Jim Henson, 1936-1990, was a perfectionist, and a trailblazer. Like Walt Disney, whose company would take over Henson’s legacy, he demanded that everything around him was perfect — brand-new and screwed-down.
Also like Disney, Henson drove people around him crazy with this assurance that each new creation must hit not only perfection, but some kind of new perfection. Nobody in Henson’s orbit was allowed to rest on their laurels. Least of all Henson himself.
This spirit of relentlessness shoots through “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited,” a world premiere exhibit running through January 3, 2018, at MoPOP. Henson isn’t here to push or insist for himself, but the artifacts he left behind speak on his behalf. One item in the exhibit consists of several pages of detailed notes on a puppet skit with a short song.
Onscreen the Muppets looked natural, bantering and playing off each other like everyday people who just happened to be made of felt. Many, many Muppet performers, designers, and builders worked hard to create this illusion. They couldn’t have gotten there without Henson, and his demanding personality. The notes, at least, survive.
Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and became crafty under the watchful eye of his maternal grandmother, who could make anything with her hands. He loved Edgar Bergen’s radio show, where Bergen switched between his own voice and those of his two ventriloquist dummies, fast enough to create the illusion of overlapping conversation. Bergen was fast, he was funny and — on the radio, at least — you never got to see whether his lips moved. Henson absorbed these lessons.
Henson started in television while still in high school, after the family moved to Maryland. He was a freshman at the University of Maryland when “Sam and Friends,” a show that appeared in two five-minute segments each day, premiered on WRC-TV. He created two characters called Wilkins and Wontkins, to sell coffee. The commercials were often ten seconds or less, but Wilkins and Wontkins did so well they ended up pushing other products.
Wilkins and Wontkins often climaxed their segments with an explosion,or Wontkins being eaten by a bigger puppet. An interviewer once asked what these violent happenings meant. Henson allowed that he didn’t know, psychologically speaking. Instead, he admitted to the interviewer, with a laugh, that he liked explosions, as well as things eating other things.
The exhibit features Wilkins and Wontkins under glass, alongside “Sesame Street” duo Bert and Ernie, Kermit the Frog (Henson’s long-running alter ego, who survives him through other performers) and many other Muppets. Under glass, you can study the tricks of Henson’s trade, such as sewing to hide the seams in a finished Muppet. (Another fun fact: All Muppets were manufactured just slightly cross-eyed. Henson found that when the puppets’ pupils were left straight, their gazes came off “dead” or “glazed” on camera).
Some Muppet people believe the puppets should not be displayed as still, dead objects. Henson was a mastermind of objects in motion. Many video snippets give a more complete display of how he thought and acted — from “Sam And Friends” through the Muppets on “Saturday Night Live” and elsewhere, through “The Dark Crystal,” “Labyrinth,” “Fraggle Rock,” and various experimental shorts and specials. Sometimes he modified ideas from these experiments to make them suitable for mass consumption. Other times, the ideas were just too weird, and stayed where they were.
You get every single episode of the “Muppet Show,” broadcast simultaneously and soundlessly as rectangular portions of a much-larger screen. The eye hardly knows where to settle.
You can also stand under the “Muppet Show” arches — okay, a reasonable recreation of the arches, anyway. You can put yourself in the show. And sniffle, a little, at not seeing Henson there.