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New Exhibit Explores Jim Henson's 'Fantastic World'

(Soundbite of song "It's Not Easy Being Green")

Mr. JIM HENSON (Puppeteer): (As Kermit the Frog) (Singing) It's not easy being green.


Yup, that's Kermit the Frog, one of the many characters that sprang from the fertile mind of the late Jim Henson. With "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show," Henson already had a special place in history, but his creations covered so much more territory.

A traveling exhibition of Jim Henson's work opened this weekend at the Smithsonian International Gallery in Washington, D.C. It's called "Jim Henson's Fantastic World." I got a private tour with curator Karen Falk. She's also the archivist at the Jim Henson Company.

Ms. KAREN FALK (Curator, "Jim Henson's Fantastic World"): Well, Jim was an interesting person in that he saved everything. He kept all of his artwork, his designs. He didn't go back to it very often, but he set it aside, figuring at some point somebody might be interested in taking a look at it. So we have a huge group of materials to choose from. It was difficult picking what was going to go in this exhibit.

SEABROOK: And it's just as difficult figuring out where to start the tour. Colorful posters, scrawled ideas and actual Muppets call out from every wall and every corner, but at the very front is perhaps the most famous Henson character of all, the fuzzy, green frog himself.

(Soundbite of song, "It's Not Easy Being Green")

Mr. HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) (Singing) Why wonder, why wonder…

Ms. FALK: We couldn't represent Jim Henson and his creative thinking without having Kermit present. This is a Kermit the Frog puppet that Jim performed in the 1970s, and he really exemplifies Jim's role with his collaborators, sort of keeping all the crazies in order but also causing a lot of the craziness himself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FALK: So it's really wonderful to have him represent Jim here in the exhibit.

SEABROOK: Let's walk and look at some of the things here.

Unidentified Man #1: (As the Toy Dragon) May I make a suggestion?

Unidentified Man #2: Who are you?

Unidentified Man #1: I'm the Toy Dragon.

Unidentified Man #2: Yay, a real dragon.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) is quick-cooked by me in dragon fire.

SEABROOK: Tell me where we're going now.

Ms. FALK: Well, something that a lot of people don't know about Jim Henson is in the - starting in 1957, he did a lot of work in television commercials, and throughout the '60s, he made hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of television commercials, starting with a local coffee company here in Washington, the Wilkins Coffee Company, making these eight-second commercials featuring Wilkins and Wontkins, a character Wilkins, who was the company spokesman, and Wontkins, who won't drink the coffee, and then you can actually see the commercial on the video monitor here.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #3: Well, that camera shoot pictures of people who don't drink Wilkins coffee.

Unidentified Man #4: I'm ready, shoot.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #3: Anybody else?

Ms. FALK: A lot of actors get their start in commercials, and something that people don't realize is a lot of Muppets got their start in commercials, too, and my favorite Muppet, Rowlf the Dog, is here.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Mr. HENSON: (As Rowlf the Dog) You may not know this, but I'm really a very sentimental dog.

Ms. FALK: And Rowlf actually got started on a Purina Dog Chow commercial.

SEABROOK: Oh, you're kidding.

Ms. FALK: I'm not kidding. Jim hired Don Sahlin who was a well-known puppet builder to work with him. Rowlf became really the first nationally known Muppet. He was on the "Jimmy Dean Show," which was a variety show for three years in the early '60s, and was Jimmy Dean's old hound dog, Buddy, and he did (unintelligible) for IBM. He was the spokes-dog for IBM in the '60s and had a - was host of a summer replacement variety show in '67, and then ultimately, of course, people got to know him better as a singer and performer on "The Muppet Show," and this particular puppet is from "The Muppet Show" era. It's not the original Rowlf. It was made around 1976.

SEABROOK: This is the Rowlf I know.

Ms. FALK: It's the Rowlf from "The Muppet Show" era.

SEABROOK: When I think of Rowlf, I think of "The Muppet Movie," the scene where he sings…

SEABROOK: (Singing) You can't live with 'em, you can't live without 'em.

Ms. FALK: That's the best scene because he's singing a duet with Kermit the Frog. These are Jim's two alter egos, and they are performing together.

SEABROOK: What are the two alter egos? What are the characteristics?

Ms. FALK: Well, I think Jim had a lot of himself in all of the characters he performed, but I think those are the two that really stand out, Kermit for obvious reasons, in terms of being the leader of the group and really sort of the idea man but also concerned with the world and wanting to make the world a better place. I think that was very much Jim.

Rowlf is the more philosophical, fun, laid-back Jim Henson, thought about the world, appreciated the world, and that's very much the Rowlf side of Jim, I think.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HENSON: (As Rowlf the Dog) (Singing) (Unintelligible) Lassie, (unintelligible) gives you a new leash on life.

Mr. HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) Now is that a new leash on life?

Mr. HENSON: (As Rowlf) Oh yeah, sorry about that, two, three, four.

SEABROOK: Shall we move on?

Ms. FALK: Sure.

