Marvelous Muppets: 'The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited' at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Monday April 4, 2022
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Jim Henson with puppets from 'Fraggle Rock'
Jim Henson with puppets from 'Fraggle Rock'

The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited, currently showing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through August 14, brings joy and visual delight to fans of all ages.

In panels of text, photos, embedded videos, displays, and of course actual Muppets and characters from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock, the exhibition includes more than 150 items, and an interactive booth where you can actually operate a Muppet and make a short video.

Fans of a certain age may recall when their childhood was filled with the joy of Sesame Street, and later The Muppet Show, which was enjoyed by international audiences on hundreds of TV stations.

The exhibition, in the eighth of its nine-city U.S. tour begun in 2018, spans four decades of Jim Henson's creative output (before he died in 1990) and the work with his many collaborators. Video excerpts of Henson's early film works include the Academy award-nominated Time Piece, his many wacky black and white commercials for Wilkins Coffee and various products, and guest appearances on numerous chat shows.

Ernie and Bert in The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited, at The Contemporary Jewish Museum  (Source: Jim Provenzano)

Sketches, drawings and storyboards show how his work developed, up to what became a PBS classic, Sesame Street. Included among the actual Muppets in the CJM exhibit are Ernie and Bert, Count Von Count, and the popular favorite Grover.

The Muppet Show characters Scooter, Miss Piggy (in a Baby Muppet version), Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker are each placed in cases near a reconstruction of the opening number set, which offers opportunities for patron selfies.

Although obviously ideal for families with kids, the exhibition evokes a keen sense of nostalgia for those who were children when Sesame Street aired in 1969.

"While Henson himself was not Jewish, his life's work and legacy beautifully reflect the core values of The CJM," said Senior Curator Heidi Rabben in a press statement. "Henson sought to create a better world on-screen, which allowed people from all walks of life to see parts of themselves reflected through these beloved characters. Henson's enduring lessons around diversity, inclusion, representation, and coexistence continue to have a tremendously formative impact for children and families today."

Jim Henson and his iconic creation Kermit the Frog, in front of a mural by Coulter Watt.  (Source: Kermit the Frog © Disney/Muppets. Courtesy The Jim Henson Company/Museum of the Moving Image. Photo: John E. Barrett.)

Organized by the Museum of the Moving Image, the exhibition focuses on Henson's biography back to the 1950s where he created early characters on WRC-TV, including the very first version of Kermit the Frog, whose modern version greets attendees at the entrance.

The CJM also hosts video programs on their Facebook page, one specifically about Frank Oz, Henson's longtime collaborator, who moved from England to Belgium and Montana, finally settling in Oakland with his prominent puppeteer family. They often performed at the Lake Merritt Children's Fairyland, where thousands of kids and their families enjoyed shows.

The exhibit includes installed video clips of Henson and Oz as early collaborators including commercials and appearances on talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Arthur Godfrey and many others. Even back then, the tone of Henson and Oz's wit shows through. An early version of Cookie Monster with fangs is a little more voracious in his hunger for sweets, chips and even an IBM computer.

Oz moved to New York to assist Henson in his show, including guest spots on the Jimmy Dean show where the early dog version of Rawph became his collaboration with Henson. Dean, unable to pronounce Frank Oznowicz' last name, inspired him to eventually shortened it to Oz.

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In 1969, the now iconic children's television show Sesame Street premiered with both human and Muppet characters, including Cookie Monster, Ernie and Bert, Big Bird and many others. Frank's lovable character Grover actually appeared earlier in a green version on The Ed Sullivan Show before Sesame Street.

Oz's most prominent Sesame Street character was probably Bert, the roommate of Henson's Ernie. The two characters rarely got along, which led to a lot of lighthearted comic fun.

Scooter Muppet near a recreated set piece from The Muppet Show, in The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited, at The Contemporary Jewish Museum  (Source: Jim Provenzano)

After a brief foray into more adult comedy with Muppets appearing on Saturday Night Live and a bluntly titled special, The Sex and Violence Show, Henson pitched The Muppet Show to the major networks, who all rejected it. It was Lew Grade, a British television producer, who got the wit and tone of the project. The former Vaudeville dancer and Jewish producer was part of an immigrant family from what is now Ukraine.

Part of the show's charm was the interaction between Muppets and numerous guest stars, ranging from Juliet Prowse (the first guest-star) to Raquel Welch, Carol Burnett and Alice Cooper. The weekly behind-the-scenes hijinks and snafus made up a great part of the shows that pleased both children and adults.

