Jim Henson's Muppets Get The Smithsonian Treatment

Jane Henson speaks at the museum unveiling of her late husband's work.
Jane Henson speaks at the museum unveiling of her late husband's work. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006

Miss Piggy should've been there.

Washington has no shortage of events featuring dignitaries, pomp and worshipful speeches, but few such events could rival the heartfelt adoration on display yesterday at the kickoff of an exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of the Muppets at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Museum Director Brent D. Glass donned a Kermit the Frog tie with his classic Washington suit. Jane Henson, widow of Muppets creator Jim Henson and a longtime puppeteer herself, was awed by the admiration of so many. The polished choir from Northwestern High in Hyattsville (where Henson went to school) hushed the room with its harmonies. And Willard Scott, an early Henson friend and collaborator, gave a raucous speech and kissed everybody in sight. Repeatedly.

"They had such character and such warmth," Scott said of Henson's earliest puppet creations for "Sam and Friends." That live, five-minute comedy segment was created by Henson when he was just 18 and a student at the University of Maryland. It aired on Washington's WRC right before the Huntley-Brinkley evening news and "The Tonight Show," from 1955 to 1961.

Now, all these decades later, Henson's 10 characters from "Sam and Friends" are on the third floor of the American History Museum through Labor Day. These Henson originals are behind glass, but even in their static positions, they exude the personality you'd expect with these names: Mushmellon, Harry the Hipster, Mouldy Hay and Chicken Liver.

It should be said: We are lucky to see them. Where have these important early television entertainers been all these many years?

"I hate to tell you," said Jane Henson, sotto voce. "They've just been in boxes."

Museum conservators had to do a fair amount of work to restore Chicken Liver in particular. He was the only one of the puppets that had made it into the Henson kids' toy box.

"We didn't know it had any value," Henson said sheepishly, glancing at a backdrop display a few feet away, featuring an oversize picture of Henson's puppets, including Chicken Liver. Even five Henson kids couldn't completely destroy him, and yesterday the youngest of the brood, 35-year-old Heather, was at the exhibit with her mother. She works with independent puppet-based short films, looking for artists in the mold of her father in his early days.

Jane Henson said it has been wonderful to reunite these old characters for the Smithsonian. They represent so much of the fun she and Jim Henson had in the early days of their relationship. The puppets in the exhibit also offer a poignant glimpse into the early days of TV entertainment, when raw comedic productions were only as good as the talent and personality of the people behind them. Compared with today's glossy and raunchy productions, Sam and his friends are a reminder that not everything improves with age.

"It was live television for five minutes," Henson remembered. "Our audience was used to things going wrong."

It wasn't until the late 1960s that Henson began to work on entertainment for children, first with "Sesame Street" and later with "The Muppet Show" and Muppet movies. The exhibit also features some iconic Henson creations from the period -- although not all, Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie are notably absent. But you will see the nonsense-speaking, cooking-show-spoofing Swedish Chef (who, frankly, is bigger than you'd think).

The dean of Northwestern's Jim Henson School of Arts, Media and Communications, Leona Lowery-Hawkins, said one sign of Henson's universal appeal is that her high school musicians had been doing Swedish Chef imitations on the bus on the way to the ceremony and laughing hysterically. The girls, though, most identified with Miss Piggy. "She is the ultimate diva," Lowery-Hawkins said.

The famous Kermit is on display, too, grooving with Dr. Teeth, psychedelic keyboardist for the Electric Mayhem Orchestra. That bright-green Kermie is shown a few feet from Henson's original Kermit from "Sam and Friends." A pale gray-green, that Kermit was made by Henson's own hands, stitching a future icon from a coat his mother had discarded. Two halves of a ping-pong ball make the eyes. He may seem a little crude by today's standards, but there's no mistaking who he is.

These nostalgic displays are smartly kept separate from the other Henson work on the museum's first floor. There, the artist's fascination with technology and animatronic, remote-controlled puppets is haunting, showing in hand-made, sculptural form the kind of modern-day movie monsters we now get only from digital special effects. Two creature-puppets from Henson's 1982 fantasy feature film, "The Dark Crystal," are eerily evocative of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas creations.

Museum director Glass said he's thrilled to put the Henson artifacts in the museum over the summer, when huge crowds are expected to file through to see them. He tied Henson's desire to entertain people to nothing less than Thomas Jefferson's recognition that the "pursuit of happiness" is a basic right in a healthy democracy.

"This was a natural for us on so many levels," Glass said.

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