Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Big Bird, Bowie And Muppets: Museum Of Moving Image Honors Jim Henson


The late Jim Henson is the subject of a new permanent exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Henson created the Muppets. And unlike some other collections devoted to his work, this one makes the case for Henson as a television and film visionary. Rick Karr reports.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: Jim Henson literally grew up with television. He was 10 years old when the first stations went on the air in the Washington D.C. area. He called the moment when his parents bought the first TV for the family's suburban home the biggest event of his adolescence. He adored Ernie Kovacs and "Kukla, Fran and Ollie." Museum of the Moving Image curator Barbara Miller says Henson was determined to get involved.

BARBARA MILLER: Henson was on TV in 1955, right? The medium - it wasn't in its infancy necessarily, but it was very young.

KARR: So was Henson. He was just 18 when he landed his own show on Washington's NBC station. "Sam And Friends" gave him five minutes of air time twice every weekday.


JIM HENSON: (As Chester) Marshall Dilly, Marshall Dilly...

(As Marshall Dilly) Who's there?

(As Chester) Just me, Chester. Why, Marshall Dilly, what in the world are you doing under the desk?

(As Marshall Dilly) I was tying my shoelaces. Did you hear shooting just now?

KARR: It also gave Henson the opportunity to absorb as much knowledge as he possibly could.

MILLER: It wasn't about being a star. It wasn't about being on TV. It was really, really wanting to understand the medium. How is it made? How is it shot? He was sort of all-in as far as TV goes.

KARR: Miller says that knowledge let Henson pay the bills by making commercials. Today, many of them could pass for outtakes from "The Muppet Show," which wouldn't come along for more than a decade. But even back then, Henson was calling his creations Muppets. He made a series of spots featuring two, one named Wilkins, who touted the eponymous brand of instant coffee, and another named Wontkins, who didn't like the coffee and usually suffered as a result.


HENSON: (As Wilkins) Have a cup of Wilkins instant coffee.

(As Wontkins) Wild horses couldn't make me.


HENSON: (As Wontkins) OK, OK, give me a cup.

KARR: At the same time, Henson began to think of himself as an experimental filmmaker. In 1966, his film "Time Piece" was nominated for an Oscar for best live-action short. A year later, he brought his experimental impulses to a live-action commercial for the pain reliever Bufferin.


HENSON: You know, I've got stacks of old memories filed inside my head. Would you like to see some? Over here, I keep childhood memories.

KARR: Images flash past in and out of focus, and the camera moves through black space filled with stylized neurons that look like shredded curtains from a haunted house.


HENSON: Wait a second. What's this? Oh, yeah, I had a headache that day. Isn't it strange what a headache can do to a beautiful day?

KARR: Cartoon music and synthesizer pioneer Raymond Scott composed the score.


HENSON: Fast-working Bufferin, remember?

KARR: Hensen voiced the ad which is on view at the museum, where totally by chance I ran into one of his collaborators who was there to check out the show.

DAVE GOELZ: I was in Silicon Valley as an industrial designer, designing time and frequency counters. And I happened to accidentally watch "Sesame Street" one day, and I was just captivated.

KARR: Dave Goelz says two things struck him as so brilliant he had to be part of what Henson and his colleagues were doing - first, the design of the characters.


HENSON: (As Ernie) Hey, Bert.

FRANK OZ: (As Bert) Hey, Ern.

HENSON: (As Ernie) Hey, I was wondering if you could do me a big favor.

KARR: Take Bert and Ernie.


HENSON: (As Ernie) You see, I was just trying to imagine what people look like when they're angry, you know?

GOELZ: Ernie is the funny, relaxed one. He wears horizontal stripes which are at rest and peaceful. He has low contrast between his skin and hair. And Bert - upright, not at rest, vertical stripes, high contrast, monobrow cutting the tops of his eyeballs off.

KARR: Goelz says the other thing that was obvious before he even joined was that there was a fantastic collaborative team behind the Muppets.

GOELZ: And I knew that everybody who had been involved in it was working in concert. And so I asked myself the next question, who are these guys? Who does this?

KARR: Goelz gave up his steady gig with Hewlett-Packard and moved to New York to find out. He wound up creating, manipulating, and voicing a whole slew of Muppets.

GOELZ: Gonzo, Zoot the sax player, Bunsen Honeydew the scientist, Beauregard the janitor, Waldorf, one of the old men in the box.


GOELZ: (As Waldorf) Now that's talent - an opera singer who tap dances and sings cowboy songs.


GOELZ: (As Waldorf) I wonder if there's anything she isn't good at.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Statler) Yes, choosing what show to be on.


KARR: Dave Goelz says that even after four decades of working with Jim Henson and carrying on his legacy, some of the bits the Muppets creator produced still crack him up. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in a Astoria, Queens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rick Karr contributes reports on the arts to NPR News. He is a correspondent for the weekly PBS public affairs show Bill Moyers Journal and teaches radio journalism at Columbia University.