By Rich Lynch: My friend Martin Morse Wooster’s February 3rd File 770 post about visiting the Jim Henson exhibit at the University of Maryland has inspired me to write about my own Jim Henson exhibit experience. Only this one was up in New York City, not over in College Park, Maryland. It was part of a four-day mini-vacation in NYC that Nicki and I did back in early January which also included a theatrical performance (which I’ll describe in part 2 of this essay) that was very much in the science fiction/fantasy genre.
Part 1: It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights.
The Museum of the Moving Image is a gem of a place that I can hardly believe Nicki and I have missed seeing until now. MMI is out in Queens next to the Kaufman Astoria Studios, and according to the museum’s website its intent is to “advance the understanding, enjoyment, and appreciation of the art, history, technique, and technology of film, television and digital media”. And from what we saw there was ample evidence that it was succeeding.
There’s not a whole lot of space available (just two floors), but what they had was used intelligently. The upper floor was set up as a walk through the history of the moving image, beginning with a collection of magic lanterns dating back to the end of the 19th Century. A lot of it was hands-on — the core exhibition, Behind the Screen, provides a simplified immersive experience, as the museum’s website describes it, “in the creative and technical process of producing, promoting, and presenting films, television shows, and digital entertainment”. This included small studios for demonstrating various post-production techniques such as adding foley sound effects to a recorded video. It was all pretty fascinating to observe, and just by itself was worth the visit to the museum.
But that’s not what we had come there to see. The other floor of the museum, since 2017, has been home to The Jim Henson Exhibition. MMI describes it as a “dynamic experience [which] explores Jim Henson’s groundbreaking work for film and television and his transformative impact on culture.” In all there are about 300 items on display for what is really a quite inclusive retrospective of Henson’s career as a puppeteer, animator, actor, inventor, and filmmaker. This includes many of the Muppets, and the museum had obviously arranged them with the assumption that they would be part of countless numbers of selfies and photo ops. Ours included.
The exhibition consisted of more than just static displays. There were also video screens which showcased some of Henson’s earliest involvement in television, including the Sam and Friends show for WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. which aired for several years starting in the mid-1950s. That was where Kermit the Frog made his first appearance.
Henson and his fellow puppeteer Frank Oz gained national popularity in the early 1960s when one of their Muppets, Rowlf the Dog, had a continuing role as a sidekick of sorts on The Jimmy Dean Show. And then international popularity in the late 1960s when their Muppets became featured performers on the public television show Sesame Street. But for me and Nicki, we became fans of the Muppets when they got their own syndicated television series in the mid-1970s.
The Muppet Show was ostensibly a variety show, hosted by Kermit, and featured some very entertaining sketch comedy as well as a plethora of famous guest stars. So it was really a pleasure to spend half an hour, in the exhibition’s screening room, re-watching an episode which had originally aired more than 40 years ago. The one they were showing featured Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge as musical guests, but the Muppets themselves had the most amusing bits: Resident daredevil The Great Gonzo recited a multiplication table while standing on a hammock and balancing a piano (with predictably disastrous results). Mad scientist Dr. Bunsen Honeydew debuted his latest invention, atomic elevator shoes. Weight-conscious Miss Piggy ordered up a watercress sandwich on whole wheat with four ounces of rhubarb juice, otherwise known as the ‘Fatso Special’. Feral rock band drummer Animal ate a TV dinner, which turned out to be an actual TV. And the show’s resident stand-up comic, Fozzie Bear (accompanied by Rowlf), sang “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee, An Actor’s Life for Me”. More than 40 years on, it was all just as enjoyable as the first time we’d seen it. Ah, nostalgia!
Next: Livin’ it up on top with Hadestown.