The Federal Puppet Theater in Los Angeles
Tom McLaughlin's Silicone Art
Vietnamese Water Puppets
Motion Capture Puppeteer Lea Wallace
Paul Winchell's Pinocchio
Dalang Maria Bodmann
Sicilian Rod Puppets in Performance
A Tribute to Clyde Adler of the Soupy Sales Show
Punch and Judy Master Bob Mason
Buffalo Bob Smith
Shirley Dinsdale Layburn
Margo Rose: Grand First Lady of American Puppetry
articles first appeared in the puppeteer newsletter, Puppet Life, for the Los
Angeles Guild of Puppetry. Unless otherwise credited, Greg wrote them as newsletter
editor.Greg currently writes a column called Scene West for The Puppetry Journal,
the periodical for Puppeters of America.
In 1940, Joe Fischer, an early Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry member, lived in
Westwood with his mother where he maintained close to 300 marionettes. He had
made them over a 15 year period, starting in 1930, from a workbench inside his
Fischer specialized in dancing marionettes and was one of the first puppeteers
to present his puppet acts without a stage or drapes so that the entire process
of operating the figure was in full view of the audience.
Fischer worked in the engineering department at Douglas Aircraft along with
several other puppeteers. They couldn't tour during war years and needed work.
Although it was only a hobby, he put on weekly puppet shows at the Veterans
Hospital in Westwood and was a popular performer at the famous Hollywood Canteen
located on Cahuenga Boulevard during WWII.
His figures stood about 18 inches tall and included an opera prima dona (Mme.
Lucia La Gargle), a prima ballerina, a Cuban dancer, a cabaret dancer (Trixie
Rose Glee) and a Hawaiian hula dancer. After assembling a marionette, if it
did not move well, Fischer would take it completely apart and start again.
While Joe Fischer enjoyed making his puppets, he adored performing with them.
He was a major influence on Frank Paris who saw Joe's Saturday shows at an Oklahoma
City department store. According to Alan Cook, during the last week of Frank's
life, Paris shared his memories of Joe Fischer. Frank said that Joe was the
best puppet manipulator he ever saw. Of his ballet dancer, Pavlowa, Frank said,
"she may not have been much to look at but she moved like a dream".
A puppeteer who came and went without fanfare, Joe Fischer made his mark.
In the late 1890's, puppeteers were considered variety artists. They performed
across the country in places with various levels of prestige.
The lowest class puppeteer appeared in beer halls. These dives attracted men
only, and the acts were bawdy and blue.
Vaudeville was the crown, especially the Palace Theater in New York. Only the
best played there. In the middle were dime museums.
The dime museums attracted a mixed crowd and were run by men like P.T. Barnum,
the most famous of the dime museum operators. The owners liked to regard their
businesses as institutions of learning. The buildings were usually divided in
half with one side for the exhibition of small people, giant people, fat people,
bird people, and dog-faced boys. This, according to the owners, was the educational
part. The other side held a variety hall offering jugglers, magicians, acrobatic
dancers, puppeteers, and light entertainment. The performers worked hard, performing
five to eight shows a day increasing to seventeen or more on weekends and holidays.
This, of course, was BT, Before Television.
Virginia Curtis was an honored member of Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry. She
is best known for her Clippo the Clown and for her creation of Edgar Bergen's
Elmer, who became famous as Mortimer Snerd. But Virginia's career was varied
and colorful and deserves to be told. She was a dedicated puppeteer who advanced
A Texan by birth, Virginia inherited her building skills from her mother who
was a sculptor and a wood carver. Her father was a minister.
Virginia loved music first growing up. As a young woman, she attended a music
school in Chicago where she graduated in 1930.
It was on her way back home to Texas from Chicago that Virginia found her lifelong
career. While stopping in Los Angeles to visit friends, she took some local
tours and discovered Olvera Street. She loved its fascinating stalls and shops,
but what really caught her eye was the puppet theater there. Virginia was drawn
immediately to the troupe. They soon asked her to join them in the Olvera Puppeteers,
and she went with them on a national tour, doing the women's voices, manipulating
puppets and singing for Madame Obligoto.
The company toured all over the United States, doing shows at schools and colleges
during the Great Depression. Teachers in the schools where they performed asked
for marionettes to use in the schoolroom. This started Virginia thinking. And
she created Clippo the Clown.
She made her first Clippos in a workshop back in California, in old China Town
near Olvera Street. By 1936, she was selling her puppets to two large department
stores in Los Angeles. That's when she met Edgar Bergen.
Bergen had seen Virginia's puppets on display in the local 'Dobe Dollar Book
Store. He had a wonderful drawing by Wolo of an old hay seed character he wanted
to create. Virginia modeled the head with Bergen watching over her shoulder.
She cast the head in wood dough using a 13-piece mold. Bergen sent the head
to Chicago where the man who had animated Charlie McCarthy did the same for
the hayseed fellow. Bergen was so pleased with Virginia's work that he had her
make twelve miniatures of Charlie McCarthy for promotional purposes. Today,
these figures are quite valuable.When Bergen later performed in Chicago, he
asked Virginia to come to the Midwest and make some more Charlie figures for
him. She went and brought Clippo with her.
Virginia took Clippo to the buyer at Marshall Field's, Chicago's largest department
store. He was delighted with the clown puppet but when he found out that Virginia
could manufacture only three dozen Clippos a week, he said he could sell that
many in a day. He suggested that Virginia increase her manufacturing capabilities
and sent her to the Effanbee Doll Co., a doll manufacturer in New York.
