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All hail the puppet queen — Cheryl Henson

Maybe no one told Big Bird and Telly Monster how to get to Sesame Street.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Maybe no one told Big Bird and Telly Monster how to get to Sesame Street.

There they were in Times Square, sharing a stage with a drag performer in women's underwear singing alongside two devil puppets, the puppet foal Joey from "War Horse" and a 5-year-old sock puppet who survives on candy.

What connected these very different acts was wearing a red silk gown and a smile: Cheryl Henson, the daughter of uber-puppeteer Jim Henson and the president of The Jim Henson Foundation.

Henson received the second annual New Victory Arts Award at a gala this week and a dizzying array of puppeteers came to honor a woman who has become a key cheerleader for puppet artists and a promoter of puppets in arts education.

"She was really the first person I can think of who brought puppeteering in New York City especially — but in many ways all over the country — out into the mainstream," said John Tartaglia, who earned a Tony Award nomination for his puppetry in "Avenue Q" and acted as the charity event host at the New Victory Theatre.

Henson, the second child of Jim and Jane Henson, has seen interest in puppetry soar over the years, thanks in part to the Jim Henson Foundation, which has awarded over 600 grants to more than 270 American puppet artists since 1982.

"There are just a lot of puppets out there right now. There's no question about it. Puppetry has captured the popular imagination," said Henson. "It's a beautiful flowering of seeds that have been planted over the last 20 years."

Puppets are clearly pulling the strings in entertainment for both adults and kids, from the off-Broadway shows "Avenue Q" and "Arias With a Twist" and "The Little Prince" to the Broadway shows "The Addams Family," "The Lion King," "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" and "War Horse."

"I think the reason why there's so much happening in puppetry is that it is such a visual medium. It sparks the imagination, it's enticing to the audience. There's a direct connection between the creators and the audience," Henson says. "People understand story through images even more than words these days."

There are more puppets on the way: Teatro SEA, the city's only Latino Children's theater company, will later this month offer the all-puppet "The Legends of the Enchanted Treasure" that explores folklore of the indigenous people of the Americas. Plus, Theater for the New City is hosting a puppet festival from Dec. 8-19.

At The Brooklyn Academy of Music, there's not only a puppet film festival kicking off next month, but the academy will also be home of the marionette-driven show "69 S" about explorer Ernest Shackleton.

La MaMa Experimental Theater Club is also getting into the act by reprising in November the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre's "Golem," a rendition of the Jewish legend. And next month, the Soho arts complex HERE will present "Sonnambula," a look at a Bellini opera that mixes puppetry and human movement.

The puppet-heavy emphasis on city stages is part of a wider cultural embrace. Puppets are all over TV commercials (LeBron James and Kobe Bryant appeared in Nike commercials) and in feature films, including the Disney reboot "The Muppets" opening in November, and "Being Elmo," a documentary about a puppeteer that became a Sundance Film Festival favorite.

All have some connection to Cheryl Henson. "Cheryl is kind of the center of a nexis of these really disparate strands of the puppet world," says Bill Irwin, the Tony Award-winning actor who is known by children as Mr. Noodle on "Sesame Street."

Basil Twist, who created puppets for "The Addams Family" and "The Pee-wee Herman Show," and recently collaborated with drag queen Joey Arias for the madcap revue "Arias With a Twist," said much of his career has been aided by Henson. "She has a beautiful spirit and she's very encouraging person," he said.

Tartaglia, who made his debut as a puppeteer with "The Muppets" at age 16 and recently co-wrote the musical "ImaginOcean," said at Monday's gala that since puppets are often abstract representations of human life, they are an effective way to get across emotion.

"There's something that you can't put into words about how a puppet brings out the child in you and affects you," said Tartaglia. "I think in a world where everything is becoming flat and computerized and digital, we all want to reach out and touch that."

Puppets are in the Henson family's blood. A retrospective of Jim Henson's work has landed at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and Cheryl's sister, Heather, runs Ibex Puppetry. She performed an excerpt from "Celebration of Flight" on Monday with large-scale kite puppets.

Cheryl Henson, herself a puppet builder who defines puppetry as the act of bringing an object to life, said there's no limit to their use, from marionettes to shadow puppets to her dad's hand-and-rod puppets.

"It works really well for humor. It works really well for politics. And it works really well for dreams, psychosis and insanity," she said, pointing to the recent staging of Rinne Groff's "Compulsion" at The Public Theater which starred Mandy Patinkin opposite a 3-foot-tall marionette who represented Anne Frank.

"Puppetry spans such a wide range of styles and tones," said Henson. "It can go wherever the human imagination takes it. It's a medium, it's an art form. It's all up to the artists and where they take it."




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