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Muppet master captivated by New Mexico

Cheryl Henson and Jim Henson behind the scenes in the workshop on the 1986 Easter special “The Tale of the Bunny Picnic.” Character designs are on the wall behind them.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As Jim Henson and his family of five children visited New Mexico, its customs and cultures seeped into the master puppeteer’s work.

Henson’s agronomist father Paul retired here after working for the Department of Agriculture, creating a regular vacation destination for his son.

“My grandfather really, really loved Albuquerque,” Cheryl Henson, Jim’s second eldest daughter, said in a telephone interview from New York. “As soon as he moved out there, he switched from ties to bolo ties.”

Cheryl will speak at the Albuquerque Museum at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the opening of “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited.”

The president of the Jim Henson Foundation, Cheryl still remembers hot air balloons, Santa Fe arts festivals and the high desert terrain she visited regularly as a teenager. Her father was especially taken by New Mexico’s native crafts.

“My father was fascinated by the design work of the Navajo,” she said. “He really appreciated the graphic design of the pottery and the rugs.”

New Mexico imagery surfaced regularly in Henson’s work.

Helium balloons floated in a Gonzo story line in the original “Muppet Movie.” A “Sesame Street” series brought the characters to Taos to visit the pueblo and help build an adobe house.

Cheryl worked with her father on a bevy of projects, including “Sesame Street” productions. When she was still in high school, she built puppets for “The Muppet Show” (1976-1979). Before attending Yale University, she worked on “The Dark Crystal” (1982). She continued to work as a puppet and mask maker in TV and on films like “Labyrinth” (1986) and “The Tale of the Bunny Picnic” (1986).

As she worked by her father’s side, she watched him cultivate an inventiveness that launched new techniques.

“My father was one of the first people to use a soft mouth construction to create a very flexible mouth to give them a distinct style,” Cheryl said.

Before Jim Henson, puppeteers built hard mouths to activate early American television characters such as Kukla, Fran and Ollie (1947-1957).

Henson also recognized the importance of lip-syncing to ensure the syllables matched the movement of the mouth within the tight frame of the TV screen.

“If you look at puppets before my father, there’s no record of that,” Cheryl said.

He coupled technological advantages with the broad humor culled directly from vaudeville. He also imbued each of his characters with aspects of himself.

“Some of those aspects are not very flattering, but they’re very funny,” Cheryl said.

“I think Kermit absolutely is based on aspects of my father’s personality,” she continued. “Kermit is the calm in the center of the storm until he’s no longer the calm. He’s trying to get this group of crazies together and I think that’s very much like my father.”

Henson saw TV as a stage projected by a monitor.

“You are the performer, the director and the audience all at the same time,” his daughter said.

An advocate for contemporary puppetry through grants, Cheryl says her appreciation for artists came directly from her father.

“He was a workaholic, but the older kids in the family worked with him,” she continued. “He was a very active father. He was inviting us to be a part of it.”

The family still owns property near Santa Fe, where Henson had planned to retire. He died in 1990 at age 53. The family buried his ashes between Santa Fe and Taos.

“We hiked out to that location and scattered his ashes,” Cheryl said. “It’s a very isolated hillside.”

_Headline”>EXCERPT: New Mexico imagery surfaced regularly in Jim Henson’s work.

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