Sunday, December 8, 2019

A Night at the Museum

Last year we attended the opening of the Albuquerque Museum’s great exhibition  of treasures from the Hispanic Society in New York.  This year we had a slight change of pace with “The Jim Henson Exhibition – Imagination Unlimited”. The evening started with cocktails and one of the best meals I have ever had at a large gathering surrounded by everything Jim Henson-themed.

The minute I hear the name Jim Henson I think, Sesame Street and the Muppets but these seem to now all be separate entities: Sesame Street, The Muppets and The Jim Henson Foundation.  This show came directly from the Foundation and its president, Cheryl Henson, daughter of Jim. Of course, no matter that they are all different companies they all originated in the fertile mind of Jim Henson. 

My three kids born between 1967 and 1980 all grew up on Sesame Street and the Muppets.  I asked them what they remembered and here are their responses, from the oldest down.  From my daughter: “I was 2 when Sesame Street began, and it was the only show I was allowed to watch…... Even though I own a book store and spend the day alphabetizing, I have to sing [the alphabet] from the beginning. Thank you so much Sesame Street! I also truly believed in the Snuffleupagus and was stricken to see him hanging up when I went on a tour of the studio in kindergarten or first grade.” From my older son: “I learned to count with a Transylvanian accent … and laugh after I said each number mwahhhhaaahhha”. From the youngest: “Jim Henson is the best and his influence on kids’ imagination cannot be overstated. Yes, I learned the alphabet and counting via Sesame Street. Big Bird was the ultimate celebrity in my eyes. I had a Fraggle Rock laser disc (because my Dad believed laser discs were sure to be the format of the future. :-) and a VHS of The Muppets take Manhattan which I watched over and over again.”

While we were in Albuquerque we went to the Atomic Museum where I read this great quote from Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Henson clearly had a great imagination, but he had so much more.  Often talent presents itself early and Jim Henson was creating cartoons by the time he was a teenager.  He made posters and sets for his high school theater productions.  As a college student he studied graphic design and started a successful poster business. He always considered himself a visual artist though he gained fame as a puppeteer.  At first it was just hand puppets but he kept up with the times, developing the mechanics, adapting to television  and going on to push the limits of computer technology to allow his characters to do far more than just being moved by  hand and sticks. 

Here is a drawing by one of Henson’s chief designers and puppeteers who sometimes drove the school bus on Sesame Street, Caroly Wilcox.  It is a sketch of notes showing how the characters are not supported on strings like marionettes but from below while the puppeteer tracks the action above his head on a TV monitor.

Courtesy of the Jim Henson Company
Though I learned about Jim Henson through my kids I always identified with Cookie Monster and The Grouch!  Here is Cookie Monster in the form of a Cookie jar and I believe it is still available on-line!

One of Henson’s most popular puppets was Kermit the Frog.  He actually created it for his first television show in 1955.  After a few subtle changes he became a star on Sesame Street which started in 1969.  He appears “in person” in the exhibition lent by the Henson family.

Henson’s work knows no borders. Here is a tribute from Native American cartoonist, Ricardo Caté from Santa Domingo Pueblo, in our newspaper, The New Mexican, where he publishes daily.

Henson died in 1990 at the age of 53. In 1989 he worked on an HBO music education series called “The Ghost of Faffner Hall” and in 1990 “The Witches” which was a feature film based on a Roald Dahl novel.  Who knows what he might have still accomplished but just think how much he created and how many lives he affected.  How many people do we know or have heard of that have reached generations of individuals across the world?

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