The Center for Puppetry Arts: The Henson Exhibit

Living an hour and a half’s drive from Atlanta, GA gives my husband and me easy access to a number of geeky things we love. One of these is the Center for Puppetry Arts, with its special and extensive exhibit of the work of Jim Henson, complete with videos and original Muppets on display.

Center for Puppetry Entranceway

The first room of the Henson Exhibit is devoted to his earliest work, not only his local-channel hit Sam and Friends and appearances of Rowlf the Dog on The Jimmy Dean Show, but a score of darkly amusing commercials for such products as Wilkins Coffee and La Choy Chow Mein. Visitors can stop in front of a TV airing the commercials and watch for as long as they like. Imagine: commercials worth watching.

It’s in the second room, the Sesame Street room, that video watching truly becomes addictive, since visitors can sit in super-comfortable beanbags and re-live childhood joys. Here we find on display such luminaries as iconic buddy pair Bert and Ernie, and Big Bird, the good-hearted youngster who thinks the alphabet is the most remarkable word he’s ever seen. My husband stands at Big Bird’s side.

Center for Puppetry Bert and Ernie

Center for Puppetry Matt and Big Bird

I mentioned in my previous post that my favorite record growing up was the Muppet Frog Prince. When I saw the villainous witch Taminella (brilliantly performed by Frank Oz) on display, I couldn’t resist having my picture taken with her.

Center for Puppetry Taminella

There are plenty of good reasons to watch Fraggle Rock, but I watch it for Red and Mokey, one of my favorite female buddy pairs to this day. Mokey is a dreamy artist and poet with a hippie streak, Red is a hyper-energetic and hyper-competitive athlete, and the two stick together through thick and thin and share many an adventure. Three years ago we had the privilege of seeing their performers, Kathryn Mullen and Karen Prell, when they visited DragonCon. At first they answered audience questions as themselves, but halfway through the panel they brought out their Muppets, and the two characters came to life before our eyes. We were no longer looking at Mullen and Prell. We were looking at, and talking to, Mokey and Red.

Center for Puppetry Red and Mokey

Of course I had to purchase my own Red puppet from the souvenir shop. I adore her pigtails. Don’t judge me.

Center for Puppetry Red Puppet

In honor of the Center’s screening of Henson’s 1986 coming-of-age film Labyrinth, visitors got a chance to sit in the Goblin King’s throne. Here I take my turn.

Center for Puppetry Jareth Throne

If your travels take you near Atlanta, be sure not to miss the Center for Puppetry Arts. Even if you’re not a Jim Henson fan when you go into the special exhibit, the chances are good you will be one when you come out.



Remembering Jim Henson, Part 1

When Jim Henson passed away from pneumonia in 1990 at the age of fifty-three, it was the first time a celebrity death came as a hard blow. Henson was relatively young, was nowhere near retiring, and had potentially years ahead of him to produce the kind of delightful work that had made me a fan. Since his passing, many have tried to capture his unique creative sensibility — an exact blend of whimsy and bite, warmth and incisiveness, the sublime and the ridiculous — but though some might have come close, none has quite managed it. What made the loss worst of all was that Henson and his work had been a part of my life since… well, since I was born. Sesame Street and I entered the world the very same year: 1969.

I remember being entranced by Sesame Street. I remember being just a little less scared of the monsters that might be living under my bed because one of them could have been Grover, my first introduction to the notion that monsters could be superheroes. I remember admiring Kermit the Frog, laughing with Ernie, and imitating Cookie Monster. I remember singing “Rubber Duckie” and counting to ten in Spanish. I remember that the first Christmas my parents, sister, and I spent in the house where I did most of my growing up, and getting a thrill at unwrapping packages that contained Sesame Street books, Sesame Street blocks, and Sesame Street puzzles. If it had anything to do with Sesame Street, I loved it.

I remember my favorite record when I was a young child: the Muppet version of The Frog Prince. I remember getting “They Call Me Sir Robin the Brave” stuck in my head for hours on end, talking in Spoonerisms like the cursed Princess Melora, cackling like the evil witch Taminella (performed with spicy relish by Frank Oz), and pretending to fall asleep like Sweetums the Ogre (“Nitey-nite!”). Years later, my parents showed my then four-year-old nephew this special on television, and I got to see him imitate Sweetums’ unique way of falling asleep. I confess his mimicry was better than mine.

