Jim Henson gave his first performance with a puppet in 1954 and died a 53-year-old American icon in 1990. In the 36 years between, he not only breathed life into a perpetually expanding felt troupe, he fundamentally altered an art form, reinvented children’s entertainment, and pushed popular culture tin unexpected, bizarre directions. But a remarkable corpus and a complete corpus are two different things. And Henson, who died suddenly of pneumonia, never had the opportunity to finish his work. Kermit alone would have been achievement enough for one lifetime, but seeing the muppets, monsters, and Mystics mingling in the Museum of the Moving Image’s new permanent Henson exhibit begs a sad/big question: What would Henson have done next?
“It hard to say,” says Exhibition curator Barbara Miller. “The only thing for certain is that he would have been constantly forging ahead. What’s evident from his career is that he wasn’t willing to rest on his success. There was always this spirit of curiosity that drove him forward. When The Muppet Show was a hit, it was time to make movies. I think whatever he would be doing now, he would try to expand the limits of what’s possible.”
Though not expressly designed to do so, the exhibit exhaustively drives home the idea that Henson was a benevolent Steve Jobbesian innovator who moved relentless forward. One of the earliest works on display is Sam and Friends, a short, black and white send-up of “intellectual” programming featured once a week on local Washington public access in 1961. Not far from there is a video wall playing all 120 episodes of The Muppet Show simultaneously. Juxtaposed, the slower, droller original seems to ask a question that The Muppet Show answers.
Can this work? Yes.
Henson had that same question about a lot of different ideas and, in trying to answer it, he presaged and prepared for the expansion and deconstruction of his medium. His 1966 Oscar-nominated short film Time Piece features him running around in a top hat and could be easily mistake for an Adult Swim interstitial (a precursor to Too Many Cooks). The Cube, which premiered on NBC in 1969, is a bizarre film about a man stuck in a cube and confronted by numerous characters with sage and not-so-sage advice. It indicates an interest in form that would have, one strongly suspects, pushed Henson toward new mediums like virtual reality or digital media even as he aged.
“Jim would have embraced so much of the digital world,” says Karen Falk, the director of the Jim Henson Company Archives. Falk worked with Henson and has tried to emulate his emphasis on moving forward and trying new things. “Our puppetry system under Brian Henson’s leadership has moved forward with the digital puppetry system. You look at Splash & Bubbles on PBS Kids, it uses our digital motion capture system and Jim would have gone in that direction. In the ‘80s Jim had this idea of an interactive movie experience where audiences would choose the direction of the story, but of course, the technology wasn’t there. Jim was always thinking ahead.”
Today, Netflix is toying with that idea while streaming Labyrinth. One wonders whether new technologies might have allowed Henson to create a true labyrinth. Likely, yes. He lived in one.
Playing with the puppets in the new exhibition—there are enough velcro eyeballs and empty bodies to go around—it becomes clear the degree to which Henson was able to improvise in alternative realities by leveraging the unique qualities of his felted creations. Movies like The Dark Crystal were thrillingly organic precisely because their inhuman characters felt lived in and seemed to be having off-the-cuff conversations. They extemporized without winking in a way that might undercut the fantasy. The voices were memorable. The movements were memorable. “Simple is good,” he said. The quote is, fittingly, printed on the wall.
One can only imagine what he and Andy Serkis could have accomplished together. And one can only imagine because Henson left so quickly and so soon.
Though it may be easy to think of his work as timeless, that’s actually dismissive to the artist. If the 50 puppets and seemingly endless original sketches, storyboards, and scripts on display prove anything, it’s that Henson moved on at speed. The Muppets were, perhaps, his crowning achievement, but only because he never had the opportunity to best himself. He would have tried. He had more to say and he wasn’t going to be able to say it all through the lips of a frog.
You walk into the Henson Exhibition expecting a lot of puppets, but you walk away learning his true ingenuity. With nearly 50 puppets on display including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Big Bird, Elmo, and Rowlf, you can get up close see the worn details on every puppet from the aged felt to the faded whites of their eyes. There are more than 300 artifacts of original sketches, storyboards, and scripts by Henson.