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'Puppetry In America': Why Puppets Still Appeal in a Changing World

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The Swedish Chef Muppet is getting finishing touches before going on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The puppet debuted in 1975.
Jacob Fenston/WAMU
The Swedish Chef Muppet is getting finishing touches before going on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The puppet debuted in 1975.
The National Museum of American History received 20 puppets last year on Jim Henson's birthday.

There's evidence puppets have been around for 5,000 years — in ancient Egypt, Greece, India, Japan, and Mexico. Puppets have popped up in cultures across the globe. Some of this history is on display now, at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, which owns about 200 historic American puppets.

Puppets and preservation don't mix

In a basement room, museum conservators are at work preserving the nation's puppet history. The problem with puppets is that they aren't always built to last.

The museum owns about 30 of Jim Henson's classic Muppets. Many 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 has fallen to senior costume conservator Sunae Park Evans, the museum's senior costume conservator.

Park Evans opens a plastic bag filled with debris: duct tape, aluminum wire and a sticky brown powder. The powder is old, disintegrating polyurethane. This foam was a favorite of puppet-makers, but not a favorite of conservators.

"It's easy to work on, so all the Muppet-makers liked this material, but it's not really archival," says Park Evans.

Puppet-makers also used just about any material they had on hand, including duct tape and bubble wrap. Over time, these materials not only disintegrate, but also damage the puppets' fabric.

"I had to take them out completely and then rebuild the shape."

The bag filled with duct tape and powder contains 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," says Park Evans. She didn't grow up with the Muppets — she grew up in Korea — so she had to study up, watching old Muppets videos. Still, she got some things wrong. "

"For example, this one," she says pointing to the Swedish Chef. "I made this Swedish Chef like a human body. So it had a shoulder and all the body. I spent a lot of time, it was almost like one week worth."

But then, she got advice from a puppeteer who had worked with Jim Henson.

"She came down and 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. Park Evans had to entirely redo the body she'd built.

History in puppet form

She is preparing 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 the Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch.

"These characters are all from 1955," says curator Dwight Bowers, pointing to a display of unusual puppets. "They represent the very first Muppets, they are the cast of Sam and Friends, which was a local television show here, which was broadcast on the NBC affiliate."

They are recognizable as Jim Henson characters, but it's hard to tell what kind of animals they're supposed to be.

"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," Bowers says.

The original Kermit, it turns out, was not actually a frog.

"No. Kermit started out as an abstract shape, because that was the interest of Jim Henson, making abstract shapes. Jim Henson referred to him as a reptile-like thing," he says.

Beyond the Muppets

The Muppets are probably America's most enduringly famous puppets, but others enjoyed their day in the limelight. Charlie McCarthy was one of America's early radio stars.

"He was known for snappy repartee, he was a bon-vivant, in a tuxedo, of course."

He also happened to be 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 remained popular, thrived even, with the arrival of new technologies that could have displaced them - radio, television, computer animation. People just like puppets, and their strange human-ness.

"I think audiences love - not with radio, but with television and with film - they love to look at the idea of an inanimate object made animate."

Many performers love puppets because of their simplicity - America's first puppeteers were itinerant performers. Traveling the country, they could create an entire show from a suitcase.

With just 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.

[Music: "Happy Days Are Here Again" by Casa Loma Orchestra from The Great Depression - American Music in the 30s / "Thanks for the Memory" by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass from The Beat of the Brass]

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