Jim Henson’s talent grew at University of Maryland

John Kelly

THE WASHINGTON POST – Answer Man’s column recently about the TV commercials Jim Henson created for Washington’s Wilkins Coffee elicited many fond memories from American readers. In this age of global media saturation, it’s hard to imagine a time when a local talent could so rule the local airwaves. But then, Henson seemed able to master anything he touched.

To get a sense of the Muppet creator’s precocious artistry, head over to the University of Maryland’s Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library. There you’ll find a compact but winning exhibit on Henson’s time as a student at Maryland, where he gained many of the skills that allowed him to bring his innate gifts to life.

Henson started out as a Fine Arts major but soon switched to the College of Home Economics, figuring that’s where he would learn the practical skills he needed to master his unique vision.

At Maryland he took courses in fashion illustration and advertising layout. The exhibit includes one of his class projects: a mock-up for something called ‘GLAM, for beautiful eyes’. Two comely female faces stare out from an ad that wouldn’t look out of place in Glamour magazine.

Next to that is another assignment: a sketch of a skeleton that manages to demonstrate both that Henson knew anatomy and that he possessed a sly sense of humour. At the top of the page, Henson helpfully jotted: “A skeleton – that’s bones with all the people scraped off.”

A 1950s TV ad featuring Wilkins and Wontkins plays on a monitor at ‘Inspired! Jim Henson at Maryland’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Henson had worked on set design while at Northwestern High School, and he continued with theatre work at Maryland. He became the Publicity Manager for several university theatre companies, responsible for designing posters and programmes for such shows as Teahouse of the August Moon and Dark of the Moon.

Henson became so adept at silk-screening – and was so industrious – that he set up a silk-screening business in the student union. You could hire Henson to design a poster for student council campaign.

A large touch-screen monitor allows visitors to scroll through digitised pages of sketchbooks Henson maintained.

The drawings inside are not fantastical proto-Muppets, but assured sketches of people and places, from the camera operators Henson encountered while working on his various TV projects to landscapes from around the District of Columbia: the Duke Ellington Bridge, Great Falls, the Silver Spring train station.

Another monitor displays scenes from Sam and Friends one of the shows Henson did with his future wife, Jane Nebel. It promised, an ad read, to “bring out the children in the adults and the adults in the children”.

Though the single-room exhibit is composed of just a few cases, a few walls and a few TV screens, it gives a good sense of the breadth of Henson’s interests and his love of experimentation.

In his short, animated film Drums West coloured shapes dance across a black background in time with a percussive soundtrack. Yellow and orange rectangles make starburst patterns as the (unseen) drummer Chico Hamilton, plays the high-hat; blue dots pop as he thumps the bass drum. It’s an abstract visual representation of the music.

How was it done? At the end, the camera pulls back to reveal Henson seated at a workbench. In front of him is a black surface about the size of an LP cover. It’s surrounded by bits of coloured paper that Henson has been painstakingly arranging with tweezers, then filming a frame at a time.

As for those souvenir Wilkins and Wontkins Muppets, they’re there too, inside a glass case. In 1958 you could have had a pair by sending in USD1 and the last inch of winding band from a can of Wilkins Coffee or a Wilkins Instant Coffee label.

“Made of soft but durable vinyl,” a newspaper ad explained “you only need to move your fingers inside to create 1,001 funny faces.”

Henson did that and more.

‘Inspired! Jim Henson at Maryland’, was curated by Vincent Novara of the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library and Karen Falk and Susie Tofte, archivists at the Jim Henson Co, which supplied much of the material.