Scene Last Night: Cheryl Henson, Bill Irwin, Gabourey Sidibe

New Victory Theater
Caroll Spinney, the man behind Big Bird for 42 years, and Diana DiMenna. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

A few hedge funders, Isaac Mizrahi, and other guests at the New Victory Theater gala turned their hands into puppets.

At their place settings were plastic rings in the shape of a pair of eyeballs. As soon as one guest put her ring on, everyone else followed, while the first course -- something that looked like vegetable lasagna -- languished.

When they got bored with that, a mentalist came around lighting wallets on fire and trapping people’s smart phones in balloons, very much impressing gala vice chairman Emily Blavatnik, wife of billionaire Len Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries Holdings LLC. and owner of Warner Music Group.

Before dinner, guests fell into fits of giggles during the hour-long “Puppet Palooza” show in the theater. Joey, the equine star of “War Horse,” made an appearance. So did a prince taming a fox, in an excerpt from “The Little Prince,” which just finished a run at the New Victory. Joey Arias, the drag queen, danced with some tall red devils.

The program honored Cheryl Henson, president of the Jim Henson Foundation, and a daughter of the late Muppets mastermind. Since 1982 the foundation has supported puppetry arts, giving grants totaling about $150,000 a year, Henson said.

Jim Henson’s legacy loomed large at the event, particularly in video interviews with some of today’s puppetry talents, such as Julie Taymor, Basil Twist and Julian Crouch.

‘Magic of Humanity’

“It’s not magical but it has the magic of humanity in it,” said Crouch, a theater designer and director.

The gala raised $450,000 for the New Victory, said Cora Cahan, president of The New 42nd Street, which owns the Times Square theater. The New Victory presents shows for children and sends educators into schools.

Retta Leaphart, a teaching artist, recalled asking a group of children what a puppeteer was. “One child raised her hand and said ‘It’s when a puppet cries,’” Leaphart said in another video played during the show.

John Tartaglia of “Avenue Q” fame -- who became a Muppet puppeteer when he was 16 -- emceed the show. Big Bird and Bill Irwin presented Henson with her award.

Big Bird was a bit confused when he first came on stage. He said he thought he’d come to perform “Omelette” (apparently his own version of “Hamlet”). Irwin explained they were there to present an award to Cheryl Henson.

“Cheryl? The Cheryl Henson? She’s my good friend,” Big Bird said. “I like that.”

Later, Caroll Spinney, who has performed Big Bird for 42 years, said he first met Cheryl when she was 4 years old.

Some people mentioned Jason Segel’s movie “The Muppets,” coming out at Thanksgiving from Disney.

Cheryl Henson had 54 films on her mind, the ones she helped curate in the “Puppets on Film” festival taking place next month at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

One of the films is called “Kooky.” It’s about a boy whose teddy bear comes to life.

Artist Awards

Projections of Sol LeWitt murals -- life-size photographic reproductions printed with permission of the LeWitt estate -- spruced up Cipriani 42nd Street last night for the Americans for the Arts National Arts Awards.

Actress Gabourey Sidibe received the Bell Family Foundation Young Artist Award. She said her favorite piece of art is the poster for her breakout film, “Precious,” which hangs in her apartment.

“I collect music more than art,” Sidibe said. “My inspiration is Nina Simone, Kanye West, Jay-Z.”

Jennifer Lee, regional managing director for New York private banking at Wells Fargo & Co., said her office is decorated with company memorabilia.

The company, which received the Corporate Citizenship in the Arts Award, operates several Wells Fargo History Museums. They display stagecoaches, telegraph machines -- the kinds of things that helped the bank serve its first Gold Rush customers back in 1852.

Guests had the chance to go home with a Polaroid shot by Todd Eberle, whose work is often seen in Vanity Fair. For $2,000, Eberle offered a 20” by 24” color Polaroid, with proceeds going to Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group.

The event drew 400 guests and raised $750,000, said spokesman Adam Abdalla.

(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

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