When I was a kid, I grew up so addicted to "Sesame Street" that I was pretty well convinced that television existed for the sole purpose of showing off the antics of Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, and Oscar the Grouch. But looking back, I now credit a large swath of my cultural literacy to the program: it taught me how to count in Spanish, and that other cultures were fun and interesting (remember watching Big Bird in China and the haunting moon song from his visit to Japan?). And it introduced me to the concept of religious diversity (Shalom Sesame fascinated me with its Israeli Muppets. Who knew the Muppets were different in other places?).
All of this cultural richness stemmed from the imagination of Jim Henson, a puppeteer who helped create Sesame Street, which is in its 39th season and airs in over 120 countries around the world. The show's message of tolerance is credited as one element that bound Serbians and Albanians together in post-conflict Kosovo, and earlier this year, Northern Ireland launched their own version of the program, "Sesame Tree" which celebrates diversity and encourages children to ask questions about their world.
It's been 18 years since Henson passed away suddenly to pneumonia, but his legacy is still kept alive spectacularly in the traveling exhibit, now at the Smithsonian, "Jim Henson's Fantastic World." I had the chance to visit last weekend (which is at the International Pavilion, appropriately enough), and it was a tremendous treat.
The exhibit documents the Henson's first efforts at puppeteering (commercials and a short program for a local D.C. television station), and then shows the progression of his talents. Sketches of his Muppets line the walls, with the final products cased under glass (including the beloved Kermit), and several films offer clips from his work on "The Muppet Show" and "Fraggle Rock," as well as his larger, and darker film projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. There's also a film with several interviews with Henson, where he discusses the creation of his puppets and the impact that he hopes his programs like "Sesame Street" will have on children's lives. Despite his worldwide recognition, Henson is famous for saying, "My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here."
Still reveling in post-Henson bliss, I was particularly excited to hear about the upcoming release of Putamayo's Sesame Street Playground album, which comes out on September 30th. I have to admit that clicking through to the album's website, I spent several minutes listening to "Rubber Duckie" in Chinese, and watching the video of South Africa's "Pollution Song," under the guise of "work" (like I said, I grew up on the stuff, I'm hooked). “What could be a better way to help children become global citizens than to introduce them to other countries through their favorite Sesame Street characters?” says Putamayo founder Dan Storper. I have to wholeheartedly agree.
Jim Henson's Fantastic World is on display at the Smithsonian through October 5th, then hits the road visiting museums around the country. Putamayo's Sesame Street Playground is released on September 30th.
Photos: Top, Jim Henson surrounded by his Muppets, via the Jim Henson Legacy; Bottom, Character "Chamki" meets with children in Delhi, India. By Ryan Heffernan.