Muppets and Miss.: A magical connection

By LaReeca Rucker

It's difficult to imagine a world without Muppets.

Sesame Street premiered in 1969. That means just about everyone 45 or younger has had the opportunity to make a magical Muppet connection.

That's the idea behind Jim Henson's Fantastic World, a new exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and The Jim Henson Legacy. It offers a rare peek into Henson's creative genius.

It opens Saturday at the Mississippi Museum of Art and runs through March 14.

Henson, a Mississippi Delta native, created the diverse characters to educate and entertain.

Arthur Novell, executive director of The Jim Henson Legacy, said the exhibit appeals to multiple generations.

"A 7-year-old and his grandmother are both interested, which is really quite wonderful," Novell said. "Jim's popularity grows and grows. The other venues have been breaking attendance records. Merchandise is flying off the shelves."

The exhibit features 100 original artworks, including drawings, cartoons, storyboards, puppets, props, photographs and video.

"I hope those who attend the exhibit have a great day at the museum and learn something about themselves and Jim," Novell said.

Henson (1936-1990) - an artist, puppeteer, film director and producer - spent his early years in the Mississippi Delta exploring Deer Creek around Leland before creating his first televised puppet show, Sam and Friends.

His work evolved into The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, and led to characters created for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

His work is now viewed in more than 100 countries.

Among the many characters Henson created, fan favorites include Statler and Waldorf, Sam the Eagle, Cookie Monster, the Swedish Chef, Beaker and, of course, Kermit the Frog.

"His character and style is humble, caring, loving, giving, calm, easy-going," Brandon resident Belinda Williams-Russell, 49, said of Kermit.

Clinton resident Zan Walker, 40, agrees: "(Kermit) was a mild-mannered Muppet who always tried to do the correct thing."

Jennifer Lariviere, 51, of Madison loves Miss Piggy.

"The fact that she flips from shy and demure to haughty in a matter of seconds is so funny," Lariviere said.

Karen Falk, Henson exhibit curator and archivist at The Jim Henson Co., said she's delighted to share it with people all over the country.

"Seeing (Henson's) original work firsthand opens a window into his visual thinking and provides both an appreciation of Jim as an artist and a reason to laugh out loud," she said in a news release.

Betsy Bradley, director of the Mississippi Museum of Art, said the event has mass appeal.

"Our hopes for Jim Henson's Fantastic World is that we draw visitors from around the region to delight in the genius of a Mississippi artist, who forever changed the landscape of visual arts and the media.

"Henson's ability to take his visual ideas and create worlds of characters, stories, movies, and songs that send positive messages to people across the world is unparalleled, and his influence continues today. We hope that people will have a better understanding of the power of visual thinking that shaped his career, but also of the unique environment in Mississippi that helped to form his creative vision.

"Henson's hopeful messages and views of the world resonate throughout the exhibit and have something to offer everyone," she said.

The exhibit is organized by The Jim Henson Legacy and SITES, in cooperation with the Henson Family; The Jim Henson Co.; The Muppets Studio LLC; and Sesame Workshop.

It's made possible by The Biography Channel with additional support from The Jane Henson Foundation and Cheryl Henson.

The tour is sponsored locally by Donna and Jim Barksdale, the Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

A Q & A with Kermit the Frog

Kermit the Frog is undoubtedly one of the biggest stars on the planet and no stranger to Mississippi. His friend and creator, the late Jim Henson, was born in Greenville. There's no one better to share inisight about Henson's genius, so The Clarion-Ledger offers this exclusive interview with the legendary Muppet.

Q: Are you a Mississippi native? The city of Leland Web site ( says Kermit's native swamp was Deer Creek in Leland, Jim Henson's boyhood home. Can you tell me about your Mississippi roots?

A: I was born in Mississippi? That's great. I always wondered if my swamp had a name.

Y'see, we frogs don't pay much attention to state lines and stuff like that. And when we talk about "roots," we usually mean that big cypress tree where Arnie the alligator hangs out.

But wherever I'm from, I'll tell you this: It was a great place to grow up. From the time I was a tadpole (one of 2,353 brothers and sisters) to the day I dropped my tail, became a frog and hopped out into the world, I loved every minute of it.

Q: There are a number of really famous, larger-than-life people from Mississippi, including Elvis and Oprah. Is there an identifiable characteristic these people share?

A: I never knew those folks were from Mississippi. (But then again, I didn't know I was from Mississippi.)

