ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Kermit the Frog gestated from a green coat belonging to Jim Henson’s mother and a pair of ping pong balls.
The world’s most famous amphibian reigns over the Albuquerque Museum, greeting visitors to “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited.”
Kermit will join Bert and Ernie and Baby Miss Piggy, as well as stars from “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show,” “Fraggle Rock,” “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” and more in the show opening on Saturday.
The exhibit examines Henson’s groundbreaking work in TV and film and how it impacted popular culture.
On Monday, master puppet builder Bonnie Erickson wandered through the museum adjusting arms, legs and clothing to make the Muppet menagerie presentable.
Erickson’s most notable creations include Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf. She served as head of the Muppet Workshop before moving to vice president of creative projects, then creative director for the product division of the Jim Henson Co. and the Children’s Television Workshop (the producers of “Sesame Street”).
“We all worked very hard, but to us it was play,” Erickson said. “I loved going to work. It was the best job. We all came out of the same mind. It was sort of a beatnik/hippie generation.”
Erickson had worked as a costumer for New York theater when she interviewed with Henson. She began by carving characters from foam.
“He knew I sculpted,” Erickson said. Soon they switched to fleece because stitching it from the underside made the seams invisible.
Miss Piggy emerged when Henson asked Erickson to create the Three Little Pigs.
“I came from Minnesota, so I think he thought I knew pigs,” she said. “One of them became Miss Piggy.”
The sow would eventually star in a series of “Pigs in Space” Muppet episodes, among others.
“Everything we did would have another life if Jim found a place for it,” Erickson said.
The puppet builders often had to re-build characters when, say, Kermit got a pie in the face, or Miss Piggy went for a swim.
Henson was a perfectionist who hated confrontation, Erickson said.
“If he went ‘Hmmmm,’ you’d better try again,” she explained.
He also was noted for his love of practical jokes.
“When he was the Swedish Chef, I was under the table catching all the fruits and vegetables.”
Erickson learned confidence from Henson. Once he had seen her work, he allowed her to create unharnessed. He also trusted her taste in expensive costume fabrics.
“He said, ‘If you think it’s right, then it’s right,’ ” Erickson said.
Piggy’s prickly personality emerged in London with puppeteer Frank Oz. The script called for her to give Kermit a karate chop.
“It was a karate chop right to the neck,” Erickson said. “Oz said deep in her heart, she’s a truck driver.”
Piggy also served as the first porcine feminist, despite her obsession with Kermit.
“She became a spokeswoman for a lot of women,” Erickson said.
The day Henson died at 53 in 1990, Erickson was working at “Sesame Street.” A colleague called her before the death hit the news.
Today Erickson calls herself “semi-retired.”
“When I hear ‘Rainbow Connection’ (sung by Kermit in “The Muppet Movie”), I get very weepy.”