So that passersby can forever remember the work of Jim Henson, muppet-like benches with quotes from the famous puppeteer look on to eight make-shift television screens surrounding a flower planter in the courtyard of Magruder Park. Those screens feature Henson’s original muppets, Sam and Friends, which was a five-minute segment that aired on WRC (NBC4) from 1955 to 1961.
“The City of Hyattsville is thrilled to honor the life and work of Jim Henson with this beautiful art installation,” Mayor Candace Hollingsworth said. “The planter showcases characters that Henson created at the University of Maryland, not long after he graduated from Northwestern High School, and for a show which aired in the Washington, DC, area. The quotes on the benches aim to inspire our youth that they, too, can each make the world a bit better.”
In fact, the Visual and Performing Arts program at Northwestern High School is named in his honor.
According to the memorial’s artist, Bill Culbertson, the concept was originally supposed to just be a sign in the southeast corner of the circular courtyard. “I kept looking over at the … flowers in the planter and it just came to me in 15 seconds,” he said. “How about some TV screens and we replace the benches … and things just started to evolve.”
The sculptor put together an initial rendering of the project, titled Muppet Dawn:
Culbertson has worked with the Sesame Street characters from miniature to monumental sizes. According to his website, in the 1980’s, he designed Sesame Street and other toy prototypes for Hasbro. In 1994, he was commissioned for 20 themed sculptures for Parque Plaza Sesamo in Monterey, Mexico. In 1997, he was commissioned for a culture of The Count for The Strong Museum in Rochester, Ny. In 1997, he was commissioned for three Sesame Street ride-on vehicles for Just Kiddie Rides. And in 1999, he was commissioned for 14 sculptures for Hopi Hari Theme Park in San Paulo, Brazil.
The development of the current project at Magruder Park was a journey. The Hyattsville City Council approved $50,000 to develop the courtyard in 2012. Culbertson said it took him 30 days to make the original drawings. Then the Smithsonian Institute had to approve the project, because they are now caretakers of the original Henson Sam and Friends muppets, which were donated by Jane Henson, puppeteer and wife of Jim Henson. The sculptor, who is from Rhode Island, traveled to the Smithsonian to visit the original Sam and Friends muppets and photograph them for reference.
Culbertson said he worked with Bonnie Erickson, who designed Miss Piggy and the two old hecklers, Statler and Waldorf. “I had so many reference pictures and I was still getting some things wrong, so Bonnie would have to correct it. We took two years going back in forth in pictures doing corrections on the clays in my basement,” he said.
Then, Jane Henson passed away in 2013. Culbertson said it had a profound effect on him and he had a difficult time rallying to finishing the project.
Moving forward, Culbertson played The Muppet Movie over and over in the background so that he could become the characters he was sculpting. “Hopefully the personality came through in these,” he said.
The concrete pieces were cast by Pompili Precast Concrete in Cleveland, Oh., and stored until installation. The project waited for funds to be approved by the city for the preparation of the courtyard. In Nov. 2015, the Hyattsville City Council approved more than $12,000 for excavation of the soil and installation of the concrete at ground level. Bill Pompili was at Magruder Park with Culbertson on June 30 and July 1 installing the memorial.
The planter will also house the City of Hyattsville’s holiday tree. An additional security camera will be be installed out of concern for vandalism at the site.
A community dedication ceremony will be announced later this summer.