Inside Atlanta’s midtown arts district lives the country’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to the art of puppetry. The Center for Puppetry Arts contains a research library and theater which screens puppet-filled films and performs fully-staged shows for fans of all ages. The pièce de résistance of this building, however, is a beautifully laid out “Worlds of Puppetry” museum which opened in 2015 following a $14 million buildout.
We visited this fantastic museum in June 2019. The following is a guide to the exhibits and our favorite parts. Of course, there are many things here that we tried to capture in both photos and words, but we’ll focus mainly on the ones that really struck a chord with us as lifelong Disney and Henson admirers.
The Center originally opened in 1978 where Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog were personally “on-hand” for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Since then, this place has emerged as the nation’s premier showcase for the craft.
All types of puppetry styles and techniques are touched-on here and museum exhibits rotate fairly regularly (meaning: what you see in the below photos/description may not still be there during your visit. If there’s something you have your heart set on seeing during your visit, we highly suggest calling ahead to ensure that piece is still being displayed).
The 7,500 square-foot museum space houses a massive collection of puppet artifacts collected from around the world including Disney items from The Lion King on Broadway as well as a permanent Jim Henson collection where a number of Muppets (an entity of Henson’s creations that has been owned by Disney since 2004) are on display.
After paying a reasonable entrance fee (all proceeds go to support the non-profit organization), we stopped for a quick photo inside a faithful re-creation of Big Bird’s nest before proceeding into the museum area.
The main exhibition, Worlds of Puppetry, is split into two sections: the Jim Henson Collection and the Global Collection. During our visit, a temporary space showcasing Henson’s The Dark Crystal was also open (due to close June 2020). The facilities here are clean, modern and Silver-LEED Certified, offering interactive displays which focus on practical interaction without overly distracting with screens and technology – we loved that.
The Jim Henson Collection
Making a left through the main entrance, we enter the Jim Henson Collection which contains the largest collection of Henson puppets in the world. A vast majority of the pieces owned by the organization come from a 2007 donation by the Henson family including over 500 pieces ranging from props to costumes, and of course, puppets.
The Henson exhibit space only keeps around 75 items on display at a given time, allowing the items to be rotated frequently (about twice a year). Keep that in mind as the photos we’ll show you here only reflect our visit. If you want to ensure that you will get to see your favorite Muppet during your own visit, we highly suggest calling ahead to ensure that piece is still on view.
Instead of following a strict chronological flow like the traveling Jim Henson: Imagination Unlimited exhibit and The Museum of the Moving Image‘s Jim Henson Exhibit, displays here are grouped by theme. The first thing we see inside the space is an introduction to the performers. First Jim and his wife Jane and their early commercial projects. This is where we get a glimpse of the first puppet of the exhibit on display: the original 1955 Omar puppet built by Henson for his first TV stint, Sam and Friends. A vintage TV plays clips from the show on loop, so you can see him, and other 1950s Henson puppets in action.
Next, we find tributes to the earliest Henson collaborators, Jerry Juhl, Frank Oz, and Don Sahlin, along with the next puppet on display: Rowlf the Dog. Rowlf was conceived in 1962 to be used in a series of dog food commercials but gained national stardom as a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show in 1963. The version on display here was used in a series of IBM training videos in the 60s.
“Jim Henson… has an imagination that flows like lava from a psychedelic volcano.”
– John Stark, People Magazine (July 1989)
Further down we see a scene of an office desk representing Jim’s personal life, work life, and interests. Family photos line the walls among a shelf of awards with letters, books, and trinkets strewn about. The paper-mache light-up moose head hanging above was a personal favorite of Jim’s. He purchased it in 1966 and kept it on display in his New York City office.
Now we enter the “workshop”, one of my favorite rooms of the Henson exhibit. Here, you get an inside look at the various tools and techniques used to design and build our fuzzy friends. Guests are encouraged to pull open drawers to find a variety of “body parts” and swatches of fabric, foam, fleece, and fur are available to be petted – have you ever wanted to touch a Muppet? This is probably the closest you’ll get to do it!
The centerpiece of the workshop is the dog featured in 1987’s The Storyteller, along with a look at his mechanical innards. This pup always reminds me of Rover from Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress.
We now enter Sesame Street (now you know how to get there!). A screen-used Ernie and Bert welcome you to the room, followed by Oscar, Grover, Herry, Hoots, and Little Bird among a life-sized photo of the show’s set. Some of the characters are holding up numbers signifying the show’s first year on-air (1969).
