If your childhood was anything like mine, it was filled with shows from Jim Henson like “The Muppet Show” and “Fraggle Rock.” Luckily, Jim Henson’s legacy has been preserved at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta and I got a chance to visit the newly remodeled and expanded center for the first time… and it’s incredible.
First, a little history. The Center is actually housed in a historic building and once was home to the Spring Street Elementary School in downtown Atlanta. The Center for Puppetry Arts has been here since 1978.
The upper floor of the building is still home to classrooms. I loved that they kept a lot of the original hardwood floors, which creak under your feet as you walk down the hallways.
Recently, the Center for Puppetry Arts recently uncovered a blackboard with drawings and notes dates from 1933 and is still preserved today.
Today, school children are brought in by the busload to learn about various types of puppetry from all over Georgia. I got to sit in on one of the classroom sessions and I would have loved to do what they did when I was their age. Children were being taught about hand puppets, marionettes, shadow puppets and more.
After the lesson, students get to assemble some basic puppets made out of construction paper, popsicle sticks and string and they then learn basic skills on how to maneuver their creation and make it come to life.
In addition, the Center for Puppetry Arts has a theater where they perform plays using all kinds of puppetry that is mostly geared for those school groups who come in.
Most of those puppets are created in-house for each show, which changes several times a year. In addition, they have a workshop where they restore older puppets that I got to take a peek into what they are working on. I wasn’t allowed to take any photos, but I can tell you their new exhibit based on the Jim Henson film “Labyrinth” will be incredible.
However, the main reason for my visit was to visit their newly refurbished museum that was designed by Thinkwell. If you have even the slightest interest in puppeteering or Jim Henson’s work, you absolutely must come and visit the museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts.
It is divided into two sections: a history of puppeteering and a tribute to Jim Henson. Pictured above are characters from “Punch,” which dates back to England in 1662.
In addition, there were several pieces from “Disney’s The Lion King” on Broadway, including the headpiece above.
Many of the exhibits in this wing were interactive, like the one above, which featured demonstrations on how shadow puppets work. You could pull the knobs located below the figures and move them closer to and further away from the light source, giving a sense of how they can be used in the medium.
One of my favorite displays are these figurines from Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride!” They had several stop motion puppets including an entire set and puppets from “Coraline.”
However, I know why you clicked on this article and I don’t blame you. The Jim Henson exhibition is absolutely incredible, lovingly detailed and covers his entire career. Pictured above is a puppet from “Sam and Friends,” which Henson created while he was a freshman in college for a local television station. This set the standard for how puppets could be shown on television without the puppeteer being in the shot. “Sam and Friends” was the first to feature an early version of Kermit the Frog as well. More on that later.
The Center for Puppetry Arts has also recreated Jim Henson’s first office with real details and artifacts from his actual first office, including the desk!
Before we go any further, you’ll probably start asking yourself, “how did they acquire all this stuff?” The vast majority of everything in the Henson wing of the museum was donated by Jim’s children. Most of these pieces of history were sitting in storage for years prior to this new wing opening in November 2015. Truth be told, the Henson family were talking about opening their own museum considering they had so many great pieces, but when they got wind of the Center for Puppetry Arts and their desire to expand, they decided to dedicate this collection to the Center.
They even have a detailed look at Jim Henson’s short film, “Time Piece,” which has less to do with puppeteering and more of his fascination with experimental film making. If you’ve never seen it before, I am sure you can find it floating around on the interwebs.
Around the corner is an example of what a puppet maker’s workshop might look like at the Jim Henson workshop.
Scattered around the room are fairly obscure Muppet references, starting with the camel pictured above. His name is Sopwith and he is actually from a deleted scene in the original “Muppet Movie,” where he was ridden by Stadler and Waldorf. He was also seen in the finale of that film during “Rainbow Connection,” as well as a few episodes of “The Muppet Show.”
Most interesting is this nod to Kermit located just beneath Sopwith. The original Kermit the Frog puppet was made from an old coat Jim Henson’s mother threw out along with cut-in-half ping pong balls for eyes. This jacket seen above is not that exact jacket, but is a nifty Easter egg hidden in the museum for hardcore fans.
Not only do you get to see what a Henson puppet workshop might look like, but there are puppet pieces like the foam body parts shown above scattered around the room.
If you take the time and open the drawers, you’ll see eyes, noses, tongues, and various other puppet body parts ready to be attached.
Many of these items were on loan from the Smithsonian for various traveling exhibits, so you may have seen some of these Muppets in the past.
Naturally, there are characters from “The Muppet Show” and all of the figures have been lovingly spruced up before they were put on display in their new home at the Center for Puppetry Arts.
Here is a tip if you ever get to visit the museum. If you go over to the glass case where Skeeter is housed, shimmy your way into the corner and check out his jacket from behind.
Had one of the museum’s curators not shown this to me, I would have never noticed. It’s “The Muppet Show” logo embroidered on the back of his jacket!
Another rare find are these puppets created for the pilot episode of “The Muppet Show” representing the Seven Deadly Sins. Only four puppets are on display, but you can admire how detailed they are for only being on camera for a few minutes!
They even have Muppets from one of my favorite films, “Muppet Treasure Island!”
Lots of really cool props are scattered throughout the exhibit, including this rowboat from “Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas.”
This, my friends, is my childhood. “Fraggle Rock” was a huge part of my youth and I could still probably recite every episode from memory. Many of the shows stars were spruced up to be put on display at the Center for Puppetry Arts.
They even have a Bean Bunny, but not from MuppetVision 3D! Bean actually made his debut in a television special “The Tale of the Bunny Picnic.”
There is also a lot of great props, puppets and models from Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal.”
A show I have never even heard of, “Dog City,” was also represented. It premiered in 1992 on Fox and lasted three seasons. The Muppets above were actually used in the cold open, while the rest of the show was animated.
Truth be told, this article barely scratches the surface of what the Center for Puppetry Arts offers. If you’re a fan of Jim Henson or puppeteering of any kind, you owe it to yourself to spend a few hours in Atlanta visiting this amazing collection and experiencing all the Center has to offer. For more information visit, www.puppet.org!
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