“The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited,” opening May 20 at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, features Bert and Ernie, Kermit and Grover as well as clips from Henson’s short films, and scripts and costumes from his non-Muppet projects.

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Who better to open a Jim Henson retrospective than one of his most iconic creations, Kermit the Frog?

That’s the first artifact — a vintage Kermit from 1978 — visitors come face to face with in “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited,” which opens this weekend at the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP). The “Celebrational Muppetational” opening-night party on Friday, May 19, will feature an appearance by Muppeteer Dave Goelz, a scavenger hunt, live music and other events. The exhibition opens May 20 and runs through the end of 2017.

It’s the world premiere for “Imagination Unlimited,” curated by the Museum of the Moving Image, which plans to open a permanent gallery of Henson’s work in New York City later this year.


‘The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited’

Opening-night party is Friday, May 19; exhibit is open May 20-Dec. 31, Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle Center; $5 plus museum admission of $16-$25 (206-770-2702 or mopop.org).

Henson and the merry band of characters he called “Muppets” (not a contraction of “marionette” and “puppet,” but simply a word he made up) became stars thanks to “Sesame Street,” the innovative children’s show that debuted on public television in 1969.

But Henson’s work, as the exhibition makes clear, has an appeal that reaches beyond the tag of “children’s entertainment.” “I don’t think he segmented things very much,” MoPOP curator Brooks Peck explained. “Like, ‘Oh, this is only for kids.’ He tried to make something that everyone would dig.”

The Muppets were first seen in short segments on local TV shows in Maryland and Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, then featured in numerous commercials. Clips of ads for Wilkins Coffee reveal Henson’s anarchic sense of humor, as the taller, slimmer “Wilkins” cheerfully watches as the shorter, stubby “Wontkins” is shot, blown up or run over when he refuses to sample the caffeinated drink.

“You can see where Henson was already honing those skills of creating that quick little hit,” said Peck of the ads, which are 10 seconds long. “Which you’d see then in ‘Sesame Street,’ because the show was intentionally designed for little kids’ attention spans.” The idea of contrasting characters — tall/short, happy/crabby — later resurfaced in the “Sesame Street” duo of Bert and Ernie.

The exhibition also features clips of two experimental short films Henson made in the 1960s. Henson himself appears in “Time Piece” as a harried everyman whose life — and death — is wedded to the metronomic beats of a clock; the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 1966.

“The Cube,” which aired on NBC in 1969, is a surreal story about a man trying to escape his imprisonment in a white, cube-shaped room. The disturbing undercurrents in both films are a far cry from the feel-good nature of most of Henson’s work.

Bert and Ernie, the shaggy, blue-haired Grover and the friendly vampire Count von Count, who never met a numeral he didn’t like, are some of the “Sesame Street” Muppets on display. Visitors also have the opportunity to create their own Muppet, as well as trying their hand (literally) at puppeteering, learning to manipulate a Muppet with both hands while watching their progress on an adjacent monitor. It’s more complicated than you might think, giving you a new appreciation for the physical effort involved in bringing the Muppets to life.

The Muppets went mainstream on “The Muppet Show,” which premiered in 1976 and ran for five years, and it’ll be hard for fans to resist jumping into the mock set of the show’s opening number and start singing the theme song. The show’s development is traced from its pilot, culminating in a wall showing clips of the many guest stars from all corners of the arts world: Julie Andrews, Rudolf Nureyev, Raquel Welch and Liberace, to name a few.

The exhibition also features props, designs, scripts and costumes from Henson’s non-Muppet projects, like the TV show “Fraggle Rock” and the film “Labyrinth,” including the svelte costume worn by Jareth, the Goblin King (played by a slinky and seductive David Bowie).

The wealth of materials on display illustrates the sweep of Henson’s boundless imagination. Henson, who died in 1990 after a short illness, was constantly creating, from the moment he reworked his mother’s old coat into a Kermit prototype, using ping-pong balls for eyes, in the 1950s.

Peck sees the uniqueness of the Muppets’ playful humor as key to their longevity. “There’s nothing else like it,” he said. “Puppet stuff for adults; there’s the Muppets and — what? No one else is doing a competing thing. There’s no Pepsi to the Coke of the Muppets.”