The Muppets' popularity expanded in films in the 1980s, from The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper to several other films, including the more recent 2011 simply titled The Muppets.

With bigger budgets, the creators were able to expand the flexibility of the Muppets, including the famous scenes of Kermit and other Muppets riding bicycles with full bodies in The Muppet Movie. One video display in the exhibition shows how wires were used to manipulate multiple Muppets.

But underneath the wild characters was a sense of universal pathos. Kermit's crew of ragtag colleagues were a bunch of misfits hoping for success and artistry.

Creative spirit
In attendance at the March 30 press preview was Bonnie Erickson, known mostly for creating Miss Piggy, along with other characters like Statler and Waldorf, the elder back-talking audience members on The Muppet Show.

Before her work with Henson, Erickson, now a spry 81, worked in fashion at Saks Fifth Avenue in other places, designing costumes for celebrities like Milton Berle.

Erickson first worked with Henson in 1970 TV special, The Frog Prince, creating costumes. She continued with the company, serving as Head of the Muppet Workshop for Jim Henson Associates, and set up the original London workshop for The Muppet Show. In 1976, Erickson and other puppeteers and creators moved to England where they shot the show for the first years.

Bonnie Erickson at a previous version of the 'The Jim Henson Exhibition.'  

"We got green cards to work in England for those who were necessary for the show," said Erickson, who added that many others were local hired artists and technicians. "I met the most wonderful people, from Scotland, from England. At first we were working 24/7 every day of the week and we were finally looking forward to having two days off. But on a Friday, just after tea time, there was an electricians' strike, and we hadn't finished. We went in every day through the weekend but they didn't come back. Finally the floor manager said we might as well go. But then, as the shuttle bus was leaving, he came running back, shouting, 'Wait! Wait! They're back!"

She added with a laugh, "After that, we didn't talk to the electricians for a long time."

That incident may have served as an inspiration for the frequent backstage technical snafus in the scripts of the show. If so, Erickson credits writer Jerry Juhl. "Revenge is sweet."

With Kermit hosting and his sidekick Fozzie Bear pushing corny jokes, the show took on a witty vaudeville style, with plenty of songs. Kermit's eager assistant Scooter was voiced and operated by Richard Hunt, who also played Statler (and among many characters, Ernie's right hand on Sesame Street). Although he's shown in two exhibition photo panels, that he was openly gay and died of AIDS in 1992 is not mentioned.

Bonnie Erickson puts finishing touches on the Kermit Muppet before the opening of 'The Jim Henson Exhibition' at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.  (Source: Contemporary Jewish Museum)

It wasn't until the second season of The Muppet Show that Miss Piggy's diva potential took off as well as her backstory. Erickson, who left the show after the first season, noted that the character was initially attributed to Peggy Lee, but the company's lawyers didn't care for the homage name Piggy Lee, so she was renamed Miss Piggy.

"Sometimes Jim would have a rough drawing and give it to someone to interpret, or sometimes people would bring in an idea," said Erickson. "With Miss Piggy, Jerry Juhl had written a scene for a special and needed some new Muppets for 'Return to Beneath the Planet of the Pigs.' He said, 'I need three pigs,' and I said okay, but I was convinced that he asked me to do it because he knew I was from Minnesota."

"Miss Piggy actually evolved," said Erikson who recalled digging in a drawer to make her upgrade more glamorous with eyelashes. "I made gloves because I didn't have time to change her hooves."

Erikson noted that Miss Piggy actually had her premiere on a Herb Alpert TV special and was really more of a background character in the opening of The Muppet Show before season 2 where she really came to us into her own as a diva.

And Frank Oz didn't voice her until later. Erickson recalled a scene where Kermit gets karate-chopped by Miss Piggy, and Oz's now-classic, "High-yah!" convinced everyone that Oz was the new Miss Piggy.

So many cookies
Erickson described the process of hand-carving foam to start building a Muppet, followed by flocking fabric, and selecting eyes and costumes. "What you will see in the exhibit are Jim's doodles that then became characters."

Richard Hunt (left), Jim Henson (center), and Frank Oz (right) performing Ernie and Bert on the set of 'Sesame Street,' 1970s.  (Source: © 2018, Sesame Workshop. Courtesy Sesame Workshop/Museum of the Moving Image)

Although not a puppet operator, Erickson did recall one episode where she was recruited to sit under a table to retrieve flying chopped vegetables in a sketch with the Swedish Chef.

