Puppet Power

We Greenwich folk have a special place in our hearts for the Henson family—including Kermit, Miss Piggy and fellow Muppets. After all, Jim and Jane once lived in our town with their five children, who are carrying on their father’s work with great success.

“Having American puppetry acknowledged on the international stage was a longstanding dream of my father’s,” says Cheryl Henson, who’s seen to it his dream came true.

left: Author Leslee Asch, longtime trustee of the Jim Henson Foundation; right: Teaching a class in France in 1987, Jim and Brian Henson watch the monitor as their puppets chat. – Photo by Richard Termine

It was Cheryl with Old Greenwich resident Leslee Asch who brought five International Festivals of Puppet Theater to New York between 1992 and 2000—the last involving 166 artists and 638 puppets from fourteen countries, plus a national tour. The New York Times noted that the festivals were “too large to ignore.”

“We were puppet missionaries … determined to expand the flock,” says Leslee, whose new book Out of the Shadows is an impressive chronicle of puppet theater. Starting with Henson in 1977 as a puppet builder (Elmo being one!), she is now a recognized expert in the field.

Gustav the Clown, with famous marionettist Albrecht Roser pulling his strings during a Henson festival. – Photo by Ingrid Hofer

Worked with hands, strings and rods, puppets come as little as your finger and as big as War Horse on Broadway. There are Indonesian shadow puppets and life-sized puppets attached to Japanese dancers. They’re in operas (The Magic Flute) and movies (The Lion King). All the arts are involved.

And since 1982, the Henson Foundation has granted some $2.5 million to support over 850 artist projects across the United States. As the late Jim Henson dreamed, puppetry has indeed become a serious business very much on the world map. Leslee’s book says it all.

Metaphor for festival direction: Bill Blair, founder of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, the largest in the U.S., pushing a wild boar puppet.
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