The Muppets Take DC
The Muppets are coming home... home to their birthplace in Washington, DC, where they got their start on local television. Ernie, Bert, Kermit and ohters from The Muppets and Sesame Street will be hanging out in a special Smithsonian Exhibit celebrating the work of Muppet mastermind Jim Henson.
Visitors to the show, which opens Saturday and continues through Oct. 5, will find the Muppets under special lighting, behind glass and closely guarded.
"We consider every single thing in here to be precious," said project director Deborah Macanic. Technically speaking, they're all antiques.
It's a homecoming for Muppets such as Kermit, the piano-playing dog Rowlf and others that first achieved stardom on Washington-area television shows and commercials -- long before the success of "The Muppet Show" and "Sesame Street." Muppets creator Jim Henson grew up in nearby Hyattsville, Maryland, and attended the University of Maryland, where his creative approach began to take shape.
"We're showing how he went from drawing to a cartoon to a puppet to a moving image," Macanic said, explaining the exhibit's themes of visual thinking, storytelling and character development.
Through more than 100 original drawings, cartoons and story boards and about 14 famous Muppets, the exhibit traces Henson's career as a puppeteer and filmmaker until his death in 1990.
Kermit was originally conceived as a more abstract reptile character with less defined features. The original puppet was made in 1955 from an old turquoise coat with eyes made from a pingpong ball. Kermit continued to evolve from there to a frog in the 1960s.
"Then Kermit just kind of took over and became the news (reporter) guy with the hat and the trench coat and all that he was by the time he got to Sesame Street," Macanic said.
The skinny, green frog became the most enduring Muppet character, in part because Jim Henson considered Kermit to be his alter-ego.
Henson's personality shines through other characters as well, such as the furry, hippie Mahna Mahna who sings scat to a jazz song with two backup singers called the Snowths. The skit debuted in 1969 on "The Ed Sullivan Show," with Henson performing the gruff voice of Mahna Mahna.
A few days before the exhibit's opening, the three singers emerged from a wooden storage crate - all in need of a little primping. Josette Cole and Viki Possoff, Smithsonian exhibit registrars, carefully fluffed the pink Snowth puppets and twisted an arm to match a dance pose from a photograph.
"There's a whole technique to it," Cole said. "You use a dog brush, for one, and you don't pull it through the hair because you'll pull it off. You sort of have to pat it in place."
"If they're looking for a frog, they must be looking for a bear, too!"
- Kermit, on Hollywood, The Muppet Movie)