With mass production lined up, Clippos soon appeared all over the world. When
Effanbee learned that Virginia had modeled the small Charlie figures, they arranged
for their factory to turn those out as well. Then they asked Virginia to sculpt
a W.C. doll for their assembly line. She now had designed three items for the
Clippo kept her constantly busy. She traveled all over the country to demonstrate
her little marionette. It was at Macy's, New York where she made regular appearances
that a man one day suggested Virginia should be in show business. She had talent,
charm, and was very easy on the eyes. The next day, Virginia walked into the
Paramount Theater on Broadway and asked to see the manager. She told him about
her act with the clown marionette. When the manager asked where she was playing,
she replied, "Nowhere."
The Paramount management sent her off to the suburbs where she played Valley
Barn for a month and got some experience. She had also found an agent in the
process and went to work on the theater circuit in New York, refining her act
called Clippo Capers.
In no time, Virginia was onstage at the Paramount Theater and shortly after,
she played the Palace, the epitome of vaudeville even in its wane.
In her touring, she soon met a trumpet player who suggested that she re-do her
music. He did it himself and then he married her. His name was George Curtis.
Her act was honed. She entered wearing a long black velvet gown and carried
the middle size Clippo who was in a bad mood. She cheered him up by bringing
on his pony, Whinny. Then the littlest Clippo peddled in on a kiddy car with
Emily Ann riding on back. The two did a dance and exited. Then Virginia returned
with a large marionette named Butchy who performed with a smaller marionette.
Then the smaller marionette brought on an even smaller marionette and they all
For twenty years, Virginia Curtis played theaters and supper clubs all over
the country. During the war years, she entertained in hospitals and camps. Vaudeville
was dead, but Virginia's act fit neatly into the big band era. She shared the
bill with Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Vaughn Monroe, Danny Kaye, and Jack Carter.
The highlight of her career came with a performance at the White House for President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Her second favorite moment was an appearance on the
Ed Sullivan Show in its revered Sunday nightspot on CBS.
But in 1964, George Curtis died and a light went out in Virginia's life. It
took several years for her to re-invigorate herself and that moment came in
1972. At a national puppet festival, some young puppeteers asked Virginia to
teach them how to make puppets. She said she would if she could find a place.
A few months later she found a two-story, ninety-year old building in Sierra
Madre, California, and made it into a puppet theater, workshop, class room,
museum, and home. Children would come to the theater for birthday parties that
included shows starring Clippo and his friends. At other times, she would have
guest puppeteers like Nancy Mitchell, Donald Ave, Bob Schonzler, the Cederquists,
Bruce Schwartz, Preston Hibbard, and others.
The Pasadena City Schools asked Virginia to hold hand puppet classes for their
students. She had heard about making hand puppets out of gourds, so she began
to make regular 300-mile round trips to National City where the best gourds
grew. She did this on Mondays when the theater was closed. The gourds had to
be soaked, scrubbed, and dried and then drilled to take a 5/16" dowel.
She picked out gourds shaped like birds, animals and people. Hundred of Brownies,
Cub Scouts, Blue Birds, and other groups would pick out a gourd, glue in a dowel,
paint on features, glue on hair and sew a costume for their puppet characters.
Kids loved Virginia's classes.
She continued to manufacture her Clippos after Effanbee ceased production. Numerous
professional puppeteers started their careers with Clippo as children and the
little clown is a valued member of many puppet collections. As long as she manufactured
them through the 70's., Clippos were sold and demonstrated regularly at the
Bob Baker Marionette Theater. When Virginia was asked what kept her going, she
replied "Fresh squeezed vegetable juice and children, children, children."
She is missed by those who knew her. But though Virginia Curtis is gone from
us, no matter how many years pass, her Clippo will always be the seven year
old boy clown his mistress made him.
Information for this article was assembled from a film about Virginia by Jack
Aiken, "A Place to Pretend."
Puppeteer Everett Burgess opened a Hollywood puppet theater in the fanciful
mall on Sunset Boulevard called Crossroads of the World in 1937. Burgess premiered
z om Sawyer," a one-man production. He credited his wife as an instrumental
He worked his marionettes with paddle controls held vertically.
The theater lasted only a few months. The oncoming war slowed the local economy.
Bob Baker knew Everett and worked with him in 1941 when Robinson's Department
Store staged "Snow White" as a marionette show.
Puppeteer Bob Baker said he had to go see the 30's movie "Mad
Genius" when it played at the "Uncensored Hollywood" festival
at the Nuart Theater (1994).
Bob said John Barrymore played the hammy title role of a puppeteer who aspired
to be a dancer except that his clubfeet held him back. When this madman discovers
a young fellow who he feels will become the world's greatest dancer, hoo boy,
The puppets occur mainly in the opening of the film and are the creations of
E. Percival Wetzel. The marionettes included Russian ballet dancers who filled
a full stage. Bob said the puppets looked cute but moved so violently he was
glad his partner Alton Wood wasn't there to see it.
Some hate him, some love him, but radio personality Howard Stern's first love
was puppets. He played with them as a child and they are regularly featured
on his E! television show. The Garyonette is a send-up of his producer and has
acquired a lot of avid fans. There is also a Jackie puppet which pokes fun at
his writer Jackie "Joke Page" Martling. Howard has mentioned the fact
that he was in discussions with the E! network for a show using the puppets.
Starting around 1938, Robinson's Department Store in downtown Los Angeles made
it a yearly fall tradition to open a puppet theater, clearing out their outdoor
Wayne Barlow was the mastermind of these shows which started with a long-running
"Three Little Pigs." Barlow also ran workshops in the theater. One
year he did an elaborate circus, but as he and Bob Baker were such fans of Walt
Disney, the Disney animated features, "Snow White" and "Dumbo,"
formed a high points in the department store's theater.
