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New Tributes to Seuss and Henson

Images: AP & Getty

Two new memorials to two great men who changed the landscape of children's entertainment.

Sept. 24, 2016, represents an interesting coincidence of anniversaries: It would have been Jim Henson's 80th birthday, and it's the 25th anniversary of Dr. Seuss' death. That's two major anniversaries for two great men who changed the landscape of children's entertainment.

When Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, published his first children's book – 1937's "And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" – he launched a revolution in children's literature. His books weren't stuffy or cutesy or preachy, like many that came before; instead, they were brightly colored and filled with wild and whimsical creatures going on exciting adventures. His books for the youngest readers, beginning with "The Cat in the Hat," taught basic reading skills via repetition of simple, recognizable words, but with a generous dash of silliness that kept children engaged. Generations later, his books remain childhood favorites – both for the young and for the adults who love to read to them.

While Seuss' creations eventually made their way to television and the big screen for beloved adaptations, that's where Jim Henson's vision began. From his early TV series "Sam and Friends" to "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show," and movies including "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth," Henson created wonderful worlds with his Muppet creations. While they were goofy and fanciful, the Muppets also offered relatable personalities to children, allowing them to empathize and learn in new ways.

As we celebrate the lives of Dr. Seuss and Jim Henson, we can explore their legacies in new attractions opening in their respective hometowns: The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Rainbow Connection sculpture memorial in Hyattsville, Maryland. We talked to some of the people making these memorials happen, and we discovered the stories behind their genesis.

Dr. Seuss was born in Springfield and lived there until he went away to college. Those formative years included many experiences that he brought to his later work for children, a fact that excites the creators of The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum. We talked to Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums, of which this new museum is a part, about the ways they incorporated Seuss' early life into their exhibits celebrating his life and work.

It all started with Mulberry Street, Simpson told us – that's a real street in Springfield, not far from the museum, and one that Seuss surely remembered as he was composing his first children's book. As you enter the museum, you'll walk through an interactive Mulberry Street mural and display, which invites visitors to learn more about the town that nurtured a boy who would grow up to create.

As you move through the entryway, you'll come to a re-creation of Seuss' childhood bedroom in Springfield. The interactivity continues: As Simpson told us, "He used to draw on the walls of the house – that was part of his creative expression. His parents allowed him to do that, which is kind of extraordinary. So in this little replication of his bedroom, there's a large touch-screen computer so kids can actually draw on the wall, just as he did."

In another area, called "Young Ted in Springfield," some of the favorite childhood haunts of Seuss are re-created, including the Forest Park Zoo that greatly influenced his 1950 book, "If I Ran the Zoo." Simpson noted that young Ted's father was the zoo's superintendent, and, "When he was a kid, he used to go to the zoo all the time with his sketch pad, and he would draw all the animals that he saw at the zoo."

All around the first floor of the museum, interactive areas are "tied to literacy" even as they reveal facets of Seuss' life, as Simpson said, and she reminded us of the lasting impact Seuss had on the development of young readers. "He was really thinking about kids, and making reading fun for kids, doing it in a way that's effortless. It wasn't like the reading primers that were prevalent during that time. Writing books with the zany creatures and the fun rhymes and the rhythm of the language – kids just couldn't put these books down. They were learning to read, but they were doing it in a way that they weren't even conscious of. He made reading fun."

The second floor offers a glimpse into the mind of Seuss as an adult and a writer, re-creating the studio in which he wrote his beloved books. Thanks to the involvement of his family, the re-created studio includes artifacts from his writing life – his desk and other furniture, his pencils and brushes with the ceramic containers he kept them in. "It will really be a very personal glimpse into Ted as an artist," Simpson said.

Though the museum isn't scheduled to open until early June 2017, there's plenty of Seuss to see on-site now – since 2002, the Springfield Museums' campus has included a Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden, with bronze sculptures of some of his most famous creatures. The sculptures were created by Seuss' stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, who also participated in the creation of the museum. And as the museum's finishing touches are put on, area visitors will be able to see the new façade going on the historic building that will house it, a "Seussian arch" that Simpson said will be "the billboard for the museum, so people will really know it's a Dr. Seuss museum."

Opening sooner is the Rainbow Connection park dedicated to the memory of Jim Henson in Hyattsville, Maryland. Though Henson was born in Mississippi, his family moved to Hyattsville when he was young, and that was where he attended high school and created his first puppets. His iconic Muppets would have their genesis when he was a first-year undergraduate at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he produced a TV show called "Sam and Friends" in the late 1950s. Sam was a humanoid puppet, but one of his friends was an expressive green frog named Kermit.

The characters of "Sam and Friends" evolved to become the world-famous Muppets, and now they are the centerpiece of Rainbow Connection, starring in a memorial conceived, designed, and created by artist Bill Culbertson. We talked to Culbertson, and he told us about the "aha moment" he had when he first visited Magruder Park, which would become home to the memorial.

City officials had planned to add a sign to the park to commemorate Henson's life and work – a nice sign, maybe something three-dimensional. When they told Culbertson this, he said, "I was just thinking to myself … This is Jim Henson. This isn't just anybody – this is Jim Henson! He doesn't get a sign. No. We're doing more than a sign. And literally, within 15 seconds, I had the whole thing laid out in my head."

 

Culbertson's concept was to clear a neglected area of the park and turn it into a quiet place to rest and reflect on the early Muppets that Henson dreamed up as a young man living in Maryland: "I said, how about if we put a planter here, and we could have scenes from 'Sam & Friends' on the planter? And what if they're TV screens, like from a '50s-'60s console TV? The images from the show could be right on it, with all the characters. There were mothers walking through with strollers, just looking for places to sit, so I said we could put these benches around, and make them look like couches – big, Muppet-y couches – and you could sit and 'watch' the TVs."

Culbertson's 15-second idea was brought to fruition over the course of several years, beginning with extensive research that he conducted at the Smithsonian – where he was able to see, handle, and photograph the actual Muppets used in "Sam and Friends" – as well as at the University of Maryland, where he watched the original episodes of the show. Using clay, he created the three-dimensional images that would line the sides of the planter, which was then cast in concrete. The benches followed, with quotes from Henson under decorative flourishes that look like Muppets' eyes. The planter will be wired for electricity so it can host the city's Christmas tree each winter … and Culbertson hopes the tree will be decorated with Muppet ornaments.

The memorial will be dedicated later this year, but Hyattsville officials are already excited about the new addition to their town. It's so perfect that it feels like an old friend rather than a new one – according to Culbertson, "Their compliment to me was, 'This looks like it's been here for 50 years, like it's always been here, like it belongs here. This is what we wanted.'"

If you visit Springfield or Hyattsville, we hope you'll spend some time visiting these new memorials to the creative men they nurtured. Their work has taught and inspired generations of children around the world.


Related:

Dr. Seuss and the Muppets Video Gallery

The Muppets

Jim Henson, Muppet Man

A Seuss-tacular Story

Dr. Seuss Quotes Reflect Life's Magic

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