Celebrating a creative right up there with the very best, and looking at the future of pop culture IP
At a certain vintage we often like to think we’re culturally aware and attuned to the latest events and happenings in the Arts; whether it’s gallery openings, exhibitions, or offbeat movie screenings. In practice, we tend to let things slide and inadvertently prioritise the latest Netflix series instead. Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown may have some cultural merit, but it’s not quite the National Ballet.
Returning to NYC after Christmas I knew a dose of inspiration and creativity would be a welcome tonic to the brutal tundra that is the US East Coast in January.
It was time to chill on the Netflix and get out and about.
What better than an exhibition celebrating someone who has made a huge impact not just on popular culture but also education?
Since July the Museum of Moving Image in Queens have been hosting the Jim Henson Exhibition, a tribute to the mind behind the Children’s Television Workshop, The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Labyrinth, a whole host of TV commercials and even a futuristic nightclub (more on that later). The location is also fitting – Sesame Street’s studio is just around the corner.
Taking up the second floor of the museum (directly underneath a highly addictive bunch of arcade games including Out Run and the peerless NBA Jam), the exhibition includes several dozen of the most well known puppet characters plus a few most obscure creations, as well as hundreds of other items including drawings, storyboards, fan letters and TV commercials.
Surprisingly there isn’t that much interactive content – presumably the curators decided they wanted the work itself to do the talking. Perhaps it’s also do with the fact the project had a really hard time getting open in the first place; the museum turned to Kickstarter to help raise funds for character restoration.
In lieu of things to play with, there were plenty of behind the scenes insights. Something I loved about many of these studio shots was that so little was needed, even in later years when budgets were bigger. Most scenes were essentially improv – a couple people using their hands and their mouths to bring simple shapes to life; creating fun from practically nothing. Henson and his long-time partner Frank Oz were a zany and perfectly synced creative double act – from Ernie and Bert through to Grover and Kermit.
And that simplicity also ran through many of the Muppet designs – Kermit spent the first few years of his life as a repurposed old coat from the Henson family wardrobe.
As well as The Muppets there was of course Sesame Street. There’s a certain magic in being able to blend entertainment with education so seamlessly. A couple of my projects are exploring this combination and it’s really tough to find the right balance.
Statler & Waldorf: My mum says my dad and brother act like these two when they get into one of their sparring matches about the topics of the day
I nearly missed one of the smaller areas of the exhibition – tucked away in a corner was a gallery showcasing some of Henson’s failed experiments, mainly during the mid-late 60s.
One in particular caught my eye – a nightclub called Cyclia.
The proposal for Cyclia described it as ‘pure theatre in a revolutionary new form: a perfectly controlled, unified environment of movement, images and sound’. There would be film projections on the faceted walls and ceiling, dancers with kaleidoscopic images projects onto their bodies, and floor lights that reacted to the music.
Despite Henson and his business partner exploring locations in NYC and LA, Cyclia never opened. Maybe he was just 30 years ahead of his time – there’s more than one venue today that look like what Cyclia would have been,
The Cyclia nightclub – ahead of its time. Could it work today? What would Henson’s nightclub of 2018 looked like?
The previous week on my flight back to NYC from London I watched a BBC documentary profiling Ray Harryhausen, the pioneer of stop-frame animation in movies. In the documentary, the legendary director James Cameron suggests that Harryhausen would have embraced the new tools, and in what I presume was a cheeky bit of editing, the scene cuts straight to Harryhausen saying exactly the opposite – for him the original ways were still the best because of the tactility.
Given that the magic always seemed to stem from improvisational, hands-on storytelling, I wonder if Henson would have said the same as Harryhausen. To paraphase Steve Jobs – simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Brand partnerships in action – Henson’s work did start life in TV commercials after all…
What can we learn from Jim Henson and his wonderful creations? 4 main things stuck out for me:
- Story comes ahead of technology
- We’ll always desire compelling and relatable characters
- The failures, although painful, will eventually lead to breakthroughs
- We often underestimate how engaging simple concepts can be
I left the museum a little overwhelmed but also inspired and full of questions.
- What makes for great storytelling?
- Is simplicity the ultimate sophistication or do we desire something ‘more’ now?
- What will be the next new and valuable IP that can appeal to both kids and adults, and last a generation or more?
- Could that IP be created by an independent entity rather than a Disney, Marvel or Dreamworks?
- Could it have educational and/or social impact as well as entertainment and commercial success?
I didn’t have all the answers. To get started I took the first step that made most sense and stayed true to the simple, hands-on nature of what made Henson’s work so great.
No technology, not even any puppetry, just a room and a couple of people.
I booked my first ever improv class.