The puppets for both "Dumbo" and "Snow White" were modeled
after the Disney animation designs. Bob Bromley wrote additional material to
augment the soundtracks that were transcriptions of the animated films. They
actually played the large disks backstage.
Their production of "Snow White" preceded the film's premiere at the
Los Angeles' Carthay Circle. Bob thought the "Dumbo" theater was the
most beaautiful of all Barlow's efforts. The only part of the elephant's story
they could not use in the show was the Pink Elephant sequence. Mrs. Robinson
firmly put her foot down on the depiction of inebriation in her store's marionette
The puppeteers filmed a prologue with puppets for both "Snow White"
and "Dumbo" down in Robinson's basement. Bob sat next to Walt Disney
during the screening of the prologue before the Dumbo puppet show. Walt turned
to his brother Roy Disney and asked when their studio filmed it. It looked that
good. Roy said they didn't. When Walt marveled to Bob at the lighting effect
in the film, Bob confessed that the crew simply turned the lights away from
the camera to create the magical fades.
After the Dumbo theater was torn down for the return of the furniture department,
Barlow had enough and quit the tradition.
The puppets landed in various hands with Jack Shafton taking the dwarves from
"Snow White" and making them into a nightclub act. Sky Highchief also
ended up with some of the puppets. Where they are now is a mystery. If they
had been kept together, the show might be performing today at Disneyland.
The art of ventriloquism is to fool the audience into thinking that a sound
or voice actually made by the ventriloquist is coming from somewhere else. It
is an illusion, like a magic trick, that the ventriloquist has mastered through
much practice and experimentation. You can learn it too if you are willing to
practice - a lot - and preferably in front of a mirror. Do this before trying
it out on your friends.
First, you must re-learn to say the alphabet! The regular English alphabet has
26 letters in it. Six of these letters are formed by using the lips, and it
is there you will need to learn to pronounce in a different way. Can you guess
which ones they are? If you guess B, F, M, P, V, and W, you are exactly right.
For these six letters we have substitute sounds that can be made inside the
mouth without having to move those lips. So, instead of B, say "dee";
for F use "eth"; M is an "en" sound. P becomes a soft "tee";
V is "thee", and W will be "ooah".
Practice, practice, practice until you can do it without thinking about it.
Next, add these letters to words, substituting the word "doy" instead
of "boy", and "duddle" for "bubbles"; "thread"
for "Fred" and "enouth" for "enough", and so on.
Second, you must experiment with ways of changing your voice so that it sounds
different from your natural voice. This is done by tightening your vocal chords
as though you were being choked. That is your "vent" voice.Practice
this voice enough so that you can change quickly and easily between the "vent"
and the natural voices.
Third, you need a simple "mouth" puppet or "dummy" of some
kind to be your partners. Give him or her a name and a personality. Then go
to the library, bookstore, and if you can, a magic store to look for ventriloquist
routines (often found ready-made in books on ventriloquism) or jokes for a "straight
man" and a "funny man." Group them together by similar subjects
and create you own routines to amaze your friends and family - and have fun!
Three young men at Yale, put their heads together and came up with the idea
of doing puppet shows for extra money. Harry, Burnett, with his partners, Forman
Brown and Richard "Roddy" Brandon, decided a good name for their troupe
would be the Yale Puppeteers.
They came to Southern California in 1929, and in 1930, they opened an exceptional
theater called "Teatro Torita" on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.
The theater and the Yale Puppeteers were a hit. Glamorous stars, important people,
everybody loved the shows.
The savvy showmen collected a mailing list of names that became useful when
they returned from a sojourn in New York and in 1941, premiered their Turnabout
Theater on La Cienega Boulevard.
Harry's marionettes, many of them caricatures of celebrities, opened the show
and after the turnabout of the trolley car seats during intermission, Harry
himself appeared onstage with other top comic talent. Harry got big laughs on
the Turnabout stage and created an indelible, poor-soul character.Burnett's
teaming with Forman was a perfect combination of writing and performance.
Television and the changing social life of the area closed the theater in 1956.
Harry was active in the Los Angeles Guild of puppetry. He would have members
over to his house on Gower Avenue in Hollywood for workshops on puppet making.
We had some of our best meetings at the Turnabout house in Hollywood. Harry
passed away at the age of 92 on May 27, 1993 in Hollywood. We will miss him.
MORE ON THE YALE PUPPETEERS
Alan Cook tells the tale. When the Turn About Theater closed in the early Œ50s,
the Yale Puppeteers decided to move to Europe forever. They held a puppet sale
at a gas station on La Cienega with some of their puppets selling for $3.00
each. Apparently, once in Europe, the talented trio witnessed the value of the
dollar dipping and found Europe too expensive for life retirement. They returned
to these shores.
Alan says he consequently saw a Burnett puppet a few years ago in a thrift store
in Burbank. The price tag said $100 and the store owner thought he had a nineteenth
century marionette made in England. Alan corrected him. Harry Burnett visited
the store and autographed his creation. Another puppeteer, Alan thinks it was
John Brunner, bought the figure.
Velma Dawson made the most famous marionette in the world! HOWDY DOODY
The artist who built Howdy Doody, Velma Dawson, was in town for Howdy's two-day
filming in Jim Carrey's movie, "Man in the Moon." (Howdy puppet by
Rene Zendejas). Dawson, an elegant, striking woman of a certain age, has an
inner light that shines through. Maybe it is a result from doing what she loves,
spending her days creating art. Time has not dimmed her humor or perspicacity.
Velma Dawson is a jewel.
For years, the publicity that NBC sent out about Howdy had many errors, including
misspelling Dawson's name. Much of that erroneous material has been repeated,
even in published books.
