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“As children, we all live in a world of imagination, of fantasy, and for some of us that world of make-believe continues into adulthood.”
These are the words of legendary puppeteer, actor and filmmaker Jim Henson. Greeting visitors of the traveling exhibition The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited—dedicated to the creator of the Muppets and on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through Aug. 14—the quote is plastered upon a Kermit the Frog-green wall at the show’s entrance. (Henson was not Jewish, but a statement from the museum says his work is featured because it “celebrates diversity and inclusion, both core values of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.”)
As expected for a show about the Muppets, the installation successfully evokes the sense of childlike wonder that Henson’s creations instilled in so many. But Imagination Unlimited also puts a closer focus on the moral lessons and technological innovation inherent in Henson’s work.
From the moment Henson checked out two library books on puppeteering as a Washington, D.C.-area high school student in the ’50s, and on through his creations becoming international sensations, the exhibit takes visitors on a journey through Henson’s professional life, which spanned four decades.
Containing an impressive collection of storyboards, scripts and behind-the-scenes footage, the exhibit reveals how Henson’s creative process produced some of the most iconic children’s characters of the 20th century. During my visit, I saw hand-drawn storyboards for commercials featuring Muppet prototypes from the ’50s, and how they were perfectly translated onto the screen, as well as The Muppet Movie test reels that give insight into the complications of operating puppets in real-world environments.
Though we may think of puppeteering as a rudimentary form of entertainment, Henson relentlessly pushed it toward new horizons; technical innovation was a hallmark of his career. The Henson exhibit explains how he preferred to keep the design of his puppets simple in order to have more control over what he called “the magical triangle”: a puppet’s eyes, nose and mouth, a balance which he believed lent humanism to the puppeteer’s performance.
By the time Henson created the Saturday-morning TV sensation Fraggle Rock in the mid-’80s, he had actors in full-body puppet suits complete with animatronic heads, whose expressions were controlled off-screen by a puppeteer using a remote-controlled gadget. But it wasn’t just the puppets that evolved—the worlds they inhabited evolved, too.
Fast-forward to the full-length movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and Henson’s characters had graduated from being confined to simple, static backgrounds in a television studio to parading around in custom-made, fully-realized 3D worlds with texture and color that would make George Lucas blush.
In its more interesting moments, Imagination Unlimited pulls back the felt to reveal little-known information about the man behind (or beneath) the puppet—like the internal conflict he felt as his creations received widespread acclaim.
After all, Henson had moonlit as an experimental filmmaker in the ’60s: he’d created a documentary about counterculture for NBC called Youth 68, and crafted irreverent short films like the Oscar-nominated Time Piece and the teleplay psychological thriller The Cube. He had even considered opening a multimedia nightclub called “Cyclia” in New York or Los Angeles with kaleidoscopic images projected onto the bodies of female dancers and light shows synced with music; a typical LSD lounge. In this context, it makes sense that Henson was apprehensive about the success of Sesame Street and its ensuing pressures. He didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a children’s performer.
His flirtation with the nightclub scene aside, Henson was at heart a student of film, and was adamant about keeping his characters consistent. Sesame Street style books on display feature strict guidelines about characters. (Some rules: Oscar the Grouch does not leave his trash can; Big Bird should never be drawn with knees; Bert is only interested in dull things like reading about pigeons.)
Henson was similarly purposeful about messaging. Indicative of the lessons he wanted to convey to children, an early Fraggle Rock script treatment states: “What the show is really about is people getting along with other people, and understanding the delicate balances of the natural world.” Henson added that the show “will make the point that everything affects everything else, and that there is a beauty and harmony of life to be appreciated”—pretty heady stuff for a kid’s show.
The exhibit may be named for Henson, but it importantly draws attention to other influential figures in the Muppetsphere, like Henson’s longtime puppeteering partner Frank Oz, with whom he gave life to the iconic duos of Kermit and Miss Piggy, and Ernie and Bert. The Muppet Show head writer Jerry Juhl and Henson’s wife and first collaborator, Jane Nebel, are given their due, as well.
Absent from the installation is any reference to Henson’s fraught relationship with the Walt Disney Company. Negotiations with Disney for the rights to the Muppets notoriously brought Henson great stress near at the end of his life. (Henson died in 1990 at the age of 53.) Oz once rearked in a 2021 interview that “the Disney deal is probably what killed Jim,” later adding that “Jim was not a dealer, he was an artist—and it was destroying him, it really was.”
Disney finally did buy the Muppets in 2004, likely explaining why the messier aspects of the transaction aren’t represented in this feel-good exhibition. And there is still so much here to feel good about. Along with the inner workings of Henson’s mind on display for adults who grew up on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, interactive sections of the exhibit offer a create-your-own-Muppet station, and an area where young visitors can put on their own televised puppet show.
However, during the two and a half hours I spent at Imagination Unlimited, the majority of those who came to see Henson’s work were grown adults. I’m 21 years old, too young to have witnessed the Muppets’ prime of the ’70s and ’80s. I wasn’t even born until 10 years after Henson passed away, well past the Muppets’ network-television popularity. My most prominent Henson-adjacent memories come from watching Sesame Street’s timelessness as a child, seeing Muppet Treasure Island reruns on the Disney Channel and going to the theater to watch The Muppets, the 2011 movie reboot, which I found to be a well-crafted reunion story with some surprising, subtle critiques of capitalistic greed.
All this is to say that I may not have the same emotional connection to Henson’s creations that many older adults do. But looking around at the museum, it was heartwarming to vicariously experience the 35-plus crowd’s reactions to their cherished childhood memories. Giddy laughter ensued at a fondly remembered Sesame Street episode. People sang along to the Fraggle Rock theme song as the melody filled the room. Others enthusiastically took photos alongside their favorite Muppets, posing under The Muppets Show’s iconic arches and grinning like children taking first-day-of-school photos.
Henson helped reinvent puppetry from novel performance art to mainstream entertainment, and in doing so created stories that have helped multiple generations better understand each other’s humanity. In a time where children are growing up consuming more content than ever, and when our society is constantly connected but deeply polarized, Henson and his works serve as an inspiration on how to live more humanely.
“My hope,” Henson once said, “is to leave the world a little better for having been there.”
The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited makes it apparent that, in his time with us, he did just that.
‘The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited’ is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through Aug. 14. Details here.