MMI explores Henson’s ‘World’

New exhibit offers visitors 'Fantastic' journey

“What are we going to do about the Bluppet?” Museum of the Moving Image exec director Carl Goodman asked his publicity manager.

Goodman was in the midst of a delicate negotiation: When “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” opens at the MMI on Tuesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will be part of the exhibit, in bluppet (Bloomberg + puppet) form. It’s the show’s only post-Henson touch, so Goodman played down its significance in conversation, but it seems only appropriate to brand Henson’s unique contribution to showbiz to Gotham — the museum, after all, is across from Sesame Street (Kaufman-Astoria Studios, where the seminal kids’ show shoots, is on the other side of 36th Street in Queens), and not far from the Henson Co.’s offices on Northern Boulevard.

Henson is best-known for Kermit and Miss Piggy, of course, but the exhibition gives visitors the whole Henson package. There are plenty of funny nuggets of Hensoniana available for the first time, including his hilarious ad campaigns for La Choy Chow Mein and Wilkins Coffee, the latter involving a little proto-Muppet named Wontkins who’s not interested in the beverage being advertised and ends up crushed or shot with a cannon or otherwise destroyed for daring to say “no.”

This is the first traveling exhibition the MMI has done — the whole shebang was curated by the Henson Co.’s Karen Falk, who collaborated with the Smithsonian and cabler Bio.

Falk herself is a treasure trove of Henson arcana. “This is Rowlf,” she said, pointing to the famous piano-playing dog. According to Falk, the roomy Rowlf puppet is in fact the site of Henson and Frank Oz’s first major collaboration — the puppet required one man to play the piano and another one to work the head. “You’ve got to really like a person if you’re going to work that close.”

Other trivia include a discarded plan for a Big Bird puppet in which the puppeteer would walk backward so that BB’s knees would bend in the right direction (the notion failed to impress Henson’s staff) and Henson’s Oscar-nominated 1965 short film, “Time Piece,” shown alongside his storyboards.

“Time Piece” is being shown elsewhere in the Musuem during the exhibition — Goodman has programmed a slew of Henson-related films, and the company (well-regarded among legiters for its contribution to local puppet acts) is doing several workshops.What’s most striking about “Fantastic World,” which runs Saturday to January, is how much non-Muppet material is explored; Falk said the exhibition exists partly to give a sense of the whole man.

“I wanted to focus on his creative thinking, and what else he had his hand in,” Falk said. Then, unable to help herself, she added, “Physically.”

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