On Friday Emily and I went to see the Museum of Science and Industry's exhibit on "Jim Henson's Fantastic World." Unfortunately, if you want to see it, you'll have to find its next stop, since it left Chicago on Sunday.
The exhibit was breathtaking. The moment you walk in to the first room--circular and painted with an alternating green/lime green pattern reminiscent of a certain Muppet's collar--Kermit the Frog greets you. It's an original Kermit puppet from the 1970's, just sitting on a log, happy as a clam. When I saw him, I could've started crying hysterically, but I held myself together.
All around are early sketches made by Jim Henson. You realize when viewing them that his mind was constantly moving, making connections between language, art, music, movement, and mechanics. He took puns and literalized them into characters. He took music and visualized it with animation. He took homonyms and built them into satirical worlds.
Each successive room goes through his career (somewhat) chronologically. You see the posters he made as a college student for events on campus. You see characters and sketches from "Hey Cinderella!", "Sam and Friends", and the commercials he worked on in his early days. You see Rowlf the Dog--the first nationally-known Muppet (due to his appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show).
All that is followed by The Muppet Show (including the Mahna-Mahna guy and his pink friends) and his different films. Miss Piggy is there in her wedding dress from The Muppets Take Manhattan.
As a little break, there is a puppet theater where museum staff perform shows throughout the day. There is also a touching 18 minute film "Jim in His Own Words" (or something like that) that chronicles his entire career.
This section is followed by a little foray into Jim's earlier work in Time Piece in the 1960's, followed by Sesame Street, including Ernie and Bert and sketches and storyboards for various characters and scenes. The early concepts for Big Bird and Oscar are especially neat. A little girl came in and saw the Oscar concept and exclaimed "It's Randall!".
The last room contains information and items from his other projects: Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and Fraggle Rock.
I think it's a pretty uncontroversial point that everyone, whether consciously or unconsciously, chooses icons for various aspects of their lives--the people who have inspired them to act in certain ways, to fight for certain beliefs, and to accomplish certain things. Often, they are people we know: parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, pastors. Sometimes they are people who inhabit our world but aren't personally familiar: artists, politicians, academicians. In some cases, however, they are people whose time was before our own, whose lives were unknown to us as they happened, and whose legacies can only be understood from what remains of their work.
Jim Henson died two days after I turned four years old. I venture to guess that when it happened, I neither noticed nor cared. As one of its principal architects departed this life, I sat comfortably watching Sesame Street. I'd like to think that he was mindful of the impact he was having on so many young lives.
In his own words (from a foreword to an unpublished book, 1986):
Over the years, I've evolved my own set of beliefs and attitudes - as we all have - that I feel works for me.
I believe that life is basically a process of growth - that we go through many lives, choosing those situations and problems that we will learn through.
I believe that we form our own lives, that we create our own reality, and that everything works out for the best. I know I drive some people crazy with what seems to be ridiculous optimism, but it has always worked out for me.
I believe in taking a positive attitude toward the world, toward people, and toward my work. I think I'm here for a purpose. I think it's likely that we all are, but I'm only sure about myself. I try to tune myself in to whatever it is that I'm supposed to be, and I try to think of myself as a part of all of us - all mankind and all life. I find it's not easy to keep these lofty thoughts in mind as the day goes by, but it certainly helps me a great deal to start out this way.
At some point in my life I decided, rightly or wrongly, that there are many situations in this life that I can't do much about - acts of terrorism, feelings of nationalistic prejudice, cold war, etc. - so what I should do is concentrate on the situations that my energy can affect.
I believe that we can use television and film to be an influence for good; that we can help to shape the thoughts of children and adults in a positive way. As it has turned out, I'm very proud of some of the work we've done, and I think we can do many more good things.
When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here.
It's a wonderful life and I love it.
Now, most people enjoy the Muppets. They go about their daily lives and sometimes see a funny clip or an old movie with Kermit the Frog and laugh at the entertainment it provides. What they don't recognize is how much thought and care Jim Henson put into what his characters represented. Sure, the Swedish Chef is hilarious, and the idea of a pig and a frog as opposite romantic leads is ridiculous. However, when viewed as a whole, Jim's ouvre--from Sam and Friends to The Jim Henson Hour--is about bringing education and awareness to children and laughter to adults. And what can't be overstated enough is that that was no accident.