There are few artists whose work crosses multiple generations and speaks to so many different types of people; Jim Henson is one of them. His innocent but soulful characters introduced whimsy and wonder and simple values to children around the world, and continue to do so today. Though many might not even recognize Henson’s face, the visages of so many of his iconic puppets—Big Bird, Miss Piggy, Elmo—are part of our national consciousness and are unforgettable. It’s time now to get to know the man behind our lovable fuzzy friends.
Henson and his Muppets are taking over the Museum of the Moving Image—much like how they took over Manhattan—at “The Jim Henson Exhibition.” This show pulls back the curtain on four decades’ worth of Henson magic, including all the characters you know and love from his canon, from Kermit and the Swedish Chef to Statler and Waldorf, plus lesser-known ones like Miss Mousey and Homer Honker, who were created and used throughout the 1970s and ’80s in The Muppets Valentine Show and Sesame Street.
Besides the characters, the exhibition puts Henson’s creative brain on display through behind-the-scenes footage, sketches, storyboards, his character notes and ideas, scripts, costumes, and still photographs.
Two sections, Introducing Jim Henson and Early Works, show how passionate and imaginative he was, even as a teenager. He created his first puppet TV series, Sam and Friends, while he was pursuing a degree in home economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. And did you know that Kermit wasn’t Henson’s first big “star”? That honor goes to Rowlf the Dog (you may remember him as the pianist on The Muppet Show), who started off as a spokes-puppet for Purina and then made regular guest appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960s.
Turn a corner from those early years, and you’ll see him there, glorious in yellow and standing eight feet two inches tall: Big Bird. Some may say that the television camera adds 10 pounds, but I think the camera diminished Bird’s height. Like almost every American kid, I grew up on Sesame Street, but I never realized just how big Big Bird was. Seeing him beside Elmo and Cookie Monster brought me right back to the carpet of my living room floor, in front of the TV. I was starstruck.
“It’s certainly not a career one would plan…I was interested in television and film and art, and actually, when I went into puppetry, I found that I could combine all this stuff.” —Jim Henson
Once you’ve caught up with your Sesame Street pals, transport yourself to the world of the Muppets. Take a selfie with Miss Piggy, browse pieces from the set of The Muppets Take Manhattan, and check out The Muppet Show wall, a mesmerizing seven-foot-tall media installation playing about 120 episodes of The Muppet Show simultaneously. It’s a fantastic media—and memory—overload for anyone who was a kid or had a kid during the 1970s and ’80s. (I went home and immediately watched The Muppets Christmas Carol to keep the nostalgia going—and to put me in the holiday spirit five months ahead of schedule.)
“The Jim Henson Exhibition” gives fans of all ages permission to play—there’s a puppet mannequin that kids can make come to life with wigs, eyes, horns, accessories, etc.—and connect to the feeling of pure joy that lives in all of us.
Why You Should Go: Henson was a lover and a dreamer; seeing his collected works and process here makes us lovers and dreamers, too.
“The Jim Henson Exhibition”
Museum of the Moving Image
36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria
$15; $11 for seniors (65-plus) and students (18-plus); $7 for ages 3–17; free for museum members and children under age 3