Frank Paris had the original puppet show. It was broadcast from NBC's Radio
City headquarters in New York. Frank needed a voice for his character Elmer.
That's how Bob Smith came on the show. Smith already had a NBC talk show for
family and kids on the air. As Buffalo Bob Smith did Elmer's voice.
The show got better and more popular. When NBC asked for dolls and merchandising,
Paris wanted a part of the money. It was his show and his puppets. NBC balked
at sharing a piece of the show with Paris. (Ultimately Howdy made about $3 billion
dollars in merchandising.) Paris had an advisor, a close friend, who insisted
he walk from the show. Frank left NBC stranded. He took his puppets with him.
His exit made Bob Smith the top gun on the show.
NBC needed a Howdy Doody . The director of NBC, Norm Blackburn, was a caricaturist.
He did a few sketches that he sent to Mel Allen, an artist who had worked for
Disney. The original sketches for Howdy came from Mel Allen. In the interim,
the character of Howdy spoke from a box and, at one point, told the kids he
was getting plastic surgery to run for office. Norm Blackburn had come from
Hollywood. He remembered seeing a marionette performance of Velma Dawson's in
Toluca Lake. He contacted Dawson. She was the only puppeteer he knew. She had
a puppet studio in her Hollywood home near the Wilshire District.
NBC was desperate for the puppet. They rushed Velma. Howdy was made in nine
days, a process that Velma wished had taken months. Velma knew Frank Paris in
Hollywood. They worked puppets in a picture together. Velma made Howdy for $300,
a fact that Frank Paris later turned into a joke. Frank Paris sued NBC for $250,000,
a huge sum in those days. After he got his money, he said he made more money
off Howdy Doody than Velma Dawson did. Velma acknowledges that was true. She
adds, "Good thing I was good. It could have been a lousy puppet."
Velma developed into a good puppeteer the usual way: hard work, perseverance
and talent. She got into puppetry after seeing the fabled team of Walton and
O'Rourke perform in their Olveras Street Theater. She could not believe how
wonderful their show was. Nor how magical puppets could be. She tried to buy
some puppets but found scarcely one for sale. She looked for puppet-making books
and found only one by Tony Sarg. She said that Sarg's puppets were very crude.
He sculpted them out of plastic wood without molds. They looked very lumpy up
Her first puppet built from the Sarg book "was pathetic." Her fascination
with the craft took her to art school where she learned to sculpt. Then she
happened upon a puppet show in Robinson's Department Store in downtown Los Angeles.
It was Wayne Barlow's production of Disney's Dumbo. "I was thunderstruck,"
Velma recalls. Although it was a very commercial production, the puppets and
manipulation were exquisite. She went backstage and asked if the Barlows sold
any of their puppets. The husband and wife team replied, "No, but we'll
teach you." Both were excellent artisans. (Rene Zendejas adds that Mrs.
Barlow was a superb air brush artist.)
The second puppet Velma built under the Barlows' eyes also "was bad."
She admits, "When you're learning, everything is bad." However, Velma
eventually learned to sculpt beautifully and even mastered the difficult art
of putting personality into her pieces. She continued making puppets.
Velma eventually had a puppet theater in her own home that sat 10. Meanwhile
her friendships within the field expanded. She did some shows with Bob Baker.
Rene game along and worked the gramophone although, as Velma tells it, "He
broke the record." She continued the friendships, working with Bob Baker
in his studio whenever she was in town just to keep her hand in puppetry. Rene
was a in high school when Velma made Howdy. He always came over to hang out
and see what was happening.
Velma didn't have a television set, so after she shipped the Howdy Doody off
to New York, she "forgot about the whole thing." She saw the show
later and "thought it was awful, pathetic. The manipulation was atrocious."
The original puppeteer on the Howdy Doody show was not very skilled.
Meanwhile, Velma helped pioneer puppetry in television locally with her own
show. It was a fifteen-minute broadcast every day at 5:00 p.m. on KTTV Los Angeles.
Two months into the run, Velma, who did everything on the broadcast herself,
found that she was running out of new puppets and material. She was a bit relieved
when she got a call from NBC in New York. Howdy's inept puppeteer had broken
the marionette's head and Velma was needed for repairs. She told her TV audience
that she was ending her program and heading to New York, "to fix Howdy
In a story that has never been printed, Velma says that while working on Howdy
in New York, it got late in the day. She decided to work on the marionette in
her hotel room a few blocks from NBC. Velma put Howdy in a suitcase and started
out. On her way, she was accosted by a young man (she says "a bum")
who seemed seriously out-of whack. He insisted on carrying the case for her.
It was a tug of war, with Velma holding on tightly as she headed for the hotel.
When she reached the door, she yelled for help. What if that man had grabbed
the suitcase and disappeared with it?
It was on this visit that Velma insisted that NBC hire a puppeteer who could
manipulate a marionette. She said the way Howdy jiggled and walked on his knees
was awful. She didn't want the job; she had a home and husband in Hollywood.
Two years later, in 1952, NBC hired Rufus Rose and Howdy began to act better.
Velma made a second version of the famous marionette at NBC's request although
she told them that it would not be the same Howdy. (All puppeteers will understand
that!) Velma was right. That puppet became the Inspector on the show. As for
the other puppets like Flubadub, uncredited New York puppeteers built them.
An interesting aspect to Velma was her marriage. Velma married John Dawson,
a prominent amateur golfer, in the early '40s. Her husband found it remarkable
that a resort like Palm Springs had no 18-hole golf course. He got into golf
development and is credited with making Palm Springs the golf capital of the
world. John Dawson bought an old, failing dude ranch in Rancho Mirage, a place
called the Thunderbird that was losing $35,000 a year and up for sale. It became
Palm Springs first golf club. (That's when the desert town was four-hour drive
from L.A.) The last country club Dawson created before his death was the Marrakesh
in the '70s. By then the Dawsons had divorced after 32 years of marriage.