I remember being a little bit flabbergasted by The Muppet Show when it first came on the air. Some sequences creeped me out, like the Muppet News Flash that reported furniture transforming into monsters. (Today that’s one of my favorite bits.) All the same, I remember smiling till my mouth hurt at such segments as a group of penguins aboard the Mayflower singing and dancing to “Alabammy Bound” and Viking pigs belting out their inimitable cover of the Village People’s “In the Navy.” I remember mimicking the announcer’s opening cry of “Piigs iin spaaaaace!” I remember laughing till I couldn’t breathe at all the Great Gonzo’s impossible stunts, especially the bit where he tries to jump his motorcycle so it will land “safely between those two elderly gentlemen” in the theater box, Statler and Waldorf. Later in my life, when I first started dating Matt, I learned we could laugh together over classic Muppet Show episodes. It was an early indication that I’d found The One. (I could never have fallen in love with anyone who didn’t love the Muppets.  In fact, when he helped me move into what is now our home, the first thing we watched together after he set up my DVD player was the Paul Simon episode of The Muppet Show!)

I remember seeing The Muppet Movie in the theater, and then watching it again every time it later aired on HBO. Instead of “Sir Robin the Brave,” it was “Movin’ Right Along,” Kermit and Fozzie Bear’s joyous road trip anthem, that I couldn’t get out of my head. These days, my husband and I watch it together and sing along as loudly as we please.

(If you were watching the reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix, keep your ears open for a reference to this song in the first episode!)

I remember watching Fraggle Rock when it first appeared on HBO in the early 1980s, and liking it a lot but being hesitant to say so because I was entering adolescence and thought myself too old to embrace it. But when TNT re-aired it about ten years later, I watched the whole series in my dorm room in college. We have the whole five-season set on DVD. (Remind me to tell you the story about meeting Karen Prell and Kathryn Mullen, the Muppeteers behind Red and Mokey Fraggle, at Dragon Con 2013 one of these days…)

My reaction to Fraggle Rock turned out to be typical of my responses to Henson’s work in the 1980s. It bounced off me when I was a teen, as I was too proud for it, too pseudo-sophisticated. But later on I found it and took it to my heart — The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Storyteller, and even The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Last year, my husband and I attended a screening of Labyrinth at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, shortly after we learned of David Bowie’s passing. It was the most bittersweet time we had all year, not to mention the hottest ticket in Atlanta.  The CPA had to add several more screenings due to the demand!

Generation X-ers, those like me who were young when Sesame Street was young, will probably find it easiest to understand my strong sentimental connection with Henson and his work. But for those of you who need convincing, have a look at the clips included here.

Coming next: A Visit to the Center for Puppetry Arts.

No, Thank You: Books I Don’t Plan to Read (and Why)

I spent many years in college studying literature, working my way through courses and Comprehensive Exams lists for my graduate degrees. I learned a great deal and loved much of what I read; many of the works I studied have become firm favorites, such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and the poetry of John Keats and the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Eudora Welty. Yet for all I value my long days of learning, I came away from them with a fixed desire not to read any new book I didn’t choose for myself. I will take friends’ recommendations under strong advisement, but at the end of the day I will read what I like.

I like stories set in a time and place apart from the here and now, so most fiction set in the realistic present goes unread by me, however highly critics and fans may praise it. I gravitate toward historical fiction, science fiction, and, of course, fantasy. Yet even after I’ve narrowed my options down to my favorite genres, I research prospective reads with certain questions in mind. Will I have an intriguing, if not always purely entertaining, time in the story’s world? Is the prose well-crafted and absorbing? Will the story and the characters engage my mind and heart? Will they ignite my own creative spark and inspire me to write? Will I like, or at least appreciate, at least one of the women in the story?

As I search for answers about books I might want to read, I learn a good bit about books I do not want to read. Nobody can read everything, and websites like Goodreads, Library Thing, Reddit Fantasy, TV Tropes, and Fantasy Faction can raise some very helpful warning flags. Those flags don’t necessarily say that certain books are bad — only that they are not likely to appeal to my own personal taste. Even when a book or series is, by all accounts, good, it may not be for me. So here is an initial short list of books I don’t plan to read, two of which are highly regarded in the fantasy community, and two of which at least have massive fanbases.

Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time series.

This well-beloved series turns up on every “Best of Fantasy” list and may be the most widely praised fantasy series after Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Some might even assert that you can’t call yourself a real fantasy fan unless you’ve read it. But since I don’t think there’s any one series, even LOTR, that a person who wants to call herself a fantasy fan has to read, I’m opting out, because I know that no matter how many other virtues these books might have, I would never be able to overlook the almost uniformly unsympathetic portrayal of women. The word most frequently used to describe Jordan’s female characters, all of them, both villains and non-villains, is “bitchy.” Even the series’ fans would accept this description is fair (one of them even noting he found himself developing a “homicidal hatred of the fair sex” due to its influence), but they argue that the women’s horribleness is a symptom of the world Jordan has built, in which women hold most of the power. They behave just the way men do in a patriarchy, defenders say.

