She Becomes a Puppeteer

My career in puppetry had its roots in a childhood fascination with puppet shows and their characters, stages, props, and sets.  Long before the 1969 premier of Sesame Street, Chicago-area children like me could watch a bevy of puppets on television. A particular show and my favorite, created by one of the gentlest puppet masters I’ve ever known, Burr Tillstrom, featured two puppets—a clown and a dragon—and a sweet woman vocalist; they were the mainstays of Kukla, Fran and Ollie.  The show ran on NBC and ABC from 1947 to 1957; and I rarely missed a broadcast. They aired shortly before dinnertime, for a half-hour but later reduced to 15 minutes, a network decision causing audience outrage. Children and adults were great fans of that calm, intellectual, and inventive program. At the end of its run, the show still had loyalists who begged its return to no avail.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, my siblings and I also followed the antics of various marionettes on the Howdy Doody Show and hand puppets on Garfield Goose and Friends. Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town family-oriented variety show introduced Topo Gigio (a ten-inch foam mouse puppet worked by four animators) and “Johnny,” a figure created by Señor Wences, who had a tradition-defying ventriloquist novelty act. Paul Winchell and Edgar Bergen were ventriloquists also regularly seen on television. Their rapid repartee involved arguments or gags with their wise guy figures, Jerry Mahoney and Charlie McCarthy, respectively. In the early 60’s The Shari Lewis Show, introducing three cuddly mouth puppets, Lamb Chop, Hush Puppy, and Charlie Horse, inspired many children, including myself, to attempt ventriloquism with socks.

Puppets on television and featured in school programs were a given during my childhood and adolescence. Although puppeteers of the mid-twentieth century might have assumed their main audience would be my generation, many adults enjoyed their acts, too. I remember my parents’ tears of laughter during Señor Wences’ bit on Ed Sullivan’s show. Wences flourished a box he had stored on a tabletop. He tapped it and a voice came out of it. He had one-to two-word exchanges with the box until finally he asked it, “S’alright?” When he opened the box’s lid, a head inside answered with a moving mouth, “S’alright.” Every time Wences appeared on that show, my family couldn’t wait for him to do that bit. “S’alright” became a family catchword.

 Emulating Wences, I worked on my own “Johnny” figure. I shaped a puppet head by drawing eyes on the back of my hand and tucking my rouged thumb under my equally rouged curled forefinger to make a mouth.  Hinging my thumb up and down, I transformed the back of my fist into an animated vent figure’s head. My lips moved, but—who cared?—so did Edgar Bergen’s.

Today, audiences regard puppetry as both an entertainment for children and an art form, whether high-tech, like films or theater—The Lion King, for example; or traditional manipulation as on Sesame Street, with puppeteers animating their characters directly. Staged puppet performances, like those presented by Blair Thomas’ annual Chicago International Puppet Festival enchant audiences of all ages with the immediacy of live performance, encouraging a suspension of disbelief as animated figures in fantastical settings spin out their stories or vignettes. 

Still a fan of puppet shows, especially after viewing the first seasons of Sesame Street with my toddler daughter, I turned to the discipline in my thirties as a way to channel my creative energies, beyond parenting two small children and carrying out my domestic responsibilities. I’d been moping and thinking I needed to have a job outside the home, but I did not want to abandon my children to a sitter we couldn’t afford anyway. As always, my husband Stephen helped me dispel my funk. Paper and pen in hand he mock-interviewed me. In the course of our conversation, memories of all the short stories I’d written, all the skits, shows, choral groups, voice lessons, and dance lessons in which I participated, and the many paper dolls I manipulated—my first work in puppetry?— helped me identify a remedy for my malaise: puppetry.

I doubted I had the talent and skills of a puppeteer. Where would I start? How would I make my hand puppets? Where would I perform beyond my living-room? Anticipating my doubts, Stephen said, “Well, I’ve found a group of puppet show people [we did not know the term, ‘puppeteer’ then]. We’ll go to a meeting and find out if any of them teaches puppetry.” He had made calls, found the group’s location, at a magicians’ shop near Lincoln Square, and arranged for us and our children to attend a gathering.

That group, the Chicagoland Puppetry Guild offered fellowship and encouragement as I pursued the art of puppetry. The delightfully eccentric and lively members’ enthusiasm for my burgeoning efforts encouraged me to explore an ever-intriguing and enjoyable interarts discipline with endless possibilities. Moreover, many members were pros. They performed in variety show acts or took their productions to schools, small theaters, community centers and libraries, and some were regulars on local and national television. Eventually,  after several years, my association with the guild led to my acquaintance with Burr Tillstrom and on his recommendation a prestigious booking for my original show about the last days of Pompeii at the Art Institute of Chicago. After becoming friends with so many members, not only did I feel my ambitions were validated.  Participation in the group also established a link between me, my childhood puppet master idols like Tillstrom, and a great and varied tradition. I hadn’t arrived yet at mastery, but I was on my way.

One thought on “She Becomes a Puppeteer

  1. It all sounds so fascinating. I grew up going to the occasional puppet stage show. I wish more puppet shows were available. My son, who is fifteen now, has never seen a live puppet show. I don’t even recall seeing any offered when he was little. 😔

    Liked by 1 person

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