Mar 24, 2023

‘I’ve got a news flash for you, Frog’: Baltimore exhibit devoted to Jim Henson and the Muppets opens

From the moment she began to emerge from a block of foam, Miss Piggy has been a real hamful.

Created in 1974, just a few years after the fashion industry went gaga over the waifish, 110-pound model named Twiggy, Piggy was a welcome corrective, a body-positive role model for curvy girls. Other "Muppet Show" cast members might snicker about her weight, but the Divine Miss P's self-confidence never wavered.

When puppet designer Bonnie Erickson's boss told her "to create a cute female pig," for a Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass television special, she had no idea she was about to bestow a new feminist icon upon the world, a pink porcine starlet with a killer karate chop.

"First, I went to the eye drawer and I got some very glamorous eyes," Erickson told The Baltimore Sun.

"Then I put on a long blond wig, and pearls around her neck to cover the seam where her head joined her body. I had some satin and quickly draped a dress for her. I didn't have time to make arms and fingers, so I wired some gloves and put those on," Erickson said. "That's when her personality started to come through. I didn't know she’d be famous one day, but she definitely did."

Barbara Miller, deputy director of curatorial affairs for the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, stands near the Kermit the Frog puppet in the Maryland Center for History and Culture. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun )

Erickson initially named the Muppet "Miss Piggy Lee" after her mother's favorite singer, the late Peggy Lee.

"It was absolutely an homage," "Erickson said. "But then our lawyer said, ‘Hmmm, that could be a problem. I think we’ll just call her Miss Piggy.’"

Those famous gloves — four-fingered, elbow-length, lilac, and sporting a cocktail ring as large as a grape are on view in "The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited," an enchanting traveling show running through the end of the year at the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

Visitors will meet Kermit the Frog ("It's not easy being green") and his best friend, Fozzie Bear, and their blue monster buddy, Grover. Also present are Rowlf, the piano-playing pooch, the enigmatic Count von Count and 18 other characters from Henson's Muppetverse.

Katie Caljean, the center's president and CEO, said the exhibit, which explores how Henson transformed popular culture, could receive as many as 100,000 visitors over the next seven months. She added that in the nine other cities the exhibit has visited, it hasn't been unusual for adults without children to purchase tickets for themselves.

"Jim Henson might have been born in Mississippi, but he grew up in Hyattsville," Caljean said. "His work had a profound impact on generations of people. And, it all started here."

While visitors will see many of their favorite characters from "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show," not every iconic puppet could be included in the exhibit. Notable no-shows include Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster and Big Bird. A full-sized Baby Miss Piggy cradles a toy Kermit in a display case, but the adult porker is missing — perhaps because she hasn't returned yet from England after crashing King Charles’ coronation concert.

In addition to Muppets, the exhibit contains cartoons, sketches of future characters, pitch films and storyboards. The wooden set from the all-worm Wriggling Brothers Circus takes up half of a small gallery. Under the Big Top, Slimey (Oscar the Grouch's pet worm) inches along a tightrope, a balancing pole clamped between his teeth.

Projected onto another wall is a simultaneous broadcast of every episode of "The Muppet Show," each encased in its own little square. Visitors of a certain age will enjoy picking out celebrity guests of the 1970s interacting with the Muppets: There's Liza Minelli! And Ben Vereen! And Carol Burnett!

Henson, who died in 1990, never wanted to be typecast as a children's performer, according to the exhibition text, and the show devotes several galleries to other projects that explore his range, including the 1982 adult cult film "The Dark Crystal." The puppets on display from the film — the elflike Jen and Kira, the oracle Aughra — are impressively detailed and lifelike, and very different stylistically from the Muppets.

Bonnie Erickson, a muppet designer and trustee with the Jim Henson Legacy, and Wendell Walker, exhibition designer and manager, pose with puppets, from left, of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson. Erickson designed all three and built the Henson and Oz puppets. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun )

There's a section devoted to Henson's 1986 fantasy film, "Labyrinth," that includes the elaborately beaded costumes worn by actors David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. Another gallery explores the impact of "Fraggle Rock," the puppet series that aims to promote international understanding by focusing on four interconnected societies of Muppet-like critters. The series ran initially from 1982 to 1987, and was brought back last year by Apple TV+.

A section devoted to Henson's technological innovations includes the shape-shifting character, Waldo C. Graphic, who in 1988 became the world's first digital puppet.

There are interactive displays where visitors can try puppeteering and view the results on a TV screen, and special programs ranging from a panel discussion Thursday with Erickson about the evolution of Miss Piggy's style to a June 24 puppet-making workshop.

Catherine Arthur, the center's chief curator, said a section that explores Henson's Maryland roots was added for the Baltimore exhibition — and for visitors who might not know much about the puppeteer's life, it is a revelation.

A portrait emerges of a young man with extraordinary self-confidence and the outsize talent to back it up.

According to the exhibit text, when Henson was a high school senior, he found an ad posted by an area TV station for a puppeteer. Henson had never made a puppet, but that didn't stop him. He borrowed two books from the library, taught himself the rudiments of puppeteering and got the job.

The following year, while Henson was a freshman at the University of Maryland, he and his future wife, Jane Nebel, created a five-minute show called "Sam and Friends" that was broadcast on WRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Washington. That show included an early prototype of Kermit, which Henson made from an old coat of his mother's.

"Sam and Friends" was so successful, according to the exhibit text, that Henson formed his own company, "Muppets, Inc." He purchased a Rolls-Royce with his earnings and drove it to his 1960 college commencement ceremony. So what if the Rolls was used?

During his company's early years, and before joining "Sesame Street" in 1968, Henson's company created hundreds of TV commercials featuring his puppets. Not only did this work result in the creation of some of Henson's most beloved Muppets, from Big Bird to Cookie Monster, some of these 60-year-old black-and-white commercials are among the most charming exhibits in this show.

For instance, in one 1963 gas station commercial, a "pitchman pump puppet" with two big eyes sings about the virtues of Marathon Gas while laying his "head" on the shoulder of a uniformed gas station attendant.

Visitors will also want to check out the 1978 test film shot by Henson, and his close collaborator Frank Oz, who among other things, was the voice of Miss Piggy. Previously, all filming was done inside a studio, but Henson and Oz wanted to see how the Muppets would look if they were filmed in the real world.

In the film, which is ad-libbed, Kermit and Fozzie are perched in the fork of a tree while a herd of dairy cows grazes in a distant pasture.

"The thing of it is, Fozzie," Kermit says, "you’re not a real bear. You’re not a natural bear. See those cows back there? Those are real cows."

Fozzie isn't about to take that lying down.

"I’ve got a news flash for you, Frog," he says. "You’ve got wire in your arms."

The two begin to argue, their voices getting louder and louder. Then, something unexpected happens:

The herd, attracted by the commotion, begins moving closer to investigate. Kermit and Fozzie instinctively turn their backs to the camera and begin entertaining the cows by telling jokes.

Closer and closer the cows move. One tries to lick Kermit. They are as entranced by the Muppets as the rest of us.

"The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited," runs through Dec. 30 at the Maryland Center for History and Culture, 610 Park Ave. Tickets cost $19 for adults, $18 for seniors and students, and $17 for children ages 2-18. Free for center members and children younger than 2. For details, call 410-685-3750 or visit