Ve lma admits to four careers, so far, in her life. She started as a dancer.
That got her into the entertainment business or "show biz" as Velma
calls it. Then she became an actress, a career she gave up on marriage. Puppeteering,
her third career, led to her fourth career in art. She loved to sculpt and got
into ceramics. At one time, she sold figurines for $150 (pricey in those days).
She gave that up after ten years. It demanded so much of her time fussing over
kilns. Then she turned to painting. Velma added a fifth career, interior decorating.
Interior decorating was the most profitable for her. Her wealthy clients included
many celebrities. Velma Dawson decorated every country club her husband John
An early member of the Puppeteers of America and the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry,
Velma thought the local puppet guild "pathetic" on first encounter.
She and others like Baker and Rene were "pioneers of puppetry." It
took television to make their art and craft the big-time commercial enterprise
that it is today.
Live puppetry offers a creative refuge for anyone who has ever loved it. "Once
you do puppets, they're always with you," Velma admits. She still entertains
with her marionettes. "I gave a show two months ago in City Hall in Palm
Desert for 50 people." Her favorite puppet is a saucy madam who works the
crowd. She loves to ad lib.
Velma has sold most of her other puppets including full shows at national puppet
conventions. She is down to fifteen.
Velma found that many did not give her credit for making the original Howdy.
Even the Puppeteers of America insisted that the Roses made Howdy Doody. When
Velma objected, the national puppetry organization asked her to prove her claim.
Velma sent the paperwork that established her role. Buffalo Bob never acknowledged
Velma's contribution to the Howdy Doody show until a few years before his death.
He sent Dawson an autographed picture of himself and Howdy. He wrote under Howdy
"Hi, Mom." Many say that Buffalo Bob disliked puppeteers. Velma says
that Smith once told her somewhat resentfully "I spent my career making
that puppet famous."
Fans still seek out Velma and adore her. She gets taken to dinner by successful,
forty-something gentlemen who fly to Rancho Mirage just to meet Howdy's famous
mom. Velma takes it all in stride. "All I did" she says, "was
make a stupid puppet."
"Buffalo Bob" Smith died at the age of 80 of cancer. He was on the
air with the redheaded marionette from 1947 to 1960. Born Robert Schmidt, he
eventually adopted the name of his birth city, Buffalo, N.Y.
A musician, Smith worked as a pianist and master of ceremonies in vaudeville
shows with Kate Smith before winding up on NBC radio in New York. As Buffalo
Bob, he started each of his 2,543 Howdy Doody shows with "Say, kids, what
time is it?" He presided over a happy cast of Doodyville citizens that
included puppets and actors. At the same time, he sold Ovaltine and Wonderbread.
Fifteen million preschoolers watched him around the country in the formative
years of television. The show demonstrated the power of medium to teach.
Bob Smith attempted a syndicated reconstruction of the Howdy Doody show in 1976,
but it failed. He toured college campuses and made special TV appearances after
Puppet Odyssey, China to Australia
by Phillip Huber
The Huber Marionettes were off on yet another cruise, this one aboard the beautiful
five-star ship, Crystal Harmony.
I felt some trepidation because I and my equipment had to fly into Beijing,
China, and driven 3 hours overland to the port of Tianjin to meet the ship.
All the usual requests had been communicated to the cruise offices: arrange
a transport vehicle large enough for 6 trunks of equipment, contact the port
agent to assist clearing customs.
Upon arrival, I was met only by a transport driver who, seeing my trunks, announced
that they would not fit in his compact passenger car. It turned out to be a
moot point. In customs, after extensive interrogation, I was told the equipment
was being confiscated. The following 18 hours were spent phoning home &
talking with the ship's agent in Beijing. The equipment was released after much
negotiations, paperwork shuffling & paying of fines. We (15 marionettes,
stage, props & I) arrived at the ship just 2 hours before sailing time.
One might think that this in-auspicious beginning would dampen my enjoyment
of the cruise...it did not! I loved our first port, Shanghai, a surprisingly
modern city, friendly people, incredible shopping. My purchased treasures include
two moderately old rod puppets from a street vendor, a coffee-table book on
Chinese puppetry from the Shanghai Museum, and a beautiful silk tie (only 5
Onward to the port of Fukuoka, Japan. Having, in years past completed 4 tours
of Japan for the Foundation of Modern Puppetry, I feel very much "at home"
in this gracious country. I was designated tour guide for two other ship entertainers
as we navigated the subways & toured all the ancient temples we could cram
into a single afternoon.
In the next port, Nagasaki, I chose to tour the homes of early Portuguese traders
& merchants that helped to open Japan to the world. As the ship was pulling
out of the scenic Nagasaki harbor, the captain announced to all passengers that
our present course toward the island of Taiwan would send us head-on into Typhoon
Jeb, also heading to Taiwan but from the opposite direction. The captain made
the wise decision to skip our Taiwan stop & sail further north in a direct
line to Hong Kong, where we could now spend an extra day of shopping.
However, the captain's careful maneuvering did not mean that we would completely
escape the typhoon's effects. On the night of my second scheduled performance,
the weather prediction was driving rain, 60-70 knot wind & 40 ft. waves.
As performance time approached, the ship was in constant smooth rolls but no
pitching... I decided to proceed. The cruise director made a special announcement
about my professionalism (could be read foolhardiness) & assigned an extra
stage crew member to stand through-out the show behind my stage, steady it &
possibly catch me if there were a sudden jolt. This Filipino stage hand was
probably 5 ft. 2 in. tall, weighing about 110 pounds. Had either me or the stage
fallen in his direction, his only salvation would have been to run like hell!
