Kermit the Frog, Howdy Doody to go on display at DIA

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

It’s been 20 long years, but Kermit the Frog is coming back. 

On Friday, the green charmer from “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” will go on display in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ puppet cases on the first floor. Joining him through March will be another superstar puppet, America’s favorite cowpoke, Howdy Doody. 

The DIA's Kermit the Frog will go on display Friday through March.

“We only have three glass cases for puppet display,” said Larry Baranski, DIA Director of Public Programming and Curator of the Paul McPharlin Puppetry Collection, “so we rotate the exhibitions every six months, usually according to a theme. The theme for this show is puppets who were influential in the early years of television.”

Also on display with Kermit and Howdy will be “Wizard of Oz” puppets made by Burr Tillstrom for a TV version of the celebrated movie in the late 1940s. 

“Sesame Street” creator Jim Henson donated Kermit to the DIA in 1971, just two years after the show debuted on PBS. Kermit’s actual birth, however, was in the mid-1950s on “Sam and Friends” on WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., long before the dawn of “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.”

Kermit landed with the DIA because of Detroit’s connection to the world of puppeteering. The Puppeteers of America was founded in Detroit in 1936 by historian Paul McPharlin, for whom the DIA’s collection is named. Tillstrom, who had a studio near Saugatuck, was one of the early board members.

“By the 1950s,” said Baranski, “young, aspiring puppeteers like Henson would have looked to the Puppeteers of America for mentors, and Tillstrom was the one he approached.” 

Because of Detroit’s role in birthing the puppeteering organization, Henson decided to donate this Kermit, an early prototype that predated “Sesame Street,” to the museum. 

The original Howdy Doody puppet from the TV show that debuted in 1947 will be on view at the DIA Friday-March.

The original Howdy Doody marionette, star of “The Howdy Doody Show” which debuted on NBC in 1947, was willed to the DIA in an agreement between the network, the museum and the show’s last puppeteer. The deal was that the latter could keep Howdy as long as he liked, but that he’d go to the museum on the puppeteer’s death. 

That wasn’t how things played out.

In 2000, the DIA fought a protracted legal battle to secure “Original Howdy” after the puppeteer’s heirs attempted to auction him off to the highest bidder, with dreams of netting as much as $1 million. (While the museum was interested in adding Howdy to its McPharlin Collection, perhaps the biggest reason for the suit was to protect the sanctity of bequests to institutions like the DIA.)

The court ruled in the museum’s favor, and Howdy entered the DIA collection in 2001. 

All of which raises an interesting question — why is a great, encyclopedic museum like the DIA interested in puppets anyhow?

Baranski argues that puppets number among mankind’s earliest creative expressions. 

“Puppetry is related to human creative impulses that go back to the dawn of history,” said Baranski. “There are indications that for 1,000 years in Europe, elements of classic Greek and Roman theater were preserved through use of puppetry when the church prohibited live performance before the Renaissance.”

Kermit the Frog and Howdy Doody at the DIA

Fri., Jan. 17-March 31

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit 

9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Thurs; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Admission free to Macomb, Oakland & Wayne county residents

Others: $14-adults; $9-seniors; $8-college students; $6-kids 6-17

(313) 833-7900

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy