labyrinth puppet jim henson
Arts/Culture Travel

Visit the Center for Puppetry Arts

Whenever you grew up, whether it be the 1970’s, 1980’s, 90’s or naughties, no doubt, you were aware of a program called Sesame Street. It’s been a staple in early childhood education for 50 years, which is no meant feat. In a way, the city of Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts feels like the perfect extension of Sesame Street.

I wish I was able to visit a place like this as a small child.

oscar the grouch sesame street
Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street

Generally, kids don’t want to be taught anything. At the very least, be reminded of the fact that they are learning something.

But Sesame Street changed the rules. It made numbers fun.

Anyone around the age of 50 or younger can, to some degree, thank Sesame Street for being present in their early years somehow. Those who are older have it to thank for keeping their own children occupied at some time.

I definitely had Sesame Street in my life as a young thing.

A couple of my favorite characters were Barkley and Oscar the Grouch (who I was often compared to as a very young girl, sorry mum).

When Did the Center for Puppetry Arts Open?

Kermit the Frog himself, officially opened the Center for Puppetry Arts. Also present was Kermit’s friend Jim Henson to accompany Center Founder Vincent Anthony in cutting the ribbon in the official ceremony.

The ceremony took place on September 23, 1978.

What’s It All About?

As stated on their website, the Center for Puppetry Arts’ mission is to help inspire and aid in educating and creating community through the global medium of puppetry.

Inside the Center for Puppetry Arts

There are two main sections within the displays of the Center.

Those two parts are the Global Collection Gallery and also the Jim Henson Gallery.

When I visit the Center, I like to go to the Global Collection Gallery first. This really sets the pace for the Jim Henson section. It’s also nice to step back in time a little and gain an awareness of what came before in the world of puppets.

This Gallery takes visitors through the past and shows us some of the earliest forms of puppets and performance from all over the world.

It’s always exciting to look at the different technical styles of puppets in this collection.

The Mua Roi Nuoc from Vietnam are incredible.

The Vietnamese Mua Roi Nuoc are performed in waist-deep water, usually as a result of flooded rice fields.

The Indonesian shadow puppets are also exquisite. There are records of their existence as far ago as over 1000 years!

The technical mastery of the Bunraku from Japan is also worth taking a minute to learn about. These elaborate puppets used up to three puppeteers per character.

They would animate the complex and sophisticated elements that allowed many different facial features to move. All the while, a performer would voice the character, generally chanting all of the puppet’s dialogue from the side of the stage.

czech marionette center for puppetry arts
A Czech marionette on display in the Global Collection Gallery

Czech marionettes have always held a special place in my heart. I have been fortunate enough to spend a significant amount of time in the Czech Republic on movie location work.

The Czech puppet making tradition is fascinating. There is a unique magic to Czech marionettes and I have a small collection myself (I will have to post about later).

The hand carving of the light wood really lends itself to a certain rustic character and charm. Czech marionettes have textured, carved finishes and a certain authenticity about them. The tradition of puppet making in the Czech Republic dates back to around the 18th century.

What can I say about Jim Henson? The man himself.

What I love about this gallery within the center is that it feels very personal.

It’s quite a moving experience coming through these walls and learning about Henson.

Jim Henson was a massive influence and inspiration to me, indirectly through his tv shows and movies. In no small way this contributed to developing my own creative career in a field not far from this.

Yes, I count Jim Henson as one of my idols.

In my eyes, he made magic. He brought felt and plastic button eyes to life. And when you watched, you believed that these things were real and had thoughts and feelings and experiences.

jim henson puppeteering
Jim Henson single-handedly puppeteering his Big Boss Man in 1971.

So, without spoiling the experience for first-timers, you are led through Jim’s career and life chronologically.

The room set up to replicate his office is a favorite of mine as well. I hope it’s still there. (I haven’t visited the center in a few years, now.)

Despite these two sections being permanent fixtures within the Center for Puppetry Arts, I have noticed that the characters on display do change from time to time.

I suspect some go out to other museums for specific exhibitions as well. So if you are a local and you’re a fan, be sure to visit every once in a while. You may see something new.

fozzie bear muppets
Fozzie Bear from The Muppets

Some of the highlights are characters from the Muppets. I almost expect them to come to life as I approach them. Despite being behind thick glass display boxes, they still feel life-like, and the spark is still in their eyes.

What is interesting is to see them in person; their size can often be quite surprising. How you see them on your tv screen and how big (or small) they are in reality can sometimes be glaringly different.

It’s quite fascinating.

Puppet makers working on characters from The Muppets

Seeing characters, props, and prototypes from the movies Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal in person is just enthralling, to say the least.

The puppets have been well-maintained over the years.

I tip my hat to the teams of dedicated artists who work tirelessly to restore these furry puppets and keep them perfectly in-tact for us all to see in person.

Generally, the materials that they are made from are not a long-lasting. That these puppets even still exist is something worth acknowledging in it’s own right.

augra the dark crystal
Aughra from The Dark Crystal

At the time of my last visit, there was also an extensive exhibition Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: World of Myth and Magic.

I was fortunate enough to see this exhibiton a couple of years ago.

model of dark crystal set
A small-scale model, or maquette of the set from The Dark Crystal

However, this already extended exhibition has recently closed. The Center does offer various Virtual Tours on Fridays only, as they are officially open for business once again.

sir didymus the labyrinth puppet
Sir Didymus from the feature film The Labyrinth

What Activities Are On Offer Inside Center for Puppetry Arts?

Aside from wandering through the Center’s galleries to view the familiar characters, we have come to love in the various Henson produced shows of the last 40 or so years, the Center for Puppetry Arts is also an invaluable educational center.

They are constantly running classes workshops and theatrical presentations for school groups to experience at the center.

Check their website here for up to date information about future workshops.

Classes can be about anything from puppet construction to team-building workshops.

Sometimes, Artist in Residence workshops are available during which students are fortunate enough to have a professional puppeteer or artist visit your school or institution.

Again, consult the website for further details. What a great experience for kids to have.

When Is It Open?

At the moment, the Center for Puppetry Arts is open Wed-Sat 10 am – 5 pm, their website states. And on Sundays from 12 pm – 5 pm.

The ticket office is also open these hours, plus Monday and Tuesdays 9 am – 4.30 pm.

However, tickets are timed, to ensure a controlled number of patrons at any one time, and to allow for social distancing.

In finishing up, I can only say go and visit this one of a kind museum. Support its cause and marvel in the details of these magical creatures us close and personal.

Learn a little bit more about the man that was Jim Henson and the amount of work that he and his teams invested in to help bring these creatures to life for us. All at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA.

Thank you, Jim.

jim henson quote from center for puppetry arts

Resources:

Puppet Showplace Theater

Jim Henson’s Red Book

Center for Puppetry Arts

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