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Puppet Doctors

At a puppetry museum, workers repair more than 100 of Jim Henson’s famous characters

Ron Galella/WireImage

Jim Henson started building puppets while in high school in 1954. He created his most famous character, Kermit the Frog, as a freshman in college. He created the puppets that appear in The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and more. 

You might not know who Jim Henson was, but you most certainly know some of his fuzzy friends. The artist, puppeteer, and filmmaker was famous for creating Kermit the Frog, Cookie Monster, and just about every other Sesame Street and Muppet Show character you can think of.

For decades, kids and adults have watched these famous characters in TV shows and movies. On-screen, they seem ageless. But in real life, many puppets have not held up so well. The material used to make the puppets is breaking down. Fortunately, puppet builders and costume makers have tricks to  restore  these puppets. That way, people can see them for years to come. 

You might not know Jim Henson. But you certainly know some of his fuzzy friends. Henson was an artist, puppeteer, and filmmaker. He became famous for creating Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster. Plus just about every other Sesame Street and Muppet Show character you can think of. 

For decades, kids and adults watched these famous characters in TV shows and movies. On-screen, they seem ageless. But in real life, many puppets have not held up so well. The material used to make the puppets is breaking down. Fortunately, puppet builders and costume makers know what to do. They are trying to restore these puppets. That way, people can see them for years to come. 

Falling Apart

When Vito Leanza unpacked boxes full of old Henson puppets, the contents weren’t pretty. “They had a lot of wear and tear,” says the head puppet builder at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia.

The organization is home to the largest collection of puppets in the world. It houses more than 500 puppets and other  artifacts  from Henson’s collection.

Henson created many of his original puppets more than 50 years ago. The old puppets were sunken in, their interiors falling apart. Their foam insides crumbled into sandy grains with the slightest touch. Characters weren’t always labeled, so it was hard for Leanza to know which puppet was which.

When Vito Leanza unpacked boxes full of old Henson puppets, the contents weren't pretty. "They had a lot of wear and tear," he says. Leanza is the head puppet builder at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia.

The organization is home to the largest collection of puppets in the world. It houses more than 500 puppets and other artifacts from Henson's collection.

Henson created many of his original puppets more than 50 years ago. The old puppets were sunken in. Their interiors were falling apart. Foam insides crumbled into sandy grains with the slightest touch. Characters weren't always labeled. That made it hard for Leanza to know which puppet was which.

For two years, Leanza and another conservator, Russ Vick, have been restoring the puppets from the collection. Using the foam you’d find inside pillows, they replace the old, damaged material with new material that’s meant to last. 

Leanza and Vick also insert plastic piping into the puppets. Similar to a skeleton, the piping shapes how the puppet will stand when it’s displayed. Plastic foam noodles, like what you might play with in a swimming pool, also work well. 

For two years, Leanza worked with another conservator, Russ Vick. They have been restoring the puppets from the collection. They use foam you'd find inside pillows. Then they replace the old, damaged material with new material that's meant to last.

Leanza and Vick also insert plastic piping into the puppets. It's similar to a skeleton. The piping shapes how the puppet will stand when it's displayed. Plastic foam noodles, like what you might play with in a swimming pool, also work well.

Built to Last

Puppetry has been an important art form for kids and adults around the world throughout history. Many ancient civilizations used puppets to tell stories. Some puppets at the Center for Puppetry Arts are hundreds of years old!

Leanza knows he’s adding to this history as he restores Henson’s puppets. So far, Leanza has fixed more than 100, including Grover, Fozzie Bear, and Elmo. “Grover is my favorite,” he says. 

Henson died 26 years ago, but his legacy lives on in the beloved characters he created. Many people get emotional when they see the puppets on display, says Leanza. It’s like they’re seeing old friends.

“A puppeteer lives for the moments when the audience believes the character is alive,” says Jon Ludwig, the center’s head puppeteer.

