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Jim Henson puppets get a facelift at Center for Puppetry Arts

Restoration project prepares for museum expansion

Inside the intimate workshop at Center for Puppetry Arts, Vito Leanza delicately ruffles through tissue paper. His hands, shrouded in blue rubber gloves, uncover the contents of a box.

Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy look on with frozen stares. Yeah, the actual Kermit and Piggy from the late Muppet maestro Jim Henson.

Leanza’s co-worker, Russ Vick, watches too. Together the two professional puppet builders have been hired to restore and conserve more than 500 pieces of Henson’s work — primarily puppets, costumes and props — for the Center’s much anticipated museum expansion.

As Leanza reveals tiny set pieces from “Fraggle Rock,” Henson’s 1980s TV series, Vick’s eyes widen. On the show, these clear acrylic structures were the handiwork of Doozers, a teensy-weensy troupe of hard hat-wearing construction workers.

“It’s like a birthday everyday,” said Vick. “It’s a whole new level of excitement for me, because this is the stuff that put me in this field to begin with.”

Visitors from Elmo enthusiasts to Fozzie Bear fanatics will likely echo that excitement this fall. That’s when Center for Puppetry Arts, the country’s largest nonprofit cultural institution devoted to the art of puppetry, unveils the museum. About half of it will hold the world’s biggest collection of original Jim Henson puppets and artifacts.

While construction workers stay busy building the structure, Vick and Leanza remain preoccupied with its future contents. The duo finds themselves nose deep in felt, foam and latex, injecting new life into aging Henson creations by making them museum ready. And their job may indeed be bigger than Miss Piggy’s ego.

When it comes to preparing items for exhibition, museums typically call upon traditional conservators. These folks may have an art history background and a master’s of science in art conservation.

“Usually those people aren’t puppet builders,” said Kelsey Fritz, exhibitions director for the Center. “It’s a very unique skill.”

The Center staff decided to go with puppet builders instead. Last year, Vick and Leanza landed what the latter refers to as “every puppeteer’s dream job.” But like the Pigs in Space on “The Muppet Show,” they both were boldly going where they had never gone before.

Decades ago, when Henson and his team of creators initially whipped up the characters, they used materials that did the job but didn’t necessarily stand the test of time. Reticulated foam, for instance, provided the key component. Unfortunately, the stuff transforms into sand after 10 to 15 years.

“When we pick up these puppets, their innards are basically disintegrating,” said Leanza. “So we have to find other archival materials that will hopefully last hundreds of years.”

Vick, Leanza and other Center employees were schooled by a pair of New York-based conservators on what archival materials they should use, including glues, foams and cleaners. Combining that knowledge with their own research and experimentation, the local conservators began bringing Henson’s puppet offspring back to life.

They’re a year into a job Fritz predicts will take two or three years to complete. So far 150 pieces have been restored, starting with those most in need of repair.

With a fabric steam cleaner in hand, Leanza works the wrinkles out of The Great Gonzo’s daredevil costume, the red and silver material shimmering beneath the workshop lights. He’s surrounded by shelves stacked with boxes, many tagged with yellow Post-it Notes bearing character names.

Meanwhile, Splurge, a purple snaggletooth costume puppet standing at least 7 feet tall, looms over a table where Vick shows some of his handiwork. Fizzgig, a friendly fuzzball from “The Dark Crystal,” looks as if he just popped from the screen. But when Vick first uncovered him, the creature needed some physical therapy.

Hidden beneath a pile of crumbled foam, Vick found Fizzgig’s tongue, which he reattached. Then he had to add teeth to the dentally challenged puppet. He scoured through film footage and found a two-second shot that provided a clear view of Fizzgig’s choppers. Vick replicated the sharp, minuscule teeth by carving plastic.

“It been pretty intimidating, because some of this stuff is so iconic,” Vick said, “and it’s in such a fragile state.”

So how did Kermit and company make their way to Atlanta?

Jim Henson adored the facility; he and Kermit cut the ribbon at the grand opening in 1978.

In 2007, the Henson family announced they’d be donating the massive collection to the Center.

The Jim Henson Legacy, an organization dedicated to preserving the entertainment icon’s life’s work, was given the responsibility of overseeing the collection and installation.

Bonnie Erickson, executive director of the Jim Henson Legacy and the designer for the original Miss Piggy, oversees the restoration process via Skype.

“The fact that [Vick and Leanza] have invested so much time and effort, and their cleverness to conserve these things have really been impressive to me,” Erickson said.

When time comes for the pieces to go on display, Erickson will hop a plane to Atlanta and pose each puppet.

The interactive exhibit promises to drop visitors smack dab into Henson’s realm. Imagine hanging in the “Sesame Street” ’hood with Big Bird and his puppet pals; dropping in on “The Muppet Show” set; and exploring the otherworldly lands and inhabitants of “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal.”

For Vick, helping populate the exhibit is nothing short of surreal. As a child he fantasized of one day working with Henson, but he assumed it was just a pipe dream.

“Then the way things happened, I wind up doing this,” he said. “I feel like I’m part of it by conserving these things, being around them and breathing in their essence. It’s pretty magical.”



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