Fortunately, the weather held & so did my nerve. The show was completed
with hardly a miss-step (to the great relief of the Filipino techie).
It was a relatively uneventful night, with all breakables placed on the cabin
floors for protection. Suddenly at 8:30 am, a large wave struck the ship &
sent it on a 35 degree roll. In the ship's gift shops, clothes racks followed
the domino principle; display cases toppled onto the ( previously floored) crystal
& porcelain nick-nacks. Half the chairs at my breakfast table were thrown
backwards spilling their occupants into a carpet bobsled ride, well-oiled with
the flying glasses of water & orange juice. No one was hurt...only their
dignity. Alas, passengers would be Lladro & Waterford deprived for the remaining
cruise days. But never fear, the sun broke through on gorgeous weather &
we could all look forward to two & one half days of feverish shopping in
the retail Mecca, Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was the end of the Asia Cruise & the beginning of the Southeast
Asia-Australia Cruise. Most of the 900 passengers would be debarking & a
new group boarding. It is always an amazing process to watch the ship's staff
& crew do a complete passenger turn-over in just four hours, a symphony
of efficiency. Staterooms are cleaned top to bottom, fresh cut flowers, fruit
bowls replaced, clean terrycloth robes put in closets & bath articles &
minibar restocked. In fact, the superb, attentive service, throughout a cruise,
is enough to cause a passenger or entertainer to lose touch with reality. Cruise
ships are an adult "themepark" at sea.
On long cruises, I will often ask the stewardess for permission to make my own
bed in the morning, just so I won't have such a difficult adjustment returning
home. No...ITS TRUE. Then there is the FOOD. Everything you have heard about
five-star ship cuisine is fat...I mean fact. (Freudian soup). The average passenger
will gain a pound a day. But, my performance costume is very unforgiving. I
walk laps on deck, never take elevators, & try to skip at least one meal
every day. "When the puppet stage is creaking, you better stop eating!"
The ship's social atmosphere changes drastically with each cruise. Some passengers
are born complainers, while others are out to have the time of their lives.
National, regional, economic & social mixes create an infinitely changing
brew. And, don't get me started on the "show-going etiquette" of cruise
passengers. Suffice it to say, there are a few hard & fast rules. Those
people so anxious to get front row seats in the showroom, are, inevitably,the
same people who fall asleep during the show...head lolled back, mouth wide open.
Who can blame them....big meal, a few drinks, gently rocking ship. "Front
seaters" are also the ones who leave for the bathroom most frequently &
call or wave to late arriving friends during a particularly quiet moment in
the performance. It is true that too many passengers have a laissez faire attitude
toward shows & wander in or out at their leisure. The comedian may have
difficulty making it to the punch line before another wave of audience rolls
in or rolls out.
In spite of this, once they get to know you, cruise audiences can be some of
the warmest, & most supportive audiences anywhere. These same people will
drive many miles to see you performing in a "land based" venue. I
have many treasured friendships that have evolved from my 13 years of shipboard
performing. The next cruise was 19 days long with only 6 ports. That means lots
of days at sea. I love sea days, beautiful vistas and unhurried daily schedules.
We had plenty of these, interspersed with the wonderful ports of Singapore and
Bali, then around Australia, stopping at Fremantle\Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne
Singapore is a beautiful, bustling city. Dispite harsh laws against spitting,
gum chewing, & jay-walking, it is not antiseptic. The elegant old Raffles
hotel is a grand reminder of it's early sophistication.
Bali, an island like no other, has picturesque terraced rice fields dotted with
temples & rising to cloud covered peaks. It's very unique arts & culture
are evident everywhere.
Australia, one of my favorite country/continents, has ultra-friendly people
and very civilized cities. In Perth, I was given a private tour of His Majesty's
Theater (a 1908 restored variety & opera house) just because I walked into
the lobby to ask about their show schedule.
In Fremantle, I stumbled upon The Spare Parts Puppet Theater. An office worker
kindly showed me around the lobby museum & gave me a poster to take home.
The company members were unavailable for socializing because they had just started
an intensive technical rehearsal for a new show. Adelaide's theater museum had
a few very crude Punch & Judy figures.
A Melbourne antiquarian book store will stay forever in my memory. I walked
in with my usual inquiry. "Do you have any books on puppets, marionettes,
or Punch & Judy?" The Proprietress' response was music to this fanatical
puppetry bibliophile. "Why yes. We just purchased a rather large collection
of books on that topic." I combed through about 60 books, and my puppet
library is now 11 books richer because of that happy coincidence Sidney would
be my port of disembarkation and what a dramatic port it is!. The opera house
sets the standard & tone.
My 31-day contract was at an end. Before I close, I would be remiss not to acknowledge
my fellow entertainers on these cruises: Broadway performers, Byron Nease &
Dale Kristien, comedian, Michael Goddard, classical pianist, Garin Bader, comedy
magic team, Rory & Catherine Johnston, Australian hand-balancer, James Lamont.
The entertainers always bond together like family and this family was composed
of some very special & talented individuals.
Twice during this cruise, entertainers performed their shows with only 20 minutes
notice, to fill in for a sick cast member. They perform during rough seas (
even the hand-balancer), & they were always flexible with the limited rehearsal
time. It is these co-workers & friends that really made this cruise FIVE-STAR.
When I read Alan Cook's review of the film, "Being John Malkovich,"
in the Orange County newsletter, it brought back memories of last summer when
my partner and I were the puppeteers on the film.
I was already having a wonderful experience on the set of the brief series "Super
Adventure Team" for MTV when an open call for a marionette operator came.