It’s worth noting that the Big Bird on display here is an “exhibition puppet”, presumably built to be displayed and not an actual, functioning puppet. It is, however, a faithful and accurate representation of the eight-foot-two yellow canary. A small reading nook gives kids an opportunity to peruse Sesame Street books while watching clips from over 50 years of the show’s groundbreaking content.
Next, we find a room designed to look like a TV studio. A working camera and monitors allow willing participants to grab a puppet and jump onto the set to “try their hand” at puppetry. Parents looking for a short break can grab a seat in the director’s chair or roam the room which offers an insight into techniques used in filming puppets such as a rolling dolly with an attached video monitor.
Now we round the corner and enter my personal favorite part of the entire museum. It’s time to meet the Muppets… (cue the music!).
I’m not sure why The Muppets are so dear to my heart, but they are. Maybe it’s because I would catch glimpses of The Muppet Movie (1979) on TV during my childhood or would associate them with a must-visit attraction at my favorite vacation destination. Seeing them up-close had always been a dream of mine and I’ve been very fortunate to have seen a number of Muppets in-person throughout my life. This room was no exception.
Highlights here include Kermit (of course), Dr. Teeth, and Robin. Similar to Big Bird, however, the Kermit here is labeled as a “photo puppet” from the mid-1970s (assumably used in still photography shoots and not actually performed as a puppet – hence the legs on this one). Dr. Teeth and Robin are both labeled as “display puppets”. Even though they were never performed as puppets, they still look beautiful in-person. It would be nice if the placards had some insight as to where these guys came from and what they were used for – perhaps Henson recordkeeping didn’t track details for this type of thing… I digress.
Don’t worry though, the stars of Pigs in Spaaaaaaace are here; Dr. Julius Strangepork and Captain Link Hogthrob are indeed screen-used, built for The Muppet Show in 1977. These two are well-preserved and have been with the Center’s collection since before the 2015 renovation. So Kermit doesn’t get lonely, Miss Piggy is also nearby; This one was used on Muppet Treasure Island (1996) which is obvious from her tribal costume, playing the role of Benjamina Gunn in the film.
Prying myself away from the Muppet room and into the next category of Henson’s career are non-Muppet creations for film and television. This room held small collections of displays for Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977), Fraggle Rock (1983-87), The Dark Crystal (1982), and Labyrinth (1986).
Fraggles, Doozers, and Sprocket stole the show for me. Hand puppets often seem larger in real life than you’d expect them to be, but it was interesting to see that the scale of Doozers are pretty true-to-life as to how they’re portrayed on TV, almost like a model railroad-sized scale. They’re really tiny and their creation and sculpting must’ve been quite a feat – a testament to the level of skill and craftsmanship of the team that Henson had curated over the years.
The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) displays are on the opposite side of the room featuring a good amount of creatures and puppets from each, though (besides a full-scale Garthim) it seems that some of the “good stuff” from The Dark Crystal may have been moved over to The Dark Crystal: World of Myth and Magic temporary exhibit. Read more about items from The Dark Crystal and an interesting link between The Dark Crystal and Star Wars that you can discover by skipping ahead to our write-up about The Dark Crystal: World of Myth and Magic exhibit, below.
The last room of the Henson Collection was meant as a tribute to Henson’s legacy, though we felt it didn’t quite capture his legacy as much as the Jim Henson: Imagination Unlimited exhibit and The Museum of the Moving Image‘s Jim Henson Exhibit did. These told the story of the lasting impact Henson had on the world, highlighting groundbreaking work in digital graphics and robotics as well as showing us how the “classic” characters continue to live on. This exhibit, instead, focused on how the company progressed following Jim’s death, displaying items from Dog City (a segment of one of his last projects, The Jim Henson Hour, and later used in the Saturday morning FOX TV series of the same name) and puppets created for a recent commercial project the company did for the Southern fast-food chain, Krystal.
A poster near the exit provides a summary as to the current status of Henson’s creations: Jim Henson Company, The Muppets, Sesame Street, The Jim Henson Legacy, and The Jim Henson Foundation.
Heading out, you can’t help but get misty-eyed as you walk under a beautiful stained glass mural of Kermit, the very one that hung in the entryway to Henson’s “Muppet Mansion”, the NYC headquarters for the company at one point. Alongside it is one of my favorite quotes, ever:
“Please watch out for each other. Love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life. Enjoy it.”
– Jim Henson
The Global Collection
While the Henson collection is what really drew me into visiting the museum (and frankly, stole the show for me), the Global Collection here definitely deserves recognition. There’s even some Disney magic to be found…
Nearly 200 items are on display in this section alone, showcasing the wide variety of styles and techniques in the art of puppetry spanning cultures and countries across the globe. Hands-on areas allow you to pull the strings of a marionette, perform with shadow puppets, and slow-down or speed-up the frames of 2009’s stop-motion film, Coraline.
