Recently, a new group of puppets went on view in our Puppetry in America display. Intern Peter Olson interviewed Bonnie Erickson, the executive director of The Jim Henson Legacy, to discuss some of the characters from Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and The Muppet Show.
Peter: What was it like to create and build these characters? And how did the Swedish Chef evolve?
Bonnie: As far as I can remember, there was a quick sketch probably done with Jim, originating the sketch and working with [designer] Mike Frith. Jim and I sort of built it together. Jim started it, and this was while he was still having some time in the shop, which I think he liked very much. But soon he became too busy to spend much time there.
The Chef came together as a collaborative effort: the original artwork; the construction and build of the puppet; and finally, the construction of the costume by Caroly Wilcox. And then there was the writier, Jerry Juhl who put words in his mouth and Jim and Frank Oz who gave him life!
And then of course, because the Chef was so popular, there were several other iterations made over time. And each time, different people have worked on those versions.
The last time we interviewed you, you were working with our conservators to make the puppets ready for display. What was it like working with the conservation department?
I loved it! I think I had the best time. It was such a privilege to be able to work with conservators Sunae Park Evans and Beth Richwine. I learned a great deal because I'm used to doing things very quickly. I'm used to working on set and working with heavy deadlines. Seeing the kind of care and expertise that goes into the conservation of these objects and these characters I've known so well was really enlightening for me.
Did you pick up any new tips that you’ll be using in character creation in the future?
The things that they do for conservation are not things that would work when you're doing something for performance. Had we known that these materials we were using were going to disintegrate or have a short life or need to be conserved, it wouldn't have made any difference because, for instance, one of the materials that really happens to be pretty, it's not fragile exactly, but it doesn't have a long life, and it was used because it lit so beautifully for television. Even with the idea that this might need to last for a long time—because of the performance needs, we would have used exactly the same materials.
The Puppetry in America display includes many different types of puppets. What puppetry styles were used in Henson creations?
At Muppets, we did hand puppets, rod puppets, marionettes, animatronics; each one of them came with its own process. We had to make sure these [puppets] were light-weight if possible, and that's true with every one of the puppets, no matter what style, so that the puppeteer had freedom to perform as well as possible.
How durable would you say these puppets were? How much time, how much use, could you get out of them before they started to deteriorate?
The interesting thing is how long many of them were used. I would say that the first version of Miss Piggy lasted from the pilot through the whole first season of The Muppet Show. And that's rigorous use. With conservation many of them are still looking great after more than 40 years.
A lot depends on the materials. For example, when Jim did Dark Crystal with characters Jen and Kira, they were very delicate because they were cast foam: a very light-weight foam latex, and they needed to use many castings per scene. But, again, a lot of these puppets, if they're made out of cloth, such as Cookie Monster in the collection of characters the Henson family has give to the Smithsonian, last a remarkably long time. They were performed, many of them, for several years.
In the case of Kermit, though, there were many versions—some with legs, some without, and some for stunts. So a single puppet could last Jim for quite a few years. Then there are Sam and Friends, which the Smithsonian has, which have lasted a very long time. Many of those were made out of harder materials.
In your previous interview, you said these puppets were made to be performed. Do you think museum display is a type of performance?
They look wonderful and they look very lively. I would say they're certainly on stage again.
Does the static display convey some of the Henson puppets' character and movement, even though it's still?
The spirit of the Muppets is certainly there. They look lively but they're also static so that people can get a close-up look at the care that went into developing and building these characters. And I hope that they're reminded of good times watching these characters performed on TV.
Do you have a favorite Muppet that is currently on display?
It's very hard to ask someone who's worked with all these Muppets if they have a favorite because there are just so many memories attached to all of them. Many of them are favorites of mine. I must admit that I like seeing Bert and Ernie in there together as a reminder of the very special comedy of Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
What do you hope people learn about the puppets from their display here? What do you hope they notice or think about while they look at these?
I hope they learn more about Jim Henson, actually. He was brilliant. He created worlds and invited people to enter them. He was persistent: there were many times that ideas he had did not succeed, but they would survive to live again later. He tried for many years to do a puppet show on television in the U.S. like The Muppet Show, but it took three tries to be successful. I hope that kind of persistence and belief in himself is something that translates to everyone who has learns about his life and his work.
What about the little kids who see the case? Is there anything they should learn about Muppet history or American puppetry?
I hope it encourages people, especially little kids to play around with puppets. With these puppets on display, and the variety of puppets other than Jim's, it'll give kids a wonderful idea of the world of puppetry and how broad it is and how many ways you can express yourself with them.
The case includes puppets from before the era of television. What's it like to for you to see the Muppets alongside these pre-TV puppets?
Jim Henson was fascinated by the medium of television. He used it as a new way to present characters and stories. Assuming another identity, as you do in puppetry, has always been a part of the storytelling tradition. It's wonderful that the Smithsonian is focusing on the history of puppetry and is able to show visitors to the museum that although these puppets can tell stories in many ways, come in many shapes, and have many purposes—what a great way to help people understand how puppetry is shared across cultures.
Anything else you want to tell our readers?
I'll repeat that working with people at the Smithsonian, from the curators to the collections people has been one of my most enjoyable and educational experiences.
On September 24, 2013, the Jim Henson Family donated more than 20 puppets and props to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Many of the donated puppets are the first constructions of these characters and represent Henson's work in early television commercials and shows that include "The Muppet Show" (1976-1981), "Fraggle Rock" (1983-87) and "Sesame Street" (1969--present). The donation ceremony featured family and associates of Jim Henson as well as Museum staff.
Puppetry in America is on display until April 13, 2014. For more information on puppets that have been featured in display, see our post on the exhibition. For information on Muppet conservation see our previous puppetry post, also featuring Bonnie Erickson. Peter Olson is an intern in the New Media Department. His favorite puppet on display is Oscar the Grouch.