The Museum of the Moving image is in Astoria, Queens. To get there, I had to take the Q train from my apartment in Brooklyn and change to the R in Manhattan. It took me a little over an hour in total. Plenty of time for me to think about what I was doing. I was on my way to see the exhibit on Jim Henson, a man responsible for much of my preschool education, childhood entertainment, and adult amusement. But I had a lot on my mind. I have bills to pay, rent to worry about, unsteady employment and about a million other little things that I think about on long train rides. In short, the recurring thought I had on my way to The Museum of the Moving Image was I am a grown-ass man. Why am I going to see the Muppets in a museum?
The crowd was sparse, and pretty much consisted of what I’d expected. There was a nerdy looking couple idly wandering around, a couple of curious looking old people, and three or four sets of children, each set monitored by one parent. As soon as I reached the exhibit on the third floor (I only had an hour before closing, so I didn’t take the time to properly explore the museum. Everything looked pretty cool, though), a little girl ran past me and up to the display of an old Kermit puppet from the early seventies. “Look, it’s Kermit!” she exclaimed with both excitement and awe. Her father followed her, and read the description to her. She wasn’t listening, just staring at Kermit. The great thing about puppets is that they’re material, in a way animated characters can’t be. That was really Kermit the Frog behind that glass. The girl was fascinated. Her father shot me a glance, probably wondering why I was taking notes.
The exhibit traces the evolution of Henson’s art, giving equal attention to his early work in commercials, his development of the muppets, his non-muppet related art films and shorts, the growth of the muppets and Sesame Street, and even later work on The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Watching Henson discuss his career in the video clips on display, I felt like reaching through the screen and shaking his hand. Here was a man who had started only with the vague idea that he wanted to be involved with television. A local station was looking for a puppet act, so he became a puppeteer. I smiled at the idea that Jim Henson’s life had been shaped so arbitrarily; what if that station had been looking for a cooking show or a home improvement show?
It’s particularly interesting to look at his sketches; there are drawings on display that show Kermit long before he was Kermit, the Mahna-Mahna, and Oscar the Grouch as a long-necked purple thing. I enjoyed looking at the conceptual art of Big Bird, which I learned is operated by a man in a suit, holding his hand above his head to operate the head and navigating via a monitor strapped to his chest. Also on display are posters and album covers he worked on in college, props from his movies, and of course, muppets. I really enjoyed watching the clips from his experimental films, specifically Time Piece, from 1964, which shows his talent for visual storytelling beyond felt creatures. I also got a kick out of the commercials he made with puppets. They just don’t make good puppet commercials anymore.
It wasn’t until I was on my way out that I realized why I had taken the time to come to Queens just to watch a bunch of clips and look at some puppets. I had missed it on my way in, but by the entrance to the exhibit was a large video screen, and on it flashed a montage of Muppet-related clips. Puppeteers on The Muppet Show holding characters over their heads. Muppets on Dick Cavett. Muppets on Ed Sulliven. Muppets talking to Steve Allen, talking to Johnny Carson, singing with Johnny Cash. Gonzo and John Cleese. Kermit and Miss Piggy. Rowlf and Fozzie.
The Muppets, these little pieces of felt with ping-pong ball eyes, touch a part of our humanity that we can forget is there some times. But it is such a basic part of our souls that we feel it no matter our age and seeing them interact with our world reminds us that it’s still there. They represent some basic good inside us all, free of the cynicism of the adult world, even while they deal with problems adults can relate to. I was jealous of that girl who was so excited to see the Kermit puppet, but only because I was just as excited. Look! It’s really Kermit the Frog! I would have to face my adult problems again when I got back on the train. But for an hour, Jim Henson helped me forget them.
The Museum of the Moving Image is located at 36-01 35th Ave, Astoria NY. It’s open 10am-5pm Tuesday and Thursday, 10:30am-8pm Friday, and 10:30am-7pm Saturday and Sunday. It’s closed on Mondays. The Henson exhibit just got extended til March, and they’ll be showing The Muppet Christmas Carol (still the definitive version in my mind), at 1pm on December 24th.
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Written by Myles Cockcroft (@myleswithay)
Myles Hewette Cockcroft is a writer, comedian and part-time unemployed person living in Brooklyn, New York. When not watching terrible movies on Netflix streaming, he watches TV shows from his youth over and over again, often while weeping and cursing the heavens. He co-wrote and directed the short film My… More »