In the million years I’ve been alive, I never thought I’d be able to add ‘Muppet taxidermy’ to my resume. I’m just over a year deep in it with a couple more ahead of me. Now that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published some images (this one included) from the Jim Henson legacy conservation project, I’m finally allowed to talk about it. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to post any pictures, however, if you wanna chat about it or want me to create sketches or perhaps perform some interpretive dance related to my experiences in the project, holla.
Weekly, I open old busted road cases to find some of the most iconic TV and film characters in entertainment history. I typically don’t have a clue what’s in the box when I get it but it’s consistently gold. Most of it is metaphoric gold, however, much is simply gold-colored airborne particles what used to be various types of foam. The stuff breaks down and that’s simply what happens. I’ve both figuratively and literally been breathing in the essence Henson’s work over the past year. Tiny floating bits of Sam and Friends, Sesame Street, Tales from Muppetland, The Muppet Show, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, Fraggle Rock, Storyteller, Dog City, Dinosaurs, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and the list goes on for quite a while. I only hope my future lung tumors resemble Muppets.
In case you don’t recognize the critter in this pic, it’s Fizzgig (”Fizgig” according to the Henson Organization production label), pet companion to the ever-so-enchanting Kira from Henson’s The Dark Crystal. When Fizzgig 1st appeared on my workbench he was just a loose mess of patch-worked animal fur, barely held together by a loosely woven fabric. This fabric was mostly, and accidentally, adhered to the fur by tiny mummified fists of dried, brittle, cast foam latex that once made up his inner structure. That’s just the nature of foam latex. He had no mouth at all when I received him, it completely disintegrated, taking along some of the fur around the set of lips that also used to be there. It appeared seamless from someone’s previous attempt at simply pinning
together the fur around the mouth. Those pins eventually rusted in place, taking a few strands of fur hostage when removed. Orange crumbles of dead foam were left behind and the nose and eyelids were well on their way out. The bulk of him was a small pile in the box he had been stored in for so many years. I sifted through the debris and found some slightly bigger chunks which ultimately proved to be a very small portion of the roof of his mouth. I also eventually came across his shriveled little tongue, only ½ the size of it’s original cast form. I performed some re-hydration/suspension voodoo of the dead foam using a “magical,” archival potion. Then I fixed the new mouth plate to the body. I restructured the nose from the inside, building up small layers from within, then filling any tiny fault lines left on the surface of the original foam nose. I removed some inconspicuous fur from his performer sleeve to surround the new set of lips, matching the original design.
After a little match-painting, voila! Certainly not perfection but I’m only allowed to do so much to be considered conservation work. I should mention that since all of Jim’s work is bound for a museum retirement, I can only use a very small library of archival-safe materials to mimic the stuff I would typically build a puppet from, that awesome toxic stuff. This has been the major crux of the entire project. Lots of trial by fire. Lots.
Though never to function again, I have to mention the mechanism in this Fizzgig fella. It is unbelievably tiny and clever. Fizzgig had side-to-side eye movement as well as eye-blinkers and a nose-twitching mech. The tiny 4 mm pulleys mounted to his fiberglass skull fed the even tinier polyester cord through 1 mm plastic tubes embedded in cast foam between the skull and fur skin. The 4 tubes (2 eyes, 2 eyelids), along with a 35mm camera whip (triggering the nose) ran to a second, remote puppeteer who controlled all the facial nuance through the mighty powers of analog action. All the tiny brass and steel mech hardware was soldered with a jeweler’s precision. It is now all seized by heavy corrosion. The mouth was simply hand puppeteered.
Concluding for the moment I want to leave you with some final insight. There is one major destructive force what is the ultimate enemy of all puppetdom in every form; it’s atmosphere + time. This mix has singularly and universally affected every last piece of the Henson collection. Soon, much of Henson’s early engineering magic will be permanently sealed away, if not destroyed by this evil sum. *sighs* There is just sooo much mechanical genius within the entire collection which should be made publicly visible before it’s too late. I only hope the powers that be will someday allow me to share even just a few of my thousands of images with you. There is an absolute treasure trove in every piece from this collection. I can only suggest that you check in from time to time because just maybe, one day, perhaps…?
I never knew this could be a dream job.