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The Primitives were a line of puppets inspired by tribal art, built by the New York Muppet Workshop during downtime between productions in the spring of 1987. They were intended as an R&D project "to develop new characters, puppetry styles and techniques."
Built without the use of a script as a starting point, and indeed without any particular production in mind, they were the result of Jim Henson's visit to the primitive wing (now Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas) at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he realized "that there were ways of stylizing the human face that we weren't using." The Primitives began as clay models, and fell into three basic groupings. Ed Christie designed one line, reminiscent of African figures. A set created by Tim Miller was described by Henson as the kind that "you wouldn't know were inspired by primitives unless you were told. We'll either go abstract with the bodies, or else they'll become business men and women or modern husbands and wives." Jitka Exler built a third line, using a combination of Scotfoam, foam latex, and aluminum wire, a collection of abstract figures who "look vaguely like some early Picasso." In all, "more than 300 small sculptured heads, ranging from crocodiles to fanciful African goddesses" were built, and several puppets were completed.
The Primitives were the focus of a 1987 New York Times article, and were also mentioned in a 1988 issue of Channels, a magazine for the television industry. Henson was quoted as saying that the line designed by Exler was being considered "for an antidrug program for kids," while "the other two will probably gravitate toward Inner Tube." Inner Tube was being developed as a series at the time but ultimately evolved into The Jim Henson Hour.
Some improvised performing of the Primitives was taped as an experiment, but they ultimately only made a few brief onscreen appearances:
- Two Primitives appeared at Jim Henson's 1987 induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. A single line was sung by one Primitive, performed by Steve Whitmire, in the Muppet Workshop, while another appeared at the finale.
- One of Exler's Primitives appeared in the background of The Jim Henson Hour Pitch Reel.
- One Primitive was used as a part of the Muppets Tonight audience.
- Three of Exler's Primitives appeared during the Cirque Du So Lamé sequence in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. Director Kirk Thatcher felt that their aesthetic would be appropriate for the "abstract, silly and pretentious" Cirque show.
- The African Masks, another group of puppets inspired by tribal art
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ed Christie, quoted in personal communication between G. Harding and Karen Falk. June 5, 2013.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 Loevy, Diana. "Inside the House that Henson Built", Channels. March, 1988.
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Weber, Bruce. "Works in Progress: Post-Muppet Primitives" The New York Times. August 16, 1987.
- ↑ Twitter post by Kirk Thatcher