A couple of weeks ago, Patrick and I had a chance to tour Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in New York City. Patrick has been working on the Dark Crystal prequel at the Burbank Creature Shop for several months now, so when we were planning our NYC trip, he was able to arrange with some of his East Coast co-workers to visit Henson. We also got to visit the set of Sesame Street and the fantastic new Jim Henson Exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image, both of which I’ll feature in upcoming posts.
Patrick found several striking differences between the East Coast and West Coast Creature Shops. While the Burbank shop is burrowed in a windowless industrial building, the NYC shop occupies a light-filled former factory space in a nearly 100-year-old building with an organic garden on the roof!
Due to the differences in the types of projects each handles, the two Creature Shops also feel distinct. Burbank has more of an emphasis on monsters and creatures, with spaces and equipment designed for the accompanying sculpting, mold-making and mechanical work. NYC does predominantly Muppet-style puppets, so it’s all fur and fleece and color everywhere.
When you step inside the door, the first thing you see is this fabulous display of Fraggles. Nerd Note: Those boxes in the lower left corner contain puppets for Brian Henson’s upcoming movie The Happytime Murders, starring Melissa McCarthy!
Behind the Fraggles is an oversize photo of Jerry Nelson, Caroly Wilcox, Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Richard Hunt performing on the set of Sesame Street.
The reception desk used to display the Fraggles was commissioned by Muppet collaborator and former Henson EVP Michael Frith after Jim Henson’s death. The art was designed by Frith and executed by Frank Pollaro in the Chippendale style using 120 different types of wood veneer. It took three years to create! More information can be found here.
The Fraggles are all “posers” used almost exclusively for photo shoots.
I have a soft spot for Wembley because Patrick got to perform him once!
Uncle Traveling Matt!
One of the crown jewels of the New York shop is this stained glass artwork. The top panel was commissioned by Jerry Juhl as a gift for Jim Henson; the lower panel was created later by another artist to line up.
Yea and Nay, from a never-completed project Henson was working on at the time of his death.
Also on display are some of the many Muppets created for the various international versions of Sesame Street. If you recognize any of them, let me know and I’ll label them!
This large artwork was created by John Henson based on a piece Jim made as a child using his grandmother’s embroidery hoop. The eyes swing independently!
We saw Jim Henson’s original art piece the next day at the Museum of the Moving Image.
Man, this Skeksis Throne is only slightly less intimidating without a Skeksis in it!
From the Kermitage series, which launched a thousand Muppet parodies…
The biggest surprise in the lobby was…. Mr. Snuffleupagus! He usually lives on the Sesame Street sound stage (suspended from the rafters—apparently Big Bird’s not the only one who likes to nest off the ground!). But the day before our visit he was out taping a segment on the streets of New York, so he happened to be temporarily in the Creature Shop just for us!
Most of the working portion of the Creature Shop is off-limits for photography, so I don’t have a lot of shots back there. One I wish I could show you is the Elmo I got to hug! But he was getting groomed, so… not ready for his closeup!
Our guide was great about alerting us to those few things we were allowed to photograph. As you’d expect, there were bins and bins of raw materials!
My favorite fabric: “Slippery Sleezy”!
In the center of the workroom is a veritable treasure chest of Muppet features for easy assembly and repair. (“AM” stands for “Anything Muppet” which is what Sesame Street calls the blanks that can be repurposed as different characters. The Muppet Show called them “Whatnots.”)
Anything Muppet Eyes….
Grouch & Oversized Eyes…
Fiesta of Noses!
Enough facial hair to adorn the entire hipster population of Brooklyn!
I like this blue ‘stache… give him a couple of eyes and he could be his own character!
We also got to see the dye room, the puppet archives (just stacks of boxes), and some of the flat art archives, including some early storyboards drawn by Jim Henson for Sam & Friends. One thing we were allowed to shoot was the floor-to-ceiling shelves of fur!
Our tour ended in the photo studio, where they let us each pick a favorite character to take a photo with. One of the reasons you can’t shoot in the rest of the shop is that a puppet must never appear “dead” on camera. They have to be posed, either on armatures like the Fraggles in the lobby or inhabited by a puppeteer. Our guide called in a co-worker to perform each character, and Patrick posed them to get the eye focus right in the shot.
At long last, I met my childhood idol… GROVER!!!
Patrick picked The Amazing Mumford, whom you may recall from his catchphrase, “A la peanut butter sandwiches!”
On our way out, I spotted this fantastic photo of Jim and Kermit on the set of Muppet*Vision 3D at Walt Disney World!
Next up… I can tell you how to get to Sesame Street!