I’ve read my share of stories set in patriarchal fantasy worlds — most fantasy worlds tend to be patriarchal — and in very few of them is every single male character an unpleasant, unreasonable narcissist totally lacking in wisdom and honor. If I read a story in which all men are unsympathetic, and their lack of positive traits is written as a function of their gender, I regard that as a flaw, and it puts me off the book. Whichever gender is in charge, men and women will still be individuals who vary in temperament, skills, and intellect, and I like to see them written as such. If I wouldn’t enjoy a novel in which every male character has the same repellent personality type, why would I welcome one that paints all its female characters this way? And so, while I acknowledge it may have many excellent qualities that have earned it a spot on all those “Best Of” lists, I say a polite “No, thank you” to The Wheel of Time.

Patrick Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear).

Here’s another series that almost everyone adores, including quite a few of my friends; it appears on almost as many “Best Of” lists as The Wheel of Time. It tells the story of Kvothe, the first-person narrator who lets the reader know on the first page of the first book how no-holds-barred awesome he is. He parades across the pages radiating awesomeness. In the first book he sees himself as awkward with girls, but by the second book he’s grown so amazing that every woman, from an evil sex fairy to multiple members of a matriarchal warrior tribe, either beds him or wants to bed him, except of course the one woman he respects and cares about, a female character despised by 99.9% of the series’ fans. He manages to neutralize the evil sex fairy with his own unbridled sexual prowess. That’s how awesome he is.

Kvothe’s story, I have on authority, is told in very rich and vivid prose, but there’s one problem, at least from my perspective. He soaks up so much awesomeness that he leaves none for anybody else. The other characters in his orbit have no chance to shine. Those characters only matter as they reflect his own glory in some way. I can’t imagine not losing patience with that, however gorgeous the prose. And these are huge books. Since I tend to prefer stories in which the wealth of awesomeness is shared, at least a little bit, I once again say a polite “No, thank you.”

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight.

This isn’t found on many “Best Of” lists, but legions of fans really, really love it. There’s so much wrong with this series I can’t go into it all, so I’ll focus on what is, for me, the deal-breaking flaw: the female lead, Bella Swan, is deliberately written as an empty vessel devoid of any recognizable concrete personality traits, so that any girl reader can step into Bella’s place and get the vicarious thrill of being adored by not one, but two powerful supernatural hunks, without having to make the imaginative effort to relate to any characteristics she might not share, like black hair or an interest in science.

I don’t like reading about empty vessels, especially female ones. I want characters to have actual features, however different they might be from my own. I like knowing that Shallan from The Stormlight Archive has red hair and loves to draw. I like knowing that Steris in The Second Mistborn Series has a fetish for list-making and planning ahead. I like knowing that Isabeau in The Witches of Eileanan feels ill at the thought of eating meat. I like knowing that Starhawk in The Ladies of Mandrigyn is tall and raw-boned and a seasoned, skilled fighter. It doesn’t matter at all that I can neither draw nor fight, or that I love to eat meat, or that while I may be a bit of an obsessive planner I’m nowhere near Steris’ level. I love these characteristics I don’t share because they make the characters distinct and memorable individuals, and that’s whom I enjoy reading about. So no thank you, Twilight.

E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey.

I really need say no more than that this pulpy bestseller started life as Twilight fan-fiction, and as a result we find another featureless female lead, a supposed career woman who has no observable skills or ambitions. In Bella Swan this might be forgiven in a pinch, since she’s only a teenager, and many high schoolers aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. But in an ostensibly grown woman, it’s faintly nauseating. It’s the empty vacuousness of Ana Steele, not the detailed sexual situations, that moves me to say “no, thank you” to this series.

If you want to read a story with elements of BDSM in which the heroine has agency and an actual personality, let me suggest Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart instead. I admit that when I read it I found some of those BDSM elements disconcerting, since the courtesan Phedre does experience pain as pleasure. Yet she’s also an intelligent, observant woman who plays a key role in protecting her country from its enemies. When Carey tells us, “That which yields is not always weak,” she offers evidence to back it up. This series I’ll read more of, though I don’t share the heroine’s lifestyle. Once again, heroines don’t have to be like me to be worth reading about.