If you’ve ever wanted to come face to face with a Muppet, a Fraggle, a Gelfling, or an otter that can lead a jug band, the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia should be on your bucket list.
Jim Henson himself (with help from his friend Kermit) cut the ribbon on the Center in 1978, and due to his close ties with the museum’s founders he donated a plethora of classic Henson creations. The Center boasts the largest collection of Henson puppets in the world in fact, and they must regularly rotate their displays because there isn’t enough space to show them all off at once.
All of your favorites make an appearance: Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster, Harry Monster, Fozzie Bear, one of Gonzo’s chickens, and even one of the backup singers from the “Mahna Mahna” skit. All of them are actual puppets used in the actual production of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.
There’s also a Kermit used for official photo shoots, a Rowlf used in an IBM corporate video from the ‘60s, a Big Bird used for promotional displays, and a Miss Piggy that appeared in Muppet Treasure Island.
It’s impossible to look at any classic Muppet and not be immediately sucked into a nostalgic vortex. The closer I gazed at the aged fur and foam and fuzz on each puppet, the deeper I went into my own childhood memories of watching them cause various brands of chaos on screen. For years they were encased inside a TV set, now they were just inches away.
The emotions kicked into overdrive as things got more obscure, with Ma and Emmet from Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas and the whole gang from Fraggle Rock, including several Doozers.
Incidentally, this guy is my spirit animal:
But my jaw really dropped when I encountered a full size Skeksis from The Dark Crystal.
In the early ‘80s, the Henson team took all their energy and talent for creating ultimate cuteness and traveled to the other end of the spectrum to create ultimate creepiness. Any kid who grew up with The Dark Crystal has vivid memories of the terror brought about by the Skeksis and all the other non-Sesame Street-friendly creatures that populated the film.
Seeing the original Aughra and Fizzgig puppets was certainly exciting—the intricate designs of all the Dark Crystal puppets gave me a deep appreciation for the artistry and level of detail that went into each character—but coming face to beak with SkekUng, the Garthim Master, was like confirming that there was indeed a monster in your closet as a child, and he wants to say hello.
Some of the props from Labyrinth were also on display, notably one of the talking door knockers, and one of the guards who always lies (or tells the truth). The museum often does Labyrinth- and Dark Crystal-themed events during which they display a more comprehensive selection of artifacts from each movie in their temporary exhibit space, so if you’re a fan of either film it’s worth keeping an eye on the museum’s website and social media pages to find out when their next masquerade ball might be!
Between all the puppets and props there are displays dedicated to the evolution of Henson’s career, beginning with video clips from Henson’s early TV work, some original sketches and commercial storyboards, and a recreation of Henson’s office with his actual furniture. From there it opens into a replica of the famed Creature Shop, with bankers boxes full of fabric and drawers full of Ping-Pong balls and fuzzy noses. And there’s even a mock TV studio where visitors can test their puppetry skills with a camera and monitor system similar to those used in actual Henson productions.
While the Henson collection is the part of the museum most likely to evoke comforting childhood memories, the Center for Puppetry Arts truly lives up to its name with a professional puppetry theatre, rooms for puppetry workshops, and the Global Collection, which houses an impressive inventory of puppets from around the world.
Even though the puppets in the Global Collection don’t have the same immediate recognition as the Henson puppets, there are still some celebrities to be found: an original Gumby and Pokey from the ‘60s, Emily and Victor from The Corpse Bride, and what puppetry museum would be complete without Punch and Judy? But even the less-recognizable puppets are still fascinating in their craftsmanship and the way they reflect the various cultures from which they originated.
Like the Henson exhibit, the items in the Global Collection are regularly rotated, so the Center for Puppetry Arts is worth frequent return visits. I’ve already started budgeting for semi-annual trips to Atlanta, knowing that I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Having been so bowled over by the treasures on display, I can only wonder what other characters are waiting in the wings.
It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling knowing that all my childhood friends are still hanging out together to this day. And knowing that I can drop in on them any time I wish.