"I was runner of the shop," she laughed. "'What am I doing crawling around for vegetables?' But we loved it. We had such a good time."

Asked about how the Muppets charmed both kids and adults, Erickson said, "With Jim, before Sesame Street, it was always sort of the visual thing, so when it came to doing Sesame Street, he had worked with director John Stone, who was a major person in getting it started. When it came time to create the show, he was told, 'Don't even do it unless you use Jim Henson.'

"Jim's humor was not mean. There were a lot of very crazy characters but it wasn't mean and they were forgiving. So his abstract strange off-the-wall humor came into the process, and the writers got it. There was always an undertone of satire with what was going on, but the kids got the humor, and also the slapstick of having Cookie Monster eat so many cookies."

Erik Erikson recalls that Sesame Street PBS producers didn't understand the market for product licensing until the fan requests for Muppets of their own continued to grow.

Erikson explained that the exhibited Muppets and characters in the exhibition, including those from later projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, are preserved originals, not recreations (including a David Bowie costume). Some characters had been recreated during the TV shows and films, but multiple duplicates were rarely made. An example; the upgraded glam Miss Piggy lasted the first season before a new one had to be created.

Erikson became the creative director for the product division of Sesame Street with Henson being one of her first clients. One of Erikson's later responsibilities was going out to check the marketplace for the toy versions of characters which were licensed to Topper Toys. She recalled one time seeing a Big Bird with his head on backwards.

In 1983, Erickson served as Design Consultant and Workshop Director for the Jim Henson series Fraggle Rock. In 1986, Erickson became Vice President of Creative Projects for The Jim Henson Company. She also art-directed the creation of the popular children's toy Tickle Me Elmo.

Through Harrison/Erickson, Inc, her company with Wayde Harrison, Erickson designed dozens of sports mascot costumes, most notably the Philadelphia Phillies' green-furred Phillie Phanatic.

Beaker and Dr. Bunson Honeydew in 'The Jim Henson Exhibition' at the Contemporary Jewish Museum  (Source: Jim Provenzano)

Erickson kept her relationship with Muppets and more in 1994, when she became a trustee of the Jim Henson Legacy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and perpetuating Jim Henson's works. From 2007 to 2010, she served as president, and then Executive Director until 2014. She supervises the installation of Muppets with tours of The Jim Henson Exhibition, including here in San Francisco at the CJM.

"The attention to detail the creators made, the workmanship, is amazing," said Erickson, which inspired her to continue advising on the preservation of Henson projects. "When you look at these creations, you start to see the incredible detail."

Asked to explain the connection between audiences and puppets, Erickson said, "It's probably because you can do things with them that you can't do in person. I mean, look at Gonzo; a person could never do that, all the crazy things he does, and having a chicken as a girlfriend?"

Asked about the relevance of the exhibit in today's times, Erickson admitted there's a heavy dose of nostalgia, but also a generational sharing, whether visitors to the exhibit are 6 or 60.

Erickson also agreed that Sesame Street was (and still is) notable for its diversity with different ages and races, even the first deaf character on a kids' show, she noted.

And for story lines, the Nov. 1983 show that reflected the loss of Mr. Hooper (actor Will Lee), was the first children's show to discuss death realistically.

"It was about talking to children —not talking down to them— but talking to them about things that are difficult while making them feel safe."

Among her favorites, Erickson said that she still tears up when she hears the popular Paul Williams/Kenneth Ascher song "The Rainbow Connection," featured in 1979's The Muppet Movie.

Speaking of rainbows, the question had to be asked; Ernie and Bert and their relationship. Are they gay?

"Somebody asked Jim that, and he said, 'Oh my god; they're puppets!'"

A more recent meme online suggests that another possibly gay couple might be The Muppet Show's Statler and Waldorf.

Erickson, their creator, mused. "I hadn't really thought about that. And I wouldn't care. I just figured they're two old farts who sit around telling stories to each other."

Straight or gay, blue, green or purple, Erickson also thinks that Jim Henson's sense of humanity mixed with humor had an effect as well.

"There was an irony that he had, but he was very kind. As people have called him, he was a gentle Anarchist."

The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited, at The Contemporary Jewish Museum; Thursday through Sunday, 11am to 5pm. $14-$16, under 18 free. 736 Mission St. (415) 655-7800

Visitors are required to provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, and are strongly encouraged to purchase or reserve timed tickets in advance.

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