I really enjoyed learning the vastly different ways of storytelling that people have invented by bringing inanimate objects to life over the years.
My favorite items here come from the contemporary pop culture section, like an original Gumby from 1962. Gumby, or as I like to call him: the father of stop-motion animation, lead the way for more advanced versions of the filmmaking process like those seen in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and again in Corpse Bride (2005). The stars of the latter, Victor and the Corpse Bride, can be seen in the flesh (err, mostly moldable plastic).
Also in this area, we spotted Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, the heckling puppets from the cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In a section about animals portrayed in puppetry, we find headpieces of both Mufasa and Scar from the Broadway musical, The Lion King. These are original prototypes created from carbon fiber, wood, chicken and turkey feathers by the show’s director, Julie Taymor, and production designer, Michael Curry. It’s worth noting that Curry went on to work on a number of Disney projects including Finding Nemo – The Musical, Rivers of Light, and all stage versions of Frozen. You can read more about The Lion King and more Disney musicals in our blog post, by clicking here.
Speaking of Rivers of Light, don’t some of these shadow puppets remind you of that show? Same!
Puppets can take all shapes, forms, and sizes. For some, they can be creepy. For others, a work of art. Either way, visiting this museum will give you a greater appreciation for the creativity behind their design and performance as a means of expression through art.
The Dark Crystal: World of Myth and Magic
Moving on to The Center’s temporary space, we find an exhibit called Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: World of Myth and Magic. This special exhibit about the 1982 cult-classic film, The Dark Crystal ran from 2018 – 2020.
This exhibit takes you behind the scenes of the design and production of the original 1982 film, a project that Jim Henson himself called the one that he was “the most proud of”.
Within this portion of the museum, we see the elements that prove the depth of artistry and creativity behind the 5-year process it took to create a film that was an entire departure from the sweet and cuddly puppets that Henson had created in the past. The exhibit’s existence is especially timely as The Dark Crystal franchise has recently been revived by Netflix with a ten-episode prequel series entitled The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
I was also interested to learn of a pretty cool Disney connection here as well. As it’s described on a placard:
“Gary Kurtz, producer of George Lucas’ Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, also produced The Dark Crystal. During preproduction on Empire, Kurtz introduced Henson to Lucas and a mutually beneficial relationship developed between them. The two men shared creature-building discoveries that made both The Dark Crystal and the creation of the Jedi Master Yoda possible. Not only did Henson and Lucas exchange ideas, but Henson Company personnel also aided in the creation of Yoda. Frank Oz, and other members of Henson’s team performed Yoda. Wendy Midener, creator of The Dark Crystal’s Kira and Jen, worked closely with Empire’s Stuart Freeborn in building the Yoda puppet.”
In other words: without The Dark Crystal, there would be no Yoda… and without Yoda, there would be no Star Wars. Need I say more?
Among the other items of interest here is a full-scale Aughra as well as a sampling of the various species of creatures found throughout the film and some interesting looking puppets created for a 2016 fan film competition that the Henson Company sponsored.
The “museum store” here sells a wide variety of puppet related merchandise, from hand puppets of beloved characters to toys, books, mugs, and other paraphernalia. They also sell those incredibly cool “vintage” Mickey and Friends hand puppets by Folkmanis, you can see them in the below photo on the top shelf on the far right.
As for exclusive items, as far as I could tell, the only things I saw were colorful t-shirts branded with the “Center for Puppetry Arts” logo. All proceeds from the store go to help fund the non-profit, so don’t be shy about picking up a few items to bring home for friends and family.
We’d 💯 recommend a visit to The Center if you come through Atlanta, or even if you live in the area. It makes for a great rainy-day (but really, any day) activity for kids and adults alike. Limited on-site parking is available and free, right next to the entrance. Be sure to check out their website for a full listing of all shows, film screenings, kid’s programs, and more at www.Puppet.org
For more WanderDisney fun in the area, check out the High Museum of Art (which was a filming location in Marvel’s Black Panther) just a few minutes away by foot or dine at STK Atlanta (who has a sister location in Disney Springs), which is a 20-minute walk from the Center for Puppetry Arts.
Don’t forget to be on the lookout for the Tiny Doors art project installation, a very fitting addition to the theme of the building. There’s a bunch of these scattered through the city, so keep a sharp-eye out when exploring the area because it’s, you know, tiny!
Be sure to take a look at all of the WanderDisney locations related to this post: