Even when stepping over extension cords and dodging stacks of paint cans, you can’t help but feel the magic permeating the air in the soon-to-be-opened Worlds of Puppetry Museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts.
Dust and power tools aside, there’s no denying the twinkle of Miss Piggy’s trademark eyes. She stares from behind the glass in the exhibit’s Jim Henson Collection gallery, an unprecedented ode to the career of Muppet maestro Jim Henson. And while a team installs glass panels in the neighboring Global Collection gallery, all attention focuses on a pair of towering, life-size puppets from the 1982 Broadway production of “Alice in Wonderland.”
Each of those galleries makes up one-half of Worlds of Puppetry, a permanent installation opening to the public on Nov. 14. It resides inside the center’s new $14 million, 15,000-square-foot museum wing expansion, which has an exterior paint job suspiciously similar to the hues found on Kermit the Frog.
If guests hang a left when entering Worlds of Puppetry, they’ll enter the Jim Henson Collection gallery and find Kermit himself along with more than 75 other artifacts spanning Henson’s career. Henson died in 1990 at the age of 53. In 2007, Jim Henson’s family donated more than 500 puppets and artifacts to the center, which will begin rotating items in and out of the exhibit after the first year.
The presentation plays out in chronological order, winding through Henson’s resume in a tangible sense. Stops include a reproduction of his office, rooms dedicated to his iconic TV and film projects such as “Sesame Street” and “The Dark Crystal,” and a creature shop in the spirit of Henson’s Muppet Workshop in New York.
Turn right at the Worlds of Puppetry entrance to visit the Global Collection gallery, a visual representation of how puppetry crosses cultural lines. Approximately 175 puppets and artifacts representing five continents will be on view, from American marionettes to Chinese shadow puppets.
Describing the exhibit as sensory overload may be an understatement. Without a swiveling neck, it’s easy to accidentally bypass both bold displays and hidden gems. When visiting Worlds of Puppetry, keep an eye out for the following not-to-miss highlights:
It’s time to light the lights
The center divides its Jim Henson Collection gallery into sub-galleries based on Henson’s various projects. Of course, “The Muppet Show,” Henson’s take on the TV variety show format that originally ran from 1976 to 1981, receives solid real estate. Mention the word Muppets, and images of a sassy pig, a joke-jabbing bear and a talking frog likely hop into mind. Although most visitors will gravitate toward displays featuring Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Kermit, don’t overlook a historical quartet of Muppets from the 1975 TV pilot aired on ABC. “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence,” regarded by some as the first episode of “The Muppet Show,” featured an array of skits, including a pageant based on the Seven Deadly Sins. Four of the sin puppets — Gluttony, Envy, Avarice and Anger — make the cut.
At the office
The re-creation of Henson’s office incorporates actual items he used in his own personal workspace, including his desk. Look up to see the light-up, papier-mâché moose head, created by artist John D. Richards, that Henson purchased in 1966. Make sure to take time to watch the video footage in the office, which shows the breadth of Henson’s talent beyond puppetry. His surreal and psychedelic live-action short film “Time Piece” and Henson-produced animation will be shown.
Sunny days of childhood
The “Sesame Street” exhibit, complete with a photo wall mural of the famed city block, spotlights a roster of its timeless stars. Although the massive Big Bird certainly commands attention, see if you can pick out some of the more obscure “Sesame” players like Sherlock Hemlock and Roosevelt Franklin.
Ask any TV puppeteer and he or she will tell you it’s a deceptively tricky skill. See for yourself in a mock TV studio setup fashioned with a puppet stage. Step behind the stage with a puppet provided by the center and watch yourself on the TV monitor below. That way you can see what the camera sees. The basic idea is to try to keep yourself out of the frame and your puppet in the frame. However, on the monitor, your movements look as if they’re going in the opposite direction. It might take a few moments to get the hang of it.
Gaggles of Fraggles
Henson’s 1980s TV series “Fraggle Rock” comes to life in the exhibit. Take a close look at the display of Doozers, a race of minuscule “Fraggle Rock” characters. The museum staff poses these construction workers in the midst of a job atop scaffolding known as Doozer Sticks. See if you can find a Doozer’s tiny thermos, another great example of Henson’s attention to detail.
Take the rainbow connection
When exiting the Henson Collection gallery, go through the archway with stained glass above. Closer examination reveals the colored glass depicts Kermit the Frog picking the banjo in the midst of a swamp. The piece, which came straight out of Henson’s New York City townhouse known as “Muppet Mansion,” is on loan from the Henson family.
Fans of stop-motion animation should move swiftly to the Global Collection gallery. A display features a pair of immaculate stop-motion puppets from director Tim Burton’s 2005 film “Corpse Bride.” They’re currently bunking in the same case as Gumby and Pokey from “The Gumby Show.” A display featuring characters from the 2009 stop-motion animated film “Coraline” will be added before opening day.
The Global Collection gallery has a pair of hands-on exhibits that give guests the chance to explore different types of puppetry. An elaborate stage display allows visitors to manipulate three different Sicilian rod marionettes. Choose from one of two knights, each wearing golden armor, and a menacing green dragon. Head all the way to the rear of the gallery to find a large shadow puppet exhibit, which offers its own share of interaction.
Kings of the puppet jungle
Get an up-close-and-personal look at prototype masks of the characters Scar and Mufasa from “The Lion King” Broadway musical. They share museum space with an array of puppets representing Africa, including a replica of a sigi puppet used in Sogo bo masquerade festivals.
Grand opening celebration
The daylong bash on Nov. 14 commemorates the opening of Worlds of Puppetry. A pair of food trucks help fill bellies, while guests get an eyeful as members of the Center for Puppetry Arts staff walk around with puppets in tow. A beer and wine bar pours from 4-6 p.m. Timed museum tours take place every 30 minutes. A special all-inclusive ticket includes museum entry, a viewing of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at either noon or 2 p.m., and admission to the Create-a-Puppet Workshop. Jim Henson and Kermit cut the ribbon for the opening celebration in 1978, and this time, special guests will include longtime Henson puppeteer Leslie Carrara-Rudolph with “Sesame Street’s” Abby Cadabby, and Henson’s children Cheryl, Heather and Brian Henson.
Take a look at the Center for Puppetry Arts' 2015-16 performance schedule here.
Worlds of Puppetry Museum grand opening
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Nov. 14. Museum ticket: $10.50; all-inclusive ticket: $20.50. Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. N.W., Atlanta. 404-873-3391, puppet.org.