Now showing in Miss: Henson’s world of puppetry

Published 12:46 am Sunday, December 27, 2009

The kooky, fanged creatures drawn on the mustard-colored entrance wall of the new exhibit in Mississippi let visitors of all ages know they’re about to enter a world of magic and imagination created by master puppeteer Jim Henson.

The characters came from the mind of Henson and are part of the exhibition, “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” which has begun its run at the Mississippi Museum of Art. The exhibit brings many of the late creator’s popular characters back to the place where he was born and receives credit for inspiring his creativity.

The energy from psychedelic hipster Mahna Mahna seems to escape the glass case covering him and his two backup singers, The Snowths, as his hot pink arms remain in perpetual flail. Bert and Ernie from “Sesame Street” also are there.

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Among those visiting the exhibit was 8-year-old Henry Michalak, and his 5-year-old twin brothers, Drew and Jake. The siblings, who live in Atlanta, were in Jackson visiting relatives for the holidays when they stopped by the museum.

“I think Jim was a prankster,” Henry tells his mother, Katherine Michalak, who responds by singing the classic “Rubber Ducky” song as her children pass the Bert and Ernie display.

And Henry shares one of the many informational nuggets he’s learned.

“Kermit the Frog was originally made from Jim Henson’s mom’s coat and ping pong balls,” he said with a smile, showing a mouthful of braces.

The exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and The Jim Henson Legacy offers a glimpse into Henson’s mind as ideas for “The Muppet Show,” “Fraggle Rock,” and “Sesame Street” sprang forth.

Henson died at age 53 in 1990 after pioneering puppetry for television and film. His childhood was spent in the Mississippi Delta town of Leland, where he would chase frogs along Deer Creek as he developed a lifelong love of nature.

Henson’s father was a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and he moved his family to Maryland when his son was 10.

The galleries are full of hand-drawn pencil sketches of fantasy creatures. One shows an early rendering of Big Bird with far fewer feathers on his head than appear in current “Sesame Street” episodes. Next to it, Henson sketched a man inside the bird costume with an arm extended to control the beak.

Visitors can hear Henson explain why he wanted to create “a silly character who makes children’s mistakes” during a documentary excerpt that’s shown.

“We’re giving people an inside view of his thinking. Some of it is original artwork going back to his childhood,” said Karen Falk, the exhibit’s curator and head archivist for The Jim Henson Company.

Falk said Henson always wanted to inspire people and nurture talent. She said he was a pioneer in television puppetry, the first to use a monitor during production so he could see how the characters would appear on TV. Everyone else was working behind a puppet theater, she said.

“Jim got rid of the theater altogether,” she said.

The exhibition includes an interactive theater that gives kids a chance to show off their puppetry skills.

There are also plenty of behind-the-scenes details few know about. For instance, Henson originally drew Oscar The Grouch from “Sesame Street” as purple. He first appeared on the show as orange, but later became the dirty-tinged green beloved by fans.

Former Netscape President Jim Barksdale and his wife, Donna, are sponsors of the exhibit, which includes a separate display on Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s contributions to puppetry. The current Emmy Award-winning show, “Between The Lions,” is filmed at the MPB studios.

The first day it opened, more than 400 children and adults visited the exhibition, which costs $12 for adults and $6 for children aged 6 and up. Pearl High School teacher Vickie Miley said she plans to bring 400 art students to exhibit in January.

“Even though they’re high school, they grew up with the Muppets. They’ll all appreciate his drawings. He came up with his ideas on a little swamp in Mississippi,” said Miley, who was previewing the exhibition with her sister and brother-in-law.

After Jackson, the exhibit moves on to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Mass. in April; Fresno Metropolitan Museum in Fresno, Calif., in July and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It’s already been to eight other locations.