Jim Henson, the relentless innovator who gave the world Kermit the Frog and “The Muppet Show,” is getting a permanent tribute in New York, nearly 30 years after his death.
If rarely seen on camera, Henson lived and breathed television, hooking adult Americans on puppets, turning puppetry into prime-time entertainment and for 25 years gave life to Kermit, the world’s most famous puppet.
Not only did he create “The Muppet Show” and several of Kermit’s contemporaries, he gave birth to Elmo, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie of “Sesame Street” fame, “Fraggle Rock” and movies “Dark Crystal” (1982) and “Labyrinth” (1986).
On Saturday, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens opens a permanent exhibition exploring Henson’s work, challenging visitors to look beyond his most famous creations at the astonishingly breadth of his career.
The exhibition brings together more than 300 objects, among them a Kermit the Frog, and more than 180 items bequeathed to the museum by the Henson family.
When Henson came to see puppetry as a serious art form, inspired partly by a trip to Europe in 1958, puppets at that time in America were for children, said Barbara Miller, curator of “The Jim Henson Exhibition.”
“The work and the projects that he developed — they were always fighting against this notion that puppets are just for kids,” she said.
“‘The Muppet Show’ was obviously the most successful way that he broke that barrier. It was programmed as prime time on Sunday nights. It was family hour so it was everybody.”
Merging comedy, fantasy, poetry, music and song, it was a surprising blend of weekly US television show which ran from 1976 to 1981, defined a generation and inspired eight feature-length films from 1979 to 2014.
– ‘Innovate’ –
But unusually, Henson walked away when the show was still in its prime, although he continued to give voice and movement to Kermit until his sudden death from pneumonia aged 53 in 1990.
“He was worried he was going to start repeating himself. The last thing my dad would want is that Kermit just keeps doing the same thing,” son Brian explained in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“My dad’s number one thing was don’t repeat yourself. Innovate. Do something new.”
Henson demonstrated that innovation time and again with short, Oscar-nominated 1965 surrealist film “Time Piece,” then with “Dark Crystal”, “Fraggle Rock” and “Labyrinth” starring Davie Bowie.
Each time, he created a new universe made possible by advances in technology.
The purpose of the exhibition is not only to showcase his work but to illustrate “how things happened and what the creative processes were,” Miller said.
“I wanted people coming in with an idea of who Jim Henson is and leaving with a more complex idea of who he is and maybe more questions than they had when they came in,” she explained.
A traveling version of the exhibition is on view at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle and will travel the United States and the world over the next five years.
“We know ‘The Muppets,’ we know the characters on ‘Sesame Street,’ maybe a couple of other things — but one of the goals is to really deepen our understanding of Jim Henson as an artist, as a creative thinker, as an experimental filmmaker,” said Miller.
“And really see a bigger picture of him as a creator.”