The daily companions of Bradford Clark, theatre and film, might include four-foot Italian marionettes, rare Egyptian shadow puppets and 200-year-old, carved puppet heads from Japan. Now, Kermit the Frog and the Swedish Chef—the handiwork of Muppets creator Jim Henson—will also keep him company.
A puppet from the southern Indian state of
Kerala representing the god Bhima
In addition to teaching at BGSU, Clark is the curator of collections at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. The center, which is the premier institution of its sort in the United States, has recently been chosen by the Jim Henson Foundation to receive hundreds of puppets and other items produced by Henson and his studio, in addition to props, sketches, pieces of scenery, reproductions of sketches and drawings by Henson and other items from the Henson family’s collection.
The gift is contingent upon the success of a capital campaign to expand the museum and build a Jim Henson Wing. “Jim Henson: Puppeteer,” a preview exhibit featuring puppets Henson worked with, opens Sept. 23.
As curator of the proposed new wing, Clark also designed “Jim Henson: A Man and His Frog,” unveiled at the press conference announcing the gift. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zg14o0-5X7Q).
The announcement was covered by the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/25/arts/design/25pupp.html?ex=1343016000&en=909c882bd4b7470d&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss), the International Herald Tribune, the BBC and other international media.
The media interest is perhaps not surprising, given the worldwide appeal of the famous puppets. Cheryl Henson (Jane and Jim Henson’s daughter and president of the Henson Foundation) said at the press conference that “Sesame Street” has been seen in nearly every country, and “The Muppet Show’ was the first program to be translated and broadcast in nearly every language and in most countries.
Jim Henson’s affiliation with the center goes back to its founding, in 1978, when, alongside Miss Piggy, Kermit cut the ribbon. Henson and Miss Piggy also returned for its 10-year anniversary.
Some of the first puppets to arrive at the center are “touchstone puppets,” Clark explained. “These are of tremendous historical significance. The Swedish Chef, for instance, was the first (of the chef) ever made, and partially built by Jim.”
Since the announcement of the gift, Clark has been working closely with Cheryl Henson and others of the Jim Henson Legacy (dedicated to building awareness of his career and innovations) and the Jim Henson Co. to conceptualize the organization of the collection and plan its display. He said it is difficult sometimes to overcome his awe of the iconic figures, many of which are quite old and fragile.
“When Kermit the Frog arrived, in a big, purpose-built foamcore box, he was strangely posed for transport and I was afraid to move him,” he recalled, laughing. “Bonnie Erickson, one of Jim’s key designers and vice president of the Jim Henson Legacy, basically said, ‘Oh, just pose him, for heaven’s sake!’”
Her attitude is indicative of the Hensons’ style and approachability, he said. “The family is so down to earth and nice. They’ve been extremely generous and supportive and have helped me with anything we’ve needed. They’re all brilliant—it’s an amazing family.”
In researching the collection, “there have been a lot of fun discoveries for me,” he said, such as a rare tape of a 1970 PBS documentary called “The Muppets on Puppets.”
Clark has traveled to the Henson Foundation offices in New York to meet with members of the Henson family and the Jim Henson Legacy, then to Los Angeles to visit Jim Henson Studios, where he met with additional family members and toured the Henson Creature Shop. The studio was built and formerly owned by Charlie Chaplin; visitors are greeted by a Kermit figure dressed as the Little Tramp. “It was amazing to be in that space and to have the family share their stories and perspectives and aesthetics,” Clark said.
The Jim Henson Studio no longer owns the Muppet characters belonging to Muppet Studio LLC, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Corp., Clark explained. Some other characters are owned by Sesame Workshop. The Hensons do own characters from “The Dark Crystal,” “Labyrinth” and many other films and television projects.
The items donated are from the Henson Co. and the family’s private collection. The proposed gift will be permanent if the center can raise enough funds to significantly increase its space, another project Clark is involved with planning. To that end, the National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded the center a $40,000 planning grant. An internationally known design firm, professional consultants and a number of the most accomplished puppetry scholars in the country were engaged to help conceptualize the installation of the museum’s international collection, which Clark is curating.
Preserving the legacy
For Clark, the gift represents the opportunity to share with the public the astounding breadth of innovation and productions that Henson contributed to the world of puppetry and entertainment.
“Jim Henson did an awful lot of work that people don’t even know about,” Clark said. “We owe him a big debt.” In addition to the famous Muppets and Sesame Street characters such as Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster so beloved by children and their parents alike, Henson’s company developed the Henson Performance System of robotics, which has been used to create special effects in such films as “Babe.” He was also one of the first, in the 1980s, to use computer-generated graphics on screen like those seen today in “Happy Feet” (leading to a U.S. patent), and did groundbreaking work on the creatures in “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal.”
“He had so much potential. He could have gone on making his Muppets forever, but he wanted to see what else could be done and took completely different approaches to puppetry,” Clark said of Henson, who died in 1990 at the age of 53. “People spun off from the original show and are still working in the field and keep in touch with the family.”
It was the desire of the children that their father’s legacy be honored and for his work to be seen in its entirety, Clark added. “There’s an emotional element in this for them—it’s their dad,” he said.
Puppetry perpetuates culture
Henson was also a strong supporter of puppetry arts and the founder and first president of the American chapter of UNIMA, the international puppetry association. The Henson Foundation still supports projects of individual puppeteers today.
Since ancient times, puppets have been important in many cultures, Clark explained, and serve a variety of purposes beyond entertainment. In Bali, puppets of a religious nature are part of ceremonies, for example, and in Japan they are taken very seriously and perform plays that help preserve culture for each generation. Puppets can also be used to make political and social commentary that in some cases would not be permissible by humans.
“At the Center for Puppetry Arts, we try to go beyond just displaying the puppets but put them into their cultural, historical and geographical context,” Clark said. “There’s so much that goes beyond that little figure. They give us the entry to another world, with the puppet as the guide.”