The Great Muppet Museum Caper: A Q&A with Miss Piggy's Designer on the New Survey of Jim Henson's Art

Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, Elmo, Bert and Ernie for certain generations, those names evoke warm, fuzzy childhood memories of the Jim Henson characters they shared their lives with. The traveling Smithsonian exhibition,"Jim Henson's Fantastic World" a celebration of the Henson and the magical world he created makes its last stop on July 16 at the newly-renovated Museum of the Moving Image. Visitors can relive their formative years or introduce their children to the Muppets until January 16, 2012.  

"Jim Henson's Fantastic World" features videos, drawings, story boards, and puppets of  everybody's favorite characters, including Rowlf, Kermit, and Gobo from "Fraggle Rock." Also included are snippets of a side of Jim Henson that most don't know about, like his work on the experimental film "Time Piece," his design for a multimedia psychedelic nightclub, and a documentary for NBC titled, "Youth 68" about 60s youth culture that included interviews with Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas & the Papas. The Museum of the Moving Image will host weekend events in conjunction with the exhibition, like Muppet History 101, a program that goes over the origin of the puppets, a screening of "the Muppets Take Manhattan," with the movie's production designer and costume designer, and a puppet-making workshop with Jim Henson Company puppeteer Noel MacNeal.

ARTINFO chatted with Bonnie Erickson, executive director of the Jim Henson Legacy and designer of Miss Piggy a few days before the exhibition's opening about the man behind the magic, Miss Piggy's origins, and her thoughts on the upcoming Muppets feature film.

How did you come up with the idea for Miss Piggy?

Well, it was actually a request from Jim. He wanted three pigs for a series that we were doing. He came to me because I'm from the Midwest, so I'm sure he thought I understood and knew pigs. The three pigs ended up being Miss Piggy, one was just sort of a background pig, and the other ended up being something very similar to Dr. Strangepork.

So we first did her as a character for that bit, but she was quickly commandeered because we did a Herb Alpert appearance and they needed some sexy female, so I very quickly made her purple gloves, and I draped her in purple satin, and gave her some pearls and bigger eyes I went to the eye drawer and changed her look and she went back and forth in those personalities for quite awhile. She started out in "the Muppet Show" as a chorus girl and as you know, she's now a big diva.

Why New York for the exhibition's finale?

It just happened that we had a space opening for it and the museum had just opened, and our archivist, Karen Falk, was very persistent about making this our last venue. We had not been in the New York area,and we had been all over the country, and we've enjoyed being at every one of the museums, they've all been terrific to us, but it was something special to come home, so we're really happy to be here.

How long did it take to put together everything?

I think we worked on the exhibit itself with SITES [Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service] from the Smithsonian for about a year planning, putting it together,getting it ready to travel, and it's been on the road since 2007.

What else are you doing to keep Jim Henson's legacy alive?

As I mentioned we have a film tour that we do, so we show Jim's actual work. We also show some behind the scenes videos and films that people wouldn't ordinarily get to see.That's been traveling also around the country. We also have contact with a lot of the people who worked with Jim called the Amphibian Alumni Associates, and we do events that include some of their work, or we keep them up to date on the things that are happening. We have been accepting awards posthumously for Jim since he died, and I think with the collection of objects that the family has, and  which we have the responsibility to keep available to people,that's been our way of keeping his work in the public eye.

What do you think of the new feature film that's coming out, "The Muppets," and what would Jim think about it?

I'm not sure I would speak for Jim, but I'm sure I can speak for myself in saying that it looks very exciting.

Have you seen it yet?

I've only seen the trailers and the teasers that have been on YouTube and online, and they look fabulous. I'm really very excited about it and the fact that it's going to live on its own and simply be named "the Muppets" that seems to say it all.

Why do you think Jim Henson's characters still remain in the hearts of many people around the world?

He was never mean-spirited. He was sort of a gentle anarchist . He had things to say, but he was never unkind. There were a lot of different personalities, particularly in "the Muppet Show" he had an opportunity over those five years to develop personalities, and relationships between those characters, much the same as a sitcom or something that has a long run can do. I think it was his sensitivity and his feelings about people in general. He was an incredibly positive person.

And your favorite part of the exhibition?

I have a lot of favorite parts of the exhibition, but I guess I have to say Miss Piggy!

Click on the photo gallery at the left to see images from "Jim Henson's Fantastic World."