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January 25, 2014

Center for Puppetry Arts to expand in Atlanta

While Kermit the Frog’s most famous song is “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” the Center for Puppetry Arts might add that it’s not easy raising green either.

The Atlanta center, which launched a capital campaign to build a museum wing in 2007 when the family of famed puppeteer Jim Henson announced it was giving the center 400 puppets and artifacts, said today the expansion is a “go.”

The museum will be a modern, 15,000-square-foot, two-story building in front of the puppetry center’s Midtown headquarters in a former schoolhouse that Henson and Kermit cut the ribbon for in 1978.

Officials want to break ground in March and open in mid-2015.

The puppetry center reached its $14 million project goal but fundraising continues for a list of extra features.

“We didn’t anticipate it would take this long, but the financial downturn certainly added to the delay,” puppetry center executive director Vince Anthony said. “We were fundraising at a very difficult time.”

In the meantime, Henson’s creations, a sampling of which have been exhibited in the puppetry center’s atrium, with many more warehoused in New Jersey, have only gained currency.

Released in 2011, “The Muppets,” Disney’s first film after acquiring the rights in 2004, grossed $88.6 million domestically, far exceeding the takes of six prior Muppet movies. The success led the studio to ready a follow-up, “Muppets Most Wanted,” for a March 21 release. Meanwhile, “Sesame Street,” another Henson classic, launches its 45th season in September.

Though there are many details still to be ironed out, from selecting the material for the building facade panels to the final list of objects that will be shown inside it, Anthony said he was pleased the expansion is finally moving forward after more than six years of pitching the project to potential contributors.

“It makes me feel proud,” Anthony said. “The exciting part is, this will be a living, breathing legacy to the genius of Jim Henson that people can look at and can be a part of.”

The puppets on view will range from megastars of the Henson stratosphere — including Kermit, Miss Piggy, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch — to more obscure creations. Those include Omar, a character from Henson’s first television show, “Sam and Friends,” in Washington in 1955, and Roosevelt Franklin, who debuted in “Sesame Street’s” first season (1970).

Other Henson characters represented will hail from the TV show “Fraggle Rock” and movies “Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” even from a 1966 “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance.

“There’s not going to be any collection as large as what’s going to be at the Center for Puppetry Arts,” said Bonnie Erickson, executive director of The Jim Henson Legacy.

Henson’s family and friends founded the nonprofit in 1993 to preserve and perpetuate Henson’s contributions to puppetry, television, movies, special effects and media technology. Last year, the nonprofit also donated Henson puppets and objects to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y.

“During his lifetime, Jim explored so many different varieties of puppetry,” Erickson said. “That’s something that the Center for Puppetry Arts is so uniquely qualified to tell.”

The tentative plan shows “The World of Jim Henson” as a chronological tour across 14 galleries following Henson’s 35-year career. He died unexpectedly at age 53 in 1990.

Highlights will include re-creations of Henson’s office and the Muppet Workshop — where the furry, funny characters are created — and a mock-up of a TV studio.

“There will be a lot of interactive and video elements, and different kinds of touch screens,” Anthony said. “It’s going to be a pretty comprehensive experience.”

The Henson exhibit will share the upper level with an exhibit of the center’s international puppets. Its tentative title: “A World of Puppets.”

Erickson, who designed and built puppets that included Miss Piggy after being hired by Henson in 1970, believes these side-by-side exhibits will make a perfect pair because he drew great inspiration from puppetry traditions in Europe, starting with a trip there in the late 1950s.

Visitors will continue to enter the puppetry center’s original facility from the rear parking lot, moving into the museum wing through its atrium.

The architect is Clark Patterson Lee, a Suwanee firm whose credits include the Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte and Birmingham’s McWane Science Center.

The expansion’s lower level will house a library, museum offices, storage and a future multipurpose room/lunchroom.

Anthony said that final space will be “roughed in” but unfinished until funds can be secured.

Then the eternal fundraiser added: “We’re looking for a donor for as we speak, and that’s $700,000.”

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