Jim Henson’s life work is being celebrated at The Skirball Cultural Center through September 2, and what a life he led. I had no idea about the longevity and breadth of his career, not just as the guy who created the Muppets, but as an early TV pioneer, using techniques never before attempted.

“The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited” will tickle your inner Elmo. See the Bert and Ernie, Count von Count puppets and Kermit the Frog in the “flesh.” Watch wonderful clips from Sam and Friends, Henson’s first TV venture.

Did you know that Jim Henson worked with filmmaker George Lucas AND legendary rocker David Bowie (The Labyrinth)?  I didn’t! And there are related costumes, TV and film clips, hand-written scripts and more from the Muppet Show, movies and Fraggle Rock. Henson was even nominated for an Academy Award in 1965 for an experimental short he made, called Time Piece.

NOT JUST FOR KIDS

This is truly a comprehensive show. And trust me, it’s not just for kids – in fact, most of those in attendance are so young, they would never have seen Sesame Street or The Muppet movies. Nevertheless, they were giddy with joy.

There are so many unique interactive exhibits. A friend and I used puppets to video-synch with a vintage clip (That Old Black Magic) from Sam and Friends, a five-minute twice-weekly puppet show that aired on the Washington, DC NBC affiliate from 1955 to 1961…where Kermit the Frog made his debut! Very few of the original tapings have survived so enjoy them here.

Henson died too young (53) but he began working at the age of 18 so the body of his work is extensive. The Museum of the Moving Image created this traveling show and the Skirball offers a fitting setting for it.

Why the Skirball? Because their values and Henson’s are aligned. Putting emphasis on the social impact of Henson’s work, signs around the gallery read: “The Skirball highlights how his characters and stories represent individuals and communities of diverse backgrounds and abilities, inspiring the public to look beyond differences and cultivate a more compassionate, inclusive world.”

In one moving text that I resonate with, especially in these very dark, polarized times, the Skirball writes: “Henson’s is a voice for all of us now, a model of compassion, empathy and understanding to help us with the never-finished work of social healing.”

“The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited” will be at the Skirball Cultural Center in Sepulveda Pass through September 2. www.skirball.org

NOAH’S ARK

If you’re going to the Skirball anyway, make sure you make a reservation (believe me, they do sell out, especially in summer) for a timed visit to the ever-updated Noah’s Ark.

Such a fun, amazingly creative space with animals made of recycled items, bird wings represented by whisks, turtles made of footballs, musical instruments repurposed as bodies, all dovetailing with the idea of sustainability, which is highlighted in the “Rainbow” gallery at the end of the Ark space. There are storm machines, a lightning generator, watch as you fill a tank with water to see the ark rise in the flood, giraffes whose necks bend toward you, a howling coyote, all made possible with the use of human intervention (pulleys, wheels and more).

If ever an exhibition can inspire children to continue going to museums as they grow up, this is the one.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

As if that weren’t enough, there are two other noteworthy exhibitions. Kehinde Wiley, the Los Angeles-born artist who painted the official portrait of President Barack Obama, is the first ever African American to paint a Presidential portrait. In a small gallery, there are two wall-sized paintings in his “The World Stage: Israel” series, in which he trains his eye on Ethiopian Jews who’ve settled in Israel.

These are starkly beautiful, at once representational in their depiction of the two young men, while highly symbolic, showcasing elements of their Israeli, Jewish and African heritage, all elevated with bright colors and patterns drawn from Jewish ritual art.

BERNSTEIN CENTENNIAL

And don’t miss Leonard Bernstein at 100, organized by the GRAMMY Museum®, a centennial celebration that takes you into his home studio, displaying his first childhood piano (an upright!), as well as the grand piano he kept in his adult home; you’ll see handwritten score sheets for songs from one of his best-known works, West Side Story, as well as the desk he wrote it on.

Two interactive exhibits give you a chance enter a small recording booth to sing along with “I Like to Be in America”, or learn how to conduct with Lenny. Many personal items, awards, photographs – 150 objects are on view representing the life of this composer, conductor, TV celebrity…and so much more.

Dubbed the “Renaissance man of American Music,” Leonard Bernstein was a towering 20th century figure who brought music to the masses, sharing his love and knowledge with adoring audiences.

The Skirball Center also presents free screenings of movies related to the shows, as well as a lively line-up of world music “Sunset Concerts” all summer long.  www.skirball.org.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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