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October 2, 2017

REPORT: The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited

Filed under: Feature,Reports — Tags: — Julia Gaskill @ 10:26 am

Sometimes it’s hard to be a Muppet fan who doesn’t live in New York or California. We kind of get the short end of the stick, don’t we?

New York has the brand new, permanent MOMI exhibit, along with being the home of Sesame Street, New York Comic Con, and loads of filming locations from the older movies. California gets the recent Hollywood Bowl, red carpet events, Muppet Studios, the Electric Mayhem at Outside Lands, and San Diego Comic Con. Unless you live in / a few hours out of New York or California (normally SoCal, let’s be honest), chances are you’ve felt like you’re missing out on a lot as a fan.

I’m from Oregon, where we don’t exactly have a lot going on when it comes to the Muppets. Like, literally the only thing I can think of is that there have been multiple (unofficial) Muppet Burlesque shows in Portland. Which, no, I have never forced myself to go see – but here’s a video if you’re curious (probably don’t let your kids watch cause butts?).

Needless to say, as a Muppet fan, I always feel a bit blue when I see my ToughPigs pals going to all these amazing live events, museum openings, film showings, talk backs, and such in other parts of the country.

So I was understandably stoked when I heard what was coming to the Pacific Northwest.

The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited is a traveling museum exhibit, touring all across the country to give people a glimpse into not only the productions of Henson we all know and love, but also his more obscure work, his earlier projects, and an in depth look into his life. Its first stop? The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle, Washington!

The exhibit opened on May 20th, and so I naturally put off going for several months. Lucky for me (and all you who still wish to attend), the exhibit is open until the end of 2017, so I was fortunate that there wasn’t a huge rush to travel north.

When a free day finally reared its head, I loaded into my car, trekked the three hours up to Seattle (through that awful Tacoma traffic, am I right PNW pals??), and made it to MoPOP! As we approached the museum, this was the first banner to greet me:

The excitement on my face was impossible to contain.

We headed straight inside to purchase our tickets. To enter the Jim Henson Exhibition, it costs an extra $5 along with normal admission, so $33 total for adults (but $31 if you buy your tickets online!). It might seem like a lot, but keep in mind that MoPOP is quite possibly the coolest museum in the entire PNW. Outside of their rad touring exhibits, they’ve got a whole music appreciation level, plenty of rooms filled with props from sci-fi movies, and such an amazing fantasy section. You can see a real life Dalek, a bunch of Princess Bride film costumes, and guitars Jimi Hendrix rocked out on all in the same day! I wont go into more detail on the rest of the museum – I don’t want to get too off track – but trust me, this museum is so worth the visit, even without getting to see Muppets.

Okay, okay! Back to Henson stuff!

So once you buy your ticket, you’re admitted access into the whole of the museum. The Jim Henson Exhibition is on the second level, proceeded by a long flight of stairs. And what should greet you at the top of these stairs?

A Mystic! More accurately, UrUtt the Weaver Mystic, with a plaque listing off all the designers and builders of the puppet (Froud, Amott, and Clarke) and the performer (Jean-Pierre Amiel), as well as all the materials used to make said puppet. These plaques containing all of the build/performance information (as well as some other tidbits of knowledge) are alongside just about everything in the exhibit. The Mystic sets a pretty great precedent of what’s to come.

Outside of the exhibit’s entrance, they have a screen playing some of Jim’s early work. When I walked by, it was footage from the original pitch for The Muppet Show. Once you give the person your ticket you’re only allowed into the exhibit one time, so make sure to not leave until you’re good and done. The nice lady working the entrance also pointed out to me that many of the walls are furry and how I should feel free to pet them as often as I like (and I did just that).

What then followed were six segments of this traveling exhibit.

1. YOUNG JIM HENSON

First and foremost, this guy was waiting right at the exhibit’s entrance. Good luck not tearing up the moment you lay eyes on him. I know I certainly did.

Besides this old school Kermit, the opening portion of the exhibit focuses on the life of Jim Henson as a boy and a young man. There are plaques talking about where he was born and raised, his family, and his exposure to art at a young age. There are also plenty of photographs of a young Jim Henson throughout. Honestly, if you read Brian Jay Jones’ biography, chances are there’s not much new material you’re going to learn (from the exhibit as a whole, frankly), but it all is displayed wonderfully and serves as a nice reminder of Jim’s roots.

There’s not much focus on Jim’s earliest puppeteering, though there is a little old fashioned television that shows clips from It’s Time for Ernie (starring Ernie Kovacs) and Kukla, Fran and Ollie, two programs that inspired him in his youth. The biggest artistic focus in this portion of the museum is Jim’s comics, showing off several for museum-goers.

A comic Jim made for his high school newspaper (1953-54).