First of all, I'd have to say I don't put myself in their league. Like you said, they're all "larger than life." I'm quite a bit smaller than life: approximately 18 inches tall and 16.3 pounds, sopping wet, which I am most of the time.

But what makes us all famous? Well, I think it is because growing up here makes you "regular folks." People (and frogs) identify with you; that's something you can't fake.

Q: What are some of the projects you've been working on?

A: We have been busy on a lot of projects like our holiday TV special on NBC, A Muppet Christmas: Letters To Santa, and a holiday special with Andrea Bocelli and record producer David Foster called Andrea Bocelli & David Foster: My Christmas.

And recently, we did our version of the classic Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody. It's getting a lot of hits on the Web. (I hear that's a good thing.)

Oh, yes, and we're also considering a movie. Right now, we're just trying to decide whether we want to make a movie or just go see one.

Q: What are your thoughts about reality television? Will we ever see you on a reality show like Muppets Gone Wild, Kermit of Love or something?

A: Are you sure you're not a Hollywood producer? I think someone pitched us those very ideas just last week. (We threw them out and brought in a relief pitcher.)

In January, we're going to be on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. They do incredible things for folks who need it. If you do reality, it might as well be reality that really helps people.

Q: What book are you currently reading?

A: The Diva Code, which Miss Piggy wrote. I like to keep track of what she's saying about me. Unfortunately, the subtitle of the book is: Miss Piggy on Life, Love and the 10,000 Idiotic things Frogs Do - so I'm kind of nervous about how it ends.

Q: What's the last song you added to your iPod?

A: Actually I use a lilyPOD; they're just like an iPod ... but waterproof. And I added songs from Andrea Bocelli's new holiday album, My Christmas. And not just because we did a duet with him. He's one of the greatest singers in the world.

Q: Are you on Facebook? Frogbook? Do you Twitter?

A: I'm old-fashioned, I socially network in person - or in my case, in frog. I love the new technology, but there's nothing like actually talking to someone face to face and flipper to flipper.

Q: What did you think about the dress made of Kermit The Frogs that Lady Gaga wore recently? Were you flattered or disturbed? There was speculation that you two are an item since you kissed her at the Video Music Awards. What's the deal? Is she the new Miss Piggy?

A: Like I said, Lady Gaga and I are just friends. She's a unique talent. ... Lady Gaga and I had a great time at the VMAs, and Miss Piggy didn't even mind that much. Although Piggy now wants one of those green frog coats, just like Lady wears.

(NOTE: By they way, I can assure you that no frogs were harmed in the making of Lady Gaga's coat. I can't promise the same for Miss Piggy's.)

Q: Is it still difficult being green or has it gotten better?

A: It's what I want to be. And I've learned something over the years: whatever you are, there are moments when it's not easy being you. But if you believe in yourself and find others who believe in you, it's gonna be fine. A little weird sometimes, but sometimes it can be absolutely wonderful.

Q: "Green" means different things to different people, but you were the first to talk about it. Have you "gone green" in the environmental sense of the word? What are your thoughts about "bein' green" this way?

A: That is a very smart question. Now I know how you got this job. It's true that green means different things. When I first sang Bein' Green, it was about who a person is, not really about environmental stuff. But now a lot of folks hear "green" and think about saving the environment.

That's a good thing. As a frog, speaking on behalf of other species lower on the food chain, I know how important it is to protect the great green outdoors.

Y'see, it may be outdoors to you, but to us, it's home. In fact, it's home to everyone. I want to keep it green, and I'm glad a lot of other folks feel that way, too.

Q: In today's media-saturated culture, are you ever stalked by the paparazzi? I don't remember seeing anything about you on Perez Hilton's blog lately, except for the Gaga incident.

A: Another advantage of being short and green - I blend in with so many ordinary things that paparazzi tend to miss me. Oh, and it helps to go places with Miss Piggy. She's a paparazzi magnet. They take her picture everywhere, whether they want to or not.

Q: Are you and Miss Piggy still in a relationship, or have you moved on? It seemed a little dysfunctional for a while.

A: I have not moved on. Well, actually, I have, but Miss Piggy has followed. So yes. We're still together. But, as I've said before, we have a professional relationship. I think that we're professionals, and she thinks we have a relationship. It's not dysfunctional, it's my life.

Q: Do you keep in touch with the other Muppets?

A: Keep in touch with them? Absolutely. All the time. In fact, if I reach out my arm, I can touch several of them at once. That's what I get for doing this interview in a crowded elevator.