A new MoPOP exhibition running through 2017 celebrates the innovation, spirit and endless imagination of Jim Henson. While the exhibit, organized by the Museum of the Moving Image, touches on the iconic Muppet Show and Sesame Street, visitors will find pleasant surprises in this show. Here are just a few.
He was an all-around artist.
Jim Henson was more than a puppeteer extraordinaire and the voice behind Kermit the Frog. He was also a writer, visual artist, director and producer. Visitors get a rare view of Henson’s original handwritten scripts, notes, storyboards and character sketches—these include his etchings for Sesame Street characters like Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird. “Primarily, he considered himself a filmmaker,” says Barbara Miller, curator with Museum of the Moving Image. This show offers rare excerpts of his non-Muppet films including The Cube, Youth 68 and the experimental Time Piece starring Henson.
He was a visionary.
Impressively, Henson burst onto the scene while still a freshman at the University of Maryland, when he and fellow student Jane Nebel (his future wife) gained fame with 1950s television show Sam and Friends. Until then, the only puppets the viewing public were exposed to were shows like Kukla, Fran & Ollie, which were entertaining in their own right, but were basically filmed stage shows. Henson and Nebel saw the untapped potential using this new technology called television to showcase their Muppets. For starters, they got rid of the puppet stage (so common in those days) and “used the television screen as the proscenium,” Miller says.
When Henson wanted to make a motion picture with the Muppets but wasn’t sure if their charm would transfer to the big screen, he shot test footage of Kermit and Fozzie Bear on location with Frank Oz (who operated and voiced Fozzie) and film director James Frawley. This gave Henson and his associates the confidence to make The Muppet Movie.
He was a savvy entrepreneur.
Although his Muppets became quite well known with appearances on the popular variety and talk shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, Henson had ambitious artistic aspirations and knew that he would need to self-finance his projects if he wanted to see them carried out. From the beginning he brought in funds through his commercial work with a variety of clients from coffee to gas companies. In 1958 he formed Muppets Inc., which created characters for commercials and TV shows. More importantly, Miller says Henson “was shrewd enough not to sell the rights to his characters, but to license them instead.”
Savvy and visionary are just a few words to describe this all-around artist. Even those who think they know him should take a journey inside the imagination of Jim Henson.