2. EARLY PROFESSIONAL PUPPET WORK

Next we get to see the workings of Jim’s earliest puppetry projects.

Notes for filming “Old Black Magic”

This includes several pictures of young Jim and Jane hard at work, hand written notes by Jim Henson himself, various monitors showing footage from Sam and Friends and The Jimmy Dean Show, and puppets galore.

There’s also a portion where a plaque explains how one performs puppets on screen, and then gives you a chance to try it out for yourself. You’re given two song choices (I don’t remember what the second one was, but we went with “Old Black Magic”), you’re shown the original clip from Sam and Friends, and then you’re recorded doing it yourself, with playback at the end. My boyfriend and I attempted our best to mimic Jane and Jim’s performance of “Old Black Magic”, but as it turns out neither of us were destined to be puppeteers and did a fairly rotten job at it. But it was still a lot of fun!

I was pleased to see Rowlf get a fair amount of attention in this portion, with mentions of him being the first Muppet “to receive national popularity,” the first built by Don, and the first that Frank and Jim performed together. Next to the ongoing footage of Jimmy Dean with Rowlf, there are also some pictures, early sketches, and this super-old plush that is both adorable and creepy at the same time.

As mentioned, besides Kermit and the Mystic, this is when the exhibit really starts showing off puppets, which look surprisingly good to this day. On display they have Wilkins and Wontkins, the Pitchman Pump puppets, and Billy and Sue.

Oh yeah, and this guy was there too, which caused me to majorly freak out because I really wasn’t expecting to see him.

3. SHORT WEIRD WORK

And by “short weird work” I mean The Cube, Time Piece, and Cyclia.

I think of this traveling exhibit as a major success in glimpsing into the mind, work, and world of Jim Henson … except for this portion. Honestly, it just felt like they didn’t know how to handle this phase of Jim’s career. All three of these projects share one wall and that’s it. There are a couple plaques talking about The Cube and Time Piece, a piece of Cube concept art, and screens showing short bits of footage on a loop.

The most interesting portion was reading about Cyclia, which I’m not as familiar with, and getting to see a bit of the footage that had been filmed for the multi-media nightclub that never quite took off.

I guess I understand the lack of Jim’s more experimental, sans-puppets early work. It’s not exactly what museum-goers are rushing to this exhibit to see, and there aren’t exactly props or costumes to put on display.

But can you imagine if they got an elephant painted pink to be part of this exhibit? How cool would that be?!

4. SESAME STREET

Look, we all love Jim Henson, and getting to see cool puppets, hand written documents, and photos from his early years of work is so very, very rad.

But come on, it’s hard not to immediately geek out when you enter a room filled with beloved childhood characters.

Look at those dudes! I know those dudes! I know them from the TV box!

But in all seriousness, getting to see Bert and Ernie in person was such a delight, along with seeing Count von Count and everyone’s favorite lovable, cute, furry monster, Grover. Having lived in Oregon all my life, and not exactly having many cool Muppet-related exhibits come through (Come to think of it, this one didn’t even come to Portland! I had to travel all the way to Seattle to attend! What the heck!), I’ve never gotten to see any of these guys in person before. Being so up close was an amazing, powerful feeling that’s hard to put to paper. Then again, if any of you have seen a Muppet in person, I’m sure you understand the feeling.

They have a ton of great images of Jim, Don, Frank, and the rest of the Muppet crew scattered around this area, as well as a few monitors playing classic, beloved Sesame numbers (C is for Cookie, Rubber Duckie, I Love Trash, etc.). I will admit, I got a bit emotional when I saw they had a plaque dedicated to Frank and Jim’s collaboration and friendship. They even mention on the plaque how “Henson’s whimsical, good-natured Ernie was a perfect foil for Oz’s uptight, irritable Bert.” Getting to see not only Jim represented, but Frank, Don, and several of the other Muppet people throughout the entire exhibit made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Possibly my favorite part of the Sesame portion of the exhibit is the Slimey puppet on top of a great circus display! Slimey was a stand out Sesame character for me when I was a small child, which might have to do with the fact that, when I was actively watching Sesame as a young tyke, I got to witness Slimey go to and come back from the moon (that story arc was my jam). He’s so tiny compared to all the other puppets, but getting to see the little worm in person was spectacular.

As exciting as Sesame puppets were, I could barely contain my glee for what was next…

5. MUPPETS

This is the image that greeted us when we reached The Muppet Show and Muppet films portion of the exhibit, and the first words that left my mouth were, “They used a picture with Eren in it!”

This segment of the museum is mind blowing. They don’t have a ton of Muppets on display, but having been a fan for years, finally getting to see Bunsen & Beaker, Scooter, and the whole of the Country Trio was a major experience. They also have a Baby Fozzie and Baby Piggy – neither of which had been used for The Muppets Take Manhattan but, instead, had been built for promotional pictures for Muppet Babies. Still wonderful – and adorable! – nonetheless.

