In the bathroom of a basement apartment, Ernie is scrubbing himself in an enormous white bathtub, spilling over with bubbles. Bert enters to bring him a bar of soap.
ERNIE: Just toss it into ol’ Rosie, here!
BERT: Ernie, why do you call your bathtub Rosie?
ERNIE: Because every time I take a bath, I leave a ring around Rosie!
Bert and Ernie first appeared on PBS on Nov. 10, 1969, launching “Sesame Street,” now the longest-running television show in U.S. history.
Behind the scenes, elbow deep in Muppet, Jim Henson was performing the voice and controlling the body movements and facial expressions of the beloved orange-felt Ernie puppet.
Ernie was one of a dozen Muppets created and performed by Henson in his lifetime. Henson would go on to create characters that would appear in TV programs and in the movies, including “The Muppets,” “Fraggle Rock,” “Labyrinth,” “The Dark Crystal” and “Star Wars.”
Beginning today, fans of Henson’s work will have the opportunity to see some of his legendary characters at “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” a traveling exhibit that begins its Southwestern premiere engagement at the Arizona Museum for Youth in Mesa.
In addition to showcasing original Muppets, “Sesame Street,” “The Muppets,” “Fraggle Rock” and other productions, the exhibit lends a glimpse into the imagination of Henson.
Sketches, handwritten notes and early storyboards cover the walls. Monitors show vintage interviews, commercials and early TV shows with Henson. Props and artifacts from his films are enclosed in glass cases throughout the exhibit space.
“The Muppets are very significant, but the exhibit itself is a tribute to the multifaceted nature of Henson’s creativity,” says Viki Possoff, registrar for Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, which co-organized the exhibit. “It’s amazing to see his early work. His sketches are all on lined paper or on the back of menus, these ideas would just come to him and he would grab whatever he could find to get the ideas written down.”
Henson started creating characters and short films when he was 10. In 1955, Henson got his start in puppeteering with a television comedy called “Sam and Friends,” which aired in Washington, D.C. On the show, the first Kermit the Frog puppet appeared, which was fashioned from an old coat belonging to Henson’s mother.
“Henson always used to say Kermit was the most near and dear to his heart,” says Michelle Balani, Mesa’s community arts coordinator. “Kermit was always trying to be a mediator and smooth things out and that’s who he saw himself as.”
Although “Sam and Friends” was a commercial success, to make money with his characters Henson spent the next two decades working in television commercials.
“Sesame Street” was his first show geared to children.
“The Muppet Show” debuted in 1976 and was followed three years later by “The Muppets Movie.” He later co-directed or directed “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” and created the children’s television show, “Fraggle Rock.”
In 1990, Henson died unexpectedly at age 53 from pneumonia and a strep infection. Since then, puppeteers from his company have continued performing with his classic felt characters and creating new Henson-like worlds.
“The part of his legacy that continues to thrive is his sense of innovation, no boundaries and creating really quality entertainment that has heart,” says Karen Falk, head archivist for the Jim Henson Company. “His characters are still alive.”
In addition to the exhibit, the Arizona Museum for Youth will exclusively feature a hands-on component and puppet stage where children can create their own movies and shows.
The museum has spent the past 18 months preparing for the exhibit, and installed a humidifier to protect the Muppets from Arizona’s dry climate.
Although it’s a youth museum, curator Jeffory Morris expects the exhibit to enchant people of all ages.
“The goal of the exhibit is to inspire children to go out and create just like Jim Henson,” says Morris. “Kids don’t have to just see it on a TV screen. They can make their own puppets and create their own television shows.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World”
When: Opens today, through March 9; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Arizona Museum for Youth, 35 N. Robson, Mesa
Information: (480) 644-2467 or www.arizonamuseumforyouth.com
What: Big-screen showing of 1977 TV special, “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas”
When: 1:30 to 3 p.m. Dec. 27
Where: Piper Theatre, Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main St.
Cost: Tickets are $12 for members and $17 for nonmembers
Information: (480) 644-3689