More Than Just A Puppet Master

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008

The other day, I dropped in on the Smithsonian's International Gallery to check out "Jim Henson's Fantastic World," a celebration of the puppeteer's work co-produced by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and an organization called the Jim Henson Legacy.

Legacy?, I thought. That's a bit highfalutin for a guy who basically made his name shoving his hand up a frog's behind.

But then, a few days later, as my son and I were driving in the car, a song came on the radio. It was a version of "Rubber Duckie," the ditty made famous by "Sesame Street's" Ernie, one of Henson's Muppet characters. The tune was familiar, but the words were being sung . . . in Mandarin Chinese. (Titled "Xiang pi xiao ya," the song is available on the compilation CD "Sesame Street Playground," from Putumayo Kids.) Up next? Van Morrison's 1973 cover of the Kermit the Frog soul anthem "Bein' Green."

Okay. So maybe "legacy" isn't such an exaggeration after all.

If "Fantastic World" makes one thing clear, it's this. Henson, who died in 1990 at age 53, came a long, long way from his humble beginnings in the Washington area. It was there that his puppets came to light in the mid-1950s, first on a five-minute TV show called "Sam and Friends," and later in a long-running series of short commercials for a local company, Wilkins Coffee. Some of those old black-and-white clips (delightfully low-tech and unslick) are among the most charming offerings in the Smithsonian show, which ranges from early concert and theater poster designs from when Henson was still a University of Maryland undergrad to elaborate props, costumes and characters created for such feature films as 1982's "The Dark Crystal."

Much of this career path will look familiar, especially once "Sesame Street" (which debuted in 1969) enters the timeline, with its cast of such well-known characters as Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird. Less well known, and, quite frankly, more fascinating to grown-ups than to kids, will be the behind-the-scenes tidbits detailing Henson's creative process: sketches that show the herky-jerky evolution of now-beloved characters, rough storyboards and documentary photos illuminating the hard work that goes into making puppets look alive (and then making all that hard work look easy).

But the exhibition's real surprises have nothing to do with Muppets.

The nine-minute film "Time Piece" is one such surprise. Made by Henson in 1965, this Academy Award-nominated live-action short probably will come as a revelation to anyone who associates Henson exclusively with puppetry (and especially with cuteness). Exploring time as an idea, the surreal, mostly wordless film stars Henson as a man dislocated in time, jumping forward and backward, to a percussive jazz beat, through his own (and mankind's) history. Although somewhat dated, it's still a remarkable piece of experimental filmmaking and shows a side of Henson I can guarantee most people don't know. With flashes of humor, it's far from dead serious. But it's also a world away from the "fantastic" one through which many of us know him.

More important, it makes one wonder. If Henson's life had not been cut short, just what would this talented artist's true legacy have become?

Jim Henson's Fantastic World Through Oct. 5 at the International Gallery of the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). Contact:202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). Hours: Open daily 10 to 5:30. Admission: Free. Programs: Saturdays from 10 to 2 through Sept. 6, the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater will present free, ongoing screenings of such documentaries as "Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years," "Down at Fraggle Rock: Behind the Scenes" and "Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting." Discovery Theater is in the S. Dillon Ripley Center, near the exhibition. The film series "Muppets, Music & Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy" runs through Aug. 24 at the AFI's Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring (Metro: Silver Spring). For information, call 301-495-6720 or visit

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