Jim Henson’s Fantastic World Blows Away the Windy City

Today we have a very, very exciting article from new contributor Danny Beckwith. Danny visited the Jim Henson’s Fantastic World exhibit last Thursday in Chicago, Illinois for its members-only preview night. He visited with The Jim Henson Legacy’s Karen Falk and Arthur Novell, along with Muppet legend, now president of The Jim Henson Legacy, Bonnie Erickson. There’s nothing more for me to say that Danny didn’t already, so enjoy this look at an exclusive event!

Jim Henson’s Fantastic World: Chicago
Member’s Night Preview Event

Danny Beckwith – 5:30pm-9:00pm Members Night Preview, 7:00pm-8:00pm Lecture

I arrived at 5:24pm and a long line had already formed running the length of the main hall. At 5:30pm the line started moving and people began to experience Jim Henson’s Fantastic World.

The West Auditorium is where the lecture took place at 7:00pm. I arrived with a friend around 6:15 and the seats were virtually empty, and by 6:30 the room was filled. I had secured seats, however, right amongst the reserved seating for The Jim Henson Legacy members.

Besides the sound of the audience making small talk, songs from The Muppet Show: Music, Mayhem, and More! CD could be heard. Above the stage on a large screen was projected a menu from a DVD created for the lecture that contained six video clips. The stage was still empty, but the seats around me were filling up. By 6:45 the auditorium was filled with Museum members and members of The Jim Henson Legacy, including Executive Director Arthur Novell. Seated nearby was also Chicago Museum of Science and Industry Director of Temporary Exhibits, Anna Rashford.

At 7:05, Anne Rashford took to the podium to make an introductory speech. During her time at the podium, she mentioned how Jim Henson was an “inventive genius,” likening his work to a scientist, which I was very pleased to hear. She also introduced The Jim Henson Legacy members, Arthur Novell, Karen Falk, and, special guest, President of The Jim Henson Legacy, Bonnie Erickson!

A representative of the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition spoke next. She spoke of the joy of working with the Jim Henson Legacy and Karen Falk, and introduced Karen as the next speaker. She came on the stage and acknowledged the Legacy members again and also Bill Grisham, whose wife was in the audience that night. Bill Grisham had worked with Jim Henson in the 1960’s. Karen Falk then explained how the lecture would consist of an overview of Jim’s work, using the six clips on the DVD. She started with Jim’s early career–mainly Sam and Friends and Wilkin’s Coffee commercials.


  • Sam and Friends: Harry the Hipster is in front of a weather map. He explains that he is the new weatherman for the station. Kermit enters the scene and says that the station already has a weatherman. Harry informs Kermit that he’s not giving the weather, he’s selling it. Kermit tells him that you can’t sell the weather. Harry shows Kermit the crates of weather he has for sale: sunshine, thunderstorm, fog, snowstorm, rain, monsoon season, and tempest (in a teapot). Each weather crate, as it opens, has hilarious results for Kermit.
  • Wilkins Coffee: Karen Falk explained that this was the second audience in 55-60 years who got to see these commercials
    • Construction Worker – Wontkins falls off a building structure
    • Club – Wilkins hits Wontkins with a club
    • Falling Safe – Wontkins is hit by a falling safe
    • Biplane – Wilkins flies a plane upside and Wontkins falls out
Karen then explained the 1960’s of Jim’s career and how he had gained a national audience and a larger team: Jerry Juhl, Don Sahlin, Frank Oz, and Jane Henson. This was also the time that commercials like Purina Dog Chow with Rowlf, Chicago based Wilson’s Meat, and the La Choy Dragon were shown.

  • The La Choy Dragon: Karen introduced this clip as a presentation on the La Choy Dragon made by Jim that was a joke of sorts. The clip started with a meeting comprised of Jim Henson and the La Choy Company. Jim says, “The idea of a real fire-breathing dragon intrigued me.” The rest of the presentation shows the process of Jim, Jerry, Don, and Bill Grisham creating the La Choy Dragon. Don keeps making bigger and bigger explosions throughout the clip, eventually leading to everyone escaping out a window. The building then catches on fire, then the roof, and then the whole building is in flames and destroyed. The audience loved it!
  • The Ed Sullivan Show: “Mahna Mahna”
Karen then explained how Jim had tried experimenting with film. She mentioned Timepiece and how Jim experimented in animation, as demonstrated by two clips.

