Residents of borehamwood, a town north of London, may recall an unusual car on the streets in 1978: a lime-green Lotus Eclat the bilious shade of Kermit the Frog, with customised headlamps styled as eyes. At the wheel was the late Jim Henson, an American entertainer whose madcap puppets in every shade of the rainbow captured hearts and imaginations across the world.
“The Muppet Show” almost did not get made: the three American television networks turned down Henson and his idea for a puppet variety show. Enter Lord Grade, a British executive, whose Elstree Studios became the launch-pad for a franchise with surprisingly long legs—and spindly arms. Several decades after Henson’s untimely death in 1990 at the age of 53, his fuzzy creations are still roaming the globe, spreading a message of tolerance, inclusivity and silliness.
It is not just that the Walt Disney Company, which bought the Muppets in 2004, has continued the adventures of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear et al. At the same time, Henson’s own original puppets and archive, donated to the Museum of the Moving Image in New York in 2013, are keeping his legacy alive. Since 2017 an exhibit entitled “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited” has travelled across America. It has been hosted in eight cities so far, from the Pacific Northwest to the deep South, with its latest stop in San Francisco.
The current show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum is more than a nostalgic hit for the legions who grew up with “Sesame Street”, where Muppets including Bert and Ernie and Count von Count first appeared. Today’s youngsters, too, find pleasure in these lumps of felt. At a recent preview, two boys busily reconfigured several of Henson’s extras, known as “Anything Muppets”, with moustaches and lips before staging an on-camera skit. The puppeteer’s life, above all, shows the importance of following your deepest passions and beliefs, says Bonnie Erickson, a longtime collaborator who developed the Miss Piggy character. “Jim was a real optimist who believed things could get better, who believed in play as a way to collaborate and co-operate with others.”
That playful exuberance bursts from every corner of the show—and appeared early in Henson’s life. He started drawing in childhood and staged his first puppet show in high school; he incorporated his first company, Muppets Inc., at the age of 22. Yet he saw himself equally as an experimental film-maker, producing a film and series of surreal shorts in the 1960s. A chase movie called “Time Piece”, which was nominated for an Academy Award, featured Henson racing through cities and sets in a tuxedo and top hat.
Puppets, though, were his enduring love, appearing in later cult shows such as “The Dark Crystal” (revived on Netflix in 2019) and “Fraggle Rock” (rebooted on Apple TV+ this year). Kermit, especially, was his alter-ego. He was “closest to me”, Henson said. “The character is literally my hand.”
At its height in 1978, “The Muppet Show” had some 230m viewers in more than 100 countries, and was by many accounts the world’s most popular television programme. Dedicated fan clubs still exist today, including a Muppet Wiki with nearly 40,000 entries and the Twitter account “ToughPigs: Muppet Fans Who Grew Up”. The skits developed by Henson and his writing partner, Jerry Juhl, were written for adults as well as children. Each character was a different colour, size or shape, expressing the wide variety of individuals in the world. Bert and Ernie, perhaps the best known, were opposites in many ways: one tall and grumpy, one short and sunny, yet for all their tussles they got along. It is this gentle brand of humour Henson used to dramatise disputes that best explains the Muppets’ appeal, curators say.
“There’s nothing more human than these Muppets,” says Barbara Miller of the Museum of the Moving Image. “They have a secret sauce of humour without snakiness or meanness that highlights difference—between characters, puppets—but resolves conflict without so much [of today’s] cultural baggage.” At a time of intense political polarisation, the Muppets, Fraggles and friends remind visitors of the necessity of getting along. Ms Erickson still smiles at memories of the mutually supportive troupe who brought this gaggle of disparate characters to life. It was she who replaced Miss Piggy’s trotters with sparkly gloves, caught the fake food thrown down by the Swedish Chef, and helped Henson get Kermit and Fozzie onto bicycles in a London park. “If we don’t need good feelings now, collaboration and support for diversity, we never have,” she says. Today more than ever, Americans could use some of that open-hearted Muppet love. ■
“The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited” continues at the Contemporary Jewish Museum until August 14th 2022