There are few people in this world who have not been touched by the broad appeal of The Muppets. A creation of the late Jim Henson, one need not mention that The Muppets are essentially hand puppets — anymore than you would need to point out that Kermit is a talking frog. The allure of The Muppets is that we forget that they are hand puppets (or body puppets, in some cases) and that we readily buy into the illusion that these are living, breathing individuals who look, sound and act like people we know.
Through April 19, 2020, the Albuquerque Museum is host to the touring event titled “Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited”. This installation is a well-conceived chronicle of Henson’s career, starting as a young (teenage) cartoonist and culminating with the most recent creations of the Jim Henson Company. It is a multimedia tour through over 60 years of creative genius. That Henson himself did not even live to see his 55th birthday speaks volumes of the legacy he left behind and the dedication of those writers, puppet-makers, performers and designers who were — and in many cases still are — all part of his magnificent Muppet workshop.
Imagination Unlimited is laid out in a series of interconnected gallery spaces that tell a chronological story of Jim Henson and his world. The story is told in photos, diary entries, audio and video archive footage, actual Muppet puppets, and life-sized dioramas of some of Henson’s most brilliant mechanical and digital creations. As you step through the portals of the exhibition, you are transported back in time to what was the creative beginning of The Muppets: a local Washington, D.C. morning program called “Sam and Friends”.
As you watch grainy, black-and-white clips from the show, you will recognize one of Sam’s friends as Kermit the Frog. Same piping voice, same ping-pong ball eyes, same bubbly personality. That Kermit has stayed virtually unchanged for over 60 years is a testament to Jim’s ability, even as a youth, to develop timeless characters with broad appeal.
One component of the Imagination Unlimited exhibit is sure to be a great family experience. It features hands-on puppetry using two cameras and two monitors, similar to how The Muppets perform. Participants choose the Muppet character they want to be. You receive some simple instructions on how to work your character. Held above your head, you can see your character on the screen. You then put on a little show while a video camera records your performance. At the end of the performance, a larger viewing screen replays your show (– by then, you’ve attracted an audience! –), after which it plays footage showing you under the stage manipulating your character (thanks to a hidden second camera). There is no better way to immerse yourself into the workings of The Muppets than to become a puppeteer yourself!
Step through a corridor into the next exhibit hall and into the Children’s Television Workshop, a Joan Ganz Cooney creation that combines live-action performers with such Muppet favorites as Burt and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Bird Bird, and Oscar the Grouch. This successful experiment in education has taught generations of preschoolers their letters and numbers. The television series was also a pioneer in bridging the gap between people of diverse color and background.
Through the next corridor, we enter the world of The Muppet Show, where every episode of that Emmy award winning show is simultaneously projected onto one entire wall. Henson’s menagerie of Muppet characters make an easy transition to the large screen in several Muppet movies. There are many still shots and production notes that help explain how certain effects were achieved on set. One such example is the memorable scene from The Great Muppet Caper where Kermit and Miss Piggy are bicycling through the park. Movie productions have given Henson’s puppet makers and puppeteers the opportunity to experiment extensively with radio-controlled puppetry.
In addition to the Muppet movies, Henson developed additional cinematic projects that included more technically advanced versions of the Muppets. Examples include The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. A single hall of the exhibition is dedicated to those projects and included actual props and wardrobe used in those movies.
In the last hall of the exhibit, we are reminded that even after Jim Henson’s death, his “Creature Shop” continues to develop new projects and innovations in the technology of puppetry. A good deal of the newer developments include digital innovations that allow puppeteers to manipulate characters that are manifested digitally. While this could easily be accomplished by digital animators, the combination of puppetry and computer animation allows for a level of spontaneity that might not otherwise be achieved.
The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited is a traveling show, so if you missed it during its Albuquerque Museum run, you can check the Jim Henson Company website for future engagements. The exhibition is a must-see for the whole family.