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Pop Culture Syllabus: Muppets

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A course in pop culture isn’t complete without a well-considered curriculum. Here are the sights, sounds and texts you need to become a master of the arts at mental_floss university.

1. UNDER THE FEATHERS

For 46 years, Caroll Spinney has played Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) on Sesame Street, one year longer than Muppet creator Jim Henson performed as Kermit the Frog. At 80, Spinney is still going strong. He’d have to be: His bird suit weighs 14 pounds, and he must hold up the 4-pound head with his right hand while navigating the set via a monitor strapped to his chest. In a new documentary, Spinney shares some of the most incredible stories from his decades as America’s favorite flightless bird, like the time he almost joined the doomed Challenger mission to boost interest in space travel. Fortunately for kids everywhere, NASA changed its mind at the last minute—and Big Bird stayed earthbound.

WATCH: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (on demand: iTunes, Amazon, Google Play)

2. THEN AND NOW

At just 18, Jim Henson got his first TV show. Featuring an early version of Kermit the Frog, Sam and Friends ran for six years and launched the puppet juggernaut that would become the Muppets (contrary to popular belief, their name isn’t a portmanteau of “marionette” and “puppet”—Henson said he just liked the way it sounded). After 60 years, nine feature films, and 10 television series, the Muppets are being honored in a brand-new museum exhibit. With a massive donation of more than 500 items from Henson’s estate, including iconic Muppets like Kermit, the Swedish Chef, and Bert and Ernie (as well as storyboards, sketches, and costumes), this is the largest collection of Muppetry available to the public.

VISIT:Jim Henson: The Exhibit,” Museum of the Moving Image, Queens, New York
WATCH: The Muppets (a rebooted version for adults), on ABC

3. MAD MAN

Jim Henson was more than a puppeteer, he was also a savvy ad man (and an experimental filmmaker—his short film Time Piece, in which he also starred, was nominated for an Oscar in 1966). In 1957, while still in college, he created a pair of proto-Muppets to star in a series of 10-second commercials for a local D.C. coffee brand called Wilkins. The warring characters, named Wilkins and Wontkins, became such a hit he was asked to reuse them for other campaigns across the country—not just for other coffee brands, but for Taystee Bread, Sohio gas stations, and Detroit’s favorite soda, Faygo. A full reel of Henson’s ad work is available on the Henson Company’s YouTube channel, along with that trippy Oscar film.

WATCH: Red Book Playlist on the Jim Henson Company’s YouTube channel


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The Jim Henson Company
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The Dark Crystal Is Coming Back to Theaters
The Jim Henson Company
The Jim Henson Company

In 1982, Jim Henson and Frank Oz dared to venture into somewhat gloomier territory with the release of The Dark Crystal. Though the film, which centers on two Gelflings (a sort of creepy elf-like creature) attempting to save their species and restore peace to the world, wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, it has developed a large cult following in the more than 35 years since its release—even among those kids it scared the hell out of back in the day. Now, as Netflix preps its prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, for release later this year, Nerdist reports that the original film will make its way back into theaters next month.

As part of Fathom Events’s ongoing effort to breathe big-screen life back into classic films with limited releases across the country, The Dark Crystal will be playing in more than 500 theaters nationwide on February 25 and February 28. In addition to the original film, the screenings will also feature a brand-new introduction courtesy of Lisa Henson, Jim’s daughter and current president/CEO of The Jim Henson Company, who will talk about the making of the film and how it fit within her father's creative legacy.

To find out whether The Dark Crystal will be coming back to a theater near you, log onto Fathom’s web page for the movie and type in your ZIP code; tickets are on sale now.

[h/t: Nerdist]

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See How Sesame Street Puppeteers Bring Their Characters to Life
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Elmo, Big Bird, and Mr. Snuffleupagus aren’t just puppets to fans of Sesame Street: They’re vibrant characters who are every bit as real as the beloved series' human actors. It may look effortless, but bringing foam, fur, and feathers to life is a skill that takes years to master. WIRED asked five Sesame Street puppeteers to share the secrets behind the craft in a new video.

Different puppets rely on different mechanics to function. Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus, for example, consist of puppeteers (two in Snuffy's case) wearing full-body suits, while smaller characters like Elmo and Abby Cadabby have single puppeteers with one hand inside the head moving the mouth and another controlling rods attached to the arms. Some puppets have eyelids that move up and down. For puppets without this feature, puppeteers have to come up with creative ways to express emotion. Elmo puppeteer Ryan Dillon pulls a wooden handle in Elmo’s head when he wants to give the character a puzzled look.

Translating hand movements into convincing facial expressions is tricky, but one of the biggest challenges the crew faces is space. Next time you see four or five Sesame Street puppets in the frame at once, try picturing that same number of full-grown adults rolling across the floor beneath them.

For the full interviews with the puppeteers, check out the video below.

[h/t WIRED]

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