Jim Henson died when I was not quite fourteen years old, long before I’d worked up the nerve to write and tell him he was one of my heroes. It remains one of my life’s greatest tragedies. I loved the Muppet Show. “Obnox-i-ous”, pronounced with a long “ee” for the “i” like Miss Piggy said it, was one of my favorite words when I was little. I had only figured out Henson was behind Sesame Street weeks prior to his death, and Mom and I had actually started watching. (Previously, the fact that it was educational television had tainted our opinion of it, but once we realized it was Jim Henson and the Muppets, nothing else mattered.) And then he died. He was admitted for strep throat and gone from pneumonia before the world had a chance to take notice of the illness. My mother and I spent a week in shock, and I still mourn him.
I am innately suspicious of everything Muppet-related that’s happened since he died, even though I ultimately wind up loving most of it. OK, I hate The Henson Company’s Sid the Science Kid, and I’m not that keen on Dinosaur Train. But those are two exceptions. For the most part, Henson’s heirs and assignees have done right by his creations. The Youtube videos featuring the grumpy movie critics Statler and Waldorf (and yes, I did know their names, but I had to double check online) seem completely true to what Henson would have done, as do the new Muppet movies. (I am eagerly awaiting the latest installment.) But every time I see something, I have to wonder “If it’s this good without him, how amazing would it have been if he were still alive?” I mean, he’d only be seventy five right now, and even if he had retired, he wouldn’t have stopped imagining.
So this visit to the Henson exhibit in Atlanta was a big deal for me. I did OK staring at the giant Big Bird that’s just past the ticketing atrium inside. Even though I like it now, Sesame Street was never really my thing. But then I heard Henson himself beside Big Bird and turned my head in time to see him talking away in the voice of the gruff old colonel, in a video beside a case containing the colonel himself, whose foam skin was now yellowing with age. I sat down in the floor to watch, and Sam sat with me rapt for the ten minute presentation. It even included the politically incorrect clip where the old colonel says, of the Southern Bread Company sponsoring him, “They even paid me in Confederate dollars”. Beside the colonel’s case was a black and white photograph of Henson lying down on the railroad tracks under the Muppet’s costume, where they had filmed the scene of him failing to stop a speeding train with his bare hands.
“I will not cry,” I told myself.
I went on to check out the Fraggles, Gorgs, and Doozers. The video had shown how each group of characters worked, how much effort went into each show, and how much of a technological pioneer Henson was. I had no idea that Fraggle Rock was HBO’s first series (a far cry from Tony Soprano, don’t you think)? I just knew that I used to watch it when I went over to my friend Jenny’s house, and that it didn’t come on our TV at home.
Henson was the man behind Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, two movies that shaped my life, solidifying my love for fantasy and my belief that you don’t have to cut story to make an amazing film. (And also turning me into a David Bowie fan, even though Mom disliked his music and Dad never seemed to play it.) Right now, the museum doesn’t have the Mystics, Skeksis, or Gelflings on display, but they have a couple of early sketches, and they will have those creations when the Henson wing opens in 2012, because the Henson family really did donate some 800 Muppets for the project.
At the moment, Henson’s works are crowded into a two room section that doesn’t do them justice and doesn’t have room for nearly enough of them. Big Bird and the Fraggles take up most of the first area, though the picture of Kermit and Miss Piggy as Scarlett and Rhett does get some wall space. The second room is mostly Muppet show, with Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, and an incredible stained glass Bert and Ernie on display. There’s a video in there, too, that loops another ten minutes of footage from a variety of Henson projects including the little known Dog City.
I continued to swear, “I will not cry,” as I walked through the exhibit.
I kept my promise until, roughly five minutes into the second video, Kermit started in on “Rainbow Connection.” If I hadn’t had to fire the DJ, Scott and I were going to dance to “Rainbow Connection” at our wedding. It’s our song. And it brought the tears. I never got to tell Jim Henson that I have been half asleep and heard voices, and that his has always been one of them.
Between the two rooms, I spent about an hour, and given my druthers and no children, I’d have stayed longer. We didn’t stay for the Cinderella puppet show. We didn’t even visit the puppet museum’s other areas, though I imagine it has some spectacular exhibits. Caroline and Sam were getting restless, which is to say they were getting mean to each other, and we had seen what we came for. It was worth the $8.25 per head admission just for those two rooms, and we will return when the Henson wing opens. I think I’d like to get an apartment there, though they don’t rent them, and probably wouldn’t consider making me an exception. I’ve never associated Henson with Atlanta, though he was apparently pretty instrumental in this museum’s getting off the ground when it first opened. But as long as we live in the South, it’s the closest I’ll come to touching one of my idols.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.