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More than 500 Muppets will move to Atlanta

Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts will become the home of hundreds of Muppet characters, props and art. The new Henson wing is scheduled to open in 2012 and will occupy 10,000 square feet of the museum.

Courtesy of the NY Times
July 24, 2007

Time’s fun when you’re having flies, Kermit the Frog once said. And how time has flown: Kermit, or more precisely one of the many puppets that have played Kermit, will be retired to Atlanta on Wednesday, part of a major gift being made by the Jim Henson Foundation.

The flippered phenom, who began life as a scrap of fabric cut from a green coat discarded by Jim Henson’s mother, will be presented to the Center for Puppetry Arts here. He is a symbol of a large gift of Mr. Henson’s work that will be donated to the center and exhibited in a planned Jim Henson Wing, said Cheryl Henson, president of the Jim Henson Foundation.

Ms. Henson, Jim Henson’s second-oldest daughter, and Jane Henson, her mother and Mr. Henson’s first performing partner, expected to be in Atlanta on Wednesday to announce the gift: 500 to 700 puppets, including some of the first Muppets built; props; scenic elements; posters; sketches; and drawings that Mr. Henson created for shows like “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street,” “Fraggle Rock” and “Sam and Friends” (where the Muppets first appeared). Cheryl Henson has also pledged $1 million of her own money to the center.

It is unclear how much the gift is worth. The Smithsonian Institution had its small collection appraised but would not make the figure public.

“At the moment, they have not been given the entire collection,” Cheryl Henson said in an interview on Friday. “We are assuming we are going to give them the best of our collection,” she added, explaining that the archive owned by the family consists of “a couple thousand” items, but that many have become too fragile to exhibit. “Some of our collection has gotten old; even in the last seven years it has deteriorated. It’s not that we’re holding back a large portion of the collection.”

Built from foam and fabric, each puppet character had multiple copies because of performance wear and tear. The gift covered puppets that could no longer be used to perform; in fact, the Kermit in question was a “photo Kermit” — used for photographs but with no opening for a puppeteer’s hand.

Ms. Henson said she and her four siblings, who bought back the Jim Henson Company in 2003, had saved the items with the idea of creating a stand-alone museum in New York dedicated to her father’s artistry.

But the realities of running a museum quickly became overwhelming, and the family searched for a home that would both preserve Jim Henson’s beloved characters and serve as an incubator for new work by emerging puppeteers.

“One of the things we really longed for was the thought of a living puppet center,” Ms. Henson said. “Kids, after looking at the puppets in cases, could then go and make their own work. All of that was just bigger than we could do ourselves.”

(The Smithsonian Institution has two Henson puppets, including a Kermit and Oscar the Grouch, in its permanent collection. A traveling exhibition with 13 puppets, “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” will start in Little Rock, Ark., on Sept. 7 and travel to several other cities over three years.)

The Center for Puppetry Arts was offered the Henson Foundation archive because of its long history with the Jim Henson Company. Alongside Kermit and Miss Piggy (dressed as Rhett and Scarlett), Jim Henson cut the ribbon at the center’s opening in 1978, and the center’s collection already includes the Pigs in Space from “The Muppet Show.” Another factor favoring the center was its plan to expand and complete an already impressive collection of international puppets.

The institution is “the prime center of puppetry arts in the country and really has been for a long time,” said Eileen Blumenthal, a professor of theater arts at Rutgers and author of the book “Puppety, a World History.”

“I think the center is well on its way already,” Professor Blumenthal added. Even before the gift, she added, it had “a world-class collection of puppets, and the Henson collection just adds a dimension to that.”

Vince Anthony, executive director of the center, described the gift as “institution changing.” “This grand opportunity challenges the center and the Atlanta community to make this unique monumental partnership come to fruition,” he said.

The gift of Mr. Henson’s archive comes at a time when puppetry is having a resurgence in the United States, particularly in shows geared toward adult audiences. These include the Broadway musical “Avenue Q,” the film “Team America World Police” and the Cirque du Soleil show “KA.”

Puppets have also been making inroads in opera. In 2006 a bunraku boy was a crucial element in Anthony Minghella’s staging of “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera. Next season at the Met, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch will mount a new production of the Philip Glass opera “Satyagraha” incorporating giant puppets made of newsprint.

“It really is wonderful for this to be happening now,” Ms. Blumenthal said, “because all of this is something that Jim Henson really helped to create.”

Mr. Henson died in 1990 at age 53 from a bacterial infection that caused toxic shock syndrome.

Whether the center will receive the entire collection is contingent on the center’s ability to raise an unknown sum to house and preserve it, Ms. Henson said.

To raise the millions needed for new construction and staff, the center may need to flex fund-raising muscles it has not had to develop.

The center is in the enviable position, for an arts organization, of owning the building it has lived in since 1978. Thanks to low overhead, it has been able to survive on ticket sales and small donations.

“We really want our collection to be shown well,” Ms. Henson said. “We’ll see how it all plays out.”

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