  • Bufferin: A commercial for headache medicine that showed how a man was remembering a wonderful day with his family, then realized that that day was almost ruined with a headache. It showcased Jim’s fascination with visual thinking.
  • NBC News – “The Ordeal of the American City;” The opening of an NBC news program
The second half of the lecture started with a brief discussion of the 1960’s and how Jim was thinking about how to focus his career. That’s when a call from Jon Stone would change everything. Sesame Street was about to be born. This was a time when Jim produced a whole slew of short films for the famous street, including ventures into the mediums of stop-motion, traditional animation, and computer animation.

  • “Henson King of Eight”
  • “Dance Myself to Sleep”
The next step in Jim’s career from Sesame Street was the variety show, mainly The Muppet Show. Karen talked about how Lord Lew Grade would produce, as long as the show was filmed in London. Karen explained how The Muppet Show was instrumental to Jim’s success. It was seen by 235 million people a week in over 120 countries; an international success. This impact is what influenced Fraggle Rock in the 1980s. Jim wanted to make a show that promoted world peace, it’s now 20 years later, and as Karen Falk observed, that we will be “hopefully having world peace soon.

  • The Muppet Show: Pearl Bailey Episode – The final production number, a hilarious mash-up of musical numbers because Kermit couldn’t get the rights to Camelot
  • Fraggle Rock: “Let Me Be Your Song;” introduction of Cantus the Minstrel

After the last clip, Karen introduces Bonnie Erickson. Bonnie takes the stage to thunderous applause. Bonnie was such a great speaker. She discussed how the opening in Chicago is very special: Miss Piggy makes here premiere! A glamorous premiere, too, in her wedding dress.

She recalls how Piggy came about when a call for a “sexy female character” caused a change in a sketch on Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Piggy began as a “shy and naïve” young pig named Miss Piggy Lee, but that name did not stay. But the shy and naïve disappeared during the karate chop eureka moment on The Muppet Show. Bonnie explained how Kermit is Miss Piggy’s rock, a calming influence for the pig. And of course, how could you talk about Miss Piggy without mentioning her perfume, books, and fan clubs right around the time The Great Muppet Caper premiered. Bonnie also mentioned the marriage at the end of The Muppet Takes Manhattan; are Kermit and Miss Piggy married? We know what Piggy would say!


  • “Return to Beneath the Planet of the Pigs”: Piggy’s big debut
  • Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass: Piggy is the girl singer to perform with Herb
  • The Muppet Show: Season 1; Miss Piggy as a chorus girl
  • The Muppet Show: Ruth Buzzi Episode; the karate chop eureka moment
  • The Muppet Show: Elton John Episode; Piggy sings “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with Elton John
  • The Great Muppet Caper: “The First Time It Happens”; Piggy the movie star
  • The Muppets Take Manhattan: “Manhattan Melodies” marriage
Bonnie had a great sense of humor as displayed by her closing comment to the clips, “Kermit’s contract states he is at the beginning of the exhibit.” Bonnie also alluded to Miss Piggy coming back to Chicago in November to shoot a movie! Hmmm… does that mean the Muppets will be in the Windy City?!

I hung around after the lecture to talk to both Bonnie and Karen. Bonnie was the sweetest person and we had a wonderful conversation. Karen as well was great to talk to and meet. She even signed my Jim Henson’s Designs & Doodles book! Both ladies spoke amazingly well and gave avid fans and casual fans something to appreciate over the course of the presentation.

Afterward, I visited the exhibit and was ecstatic. I had already seen the exhibit in Orlando, Florida, but the addition of Miss Piggy, the wedding cake topper, and a “Manhattan Melodies” playbill.

Bonnie Erickson and Danny

Special thanks to Danny for the fantastic look into the preview event!
If you are in or near the Chicago area, be sure to visit the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry between now and January 23rd, 2011. Tickets cost just $5 for adults and seniors and $2 for children (ages 3-11)–if you’re close, how can you pass it up? You’re truly depriving yourself of an amazing, one of a kind experience if you pass up on this exhibit.
Our very own Lisa the Intern visited opening day of the exhibit and we’ll have her article coming very soon to a blog near you (as in… this blog, that is currently near you)!

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

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