose to name his flock, according to his wife, Jane, Macanic said. She first performed with Henson in 1955, when they were fellow University of Maryland classmates and his live “Sam and Friends” show was starting what would be a six-year run.
The Muppets debuted on the “Today” show in 1960, were first licensed in 1966, made weekly cameos on “Saturday Night Live” in its inaugural 1975 season and got their own gig the following year. All those animals may have sprung from Henson’s imaginative mind when he lolled by a Mississippi creek as a boy, Macanic said.
In video clips on display, Henson, the son of an agronomist, talks about how nature, family sing-alongs, his grandmother’s praise for his artwork and watching TV in the Fifties were sources of inspiration. There is also footage of his various projects including the 1964 Oscar-nominated “Time Piece” where Henson can be seen taking flight in man-made wings — something that still puzzles Macanic. “How long he flew for in those wings and how much of that was actually camera work — I don’t know,” she said.