WASHINGTON—The Beatles had their Liverpool club days, Elvis had his Sun recording sessions and a teenage Washington puppeteer had his first finest hours at a local TV station. Jim Henson was his name, and his Muppets —and their ancestors—went on prominent display Thursday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Like the Beatles, who got under way as the Quarry Men, Henson's troupe started out named something rather less: "Sam and Friends." One of those friends—now on display—looks familiar, however: an early version of Kermit the Frog, which Henson fashioned from scraps of his mother's discarded green coat, plus two halves of a table tennis ball.
Kermit, who turned 50 in October, made his debut on WRC-TV, a Washington station, which gave Henson—then a University of Maryland freshman—a five-minute show that aired twice nightly. Other early characters now on display include Harry the Hipster, Chicken Liver and Pierre, whom Hinson created in 1954 while he was a senior at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md.
"They were Washington favorites before the world knew the Muppets," said Henson's widow, Jane, who was on hand for Thursday's opening. She met Henson in a puppetry class when she was a University of Maryland art-education student, and joined him as his assistant puppeteer on "Sam and Friends."
The whole entourage joined "Sesame Street" in 1969.
Their creator died in May 1990 at age 53 from a virulent strain of streptococcal pneumonia brought on by a neglected case of the flu.
The Smithsonian display, which runs through Sept. 4, consists of two exhibits:
_The "Sam and Friends" cast plus Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef and other Muppets characters.
_A display of Henson's technical innovations in puppetry, including some production secrets from the 1977 TV special "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" and his 1982 fantasy film "The Dark Crystal."
One major innovation was puppets that moved by remote control instead of strings. The exhibit shows how "Waldo"—a steel mitt that looks like a glove—converted a puppeteer's movements into radio signals that told motors and mechanisms inside the puppets how to move.
Brent D. Glass, the museum's director, called the new show "the Muppets take the Smithsonian."
Said Henson's daughter, Heather: "It all started with these characters right here. You can see the genius in these puppets."
The Henson show merges in an interesting way with its neighbor at the museum, a Ray Charles exhibit. In it, Charles and Kermit sing a showstopping videotaped duet, "It Ain't Easy Being Green."
Glass expects the show to be a blockbuster. Even while it was under construction, he said, visitors were pressing against the barricades. "Complete strangers were recalling to each other the first time they'd come in contact with these creatures," Glass said.
Heather Henson wasn't surprised that the Muppets could inspire that. "People who've been raised by them feel a kinship to them," she said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MUPPET
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): MUPPET
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