Unless they’ve been living under “Fraggle Rock,” most people know that Jim Henson is the man behind the Muppets.
But in fact, the late Henson was more than a puppeteer, and that fact is being celebrated in a traveling exhibition that is making its West Coast premiere starting Saturday in Seattle.
Henson also was an artist, a filmmaker and a visionary who created elaborate imaginary worlds and who also had a vision for the real world.
“He believed in peace; he believed in the brotherhood of man,” said Deborah Macanic of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the exhibit’s project manager. “Throughout the Vietnam War and through all of the racism and all of the things that people struggle with, he maintained a belief in brotherhood and sisterhood and humanity, and it seemed to drive him.”
The most surprising thing she learned about Henson while working on the exhibition was simply how devoted he was to his visions, she said.
“His interest was in putting forth his philosophy,” she said. “I was surprised how true he was to that.”
The exhibition examines Henson’s creative process through drawings, storyboards, films and photos. And, of course, Muppets.
“Of course, Kermit is there,” Macanic said. “We think of Kermit as Jim Henson’s alter ego. Kermit was there from the very beginning and was the first puppet Jim Henson made.”
Also on hand will be Bert and Ernie, characters from “Fraggle Rock,” and others from the TV commercials Henson made during the 1960s.
“We have Rowlf the dog,” she said. “He was one of the first real successes in terms of television commercials. He went on to be a main character on ‘The Jimmy Dean Show.’”
One prominent character who won’t be on hand is the larger-than-life Miss Piggy.
“The exhibit really focuses on Jim’s creative thinking, so we wanted characters that we had Jim’s original designs for or that Jim performed himself; Miss Piggy was neither,” curator Karen Falk said in a news release. “We didn’t mean to insult her – she probably deserves an exhibit of her own!”
Macanic said of the exhibit: “You’re getting a step-by-step walk-through of Jim Henson’s creative process. I can’t even tell you everything he’s done; you have to go to the exhibit and read about that and see that, but he had an incredible career and left an incredible legacy, and that’s what we wanted to show.”
The Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum, hosting the exhibit through August, have added their own Seattle-only component: Mudgarden Experience, a rock band composed of puppets inspired by Seattle musicians.
The theater will allow visitors to perform to such songs as “The Rainbow Connection” and “Mahna Mahna” and to experience doing puppetry for an audience, which will watch the show from an area reminiscent of the famous stoop on “Sesame Street.”
With the exhibit comes several special events, including discussions by Henson insiders and film screenings. “It’s not just the exhibit; there are lots of fun things to do,” Macanic said.
“And this isn’t an exhibit for children: It’s an exhibit for all ages,” she said. “Adults will plug into the more sophisticated part of Jim Henson. And a lot of teenagers are interested in the genre films, like ‘Dark Crystal.’ Jim Henson was so far ahead of his time in understanding where this technology might go.
“Had he lived, I’m sure he would have been at the forefront of everything that’s going on now,” she added. “But it foreshadows a lot of what you’re seeing in movies and on television now.”
‘Jim Henson’s Fantastic World’
What: This traveling exhibition, curated by the Smithsonian, explores the imagination and the creative process of the late puppeteer and filmmaker, the man behind the Muppets.
When: The exhibition will be open Saturday through Aug. 16.
Where: Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle
Tickets: $15; $12 for seniors (65 and older), youth (ages 5-17), students and members of the military; and free for children 4 and younger and museum members
More information: 877-367-7361 or www.empsfm.org