At the time I was dickering with signing with an agent who represented many
local film and TV puppeteers. She urged me to go.
My partner and I decided to take the Dwiggins-patterned male marionette that
we had carved a few years back. We figured that hand-carved wooden, human marionette
was what the producers were looking for. And the Dwiggins model, with the appropriate
weight plugs embedded into the body, seemed a sure thing. And it was. At the
audition where many of the puppeteers were the usual audition-mavens, many of
whom had not a clue about string puppets, we won the job.
I got to read the script and loved it.
I then learned the details to our hiring. Phillip Huber had been approached
originally. The producers apparently found Phillip's price too high and moved
on. That was worrisome because I know how excellent Phillip is and had no doubt
that his bid was reasonable for the work to be done in the short time allowed.
The meetings with the producers and the directors then followed. I actually
had to take time from my work on" Super Adventure Team" to go with
my new agent to the production offices of "Being John Malkovich."
My partner, Steve Sherman, went as well. We learned that Tony Urbano was also
being considered for the job, That was fine with me. Tony and I wanted to work
together on the film. However, Tony had walked away from the construction end
of the job because the producers had unreasonable expectations on how cheap
they could make the puppets and still have them move beautifully. We made our
bid with the condition that Tony Urbano teach actor John Cusack how to operate
marionettes. That is a story in itself. In all writings on this film, Tony's
name is never mentioned. But tutor John Cusack he did.
Our bid was accepted and our Puppet Studio was ready to start work. Of course,
time was running out as the shoot was only weeks away. The producers continually
stressed how excellent these look-alike marionettes needed to be. Great marionettes
cannot be built quickly. Right before we were to start construction, the producers
came back and asked us to cut our price. For us, cutting the price after winning
the bid for the job was unacceptable so the Puppet Studio regrettably bowed
out of the film.
The producers then scrambled. They had already seen Rene, Bob Baker (after seeing
his theater show, the producers foolishly said his puppets were for small children
only - another clue to their lack of experience in puppetry.) In their desperation,
the producers contacted the Mike Oznowicz who recommended Kamela Portuges and
Lee Armstrong (Images in Motion)in Northern California. After every professional
puppeteer in Southern California, it seemed, had passed on the project for insufficient
funds, Images in Motion entered with the lowest bid. Since their experience
is mainly in hand and rod puppet, they brought the very talented Luman Coad
into the project. When I heard that the main day of shooting for Luman happened
during the hottest summer day in LA on a sweltering, downtown street while his
beloved wife Arlyn lay ill in a local hotel, my heart went out to him. The movie
business can be a tough place.
Our initial feelings about the creative team (the producers and director) were
that they had the wrong approach to the puppetry. This was vindicated when the
material they shot had with Luman had to be scuttled from the film. It was then
the producers went back to Phillip Huber, paid his price (although now considerably
reduced as Phillip had to work with the Images in Motion marionettes.) The result
is what is on the screen today.
Sure, I regret not working on the film. I love to work with puppets anywhere
and anytime. However, Phillip did a remarkable,, first-rate job and saved the
film_s connection to our very real world of puppeteers.
Ultimately, the film is not the quintessential puppet film for me: the puppet
master did not get the opportunity to make his own puppets. That would have
made the piece a stellar puppetry vehicle that Phillip no doubt could have accomplished.
In any case, it is good to see marionettes on the big screen. That the actor/
puppeteer was portrayed as a poor sad sack perpetuates a hackneyed cliche that
we all must continually fight.
I must admit, being in the number one summer movie does wonders for one's self-esteem.
Relatives who used to give ol_ fisheye are suddenly beaming "Here's a movie
star." Of course, all puppeteers know that it's the puppets, excuse me,
creatures, who are the real stars. In this case, they're the creations of Rick
Baker. He has won several Academy Awards for his makeup and creature effects,
all of them deserved.
When Tony Urbano's partner, Tim Blaney, called me to audition in spring 1996,
I felt my usual trepidation. I hate auditions. To me, they're like visiting
a doctor. Who really wants to go? But sometimes you just have to and, in the
end, you're usually glad you did. In this case, the auditions were held in Rick
Baker's Burbank shop.
I learned on arriving that it was for a Sony/Columbia science fiction feature
based on a comic book, “Men in Black.” It would shoot the summer
of '96. Typical of auditions, nearly one hundred people who list puppeteer on
their resume attempted to move a sample animatronic puppet (radio and cable
control) while a video camera captured the battle for posterity. When I later
learned I had made it into the final group of eight principal puppeteers, I
nearly cried. This dog still has some tricks! Among the other eight were guild
members, Paul Berg, Alan Trautman and Thom Fountain Tony was our supervisor.
Working with Tony is fun. He's knows his stuff and does not suffer fools gladly.
In fact, his selection of puppeteers was so honed that only one performer in
the second wave of puppeteers (I'll write about second wave later) got dropped
during the shooting.
We started with the opening scene when the illegal alien explodes into Mikey
the real alien. Most of the creature work was shot on stages on the Sony lot
(once the mighty MGM) in Culver City, CA. The eight principals had our jobs
broken down into body parts, working eyes, tentacles, mouth, etc on Mikey. We
scattered behind the camera in the flora that made the stage interior look like
roadside desert. Some of us stood with radio controls. Others sat on wooden
boxes with their cable controls screwed firmly tight.
An indication that this was a first-class motion picture were the hors d'oeuvres
trays passed around the set during filming. Craft service made sure that great
snacks and meals were ALWAYS available at ALL times. Holding a radio control
box while listening to director Barry Sonnenfeld AND munching stuffed manicotti
shell (served with napkins) has its absurdity, but I won't complain.
