GRAM exhibit hosts puppets, innovation, imagination


GVL / Sydney Lim

Colleen Garcia, Staff Writer

The Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) is hosting a Jim Henson exhibit called “Imagination Unlimited” that will remain open through Jan. 14, 2023. 

The exhibit allows visitors to experience Henson’s work throughout his career in the film and television industry with materials, puppets and clips from productions such as “The Muppets” and “Sesame Street.” The exhibit aims to display the lasting impact Henson had on television, film and the lives of viewers. 

Professor emeritus of film and video production at Grand Valley State University Deanna Morse followed a career in animation and film and became an award-winning animator and President of the International Animated Film Association (ASIFA).  Early on in her career, she was impacted by Henson’s work and was able to meet and work with him. 

Morse found a passion for animation during her time in college. During this time, she was assigned to work on a project where she had to examine a Pillsbury advertisement frame-by-frame. Through this experience, she was amazed by the movement of the Pillsbury Doughboy puppet which, Morse said, “changed her life.”

Morse’s curiosity led her to explore how to make pictures move through animation and film. She developed her interest through experimentation and practice with stop-motion films and puppets.  

“You could move a puppet, take your hands out of the frame, click the film, then move-click-move-click-move,” Morse said. “After 24 clicks, you had made one second of film.” Morse said.

Around this time, “Sesame Street” began broadcasting and Morse and her friends would watch the program while doing homework. 

“One of my dreams was to create short animations for Sesame Street,” Morse said. “Some twenty years later, I made several short films for Sesame Street, using the move-click-move paper animation technique.” 

The work that Morse created for “Sesame Street” was broadcast worldwide.

After graduating college, Morse began working as an assistant editor at WGBH, the PBS affiliate in Boston. While in Boston, a group was looking for a volunteer crew to shoot a promotional video for Planned Parenthood featuring a guest star.

GVL / Sydney Lim

“I volunteered and I was surprised when the star came in – it was Jim Henson, along with Kermit, the frog,” Morse said. “Jim was a friendly guy and a skilled puppeteer. Kermit surprised me that his eyes were actually only half a ping pong ball with felt glued on them. One hand had the wire attached and Jim put his other hand inside Kermit to talk.”

Morse worked on the audio on set, being the one to place a microphone on Henson and monitoring the levels. When on break, Morse asked Henson if she could look at Kermit closer and possibly put him on her hand to try the puppet. Henson agreed. 

Morse remembers that the Kermit puppet was too big for her hand and was lined with soft, silky fabric. She soon struck up a conversation with Kermit as she moved him.   

“‘I said, ‘Hi, Kermie. You are the best. Thank you for being you’ and he (Kermit) said, ‘Thank you, Deanna. You are the best, too,’” Morse said. “I smile remembering this. Love at first sight. Mutual admiration. Me and the real Kermie. My voice, of course, but the words the real Kermit would say.” 

Morse said Kermit was “one of the few famous movie stars” she met and was greatly impacted by that experience. She said Henson’s work of creating puppets of simple materials and the messages of positivity in his work has significantly impacted the film industry.  

Henson’s ability to promote more critical topics of conversation through his work including education, the arts and environmental issues helped to shape television. 

“He tried to promote World Peace and international understanding,” Morse said. “His message connected with children and also adults. He helped make “Sesame Street” a worldwide success. His legacy continues today.”