Puppetry has been an important art form for kids and adults. It's been used around the world throughout history. Many ancient civilizations used puppets to tell stories. Some puppets at the Center for Puppetry Arts are hundreds of years old!

Leanza knows he's adding to this history. He thinks of it as he restores Henson's puppets. So far, Leanza has fixed more than 100. This includes Grover, Fozzie Bear, and Elmo. "Grover is my favorite," he says.

Henson died 26 years ago. Thought his legacy lives on in the beloved characters he created. Many people get emotional when they see the puppets on display, says Leanza. It's like they're seeing old friends.

"A puppeteer lives for the moments when the audience believes the character is alive," says Jon Ludwi. He is the center's head puppeteer. 

Andrea McCallin/American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (puppets a and b); Steve Meddle/Rex Features/AP Photo (puppet c)
Andrea McCallin/American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (puppet d); Richard Drew/AP photo (puppet e); Jacquelyn Martin/AP photo (puppets f, g, and h)

To repair Elmo and Grover, a conservator needs 3 feet of plastic piping for each puppet. Write a number sentence using repeated addition to show how much total piping is needed.

To repair Elmo and Grover, a conservator needs 3 feet of plastic piping for each puppet. Write a number sentence using repeated addition to show how much total piping is needed.

If you wanted to use multiplication to solve the problem in part A, how would you fill in the following blanks?

Number of objects in each group: 

Number of groups:

If you wanted to use multiplication to solve the problem in part A, how would you fill in the following blanks?

Number of objects in each group: 

Number of groups:

Write and solve a multiplication number sentence showing the total amount of piping needed to repair the 2 puppets. 

Write and solve a multiplication number sentence showing the total amount of piping needed to repair the 2 puppets. 

A conservator needs 5 feet of piping to repair a large puppet. What operation would you use to find out how much total piping is needed to repair 3 large puppets? How do you know?

A conservator needs 5 feet of piping to repair a large puppet. What operation would you use to find out how much total piping is needed to repair 3 large puppets? How do you know?

Write and solve an equation to find the answer.

Write and solve an equation to find the answer.

To repair Cookie Monster and Fozzie Bear, a conservator needs 18 inches of special foam for each puppet. What operations can the conservator use to find the total number of inches of foam needed for both puppets? 

To repair Cookie Monster and Fozzie Bear, a conservator needs 18 inches of special foam for each puppet. What operations can the conservator use to find the total number of inches of foam needed for both puppets? 

Write and solve an equation calculating the total number of inches of foam needed to repair Cookie Monster and Fozzie Bear

Write and solve an equation calculating the total number of inches of foam needed to repair Cookie Monster and Fozzie Bear

Typically, it takes Leanza 4 days to restore one puppet. How many days would it take him to restore 35 puppets if he worked on them one at a time? Write an equation and solve. 

Typically, it takes Leanza 4 days to restore one puppet. How many days would it take him to restore 35 puppets if he worked on them one at a time? Write an equation and solve. 

It takes 9 inches of foam to stuff a small puppet and 18 inches of foam for a large puppet. How much foam does it take to repair 3 small puppets and 2 large puppets? Write and solve an equation, using parentheses.

It takes 9 inches of foam to stuff a small puppet and 18 inches of foam for a large puppet. How much foam does it take to repair 3 small puppets and 2 large puppets? Write and solve an equation, using parentheses.

What type of  model drawing could you use to solve this problem? On a separate sheet of paper, draw your diagram, and explain why it works best.

What type of  model drawing could you use to solve this problem? On a separate sheet of paper, draw your diagram, and explain why it works best.

Let’s say you have 372 inches of plastic piping. A small puppet needs 36 inches of piping, while a large puppet needs 60 inches. Do you have enough piping to repair 4 small puppets and 4 large puppets? Explain why or why not, using equations and word sentences.

Let’s say you have 372 inches of plastic piping. A small puppet needs 36 inches of piping, while a large puppet needs 60 inches. Do you have enough piping to repair 4 small puppets and 4 large puppets? Explain why or why not, using equations and word sentences.

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