So much has changed at the Experience Music Project since I became a charter member when it opened in 2000. Er — actually that now would be the Museum of Pop Culture, EMP’s new moniker. But it’s not just the name.
MoPOP has evolved from a museum focused on music to embrace the worlds of fantasy, science fiction, horror and more. As a curmudgeonly native Seattleite who embrances the Lesser Seattle mantra, you’d think these changes would drive me nuts. In fact, I found myself enthralled.
There is so much to see and explore at MoPOP, from the massive, mesmerizing Sky Church, to a room dedicated to Jimi Hendrix’s time touring overseas, to the interactive Sound Lab, to galleries featuring countless artifacts from a Dalek (the aliens in “Doctor Who”) to costumes from “The Princess Bride,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Indiana Jones.”
Seriously. If you like popular culture at all, you’ll find yourself repeatedly exclaiming over the wide range of unexpected delights, thanks to the obsessions of museum founder and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. But we were there for “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited.”
Who doesn’t love Jim Henson? “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street,” “Fraggle Rock” and so many more iconic creations were born from his vivid creativity. I actually had no idea how much he put out into the world until I stepped into the exhibit, which is divided into sections highlighting Henson’s worlds. But I was about to learn.
When you enter, you’re greeted by none other than Kermit the Frog from 1978, looking quite well-loved. (The orginal Kermit was built by Henson in 1955.) Walking in is a bit confusing, because the exhibit otherwise unfolds chronologically and of course Henson’s career didn’t begin with Kermit.
It’s also a bit overwhelming to immediately be greeted with so much unfamiliar information shared in a plethora of ephemera and formats. In fact, multiple artifacts throughout the exhibit include more than 20 puppets, sketches, scripts, film and TV clips and costumes. Touchscreens and videos also compete for attention.
Once you get your bearings, the first section explores how Henson’s career began, at the ripe old age of 18, with the 1955 premiere of the five-minute live-action puppet show called “Sam and Friends.” In short order, Henson’s work was rewarded with an Emmy. The recognition and popularity of “Sam and Friends” led to regular nationwide appearances of his Muppets on programs including “Today,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show” and more.
Starting in the late 1950s, Henson and company began creating hundreds of TV commercials and corporate films, income that allowed him to channel his creativity into experimental film projects and long-form TV shows. The premiere of “Sesame Street” in 1969 brought their work on TV commercials to a decisive end. But before then appeared Rowlf the Dog, who was built in 1962 for Purina Dog Chow commercials but went on to rise to national popularity.
The final works in the first part of the exhibit delve into Henson’s other interests, including the really trippy “Time Piece,” a puppet-less, live-action work cut with animated effects. The nine-minute short stars Henson “as a beleagured ‘everyman’ running from the relentless march of time and the mundane routineness of his conventional life.” It’s mesmerizing, and certainly still a relevant subject in today’s world.
“And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for … ” (How could I resist?) Henson’s more known and vastly beloved creations. Just past a green, fur-covered swatch of wall, “Sesame Street” and more await.
Squeal! It’s Bert and Ernie (cradling a well-cherished Rubber Ducky, no less)! Marvel at Oscar the Grouch’s beloved pet, Slimey the Worm, hard at work before an enthusiastic crowd of fellows worms in a three-ring circus. Giggle over Grover. Embarass your children by channeling your best Romanian accent as you greet Count von Count with an enthusiastic, “VUN! AH AH AH AH AH!” (Like he hasn’t heard that a million — get it? — times before.) Geek out over Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.
Try your hand (hah!) at puppet-making and pose inside a life-size re-creation of the arches from the opening scene of “The Muppet Show.” Just … be a kid again.
Find creatures from “Fraggle Rock,” too. And the absolutely breathtaking Aughra puppet from “The Dark Crystal” glowers down, while David Bowie’s ballroom suit costume of Jareth in “Labyrinth” faces the ballgown costume for Sarah (portrayed by Jennifer Connelly), ready for a spin.
Just outside the delightfully fur-covered turnstiles leading you out, try puppeteering in a life-size puppet theater. (And make sure to look up and to the right, as you’re facing the theater, and you’ll find a pair of familiar faces watching … and seemingly waiting to offer their sardonic observations about your abilities.)
Yes, the exhibit reveals how Henson and his crew, including builders, performers and writers, brought his visions in film and television to life. And it was a delight to watch those of us of a certain age walking around with broad smiles. But it was a bigger wonder to see the beaming faces of children who, despite being raised in an era of driverless cars and drones, couldn’t help but be charmed by the assortment.
I walked out of the Jim Hensen exhibit elated — but also a bit disappointed. Yes, there were several familiar faces. But it also felt like so much was missing. Jim Henson’s creations were such a vital part of countless childhoods, including my own. I was thinking about all of this later that evening when I decided to pull up some YouTube videos to show my daughter.
Here was Big Bird’s first meeting with Mr. Snuffleupagus, a moment that forever endured me to Snuffy. Here were the Yip Yip Martians, discovering a phone … and as they “nope nope noped,” “yip yip yipped” away, my daughter’s smile grew until it became a hearty laugh, and she begged to watch more.
At that moment, looking at 9¾-year-old Ella’s sparkling eyes (and yes, the ¾ is important, thank you very much), I realized that nothing was missing at all. This work of this man who died far too young, of toxic shock syndrome, at 53 in 1990, is still out there, waiting to be discovered … and shared. It’s the magic of a master inventor, so creative his physical work reaches out from the past and into this digital world and still delights all ages.
Jim Henson. You’re such a character.
The Jim Henson Exhibition
The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP, formerly the EMP Museum) is at 325 Fifth Ave. N in the southeast corner of the Seattle Center, in an impossible to miss, still vaguely controversial creation by architect Frank Gehry. Depending on when you visit (go during the week during summer, if you can), parking can be a challenge, but the center is easily accessible via multiple modes of transportation.
Admission prices: adults $33; seniors 65 and older $30; students (with ID) $28; military (with ID) $25; youth (5-17) $22; children (4 and younger) free
Note: Tickets are good for the Jim Henson exhibit as well as access to the rest of the museum. Museum admission-only is $5 less. All prices are $2 less per ticket if you buy online.
For more information, go to www.mopop.org.