Muppets take Chicago

By Luke Wilusz

Bert, Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster and countless other Muppets have been an integral part of most people’s childhoods for more than four decades. These colorful and lively puppets have danced, sung and joked their way into the hearts of millions while striking a near-perfect balance between education and entertainment. The Museum of Science and Industry now offers a detailed look into the mind and imagination of the man who made it all possible: The late Jim Henson.

“Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” the latest exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, opened on Sept. 24—what would have been Henson’s 74th birthday—with a birthday-themed opening event attended by Henson’s wife Jane and Elmo, one of his most famous creations. The exhibit, which was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and The Jim Henson Legacy, features more than 130 original artworks by Henson, including sketches, storyboards and, of course, Muppets.

Miss Piggy in her wedding dress from “Muppets Take Manhattan” is on display, which is exclusive to the Chicago stop of the exhibit. Other Chicago-exclusive special programs developed by the Museum of Science and Industry include a puppet theater where visitors are encouraged to stage their own stories and a Foley studio, where they can learn about the art and science of creating live sound effects.

“Jim Henson was such a creative genius and an inventive genius, and that’s really in line with the museum’s mission to inspire the inventive genius in everyone,” said Jeff Buonomo, coordinator of temporary exhibits and events at the Museum of Science and Industry. “You’ll look around and you’ll see he really started with just a sketch or an idea, and then eventually it evolved into a whole industry that continues to educate us, inspire us and, best of all, entertain us. His work lives on to this day in different countries around the world and in different languages, which is a real testament to who the man was.”

Buonomo said the exhibit offers a look into many of the lesser-known aspects of Henson’s work.

“It shows you different facets of his career, starting with commercials and his early work in high school where he was actually trying to open up a print and graphic design business,” Buonomo said. “And then his final work, which was creating these whole worlds that were completely separate from the real world using science fiction for ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘The Dark Crystal.’ He really changed his work throughout his career, and I think that’s really interesting for people to see that it wasn’t just Muppets.”

Frank Resnik, 68, was surprised to learn about the various areas Henson had worked in.

“I was unaware of the extent of his background in doing things for advertising, so I found fascinating the various eight-second commercials he did,” Resnik said, referring to a series of ads Henson made for Wilkins Coffee in the 1960s. “That was a surprise and very interesting to me.”

Jonathan Silverstein, 40, was similarly unaware of much of Henson’s earlier work.

“I was really surprised at how early a lot of this started,” Silverstein said. “I guess I thought it pretty much originated with Sesame Street, but really, it goes back, gosh, 15 years before that, so it was interesting to see some of the evolution through that.”

Buonomo said one of the unique things about Henson’s work was the nearly universal appeal of it, noting visitors of all ages have been coming to see the exhibit.

“Parents grew up with the Muppets, and even their children are still growing up with the Muppets and ‘Sesame Street,’ so there’s really something in here for everyone,” Buonomo said. “It’s really people of all ages. The young kids with adults, the grandparents and even a lot of people from film schools are very interested in his work.”

Resnik agreed part of Henson’s genius was his ability to capture the imagination of nearly any audience.

“Jim Henson is an incredible one for taking imagination into physical reality,” Resnik said. “He was very creative, and his mind took him into so many different directions over his too-short career. There’s something he did that would appeal to almost anybody.”

“Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” is open through Jan. 23, 2011, at the Museum of Science and Industry. Entrance to the exhibit (not included in the museum’s general admission) costs $5 for adults and $2 for children ages 3–11. For more information or to purchase tickets online, visit