Jim Henson Exhibition coming to The Henry Ford explores 'Muppets' founder's lasting legacy

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Before "Muppets" creator and innovator Jim Henson transformed puppeteering and television, puppets weren't exactly magical.

Most TV programming in the 1950s was live and often crude or serious, said Donna Braden, senior curator of public life at The Henry Ford. And puppet programs did anything but conceal that someone was literally pulling the strings.

"You could see the puppeteer and you could see all the strings and see everything going on," said Braden. "From the beginning, he (Henson) thought there must be more creative ways to use TV as a medium."

And he found them. How Henson changed television while creating beloved characters on "Sesame Street," "The Muppets" and more -- characters still popular now -- will be explored in a new traveling exhibition that arrives in early June and runs through September at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.

Jim Henson and his iconic creation, Kermit the Frog, in front of a mural by Coulter Watt. Henson was the original voice for Kermit.

The "Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited" will feature 20 puppets (yes, a 1978 version of his most famous character, Kermit the Frog, will be in the mix), character sketches, storyboards, scripts, pictures, costumes, behind-the-scenes footage and film and television clips.

The exhibition will also include interactive experiences that will allow visitors to try their own hand at puppeteering on camera and designing a puppet character, though some COVID-19 protocols may limit how much visitors will be able to do.

The exhibition, which will open inside the Gallery by General Motors in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, is a traveling version of a permanent exhibit on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York. It was put together in cooperation with the Jim Henson Company, the Muppets Studio and Sesame Workshop.

Jim Henson’s sketch for Oscar the Grouch in 1969.

Braden toured the permanent exhibit in New York with her daughter a few years ago and walked away with a much better sense of Henson's early work. She said visitors to The Henry Ford are "in for a real treat."

"I had no idea about his early work and it's always interesting to see where does the great, famous stuff come from," said Braden. "How did it start? How did it evolve? I think that will be real interesting to people. And just sort of the way he went about seeking out his projects. The sketches, storyboards and scripts will help people see what was behind what people have viewed on TV and in his movies. It's not just the what, but the how."

The exhibition will start with a brief look at Henson’s early life through pictures -- he grew up in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. -- and reproductions of some of his early drawings and sketches. It will also follow highlights of his legendary career, including handwritten scripts from his first television series, "Sam and Friends," which ran from 1955 to 1961 where Kermit first made his debut; a clip from his Academy Award–nominated experimental 1965 film "Time Piece"; and the Jen and Kira puppets from the 1982 film, "The Dark Crystal."

Jim Henson on the set of "Time Piece," the short film he directed and starred in which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1965.

A big highlight will be the puppets. Aside from Kermit, iconic puppets such as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker and Scooter will be featured. And set models and storyboards will help explain how Henson and his team helped the Muppets make the transition to the big screen.

Braden said the way Henson developed the Muppets was different than the puppets and marionettes he grew up with in that he used arm holes instead of strings. He also used the entire TV screen as a puppet stage so the performer couldn't be seen. And he tried to make his characters more life-like. 

"The guest stars that where on the 'Muppets' show and 'Sesame Street,' it was real easy for them to feel as if they were real people," said Braden. "They were life-like. Part of that is because they each have their own personality. And their personalities are very relatable."

Henson also brought a sort of humor, lightness and insightfulness to the characters and the stories that didn't exist in 1950s television, said Braden.

"It didn't exist with kids shows. It didn't exist with puppet shows. It didn't exist with TV shows," she said. "...He made it OK to make fun of yourself, to have irony and sometimes chaos even."

And what Henson was really doing was exploring all aspects of the human character, said Braden.

"It was using puppets to explore humans and how they relate to each other and their foibles," she said.

And while Henson's career was cut short -- he died in 1990 at the age of 53 -- the characters he and his team created are timeless, said Braden.

"They live on every day in his movies and the re-runs of TV shows," said Braden. "They’re timeless."


'Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited'

  • June 5-Sept. 6 at The Henry Ford
  • Organized by the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York in cooperation with The Jim Henson Company, The Muppets Studio, and Sesame Workshop.
  • Free with The Henry Ford membership or admission to Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
  • Go to www.thehenryford.org.