The world of Jim Henson – from beloved Muppets to cutting-edge experiments – comes to life at the SF museum

Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog in 1978 on the set of “The Muppet Movie”. Photo: The Jim Henson Company

Upon entering “The Jim Henson: Imagination Unlimited Exhibition” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, I gasped at the sight of a celebrity in the first gallery. There — in all his green, polyfoam glory — was Kermit the Frog.

The character is as identified with its creator as Mickey Mouse is with Walt Disney. Since his first television appearance in 1955, Kermit has become a symbol of both Henson’s artistry and his ability to bring his designs to life beyond any medium. With its hand raised in a wave, I half-expected the puppet to greet me with a cheerful “Hi-ho” in Henson’s original voice.

“Imagination Unlimited” is filled with moments like this for fans, like me, who grew up immersed in Henson’s universe. Exhibits include 25 original puppets from projects such as ‘Sesame Street’, ‘Fraggle Rock’, ‘The Dark Crystal’, ‘Labyrinth’ and, of course, ‘The Muppet Show’. Yes, that means Miss Piggy, Count Von Count, Grover, Fozzie, Rowlf, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker – the whole gang is there.

But it wasn’t just my inner child who was able to “meet the Muppets” with joy. With the streaming series of “The Dark Crystal” (Netflix) and “Fraggle Rock” (Apple TV+) released in recent years, as well as most Muppet movies and TV catalogs now streaming on Disney+, the work of Henson also remains relevant for children and adults than ever. On a recent visit, one such child (an actual child, not my inner child) was apoplectic as he stood in front of “Sesame Street” puppets Bert and Ernie. But don’t worry, even while sobbing, it was clear her tears came from a place of joy in being up close and personal with the 53-year-old’s TV characters.

This childhood bond was also true for CJM staff.

“This show, in terms of personnel for me, is incredibly exciting and nostalgic,” said Heidi Rabben, CJM’s senior curator. “But it’s also an incredible opportunity to learn more about Jim Henson as an adult, having grown up with all the things he produced and having had such a close relationship with it all as a huge consumer of Henson as a child.”

Although Henson is not Jewish, Rabben said the CJM sees his work as a fit for the museum because many of his projects reflect the values ​​of tikkun olam (Hebrew for “repair”), a concept seen in Reform Judaism as a desire to improve the world through personal action. Henson also had several prominent Jewish collaborators, including puppeteer and director — and voice of Miss Piggy — Frank Oz, and “The Muppet Show” producer Lord Lew Grade.

Jim Henson and Kathryn Mullen play puppets Jen and Kira on the set of “The Dark Crystal” in 1981. Photo: Murray Close/The Jim Henson Company

“Inclusiveness, acceptance of difference and kindness – all of these things align with the main motivations of my father and many of his collaborators,” said Cheryl Henson, daughter of Henson and Jane Nebel and president of the Jim Henson Foundation, by telephone from New York. “Whether it’s ‘Sesame Street’ or ‘The Muppet Show,’ the characters are very different. They can argue, Miss Piggy can karate-chop Kermit, or Ernie and Bert can be such different personalities, but they really care. each other and take care of each other.

Henson is one of those rare cultural phenomena whose influence reaches you young and can carry on well beyond the age when you set aside childhood interests. Viewings of “The Muppet Show” or the three Muppet motion pictures Henson worked on before his death in 1990, at age 53 from complications from pneumonia, show a sophisticated wit, irony and fourth-wall breaking that make them worth revisiting as adults. In all of his puppet creations, Henson and his team have physically designed and scripted characters so developed that even when inserted into the settings of another story (such as the Muppet version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”), they retained their fundamental essence.

But the exhibit isn’t limited to Henson’s greatest hits. The exhibition, originally presented at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, delves deep into his creative process and highlights how ahead of the culture he was in some respects. From his early work in advertising in the 1950s and 60s to fantasy films like “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” in the 1980s, you see the evolution of the shapes of the puppets themselves and the way Henson has used the puppet in the narration.

You even get a glimpse of how some of Henson’s iconic characters have taken on media lives of their own. For example, like many celebrities, Miss Piggy “wrote” her own autobiography, “Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life”, in the 1980s. A copy of the book is on display in the exhibit, which makes me wonder if, in some ways, Piggy could have been something of a precursor to influencers with his penchant for self-promotion and aggrandizement.

A recreation of the opening set from “The Muppet Show” at “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Photo: Transmit photography

Beyond the puppets, visitors also learn about other projects, including early concepts like Henson’s unrealized nightclub, Cyclia. The venue would have projected original film footage onto faceted walls and the ceiling with a soundtrack and live dancers.

“He’s doing this in the late ’60s, and it’s exactly the kind of stuff that’s being produced right now with teamLab and ‘Immersive Van Gogh’ that’s become so huge over the last decade,” Rabben said. , referring to the “immersive art” experiences at the Asian Art Museum and SVN West, the latter of which is still on view.

Another ground-breaking project, Henson’s 1965 Oscar-nominated short “Time Piece,” is also on view, which features Henson from surreal images of clocks meant to symbolize the passage of time. .

Jim Henson, David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly on the set of Labyrinth (1986). Photo: John Brown/The Jim Henson Company

But among Cheryl Henson’s favorite items in the exhibit are a trio of puppets like her father, Oz and Jerry Nelson, who appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“They were the main puppeteers at the time,” she said. “There’s only one puppet of each, and they’re so fragile they might not travel on future tours.”

One of the last rooms in the exhibition features material related to “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth”, films which at first struggled to find an audience due to their darker themes and which are radically different from the healthier tone of the Muppets. In addition to the puppets of Jen, Kira and Aughra from “The Dark Crystal” and toy props of Firey, Ludo, Lancelot and Jareth from “Labyrinth” are costumes worn by David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly in the masquerade ball scene of this last movie. Fittingly, both outfits seem to be dancing enchantingly in their rotating cases.

“It’s kind of miraculous,” said Cheryl Henson, who created puppets for the two movies now considered cult classics. “When they first came out they weren’t successful and both films felt very, very personal to me, and they were extremely personal to my dad. It’s amazing that they found their audience.

Despite Henson’s fame during his lifetime and the continued status of many of his characters as pop culture icons, there is a rediscovered quality to “Imagination Unlimited.” Henson’s puppets were so memorable they may have overshadowed their creator, but at CJM we have the opportunity to move beyond the felt and fleece characters to the flesh-and-blood performer.

While being close to the Muppets and other characters fascinated me long after childhood, as an adult I was able to appreciate more of Jim Henson’s work. Any artist who can make an adult gasp at the mere sight of a puppet must have created something powerful.

Puppets created from the footage of Jim Henson and fellow puppeteers Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson on display at ‘The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited’ at the Contemporary Jewish Museum Photo: Transmit photography

“The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination”: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday to Sunday. Until August 14. $16. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., SF 415-655-7888.

James C. Tibbs