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MOMI celebrates life and career of Henson with new exhibit


The Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens has been the host of various film and television productions, including the perennial PBS show “Sesame Street.” Just a few feet away from the studio, the Museum of the Moving Image has opened a new exhibition dedicated to not only “Sesame Street,” but to all of the Muppet characters, in a celebration of the life and career of famed puppeteer Jim Henson.

The museum has put on similar exhibits in the past, paying tribute to everyone from the Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese to animation legend Chuck Jones. Unlike those exhibits, however, this new display is intended to be a permanent addition to the museum’s roster of galleries.

A collaboration between both the MOMI and the Henson family, the exhibition is arranged to show visitors a chronological retelling of Henson’s career, using rare items like concept art, early puppets and various pieces of Muppets and “Sesame Street” paraphernalia to tell Henson’s story.

The first part of the exhibit is dedicated to the beginnings of Henson’s career. After a truncated look at his childhood and early fascination with television, the rest of the section focuses on his days performing a popular puppet show for the local NBC TV station in Washington, D.C.

To give guests an idea of how Henson and his crew filmed the shows, an interactive display allows visitors to film their own Muppet segments, using the same camera and monitor setup. Sadly, this is the only interactive section found at the exhibit.

With a cast of characters as colorful as the Muppets, one would think that there would be other options for guests to have a hands-on look at the creation and production of the various films and television shows. That addition would have brought new light into the amount of love and care that both the original and modern crews always brought to the table to put their creations on screen.

Before moving into Henson’s real television breakout, the exhibit features his first appearances on major network shows like “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Real puppets and various clips of Henson’s sketches give visitors a clear glimpse of how quickly his fame was rising during this period.

For a brief period in the 1960s, Henson experimented with avant- garde live action shorts without any kind of puppetry whatsoever, which ultimately got him an Academy Award. His career began to take a backseat to his time devoted to his more popular work with the Muppets.

Keeping this detail in mind, it was a nice surprise to see a sizeable area of the exhibition dedicated to a different side of Henson, complete with one of these films being played on a loop.

Then there was “Sesame Street,” the show that arguably played the biggest role in cementing both Henson and “The Muppets” as a permanent fixture of modern pop culture. Since the show itself is filmed fairly close to the museum, adding the show to the exhibit was a no-brainer. While “Sesame Street” is worthy of its own exhibition in the museum, what the MOMI and Hensons provide in one section does the show’s legacy justice. One interesting display was an infographic of the mechanisms behind the Big Bird puppet and how the performer played the character while filming.

The second half of the exhibit is dedicated to Henson’s popularity transcending borders to become an international phenomenon with both Kermit the Frog and “The Muppet Show.” The highlight of this area is a large video collage of various classic sketches and guest appearances during the show’s five-year run in syndication, in addition to various storyboards, set props and even a collection of dresses for the various Miss Piggy puppets used for the show.

While Henson was predominantly involved with television, he often cut his teeth with theatrical feature films, starting with 1979’s The Muppet Movie. Unfortunately, Henson’s Hollywood career is hardly given any real dedication in the exhibit.

While he may have made movies featuring his famous characters, Henson also used his cinematic projects as a way to break new boundaries with puppeteering in film. One example is the cult classic Labyrinth. One startling omission in this section was his contribution to George Lucas’ Star Wars saga with the creation of the character of Jedi master Yoda.

Also, Henson’s experimentation with new methods of puppeteering during this time are not given as thorough a look as they should have.

Though it may not cover all the major highlights of his career as one would have liked it to do, the MOMI’s  tribute to Henson is still a very loving exhibition and well worth checking out for fans of both “The Muppets” and film as a whole.

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