Jump in the car, and head to Doylestown, to view the “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” traveling exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum.
It runs through Nov. 29.
For Henson, it all began with one man’s simple hand puppets that eventually grew into an international phenomenon. His prolific work transcended language and civilizations in more than 100 countries. Through his pop culture creations of Sesame Street and the Muppets and their lovable characters like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Big Bird, Henson forged a life-long impact on the imagination of an entire generation.
The Fantastic World exhibit features 100 original artworks, including drawings, cartoons and storyboards that offer a rare peek into Henson’s imagination and creative genius as a storyteller and visionary. Among the variety of objects are puppets and television and movie props, photographs of Henson and his collaborators at work and original video productions, including excerpts from Henson’s early career and experimental films. The exhibition installation includes a resource room that features hands-on activities for children of all ages, including a puppet theater.
Karen Falk helped to put together the exhibition. Back in the late 1980s when she worked for Christie’s auction house in Manhattan, Falk would often see a pack of guys sporting Kermit the Frog jackets outside the Jim Henson Company’s puppet workshop just down the block from her office.
Falk was intrigued.
“I loved the characters and humor of the Muppet show that Jim Henson created, but I didn’t see how my skill set matched up with what they did,” recalled Falk, who majored in American civilization and earned undergraduate and masters degrees in museum curatorship at the University of Pennsylvania.
A couple of years later Falk sent the company exhibits department a resume.
She was hired by Henson’s widow, Jane in 1992 to organize its massive archive of materials.
“It’s a family run business so I work very closely with his five children who own the company,” Falk said. “They’ve been tremendous supporters of the archival projects. We are always looking at new ways to reach a broader audience.”
The Fantastic World exhibit spans Henson’s four-decade career. To handle the marketing, installation and shipping of the exhibit as it moves from venue to venue, the Jim Henson Company and Legacy Foundation partnered with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).
“The exhibit is an examination of Henson’s creative thinking and shows how he came to his ideas and how he expressed them,” explained Falk, who is a board member of the Jim Henson Legacy.
Established in 1992, the foundation was initiated by Jane Henson along with colleagues and friends in response to the enormous interest in the life and prolific body of work by Jim Henson.
“It is dedicated to preserving and perpetuating Jim’s contributions to the worlds of puppetry, television and motion pictures, special effects and media technology,” explained Falk.
“Our mission to talk about the man and his body of work,” Falk continued.
“It’s such a treat to get to know Jim Henson through his doodles and drawings, his puppets and his fantastic performances. I’m delighted to be able to share this inspiring and entertaining experience with people all over the country. You get to see the simple doodles he did as a kid and I think that really connects with a lot of young children.”
Henson, while attending the University of Maryland as a studio arts major, got his start in a 1955 television comedy called “Sam and Friends,” which aired locally in Washington, D.C. The first Kermit was fashioned from an old coat belonging to Henson’s mother. His television shows’ work evolved into increasingly more sophisticated characters — from the Muppets of “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street” and “Fraggle Rock” fame to the larger-than-life fantasy creatures of “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth.
He died suddenly in 1990 at age 53 from pneumonia and a strep infection less than 20 hours after checking himself into the emergency room at New York Hospital, not realizing how sick he really was.
The Michener Museum — eighth on the schedule — is one of only 12 lucky institutions that got the chance to display Fantastic World’s collection of rare items. Nearly 80 art museums all across America tried. It is the first show in the museum’s newly built Syd and Sharon Martin Wing — the new exhibition space that is the centerpiece of the Michener’s $12 million expansion.
Visitors will see Henson’s experimental films, both live action and animated, created during the 1960s. In the Oscar nominated short film
Timepiece, film footage and Henson’s storyboards appear side-by-side on a video screen.
“It shows how he took visual ideas and put them on the screen and made them available to other people to see and understand,” said Falk.
In addition to his many famous puppets, there are some lesser-known characters that appeared in television commercials Henson made in the 1950s.
“We have several original puppets, and most are puppets that Jim performed,” Falk noted. “One or two are reproductions based on original puppets, but the Kermit on display is the one he performed.”
Falk is thrilled to be part of the traveling exhibition.
“I am able to take things I see every day and share this incredible wealth with so many other people,” Falk said. “It all reflects Jim’s superior values and his positive outlook. He was always thinking about his audiences and, today, there are not a lot of people out there like that. It is such a privilege to be affiliated with Jim and his work.”