Mistress of Puppets

Heather Henson hones the family craft to a fine art

Vampires on sticks stare icily through the darkened room. To the right, an elaborately constructed airport terminal made entirely of cardboard brims with facsimiles of uncomfortable travelers on their way to the deepest circle of Hell. On the walls, projected film loops tell tales of singing socks, musical graveyards and chimps with typewriters. But it's in the back corner where the biggest display stands: a fluorescent-colored birthday-party set-up populated with truly homicidal-looking puppets and featuring slices of cake that appear to be topped with body parts.

In front of this grim tableau, an effervescent and extremely unscary young woman is trying to keep her balance on a raised, wheeled platform.

"Is this high enough?" she asks. The photographer thinks so. "Do you want my hair down in front of my face?" Just a little. But once the lens starts clicking, all worries evaporate— Heather Henson, as expressive as any figure in the show, knows how to strike a dramatic pose.

Heather Henson. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Heather Henson. Photo by John Gilhooley.

If you didn't know who she was, you might be able to guess just by being in her presence. There's that familiar-looking face, which echoes her late father, Jim, the man who became America's most famous puppeteer. But there's also something of a puppet-like quality to her, from her stick-thin physique to her dramatically demonstrative body language in front of the photographer's lens, recalling some of the gestures of her dad's beloved Kermit the Frog.

Henson says she can see her father's soul when she looks at Kermit; it seems that all Jim Henson's children, be they flesh-and-blood or cloth-and-cardboard, have the family resemblance.

And now Heather Henson heads up a new family of sorts. Here at the Grand Central Art Center, she's proudly showcasing the creations of a new generation of puppeteers, brought together under her name. She's quick to point out that the numerous and varied creations on display and unspooling on the walls aren't hers, but she's proud to be able to use her family name (and funds) to bring this art form to a new audience.

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Though it seems a no-brainer now, it wasn't inevitable that Henson would follow in her father's footsteps.

"I totally wasn't planning on doing this!" she says. "When I was growing up, I was planning on being an animator, and then I actually went to school for illustration. I loved fine art. My interests were political cartoons, of all things. And then I went to more of a school for illustration and animation. It really didn't hit me to use puppets for my own work until after I graduated college."

By then, her father had died, and her older siblings were managing the family legacy.

A film-production class at CalArts set her on her current path. Asked to come up with a proposal for a film project, she pitched the idea of a series of short puppet films, a concept that sounded so good she proceeded to go ahead and make it happen, kicking things off with a film by her friend Tim Lagasse, who had been doing a live puppet routine called "Sammy and Sofa," about a Muppet-like punk rocker and his talking piece of furniture, that was easily adaptable into a short film. When that was finished, Henson and Lagasse bundled it with a few other short films, called it Handmade Puppet Dreams, and debuted it at the Newport Beach Film festival three years ago. They've come back every year since, with a new program.

But this year, they've taken things in a new direction. Through the tight-knit puppet-community grapevine, Henson was invited to screen the latest series of puppet films at Santa Ana's Grand Central Art Center. It was originally to be a screening just like any other, but a further opportunity beckoned.

"When the gallery contacted us to show the films, I just assumed they were looking for the actual puppets of the films. I assumed they wanted the puppets [to display] and then when we talked, we realized this was such an obvious show to do." Previously, she had displayed puppets in the theater lobby at the Newport Beach Film Festival, but the display had to be moved every night. A gallery setting adds security and cachet.

"I love this whole scenario because it really is a fine art," she says. "I think these puppets and puppet films are a fine art. So getting it the respect it deserves, by being actually in a gallery is very meaningful to me."

The show, "Heather Henson Presents Handmade Puppet Dreams," currently running through May 20, features puppets and sets from various films that have been part of the festival, DVD projectors running the films themselves in a continuous loop, and even some classic memorabilia from Heather's dad from back in his early days.

"What I'm interested in showing is handmade, grassroots little films in which the individual artist really handcrafted something and put it on film," she says. "Most of my dad's work that people know is after he became more successful: He worked with larger teams, meeting puppet designers and builders and teams of puppeteers, which is fabulous. But I'm interested in more. . . . Because he's my father, I have a deep interest in the work that was directly from his hands, without anyone else's hands. I love that." So while you won't see Kermit in the gallery display, you can see some early sketches from Jim's college years—including one of the first Muppet designs—and a handmade dragon-head maquette from The Great Santa Claus Switch, a TV special that came about as a result of puppet skits on The Ed Sullivan Show.

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