MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Our final story on this week's "Throwbacks" show takes us inside one of the oldest forms of performance art, puppetry. Evidence suggests that puppets have been around for 5,000 years and have popped up in countries all across the globe. A number of our own country's puppets are now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in an exhibit called "Puppetry in America." Jacob Fenston takes us behind the scenes.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
In a hallway in the basement of The Museum of American History, museum conservator Sunae Park Evans walks me into a locked room. It's quiet, but filled with dozens of veiled figures covered by white sheets. She pulls off the sheets one by one.
MS. SUNAE PARK EVANS
This is Oscar the Grouch.
Green, furry Oscar the Grouch, without his trash can.
This is Swedish Chef, and I have Cookie Monster.
The museum owns about 30 of Jim Henson's classic Muppets. This Oscar and Cookie Monster date back to the beginning of Sesame Street, more than 40 years ago. These are middle aged puppets, and keeping them healthy is a job that's fallen to Park Evans, the museum's senior costume conservator.
So, now, sort of, I'm kind of a puppet conservator.
The problem with puppets is that they aren't always built to last. Park Evans opens a plastic bag filled with debris. Duct tape, aluminum wire, and a sticky brown powder. It's old, decomposing polyurethane.
Like, you know, cushion. It's kind of yellow foam.
This foam was a favorite of puppet makers, but not a favorite of conservators.
It's kind of easy to work on, so all the puppet, Muppet makers like this material.
They also used just about anything they had on hand. Not exactly archival quality.
So they used the duct tape and also, you know, like, what do you call that pops, like when you wrap some things and then pop.
Yeah. Bubble wrap. Bubble wrap. So, they used all those kind of things. So, I had to take them out completely and then rebuild the shape.
That bag filled with duct tape and powder, that was the innards of the Swedish Chef puppet, built in the mid-70s.
Rebuilding the puppets from the inside out was painstaking work and also required some research.
I don't know what they should look like.
Park Evans didn't grow up watching the Muppets. She grew up in Korea. So she had to do some studying, watching old Muppets videos. Still, she got some things wrong.
For example, this one. I, you know, made this Swedish Chef like a human kind of a, you know, body. So, it had a shoulder and all the body. I spent a lot of time, so it was almost like one week worth.
But then she got advice from a puppeteer who had worked with Jim Henson.
She came down. She said, no, this is not really right. Two people go in to run this Muppet.
Jim Henson and fellow puppeteer Frank Oz both had to fit inside the Swedish Chef, who wasn't shaped like a normal human.
So, no shoulder. No human body shape. Only arms. So, I did completely redone.
Park Evans is readying these puppets for their debut upstairs in the museum's rotating exhibition on the history of puppets in America. Currently on display, the early ancestors of Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch.
MR. DWIGHT BOWERS
These characters are all from 1955.
Curator Dwight Bowers.
They represent the very first Muppets. They are the cast of "Sam and Friends."
Which was a local television show here that was broadcast on the NBC affiliate.
They are largely abstract shapes surrounding the character of Kermit, who is not yet a frog, who was made by Jim Henson from Jim Henson's mother's discarded spring coat.
So, Kermit started out not as a frog?
No. Kermit started out as an abstract shape, because that was the interest of Jim Henson, making abstract shapes.
Yeah, so he still, I mean, he looks frog-ish here. He's...
Yeah, well, Jim Henson referred to him as a reptile like thing.
The Muppets are probably America's most enduringly famous puppets. But others enjoyed their day in the limelight too.
Charlie McCarthy was one of America's early radio stars.
He was known for snappy repartee, and the bon-vivant, dressed in a tuxedo, of course.
And he was a puppet.
He was very much a puppet. Although, to audiences who listened to his radio show weekly, he was more than a puppet.
Charlie McCarthy was the ventriloquist puppet of actor Edgar Bergen. Bizarrely, the two became famous on radio where listeners could see neither the puppeteer, nor the puppet. The earliest puppets on display at the museum were brought to America by immigrants. The oldest is a Chinese shadow puppet from 1850.
It's a combination of a unicorn-type beast and a lion.
The newest puppets on display are from the 2005 Tim Burton film, "Corpse Bride." These are stop-motion puppets.
They're posed and then filmed. Posed and then filmed.
Over the years, puppets have endured, thrived even, with the arrival of new technologies that could have displaced them. Radio, television, computer animation. People just like puppets and their strange humanness.
I think audiences love, not with radio, but obviously with television and with film, they love to look at the idea of an inanimate object made animate.
All it takes is a little foam and duct tape and one actor can become any character imaginable. A unicorn-lion beast, a reptile-like thing, or even a vaguely Scandinavian celebrity chef.
I'm Jacob Fenston.
Wanna visit some of Jim Henson's earliest Muppets? The National Museum of American History's "Puppetry in America" exhibit runs through April 13th.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jacob Fenston, Jonathan Wilson, Tara Boyle, and Lauren Ober, along with reporter Hans Anderson. WAMU's managing editor of news is Memo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and metroconnection.org.
Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts," is from the album "Title Tracks," by John Davis, and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. You can find all the music we use each week on metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song. And if you missed part of today's show, you can stream the whole thing on our website by clicking the "This Week On Metro Connection" link. You can also subscribe to our podcast there or find us on iTunes, Stitcher and the NPR News app.
We hope you can join us next week when we'll bring you a show we're calling, "Fresh Starts." We'll hear how one woman's stunning bout with cancer reinvigorated her creativity. We'll visit a brand new bakery that proves you're never too old for a fresh start or a fresh starter. And we'll talk with the people trying to put a fresh face on a changing D.C. neighborhood. Plus, we'll bring you the return of our series, "D.C. Gigs," featuring Washingtonians with distinctively D.C. jobs.
This time around, we'll meet a woman who pilots helicopters for the President of the United States.
So now I'm running the other engine up so it'll drive the main transmission. And once we have that torque matched with the other engine, we'd be ready to take off and go flying.
I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 News.
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