The Power of Puppets



A new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center offers a fun, inter-generational adventure – one in which puppets connect memories and shared ideals between kids and adults. Who among us does not have an intense childhood connection to a puppet from the galaxy of Henson stars – from Kermit to the Fraggles, Sesame Street to Labyrinth?  We’ve all been impacted by Jim Henson’s generous vision of diversity and imagination, and the exhibit not only offers an opportunity to share these ideals with someone you love, but it travels back to pre-Sesame Street days to show how Henson forged his unique path.

Jim Henson and his iconic creation Kermit the Frog, in front of a mural by Coulter Watt.
Photo by John E. Barrett. Kermit the Frog © Disney/Muppets.
Courtesy The Jim Henson Company/MoMI

The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited is on view all summer (through September 2, 2018). Head out for a trip down a squishy memory lane but be prepared for a tender reminder of how values we cherish today were laid out by a batch of wacky puppets nearly fifty years ago.

I was transported back to my early days by watching the Counting Videos featuring the Sesame Street Baker, who never failed to tumble down a set of stairs with cake akimbo. Pure pleasure, and easy to revisit on YouTube.

The show was organized by the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC, where a permanent version of the exhibition is on display. Because the Skirball’s intent is always to explore the social impact of culture, visitors can reflect on how this suite of shows and films broke significant ground in terms of diversity and humor, paving the way for new storytelling on television. As you wander the galleries, you’ll be reminded of the powerful ideals and methodology of Sesame Street — a show which has been on the air since 1969!  And a discussion of the diversity of characters and their abilities is a timely reminder of the power of empathy.

Here’s an article from the New York Times on the first exhibition of Henson’s oeuvre in 2011 – Henson died tragically at only 53. In it we learn of Henson’s confidence in the ability of humor to sell products, that Kermit was made from an old coat and a tennis ball, and get a glimpse of a few ideas that never came to fruition.

Lisa Henson – photo by Timothy Norris for Skirball Cultural Center

Whether it’s Miss Piggy, Bert and Ernie, or Elmo that tickles your funny bone, understanding the history of how these creations came into being is fun for adults, who will have the opportunity to view a broad range of artifacts, including more than twenty puppets, character sketches, storyboards, scripts, photographs, film and television clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and costumes. Henson was a tremendous collaborator, and his vision lives on today; his children continue to produce excellent programming for children at The Jim Henson Company. Here is daughter Lisa Henson at the opening of the LA exhibit.

Playing with the interactive exhibits in the show makes the colorful adventure great for kids, who can try their hand at puppeteering on camera and designing a puppet.

Kids love playing with puppets and seeing their movements reflected (backwards) through a camera’s lens. And throughout the exhibit, which was packed when we visited on a weekday, you’ll see grandparents and children exploring together. Or, parents explaining to their kids how they came to love Sesame Street or the Muppets.

Some artifacts are just fanciful and fun. Others strike at the heartstrings. In particular, the exhibition highlights how Henson’s characters and stories represent individuals and communities of diverse backgrounds and abilities, inspiring the public to look beyond differences and cultivate a more compassionate, inclusive world. Everyone, not just young kids, gets in on the fun of interacting with the wide-panoply of stars in Henson’s constellation.

Related Events/July

July 13 – outdoor screening of “Labyrinth” – 8:30p (doors open 6:30). Click for details 

July 24 – discussion / Happy Anniversary, Fraggle Rockers (8:oo pm). Click for details