If you asked me a short while ago, I would have assumed New York City was completely barren of puppetry until the Muppets first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, then suddenly puppets became all the rage. It turns out I am 100% wrong and I have no shame in admitting that.
Who or what gave me the much needed insight I needed? No, not some precocious six-year old. It’s the new “Puppets of New York” exhibit, which recently opened at the Museum of the City of New York (trying saying that three times fast). I made my first pilgrimage to the city in almost two years to check out the new exhibit and I’m now here to tell you about some of the Muppety things you can find there.
When approaching the exhibit, you’ll find a series of murals out in the hall with various puppet characters from all strings of life. And on the very first one…why, it’s Wontkins from the Wilkins Coffee commercials! Now, sure, he technically doesn’t belong there since made his debut in Washington DC, not New York. But the artist has also chosen to make him blue for some reason, so I guess we’ll just have to let artistic licence prevail on this one.
Once you’re inside, you’ll see a whole slew of puppets of all shapes and sizes. The displays are divided into three sections – “The Stage” (puppets used in theatre), “The Set” (puppets used on screen) and “The Street” (puppets for street performances). “The Set” is where we’ll find our Muppets, so let’s go there!
Smack dab front and center is none other than Oscar the Grouch, who is the most ubiquitous New York character you’ll ever find on children’s television. The placard beside him claims that the particular puppet we’re seeing dates back to season 2 of Sesame Street in 1970. Now, I don’t know how true that is because I’ve seen this particular puppet on the show as recently as 2019. So, either it’s just been kept in really good shape all these years or the museum is lying to us, and a museum placard has never steered me wrong before.
One of the neat things about seeing these characters on display like this is getting a peek at all the unique details, such as the opening in the back of Oscar’s can where Caroll Spinney would be performing him. My spine hurts just looking at it.
Next to Oscar is a totally unexpected character – Queen Peuta from the “Land of Gorch” sketches on Saturday Night Live’s inaugural season. Given that show’s pivotal role in the history of the city and Jim Henson’s career, it certainly makes sense for her to be there. She looks pretty swell for a 45 year old puppet, especially since she was designed to be pretty ugly to begin with.
Then we have some pretty popular puppets whose names I’d imagine no random museum patron would know – it’s Mahna Mahna and the Snowths! There’s probably some crazy, significant reason behind their inclusion, but they’re also just funny-looking puppets from that popular song everyone likes.
Elsewhere in the room, you’ll find other puppets with Henson connections. In addition to big names like Bil Baird and Shari Lewis, you can see Trekkie Monster from Avenue Q, as built and performed by Rick Lyon. There’s even a puppet from up-and-coming Muppet performer Tau Bennet’s short film Cold Sober.
Outside that exhibit, there’s still some Muppets to be found. The “New York at Its Core” exhibit has a brief section about the impact of Sesame Street within the city’s timeline. It even has a tablet where you can watch a few clips from the show, including the great song “The Subway,” which might as well serve as the official anthem of the MTA.
All in all, I would recommend checking the exhibit out (it’s open through April 3, 2022). It’s only one room, so it won’t take you very long to go through everything, but there’s a lot of interesting and informative stuff in there about the medium of puppetry. I also highly encourage checking out the rest of the museum as well. They have a bunch of other exhibits covering a wide range of topics – city photography, 80s rock music, and the inevitable disasters the island will face due to climate change. There’s a little something for everybody!
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By Shane Keating