By Martin Morse Wooster: I went to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center to see a performance of Thais. Before the opera, I saw “Inspired! Jim Henson at Maryland”, an exhibition at the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library at the center. The exhibit, with curators from the University of Maryland and the Jim Henson Company, and was funded by the Jane Henson Foundation. It will be at the library until June.
I thought the exhibit was really well done and anyone interested in Henson’s art will learn from it. But it’s very small: I took it in in 15 minutes, and I’m a guy who sees and reads everything when he’s at the museum.
Henson went to Maryland because he was a legacy; on exhibit was his father’s master’s thesis, about endosperm in corn. He started off doing art for Northwestern High School publications, and you can see some of them.
When he was at Maryland in the late 1950s, Henson created all sorts of art. He created a silkscreen business, and you can see several posters he did. He also took two courses in fashion illustration to expand his skill set, and some of these illustrations are shown in the exhibit.
But Henson’s first love was puppetry. His first commercial puppetry assignment was commercials for Wilkins Coffee, which featured two puppets named Wilkins and Wontkins. He then followed this with “Sam and Friends,” a five-minute puppet show which was the first appearance of Kermit the Frog.
A video in the exhibit shows some of the coffee commercials and two episodes of “Sam and Friends.” My favorite joke: Wilkins the puppet is shown with four cups of coffee. Why only four? “Because I’m taking the fifth.”
Finally, I learned that as part of the Henson family’s philanthropy, they’ve funded fellowships for current Maryland students interested in puppetry, and you can see what today’s puppeteers are doing.
The impression I got of Jim Henson at the University of Maryland was that he was a bright, creative guy who left Maryland with a great deal of potential. Anyone who likes the Muppets will find “Inspired!” worth seeing.