JIM HENSON WAS a Hyattsville high school senior with an interest in television when he saw an ad in the paper asking for puppeteers. He checked out a library book on making puppets, and the rest is Muppetry. Over the next three and a half decades, until his death in 1990, Henson became the world’s premier puppet master, assembling a galaxy of fuzzy stars who appeared on “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show” and “Fraggle Rock,” as well as in a host of big-screen adventures. Opening Saturday, a traveling exhibit pays tribute to Henson’s vision.
» EXPRESS: What were Henson’s early days like?
» FALK: First, he was on WTOP … for about three weeks before [getting] canceled. But then in the fall of that year, 1954, he went over to WRC … and he had a little local show, a five-minute show. It was on twice a night, at 6:25, before the “Huntley-Brinkley Report,” and at 11:25, before the “Tonight Show “… and he did that show for six years.
» EXPRESS: He also did a lot of ad work when he was tooling up.
» FALK: Jim started, again, with a Washington company called the Wilkins Coffee Company, doing ads for them in 1957, and he did about 200 advertisements for them over a period of six or eight years.
» EXPRESS: Henson had many talented collaborators. What was Don Sahlin’s role?
» FALK: He’s really credited with setting the Muppet look. Jim designed the characters, but it was Don that took Jim’s drawings and got to their essence and simplified the way the Muppets actually look: the placement of the eyes, the placement of the features.
» EXPRESS: And we get to see that process?
» FALK: In the exhibit, in the “Sesame Street” section, we have Jim’s original design for Bert and Ernie, and we have a wonderful photograph of Don building Bert. And on the table in the photograph is that same drawing that Jim did. … Bert and Ernie are also in the exhibit.
» EXPRESS: Performing was collaborative, too.
» FALK: [With] Ernie, for example, or Rowlf, Jim would have his right hand in the head and his left hand in the left hand of the puppet, but a second puppeteer would have his or her right hand in the right hand of the puppet.
» EXPRESS: How would Henson have liked the Muppetlike miscreants of “Wonder Showzen” and “Avenue Q”?
» FALK: I think he would have loved it. Jim originally worked for adults. His show in Washington, “Sam and Friends,” was really for a college sort of audience. … He did not want to be offensive, but he really was interested in entertaining all ages. You know, the Muppets were on “Saturday Night Live” the first season.
» S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW; through Oct. 5, 202-633-3166. (Smithsonian)
Written by Express contributor Glenn Dixon
Photos by Ted Neuhoff/The Jim Henson Company