The Washington Post

A hand in history: ‘Puppetry in America’ at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

“Puppetry in America’ features some of Jim Henson’s earliest creations — including Kermit — from the “Sam and Friends” TV series. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Kermit wasn’t always a frog, and he didn’t start out as a pollywog.

Jim Henson’s most beloved Muppet began life as an abstract, “reptilelike thing,” says Dwight Blocker Bowers, curator of the National Museum of American History’s new “Puppetry in America” exhibit.

Kermit the Not-Yet-a-Frog starred in Henson’s first TV series, 1955’s “Sam and Friends.” “It was a five-minute show that broadcast in Washington, D.C., after the evening news and before ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” Bowers says. “The puppets did lip-syncing to popular songs of the time, and most shows ended with an explosion.”

The exhibit, which honors significant puppets such as Howdy Doody, Charlie McCarthy and Tubby the Tuba, provides a glimpse into how Americans made Old World traditions their own, Bowers says.

For instance, the New England preacher William Hitchcock used Punch and Judy puppets around 1890 to put on morality plays and advocate for temperance. It was a surprising turn of events for Punch, a character known in England for beating his wife and mistreating his baby without repercussions.

“Hitchcock’s Punch did pretty much his usual things, but he was reformed at the end of the presentations, unlike Punch in British and French theater, where he remains a wastrel, pretty much,” Bowers says.

Whether you go to think deep thoughts about American art or just to visit some old friends, Bowers hopes the exhibit will broaden your idea of the art form.

“Puppetry includes stop-action figures, ventriloquist puppets, hand puppets and, of course, our ever-popular Muppets,” he says. “It’s an enduring form of entertainment.”

KERMIT, 1955

Created for “Sam and Friends,” a five-minute TV show that was broadcast locally between 1955 and 1961

Recycling Is Green, Too: Jim Henson made Kermit out of an old coat of his mother’s. Kermit’s eyes are halves of pingpong balls, and the puppeteer’s sleeve is a repurposed leg from a pair of kids’ jeans.

Not Yet a Frog: Kermit, like many early Muppets, didn’t originally represent a specific animal. “At the time, Jim identified him as a reptilelike thing,” says Dwight Blocker Bowers, curator of the National Museum of American History’s new “Puppetry in America” exhibit. “He doesn’t have the crenulated collar, he doesn’t have the flipper feet.”

Celery to Cookies: Other “Sam and Friends” characters included Mushmellon, a yellow monster who looks like a squat Oscar the Grouch, and Yorick, a purple head with an insatiable appetite for celery (presaging Cookie Monster’s sweets fetish).


Worked on “The Howdy Doody Show,” which was broadcast live from New York, five days a week, for nearly 13 years

Double Doody: The Smithsonian’s Howdy Doody was an understudy. The first-string puppet lives at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Doody (Not) Free: America’s first national kids’ TV show hawked tie-in products: “Howdy Doody”-branded games, children’s furniture, costumes and more.

Doody Dispute: The Howdy Doody design on view wasn’t the first. In 1948, the show’s puppeteer walked out due to unmet salary demands, taking the puppet, to which he had the rights, with him. At the time, Howdy was running for president. The host saved the day by saying Howdy was out on the campaign trail, where he decided he needed a handsomer visage to earn the female vote and underwent plastic surgery. NBC eluded trademark issues by bringing back a different marionette.


Were co-opted by late-19th-century New England preacher William Hitchcock for his traveling morality plays

Punch the Puritan: In his European incarnation, dating back to 1662, Punch was a scofflaw and a drunk who beat everyone he encountered with his “slapstick,” often with fatal results. Wife Judy and their baby were frequent victims. In Hitchcock’s hands, Punch saw the error of his homicidal ways.

Comedy Etymology: The term “slapstick comedy” originated with Punch and Judy, as well as the phrases “punch drunk” and “pleased as punch,” Bowers says.

As British as Tea: In 2006, the British government named Punch and Judy one of the most important “icons of Englishness,” along with a cup of tea and “Alice in Wonderland.” Punch, however, originated as the clown Pulcinella, an Italian commedia dell’arte character.

SCRAPS, 2005

Appeared in “Corpse Bride,” a stop-motion animated film by Tim Burton about a man who accidentally proposes to a corpse; she then tries to take him up on the offer

Stick to the Registry: The Corpse Bride gives a box of bones as a present to her horrified bridegroom, who is later delighted when they assemble themselves into a skeleton version of his beloved childhood dog, Scraps.

Structurally Unsound: Like many “Corpse Bride” characters, the clay-and-plastic dog has a huge head and tiny feet. Unable to support his own weight, the dog was supported by an external frame that animators digitally erased. The human characters got stability assistance from the set itself, which provided spots for their feet to lock in.

Slow Going: A single second of screen time required 24 separate still photos, with animators making tiny changes to the characters in between shots.

National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; opens Fri., free; 202-633-1000. (Smithsonian)

Sadie Dingfelder will write about anything, but she especially loves art, science, wildlife and quirky people.



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