On the walls there are posters from the Muppet films made during Jim’s life, note cards laying out the order of sketches, songs, and gags in episode 502 of The Muppet Show (Loretta Swit’s episode), pictures of the performers behind the scenes of various Muppet productions, more monitors and screens, drawings of Muppet concepts and costumes, and even Miss Piggy’s gloves in a display case! My favorite was that one of the monitors was showing all of the test footage Frank and Jim did together back in the day in preparation for The Muppet Movie. It’s some of my favorite behind the scenes footage, and the fact they have it on display made me so stupidly giddy.

There is also a big screen of clips from The Muppet Show all playing simultaneously as the room’s backdrop. I believe I’ve seen images of a similar screen from MOMI playing Muppet Show episodes. (Not that I’m complaining! It’s a pretty rad feature of the exhibit!)

Possibly my favorite portion of this exhibit (well, okay, not more than seeing all the puppets, but a close second!) is a big display of cardboard cut outs of the theme song from The Muppet Show. There’s one blank slot in the arches left open for you to pose alongside Sweetums, Doglion, and Thog, and underneath the rest of the Muppet gang.

Needless to say, I have about ten pictures on my phone of me living my best life.

6. MISC. PROJECTS

The ending of the exhibit focuses on the work Jim did outside of Sesame and the Muppets later in life.

Fraggle Rock gets a little love, though not as much as I would’ve liked. There’s a station featuring a bit of behind the scenes footage talking about Doozers and the Gorgs (I know I’ve seen it before, but I couldn’t place the clip in my mind at the time), and then a couple behind the scenes photos and art pieces. The best part is, of course, getting to see the in the flesh (erm, in the felt?) Wembley and Red puppets. Hands down, my favorite part of this last segment of the exhibit.

While Fraggle Rock doesn’t get as much attention, Dark Crystal gets quite a bit of love. I had been hoping to see a Skeksis, but alas, no such luck. I did, however, get to see Aughra, behind the scenes photos, some cool concept art, and a lot of the props used throughout the film by the puppets.

The most noteworthy of the Dark Crystal display is the fact that they have Jen and Kira, which would be exciting except … I don’t know how to put this… I mean, Aughra looks pretty good, because in the film she’s supposed to look haggard and strange to begin with, so it’s more difficult to tell if her puppet has actually held up over time.

Jen and Kira… well, it’s a bit easier to tell how their puppets have fared over the years.

Yeesh. Those two have not stood the test of time. Poor Gelflings.

Of course Labyrinth is present. Some concept art is featured, and in this section of the exhibit they play a handful of the songs in all their Bowie-glory. Getting to see four of Sarah’s toys on display is also pretty rad (especially the little Ludo toy!); though, of course, the biggest Labyrinth draw has to be Sarah and Jareth’s masquerade costumes.

Besides Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, and Fraggle Rock, there are only a couple other productions slightly featured. There’s a wall of photos, posters, and documents having to do with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Song of the Cloud Forest, Dog City, and others. None of these are prominent, as I’m sure the exhibit designers were aware that, like Time Piece and The Cube, they aren’t exactly a draw.

The last display they have set up by the exit is a Waldo puppet control mechanism. The plaque reads that this particular one was used for Dinosaurs but goes on to explain how this technology was also used for the digital character of Waldo C. Graphic.

Once you (tearfully) exit the exhibit, MoPOP has a display set up wherein they have a ton of Muppet puppets holding instruments, a little stage display, and a monitor below the stage so you can practice your puppeteering skills to your heart’s content. I forgot to take a picture of the actual stage because I was far too busy being peeved that one of their Animal puppets is holding a guitar. Like, really? Do you not know anything about Animal??

Overall (besides the Animal-playing-an-instrument-that-isn’t-even-the-drums-UGH blunder), this exhibit is a complete success. For newcomers or casual fans, it gives a bit of insight into not only the work – both popular and obscure – of Jim Henson, but his life and the start of his career as well. For us hardcore fans, we get to see so many beloved puppets and props being showcased, as well as some amazing hand written notes, concept art, footage, and photographs. Not to mention the several interactive bits of the exhibit are super enjoyable and fun.

If you can make it to Seattle in the next three months, I implore you to check this exhibit out while it’s at MoPOP. If not, no worries! It’s a traveling exhibit, so it may be coming to a museum near you. No information has been released as to where The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited will be traveling next, so keep all eyes and ears open!

This is a museum experience you aren’t going to want to miss out on. You’ll love every moment of it.

Click here to feel sorry for those Jen and Kira puppets over on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Julia Gaskill



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