Jim Henson and Kermit

Jim Henson fans in New York City, take note. Your next journey should be to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.

/Film was able to catch a sneak preview of The Jim Henson Exhibition, a new permanent exhibition devoted to the life and work of the most famous puppeteer that has ever lived. While the museum has featured muppets and art from Henson before, this time it’s going to stay there forever, a fitting tribute to a man who continues to touch people’s lives.

Muppet Babies

You enter the exhibit near a large multi-screen display that broadcasts various clips from Henson non-stop, an incredible montage of his wide body of work. It’s a little taste of what’s to come.

Step inside and you’ll be welcomed by an original Kermit the Frog puppet, even though some of the the work here predates our favorite green friend. The mic headband that Henson used to wear is propped up next to Kermit. This is a section labeled Early Works. Some artifacts are on display from Sam and Friends, Henson’s first television series, a five-minute show that aired twice a day on a local channel in Washington D.C. The show features a number of familiar faces, most notably Kermit before he even became a frog. Back in the day, he was just a lizard-like creature, and Henson himself states that he only called him a frog when he did The Frog Prince for a TV special.

Before he had success with Muppets, Henson was all about the commercials. In this section you’ll find videos playing many of his most famous ads, including the hilarious (and hilariously violent!) Wilkins Coffee ads. Scripts and storyboards line the walls and reveal that his curiously dark sense of humor was always there.

You may not know it, but many of his legendary characters got their starts as shills. Rowlf the Dog? He was created for a series of Purina Dog Chow commercials. The exhibition even includes a couple of puppets, such as Delbert the La Choy Dragon, which, for whatever reason never made it past commercials.

Astral Projection

Like many people in this country, Henson’s life started getting a little trippy in the 1960s. The next section shows his contributions to experimental film and psychedelia, including his Academy Award-nominated short Time Piece. In one dark corner, a strange abstract shape juts out from a wall, acting as a screen for a non-stop montage of noises and visuals being projected. It’s the kind of thing you can lose yourself in if you stare too long. A look at a number of Henson’s short films and scripts involving – gasp marijuana use – gives you another great look at the man’s range.

To further demonstrate that, the next step in the exhibit is it is a section devoted to Sesame Street. Henson famously had to be convinced by creator Joan Ganz Cooney to work on the show, as he didn’t think it would be dignified. He only agreed after waiving his performance fee to retain ownership of the Muppets and split any revenue they generated, which proved to be quite a good idea.

Throughout the exhibit, there are over 300 objects on display, including 47 puppets. Many of the major names are included, including Elmo and an absolutely massive Big Bird, who is really impressive to see in real life. Some of the earliest product tie-ins lie on a shelf nearby, just a tiny fraction of what would become a merchandising empire. Alongside the puppets is concept art and sketches of their creations.

One of my personal favorites, and one that was in the original travelling exhibition, is a design sketch of how Big Bird operates. I’m not sure why, but I spent most of my adult life just accepting Caroll Spinney’s magic without thinking of how Big Bird actually worked, with the one arm raised to control his face and a little screen at chest level showing the world outside. The things these people did to put on a puppet show!

Make Your Own Puppets

Younger visitors will be pleased to find there are a couple of interactive portions. Near the front of the exhibit, there’s a number of puppets you can grab and use to shoot your very own little films. You can expect this section to be mobbed.

Another section that will be tough to drag the kids away from is an area that allows you to design your very own muppet. There’s a video tutorial for anyone that needs help, and number of wigs, clothes, eyes and ears to stick onto a blank muppet and take a picture of it.

Speaking of pictures, then museum takes pride in mentioning that they are allowing you to take pictures and videos of the entire exhibit. They figured that this fit with the ethos of Henson, and it also means that you can expect to see billions of selfies with famous Muppets popping up on social media over the next few months.

Hands-On Muppets

Along with the interactive portions, they use some tech in innovative ways, too. You know how in most museum exhibits they might have an artifact that’s an original book, one that’s laid out open under a piece of glass? They have that here, but they also took the great care to scan these documents as well. Touch screen panels next to the artifacts let you swipe through the recreated documents and read the whole thing, allowing you to browse Jim Henson’s original concept notes for The Dark Crystal and his treatment for Fraggle Rock (originally called Woozle World!). It’s a great concept and will allow people to read something that they never would have been allowed to get their hands on otherwise.

The videos themselves are designed to be as accessible to as many people as possible, as well. Captions are provided for every single video on display with the press of a button. They have them available in English, Spanish, and French so far, but plan on adding other major languages (Mandarin, Arabic, etc.) to represent not only the diverse community of Queens (Astoria is one of the few true melting pots in the city), but the worldwide visitors the museum receives. It’s what Jim would have wanted.

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