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The Muppets Take Queens

Jim Henson’s Fantastic World of Puppets, Kindness and Wisdom at the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMi)

Il Museum of the Moving Image, nel Queens

Who doesn’t love at least one Muppet character even if you did not grow up with them? And who wouldn’t want the Muppets as next-door neighbors? To Hollywood and back to Queens they are now on display permanently at the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMi) in Astoria’s Kaufman Arts District.

Miss Piggy has moved her multi-generational, multi-specie, multi-colored family to Astoria, Queens, known as the World Borough. Her family’s stories are the stuff of TV legend: from Jim and Jane Henson to Frank Oz and a host of performers and creative characters that led to Hollywood and back to Queens are now on display permanently at the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMi) in Astoria’s Kaufman Arts District.

Jim Henson

‘Jim Henson’s playful, endearing, gently subversive personality could be felt in all of the film and television work he created’ a spokeswoman for the museum said. Perfect in their imperfections: hip, silly, colorful, warm, embraceable not to mention funny, snarky, wise and intelligent, The Muppets reflect their parents’ values. As Carl Goodman, senior deputy director of MoMi said at the preview, ‘The Muppets exibit Henson’s values of inclusion, collaboration, kindness and acceptance; values that appeal to all cultures.’ After all, Kermit immortalized the line: ‘It’s not easy being green.’

It took a lot to get them here including a Kickstarter campaign that resulted in more than 2,000 individuals showing the love by helping to fund the exhibition while other monies were raised from a variety of sources.

Undoubtedly kids will love coming face to face with Big Bird, Kermit and Miss Piggy, but the exhibit is likely to appeal most to adults interested in puppetry, media as much as its lovable monsters and frogs.

The museum hosted Jim Henson’s Fantastic World from July 2011 to March 2012, and now houses the permanent Henson exhibit, The Jim Henson Exhibition.

The new gallery space features almost 300 objects, including 47 puppets—Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, The Swedish Chef, Statler, Waldorf, Big Bird, Elmo, and countless others—character sketches, storyboards, scripts, photographs, and costumes. The Jim Henson Exhibition features a broad range of objects from throughout his remarkable career. Displays show how Henson and his team of builders, performers, and writers brought to life the enduringly popular worlds of The Muppet Show, the Muppet movies, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth.

It also includes material from Henson’s experimental film projects and his early work in advertising and zany commercials, presenting him as a restlessly creative performer, filmmaker, and technical innovator. Right at the start, there is a puppet corner where you can film yourself with a puppet in hand; and the monitors are captioned in three languages – English, Spanish and French, five more languages will be added. Additionally, Goodman confided that MOMi is involved in a workshop with Yale University’s School of Education to produce a program for children with autism. Visitors get a close look at how Henson and his team created the characters via behind-the-scenes footage presented on more than 27 monitors and projections. Many screenings, educations programs, live appearances, and family programs are planned. Do check with the MOMi’s calendar of events for ongoing Muppet appearances during the month of August.

Henson was a young man exploring a very young medium called television in the 1950s and in a way, he, the Muppets and TV grew up together. His parents bought their first televison — a major expense at the time — when he was an adolescent. He especially enjoyed comedian Ernie Kovac’s dry humor and inventive approach to acting on the new medium and puppeteer Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie that appealed to kids and adults. Long before his success with the Muppets, Henson made hundreds of commercials and short industrial films, often featuring what appear to have been proto-types of the Muppets. In the Wilkins Coffee commercials, for instance, a Proto-Cookie Monster appears while the Crown-Grabber seems to be an earlier version of Beautiful Day Monster. On a personal note, the exhibit hints that Henson’s Mississippi childhood was spent among adults with a penchant for storytelling.

Born September 24, 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi, Henson had an interest in art and, later, television. He was particularly close to his maternal grandmother, an avid painter, quilter, and needleworker, and he visited her often. She supported Henson’s artistic efforts and encouraged him to use his imagination and to take delight in the world around him. As a teenager, he creted cartoons, made posters and sets for his high school’s theater productions and as an adult he ran a successful poster-making business.

While still in high school in the 1950s, Henson began his television career performing puppets on a local Washington, DC Saturday morning program on WTOP-TV. The following year, as a freshman at the University of Maryland, he was given his own twice-daily, five-minute show, Sam and Friends, on the local NBC affiliate, WRC-TV. He and his assistant, a fellow student named Jane Nebel, who would later become his wife, introduced many Muppet mainstays: music, snarky humor and innovative technical tricks(such as eliminating the puppet stage and using the television itself as the proscenium). Perhaps most memorably, the show featured an early version of Kermit the Frog.

Rowlf the Dog was a regular on the Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960s, and others made guest appearances on national network shows such as The Steve Allen Show, The Jack Paar Show and Today. Sesame Street has a global reach of at least 156 million children in the 0-7 age range according to a meta-analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin. Since Sesame Street premiered in the U.S. in 1969, thousands of studies and analyses have examined the series, most arguing that education on television in general could improve how kids think, learn and behave. One of the latest studies indicated that toddlers who watched Sesame Street went on to perform better in school.

In Italy, Sesamo Apriti has aired since 1971 while Sesame English has aired there since 2004, as has Il Mondo di Elmo.

Kermit the Frog

When The Muppet Show finally made its appearance in 1975, it was designed as a variety show peopled with the family of unforgettable characters like Miss Piggy, Fozzie the Bear and Animal, the Great Gonzo, Scooter, Rizzo the Rat, Lew Zealand all hosted by Kermit the Frog. Each week the Muppets were joined by an international pantheon of great guest stars: from Gene Kelly and Rudolph Nureyev to Steve Martin and John Cleese.

The success of The Muppet Show naturally led to Hollywood, where the Muppets starred in six feature films: The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and most recently Muppets From Space. Besides Muppet movies, Henson brought two fantasy films to the big screen, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, which was produced by George Lucas, and starred David Bowie and future Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly.

The result: a phenomenal showcase of puppetry and animatronics. The multi-talented staff that helped create these two films formed the basis for what is now known as Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. MoMi will oversee a traveling versions of the exhibition titled The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited, which is makings its way around the world starting with Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. As new characters are born, Sesame Street continues to be filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios, thus Henson’s legacy of comical, adorable and lovable puppets will continue to remind us what is really important.


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