— Jay Neel, Travilah
Answer Man’s column last week about the TV commercials Jim Henson created for Washington’s Wilkins Coffee elicited many fond memories from readers. In this age of global media saturation, it’s hard to imagine a time when a local talent could so rule the local airwaves. But then, Henson seemed able to master anything he touched.
To get a sense of the Muppet creator’s precocious artistry, head over to the University of Maryland’s Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library. There you’ll find a compact but winning exhibit on Henson’s time as a student at Maryland, where he gained many of the skills that allowed him to bring his innate gifts to life.
Henson started out as a fine arts major but soon switched to the College of Home Economics, figuring that’s where he would learn the practical skills he needed to master his unique vision.
At Maryland he took courses in fashion illustration and advertising layout. The exhibit includes one of his class projects: a mock-up for something called “GLAM, for beautiful eyes.” Two comely female faces stare out from an ad that wouldn’t look out of place in Glamour magazine.
Next to that is another assignment: a sketch of a skeleton that manages to demonstrate both that Henson knew anatomy and that he possessed a sly sense of humor. At the top of the page, Henson helpfully jotted: “A skeleton — that’s bones with all the people scraped off.”
Henson had worked on set design while at Northwestern High School, and he continued with theater work at Maryland. He became the publicity manager for several university theater companies, responsible for designing posters and programs for such shows as “Teahouse of the August Moon” and “Dark of the Moon.”
Henson became so adept at silk-screening — and was so industrious — that he set up a silk-screening business in the student union. You could hire Henson to design a poster for your kegger or student council campaign.
A large touch-screen monitor allows visitors to scroll through digitized pages of sketchbooks Henson maintained. The drawings inside are not fantastical proto-Muppets, but assured sketches of people and places, from the camera operators Henson encountered while working on his various TV projects to landscapes from around the District: the Duke Ellington Bridge, Great Falls, the Silver Spring train station . . .
Another monitor displays scenes from “Sam & Friends,” one of the shows Henson did with his future wife, Jane Nebel. It promised, an ad read, to “bring out the children in the adults and the adults in the children.”
Though the single-room exhibit is composed of just a few cases, a few walls and a few TV screens, it gives a good sense of the breadth of Henson’s interests and his love of experimentation. In his short animated film “Drums West,” colored shapes dance across a black background in time with a percussive soundtrack. Yellow and orange rectangles make starburst patterns as the (unseen) drummer, Chico Hamilton, plays the high-hat; blue dots pop as he thumps the bass drum. It’s an abstract visual representation of the music.
How was it done? At the end, the camera pulls back to reveal Henson seated at a workbench. In front of him is a black surface about the size of an LP cover. It’s surrounded by bits of colored paper that Henson has been painstakingly arranging with tweezers, then filming a frame at a time.
As for those souvenir Wilkins and Wontkins Muppets, they’re there too, inside a glass case. In 1958 you could have had a pair by sending in $1 and the last inch of winding band from a can of Wilkins Coffee or a Wilkins Instant Coffee label. “Made of soft but durable vinyl,” a newspaper ad explained, “you only need to move your fingers inside to create 1,001 funny faces.”
Henson did that and more.
“Inspired! Jim Henson at Maryland” was curated by Vincent J. Novara of the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library and Karen Falk and Susie Tofte, archivists at the Jim Henson Co., which supplied much of the material.
The free exhibit is at 8270 Alumni Dr. in College Park. It’s open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours till 9 p.m. on Wednesdays. Visit lib.umd.edu/mspal.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.