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Henson Donates Original Kermit To Smithsonian

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WASHINGTON — The original Kermit the Frog, his body created with an old dull-green coat and his eyes made of pingpong balls, has returned home to the nation's capital, where the puppet got his start.

The first Kermit creation from Jim Henson's Muppet's collection appeared in 1955 on the early TV show "Sam and Friends," produced at Washington's WRC-TV. Henson's widow Jane Henson on Wednesday donated 10 characters from the show to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

She said the original characters provided five minutes of fun each night after the local news.

"I think people realized that if you put Kermit's face up there, it was just as powerful," Jane Henson, 76, said. "We were mostly just doing it to entertain ourselves."

The Hensons attended the University of Maryland and got into the TV business with Willard Scott and other pioneers while in college. Their connection to the area makes the Smithsonian a perfect home for Henson's original puppets, friends said.

"It's not just the puppets coming home, but in a way it's Jane and Jim coming home," said Arthur Novell, executive director of the nonprofit Jim Henson Legacy in New York City. "They started their careers, their lives in Washington."

Even though they were in Washington, Kermit deliberately did not do politics or dabble in religion, Jane Henson said.

The Smithsonian already has a familiar Kermit the Frog puppet made famous on "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show." But the original Kermit was more lizard-like, and a duller green. His body was made from an old coat thrown out by Henson's mother.

Some of the other early Muppets donated to the museum include the puppets that inspired Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch, as well as Sam from "Sam and Friends." The group also includes Henson's oldest surviving puppet, Pierre the French Rat. The puppets mostly mimed on the show and would lip-sync to popular music.

Their first hit was "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face," by Rosemary Clooney. Donning a wig, Kermit took the lead as "Kermina," Jane Henson said. In 1969, Kermit made it big and joined "Sesame Street."

Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers said the Muppets will be a boon for the museum's collection.

"It certainly shows the Muppets at the beginning of the career of a large family of entertainers," he said. "More than anything, I think it shows the genius of Jim Henson."

Bowers said the museum plans to have the original Muppets on display by November in the pop culture gallery.

Visitors will recognize the original Kermit, though he didn't have his trademark collar and webbed feet. But they probably won't recognize the other characters, so the museum will help introduce them, Bowers said. Future plans call for adding clips of their early shows.

A traveling Smithsonian exhibit of Muppets opens Sept. 24 at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

Novell, who was Henson's publicist for more than 20 years, said the puppeteer was a history buff and fond of the Smithsonian.

Other puppets from Henson's collection will eventually be given to the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta to create a Henson gallery there, perhaps as soon as 2014, Novell said.

Still, the Hensons plan to give the Smithsonian about a dozen more puppets in the years to come, possibly including a Miss Piggy to join her boyfriend, Kermit. Part of that will depend on plans by the Walt Disney Co., which has owned rights to the Muppets since 2002.

"We would like very much to get them out while they're still in relatively good condition," Jane Henson said. "I think when you grow up in Washington, you get the feeling that everything important in the country goes to the Smithsonian."

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Online:

National Museum of American History: http://americanhistory.si.edu/