SEABROOK: Looks like early "Fraggle Rock."

Ms. FALK: It's "Mahna Mahna."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. FALK: Are you going to sing it?

SEABROOK: Okay, let's do it. I'll to the "Mahna Mahna."

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. FALK: They really exemplify the really crazy, fun, silly side of the Muppets.

SEABROOK: What's that guy?

Ms. FALK: He's Mahna Mahna.

SEABROOK: Okay, the guy who says that. He's got green fur but orange, crazy hair, furry, feathery hair, and it looks like he's wearing a pair of shades. He's a cool guy.

Ms. FALK: He is a cool guy, and he's one of a lot of characters that Jim developed in the 1960s for variety show appearances. The Muppets were on "The Ed Sullivan Show" 25 times.

(Soundbite of television program, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

Mr. ED SULLIVAN (Host, "The Ed Sullivan Show"): The youngsters have been sending in loads of mail, asking me when we plan to have the Muppets back on our show. Well, I don't know exactly, so here they are now, the Muppets.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: So further on, it looks like we're leaving Muppet.

Ms. FALK: Well you know, during the 1960s, Jim really had sort of two career tracks going. He was doing his Muppets in commercials and variety shows, but he was also doing a lot of experimentation in film.

In 1964, he made a short film called "Time Piece," and "Time Piece" was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film. On the video monitor, we have footage from the film, and then we put next to the footage his storyboard frames that match the scenes he was shooting.

He didn't write a script; there's no dialogue in the movie. It's all sound effects and music that goes with the images.

(Soundbite of movie "Time Piece")

SEABROOK: Let me just describe it a little bit. There's a doctor checking his heartbeat, the heartbeat of the man. There's sort of an animation of the heartbeat, very interesting.

(Soundbite of movie "Time Piece")

Ms. FALK: And the man is Jim Henson.

(Soundbite of movie "Time Piece")

SEABROOK: The man is Jim Henson, yeah. He's tapping his fingers. He looks at the clock. A bird flies into the window. His heart is beating, again this animation of his heart beating. His eyes are blinking. He's tapping the book. I mean, it just seems like it's a montage, almost, of interesting, crazy shots.

(Soundbite of movie "Time Piece")

Ms. FALK: It's something of a stream-of-consciousness idea of a struggle to find enough time to do everything, but it's very humorous, even though it's got sort of a serious message, but it's very funny to watch, as well, and it's thought-provoking.

(Soundbite of movie "Time Piece")

SEABROOK: And listeners can check out a little bit of "Time Piece" on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of movie "Time Piece")

Ms. FALK: And I think he was at a crossroads at the end of the 1960s, which direction am I going with my career? Do I really focus on the Muppets? Do I really focus on the experimental film? And I think he might have been leaning toward the experimental film work, but then he got a call about coming to a meeting to talk about a new show called "Sesame Street."

(Soundbite of television program, "Sesame Street")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sunny day, sleeping the clouds away, on my way…

SEABROOK: Let's go in and see this - what is this video here?

Ms. FALK: At the end of the show, we have a 20-minute sort of an overview of Jim's career, but we wanted to present it in Jim's voice, give him a chance to tell you about his work.

Mr. HENSON: I've always loved this show. I loved being a part of it from the very beginning, and it was something that, during the '70s, I suppose, the whole country felt it was slightly in a depression, you know, an emotional type of depression, and when you were working for the preschool kids like the fives, four-, five-, six-year-olds, you can't be depressed about that.

I mean, this is such a wonderful age, and it's this wonderful innocence that you're dealing with. So I loved doing all of that for all of those years.

SEABROOK: It's eerie hearing his voice because, you know, he's been - I remember when he died. It was a blow to culture in a lot - especially for those of us who grew up with "Sesame Street," and his voice is, you know, modulated into Kermit, it's all these important voices in our young lives. It's kind of touching and sad to hear him.

Ms. FALK: Well, I think that it's also a celebration of Jim. Jim left us with so many wonderful characters and so many fond memories and experiences, and his characters continue to live on. You can turn on new "Sesame Street" episodes every year. His company continues to make new programming.

So I think that it's really exciting to be able to present him to a new generation of fans, not just the work, which they continue to see on television, but also the man and what he had to say about how we face the world and how we present ourselves in a fun, creative, celebrational way, really.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Karen Falk, the curator of Jim Henson's Fantastic World. Thank you very much.

Ms. FALK: Well, thanks for coming.

(Soundbite of song, "The Rainbow Connection")

Mr. HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) (Singing) Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what's on the other side?

SEABROOK: The exhibit runs through October here in Washington. Then it's off to Atlanta and across the rest of the country.

(Soundbite of song, "The Rainbow Connection")

Mr. HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) (Singing) And rainbows have nothing to hide.

SEABROOK: Parting words today from, fittingly, Jim Henson. He said the most sophisticated people I know, inside they are all children.

(Soundbite of song, "The Rainbow Connection")

Mr. HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) (Singing) I know they're wrong, wait and see.

SEABROOK: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a good week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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