WASHINGTON Bert and Ernie are paying a special visit to the city that helped give birth to the "Sesame Street" gang.
But don't expect to see the popular puppets strolling around Washington. Their fame and age (they're sensitive to light) make too much exposure a security risk. Instead, they will be making their home, at least temporarily, in the underground International Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution as part of the exhibit "Jim Henson's Fantastic World."
Visitors to the show, which opens Saturday and continues through Oct. 5, will find the Muppets under special lighting, behind glass and closely guarded.
"We consider every single thing in here to be precious," said project director Deborah Macanic. Technically speaking, they're all antiques.
It's a homecoming for Muppets such as Kermit, the piano-playing dog Rowlf and others that first achieved stardom on Washington-area television shows and commercials long before the success of "The Muppet Show" and "Sesame Street." Muppets creator Jim Henson grew up in nearby Hyattsville, Md., and attended the University of Maryland, where his creative approach began to take shape.
"We're showing how he went from drawing to a cartoon to a puppet to a moving image," Macanic said, explaining the exhibit's themes of visual thinking, storytelling and character development.
Through more than 100 original drawings, cartoons and story boards and about 14 famous Muppets, the exhibit traces Henson's career as a puppeteer and filmmaker until his death in 1990.
Henson got his television start in 1954, creating a TV show, "Sam and Friends," for Washington's NBC station while still in college. Kermit the Frog's character began developing from this show and later became a superstar.
The exhibit features one of the earliest sketches of Kermit, and a 1970s version of the puppet sits front and center to greet visitors near the entrance of the International Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian's Ripley Center.
Kermit was originally conceived as a more abstract reptile character with less-defined features. The original puppet was made in 1955 from an old turquoise coat with eyes made from a pingpong ball. Kermit continued to evolve from there to a frog in the 1960s.
"Then Kermit just kind of took over and became the news (reporter) guy with the hat and the trench coat and all that he was by the time he got to Sesame Street," Macanic said.
The skinny, green frog became the most enduring Muppet character, in part because Jim Henson considered Kermit to be his alter-ego.
Henson's personality shines through other characters as well, such as the furry, hippie Mahna Mahna who sings scat to a jazz song with two backup singers called the Snowths. The skit debuted in 1969 on "The Ed Sullivan Show," with Henson performing the gruff voice of Mahna Mahna.
A few days before the exhibit's opening, the three singers emerged from a wooden storage crate all in need of a little primping. Josette Cole and Viki Possoff, Smithsonian exhibit registrars, carefully fluffed the pink Snowth puppets and twisted an arm to match a dance pose from a photograph.
"There's a whole technique to it," Cole said. "You use a dog brush, for one, and you don't pull it through the hair because you'll pull it off. You sort of have to pat it in place."
Bert and Ernie were unpacked after the Snowths, apparently needing some extra rest after their last public appearance in June in Louisiana.
Museum workers are becoming experts in Muppet care as the exhibit makes a three-year tour. After the show in Washington, the Muppets will travel to Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., and five other cities through early 2011. The Smithsonian's experts escort their Muppet treasures by tractor-trailer, tending to them at each stop.
The exhibit anchors a Muppet-themed summer of events at the Smithsonian and elsewhere in the Washington area. Through much of July and August, the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., will host the film series "Muppets, Music and Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy" as a tribute to Henson's work. There will also be programs on puppetry and free Podcast tours.
The only thing missing from the Muppet festival may be the elegant Miss Piggy, who aggressively flirted with Kermit. Miss Piggy will show up in film only, but her puppet isn't available. Apparently, the materials used to create Miss Piggy weren't as sturdy for travel as Kermit's, said Karen Falk, an archivist with The Jim Henson Co. who curated the exhibit.
"As you might expect," said Falk, "she's more sensitive."
On the Net: Smithsonian's "Jim Henson's Fantastic World" Exhibit: www.sites.si.edu/henson/