Confession: I am a secret puppet person (I just didn’t know it)
I certainly didn’t think of myself as a puppet person before I visited the Worlds of Puppetry Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. But after visiting and talking to Jill Malool, Director of the museum, I realized I’ve been a closet puppet person for years. Roaming through their amazing collection, I kept seeing puppets that reminded me of various times in my life.
Of course, there’s the classic Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street (sorry, Big Bird, Oscar is still my favorite). And we all know Kermit and the fabulous Miss Piggy from The Muppets. I then remembered that my sister, Vicki, and I had Ernie and Cookie Monster hand puppets when we were little that I had totally forgotten about until I was walking through the Jim Henson Collection (strangely, I don’t remember having a Bert).
I turned the corner and saw Gumby and The Corpse Bride characters showcasing stop motion puppetry. I remember watching Gumby on Sunday mornings before church. There are puppets from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (that show still cracks me up!). Then I wandered over into the Global Collection and saw marionettes, which reminded me of all the puppet shows I’ve seen growing up.
At the time I visited, it was the opening of the Dark Crystal exhibit. I hadn’t thought about that movie in years, but seeing the Mystics, Skeksis, Garthim and Jen reminded me of what a fantastic movie that was and how it was all created with puppetry.
I also saw puppets I had never seen before: shadow puppets from India, puppets that “walk on water” from Vietnam, and almost life-sized puppets from Japan. The puppets were also in a variety of materials: wood, fiberglass, leather, paper, felt. I think they have puppets from every country and region in the world: Italy, Central Europe, Indonesia, Myanmar, Turkey, China, Taiwan, Egypt, Korea, Japan and Mali. Puppetry can be traced back hundreds and even thousands of years in some regions. It didn’t hit me until I stood in the middle of the Global Collection and saw all the creativity around me that The Worlds of Puppetry Museum showcases how cultures around the world and throughout time have expressed themselves through puppetry to tell their stories and share their history.
So let’s get started traveling through their amazing collection!
The Worlds of Puppetry Museum – the original museum started out in an old elementary school building, but has been added on since then. On the behind-the-scenes tour you get to visit the old classrooms upstairs where they offer puppetry making classes for kids.
Jim Henson Collection:
Muppet Workshop – when you enter the Jim Henson collection there are a series of workstations with corkboards on the wall covering a specific aspect of how to make a puppet. Pinned to the boards are hand sketches showing how a particular puppet moves, photographs of Jim Henson, little pieces of fur and felt, and some of the most interesting notes about how to make a puppet come to life.
Big Bird – since his debut in 1969, Big Bird has remained as curious as an inquisitive six-year-old. So how do you animate a giant puppet like Big Bird? Listen to how the puppeteer works his mouth, and both wings, while at the same time being able to see where he’s going inside this giant puppet. Jill, the Director of the museum, shares a wonderful story between two generations and how they connect through this yellow bird.
Oscar the Grouch – my favorite Sesame Street character. The same puppeteer, Caroll Spinney, made both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch come alive. We all know the green Oscar of today, but you can see the original drawings for Oscar that pink was his original color.
Here’s another fun fact about Oscar’s color from the behind-the-scenes tour. In the first season on Sesame Street Oscar was actually orange, but the orange color didn’t show up very well on television so he became green. How did they explain on the show how Oscar suddenly changed color? Well, he visited a swamp and liked it so much he never showered again.
Kermit the Frog – Kermit came from humble beginnings as a “found object” puppet because he started from Jim Henson’s Mom’s old coat and a couple of ping pong balls, but has developed over time into the iconic Kermit we know today.
Miss Piggy – fabulous in feathers, satin and diamonds, Miss Piggy was the ultimate diva with a mean “harrumph” karate chop. Don’t mess with Miss Piggy. I always liked that about her.
The museum also had a picture of Miss Piggy from the Pigs in Space skit. Who else remembers that? I absolutely loved that skit because my family were also sci-fi fans.
Shadow Puppets from India – I think these were my favorite puppets in the museum. The texture and details on each puppet is amazing. With the light shining behind the puppets, you could see the tiny pinholes punched in each one that really bring out fine details and highlight specific areas on each puppet.
“Puppets that Dance on Water” – during rice harvest celebrations in Vietnam, puppets started performing in ponds over a thousand years ago. Hidden by a screen, the performers would stand waist-deep in the water and control the floating wooden puppets with submerged rods, cords and chains. The model the museum has would be a reflection of contemporary times where there are also indoor performances with specially built pools and pagodas.
Horse Marionette – this wooden horse marionette from Burma shows just how large and heavy these puppets can be. It’s a little hard to tell the scale from this image, but it’s probably 4’ tall to the top of the head and probably that long from nose to tail. Imagine reaching your arms straight out and holding something this large and heavy for hours?
Other Puppets from Around the World – we didn’t have time to talk about every puppet in the Global Collection, but I wanted to share a few of them to show the variety of this art form found around the world.
Dark Crystal Exhibit:
Jen – one of the two main characters from the 1982 Dark Crystal movie. Jen, a Gelfling, is tasked with healing the magical crystal by replacing the broken shards back into the original crystal that was split. Of course, it’s not that easy as he’s constantly under attack from the Skeksis who rose to power after the crystal originally cracked.
Skeksis – the “bad guys” that are trying to stop Jen and Kira from healing the crystal. Tall and vulture-like in their appearance, the amount of details in their costumes are amazing. At the end of the exhibit, the museum shows the mechanics underneath the heads of the Skeksis puppets. I love cutaway-type exhibits where you can see how something works. Seeing the finished puppet first, and then how it works underneath, added an entirely new level of appreciation for the skill in creating these puppets.
Mystics – the “kind” wizards that help Jen and Kira and want the crystal united. Look closely at the detailed swirls on the Mystic’s face – sometimes it looks like wrinkles and sometimes it looks like tattoos. Over and over I saw this level of detail on puppets – even if no one was ever going to get that close to see it – because of the artistry and care each creator had for the puppets.
Garthim – I came around a pole and, boom, this giant Garthim is right there. With a hard exoskeleton similar in design to a crustacean, and crab-like legs that scurried about, these are the soldiers for the Skeksis. As a body puppet, the puppeteer is inside and has to be both strong and flexible to maneuver these large puppets around the set.
Landstriders – I had completely forgotten about these characters until I saw this picture in the museum. Jill shared a great story about how they developed the Landstriders’ gait and movement. Sometimes opportunity knocks, but someone has to recognize it and open the door.
The Worlds of Puppetry Museum showcases how cultures around the world and throughout time have expressed themselves through puppetry to tell their stories and share their history. I had no idea that there were so many different types of puppets, the variety of materials used, or the mechanics and skill involved in making and operating a puppet.
As part of the Center for Puppetry Arts, the Worlds of Puppetry Museum is dedicated to all things puppetry. From displaying puppetry, performing puppetry and preserving puppetry, the Center for Puppetry Arts and the Worlds of Puppetry Museum work together to reinforce their vision that puppetry is an art form that can unite people all around the world.
You may not think you’re a puppet person, but after you visit this museum you just might change your mind. I know I did.
Oh, as a side note, when you make the trip to visit the Worlds of Puppetry Museum, I highly recommend the behind-the-scenes tour that includes visits to both the puppet workshop and scene shop. Absolutely fantastic!
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Worlds of Puppetry Museum – visit the museum’s website for all the details to plan your trip.
Center for Puppetry Arts – visit their website to learn more about upcoming puppet shows and other events.
Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance – trailer for the upcoming new Netflix series.