In the Center for Puppetry Arts’ atrium, a coterie of America’s puppetry elite stand in a semicircle, contemplating an acrylic-encased Miss Piggy. The starry-eyed swine sports the feathery boa and sarong she wore in 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island, her curlicue locks blonde as ever. “She’s beautiful,” says Bonnie Erickson, who created Miss Piggy and now directs the Jim Henson Legacy. “She gets better and better.”
Leaders of the Midtown center, already home to one of America’s largest puppet collections, hope to elicit reactions like Erickson’s from a more global visitor base. A 16,000-square-foot expansion is forging ahead this summer, with hopes of wrapping during the 2015 summer tourist season. Coincidentally, next year also marks the sixtieth birthday of Miss Piggy’s little green beau.
The $14 million–plus expansion, funded by private and corporate donations, will bring the center’s hodgepodge of museum, theater, and workshops to the lip of Spring Street, juxtaposing a sweeping modern structure with the center’s current home, the former Spring Street Elementary School. Visitors will pass under a new electronic marquee to find a vast array of international puppetry artifacts—including rarely displayed Mesoamerican pieces that predate Columbus’s westward voyage—and a rotating exhibit pulled from more than 400 objects built by Henson and his colleagues, courtesy of a bulk donation that was initiated in 2007. Expect an interactive exhibit inspired by Henson’s workshop and iconic, one-of-a-kind puppets such as Big Bird, Elmo, and those strangely perky Fraggle Rock creatures. Together it will be the largest Henson collection in the world. “If you’re a Henson nut, you’ll see a lot of the stuff you like,” says Vince Anthony, center founder and executive director.
The center itself was partly Henson’s idea. In the 1970s, the Mississippi native brainstormed the idea of an international puppetry center with Anthony, who was the Atlanta-based president of Puppeteers of America. Henson supported the facility with appearances and donations until his death in 1990. The center “was very much a part of his whole life,” says Erickson. “The family’s very committed to what’s happening here.”
On average, the center draws 150,000 visitors annually. Most come for the shows and workshops; only about 7,500 buy tickets just for the museum. With expanded facilities to showcase the Henson treasures, officials expect museum attendance to at least double. Anthony envisions the center working in concert with intown attractions (especially those around Centennial Park) instead of competing with them. “More choices will make coming to Atlanta better,” he says. “You’ll want to come here because you have so many options.”
This article originally appeared in our July 2014 under the headline "Muppets at Work."