Our funniest scene followed in the coffee room of MIB headquarters. The worm
guys were the surprise hit of the movie. It took us about a week of rehearsals
to get ready for the half day shoot. The puppets were operated by hidden rods
and cable that went through the set. The puppeteers sat behind the wall, wired
with headsets so we could talk to Tony who remained with the camera, puppets
and actors on the inside. (This was a huge hallway set that it was not easy
The puppeteers who provided voices ended up with special credits. Since I was
the guy smoking a cigarette, I didn't get a voice (oh well, the pay was the
same). The smoking was a difficult trick that my partner on this character,
Carl Johnson, and I had to master. With only a small, fuzzy black-and-white
monitor to guide us, we maneuvered a small peg into a small hole getting this
guy's mouth on that butt. But, we got the hang of it. I even added a cigarette
flick which I was thrilled to see edited in close-up.
The big scenes in headquarters followed and went for several weeks during summer.
The logistics were staggering with all the creatures and extras on a huge set
that was jaw-dropping in its size and scale. And computer graphic aliens got
calculated into the shots which added to the chore. The second tier puppeteers
joined us here. A Screen Actors rule lets crowd scenes of puppeteers come in
at a reduced day rate (like skilled extras but with benefits and residuals).
There were close to 30 puppeteers on these scenes.
Most of us worked the two squid guys who operated the control panel under the
main screen in headquarters. I was the eyeball of the one at the right side
of the giant screen. Again, we all had headsets to hear Tony upstairs on the
floor. And plenty of monitors. Because of the engineering, the puppeteers on
the squids were in a basement-like room under the set. (It was like some freakazoid
puppet organ we were playing.)
The producers chose to make this our rest room between scenes that I think they
regretted later. It was quite a party during those long waits. They only averaged
two shots per day so we had to hang out most of the time. Eventually, our basement
had makeshift hammock and beds for napping (oh, those early calls), card tables
where games of 21 were LOUDLY held in Todd Mattox's Casino, folding chairs scattered
into different groupings, old newspapers, scribbled crossword puzzles and food
product in various stages of consumption.This is where I renewed many friendships
with other puppeteers and stuffed myself on ice cream, doughnuts and NOTE: watch
The next major puppet scene in the film was the alien dying in the head. We
shot that long after the picture wrapped. Four of us flew up to ILM in Marin
County. SAG rules makes producers give us first class tickets so it was too
bad for me that the flight only lasted 45 minutes. I actually think the dying
scene is my favorite because how often am I going to get the chance to die on
screen (on purpose). The actual puppet and human head shell stood about six
feet tall. Tony Urbano got to drop the supervisor hat and be a puppeteer for
this part of the film which was fun. He and I partnered on the arm, wrist, hand
and fingers. We worked that baby like it was attached to Camille. Rick Baker
said later he was amazed what we got out of the it. Nobody could get the arm
to work well in the shop and there was no time to redo it.
The producers filmed the baby sequence in New York. Some squid puppeteers flew
out on their own expense to be in that scene. Others were hired in New York
and unhappily went uncredited. That was a great scene too. The added CGI and
Will Smith on bluescreen made it memorable.
No wonder Rick Baker has won all those Oscars. He is a terrific talent, unassuming,
charming, and totally in control of his creations. Nothing happens on a set
with Rick Baker's puppets that Rick does not personally supervise.
For the final alien, Rick built two versions, a cable controlled and a radio
controlled puppet. Both puppets were close to 16 feet tall and worked well.
We spent many hours rehearsing them under Tony's direction. We even filmed with
our two stars, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (Both men were great. They complimented
us on our work and said the Edgar Bug puppet scared the hell out of them).
Rick Baker's creation of the Edgar Bug never made it into the final film. The
producers kept changing their minds on how he should look. By the time Rick
finished his million-dollar bugs, the producers had changed the concept. And
the effects producer had pushed for computer-all-the-way on Edgar Bug from the
beginning. I think the puppet would have had a greater impact combined with
The last shot of the wormguys as they leave MIB headquarters, when the smoking
guy stamps out his cigarette, is pure computer graphics. I could not tell the
difference from the puppets. But at least I felt secure that the performance
of the puppeteers in the original scene brought the wormguys to the front of
the cast. It made their second appearance funny. Puppets have a place at the
All of this may seem a little late for a movie that has been quickly surpassed
by Titanic. But MIB is coming to TV soon. They've already passed through video.
I write this by special request and look forward to working with everyone again.
Designer Russell Patterson was famous for his Esquire cartoons featuring sleekly
designed female. He designed puppets called the Pattersonettes for the 1936
Paramount film "Artists and Models" starring Jack Benny Ida Lupino,
and Ben Blue. In this sequence, Esquire puts on a show with puppets of showgirls
and floozies as they appeared in the magazine. Look-alike puppets included
Ben Blue, W.C. Fields, Burns and Allen.According to Bob Baker, Patterson hoped
that puppets would take over the animation field.
Twelve-year old Baker worked at the time with Jack Shafton on the Venice Pier.
Paramount hired Bob to join the performing team on the film. He looked older
and didn't tell them otherwise. Bob Jones (later instrumental in Walt Disney_s
"Pinocchio") headed the construction and performance of the puppets
with Wayne Barlow and five others in the shop. Velma Dawson, Bob Baker, Bob
Bromley, and Frank Paris worked the front bridge during filming with others
holding the heavier puppets on a back bridge. Bob Jones went from front to
back bridge at his own discretion.
The whole subject came up recently when Bob got to talking about puppets in
forgotten collections. A woman had brought in a Pattersonette to Bob wanting
to know what it was. Bob was able to document it for her with pictures from
his file. Who knows where other Pattersonettes lurk?