Puppets

Anne here.

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Today’s topic was inspired by my friend Jenny who is a photographer. She recently donated a collection of her photos to the Victorian Arts Archive. (The photo on the right is not Jenny's — it's by Robert Zunikoff from Unsplash)  Jenny's collection covered twelve years of performances of a children's theatre called “Polyglot Puppet Theatre", which was established to produce plays for children. Designed to have multilingual and experiential approaches to engage children in creative play, it still tours schools today. 

The company also created some enormous puppets for international plays such as  "King Kong”, "Walking with Dinosaurs” and “Narnia”.  As it happens, well-used puppets don’t last all that long, but her photos, having captured them at their newest and best, were welcomed. However when I asked Jenny whether I could use her photos in this blog, she told me she’d also given the copyright away, and so I couldn’t use them. But the inspiration to talk about puppets remained. 

Some people find some sorts of puppets creepy. I think the image above right is an example — maybe it's the hinged jaw. Or is it the expression in those eyes? I don't know.

Budi-pratama-Mupho3N29sE-unsplashIt will surprise none of you to know that puppets have been around for centuries, in all countries and in most countries. My parents returned from their years in Asia with puppets from Malaysia, India and Indonesia. (Photo from Budi Pratama on Unsplash)

From Wikipedia:  “Puppets as we know them have also been found in Egyptian tombs that date as far back as 2000 BCE—which means puppets have been around for at least 4000 years! Historians suspect that Ancient Egypt or Ancient India may be the true birthplace of the first puppet.”

I have always wondered at the popularity (and violence) of the Punch and Judy shows that seem to be a seaside holiday must for children and adults in England.  Punch and Judy has been called "a staple of the British seaside scene” but apparently it’s also popular at private parties and public events. I wonder whether the violence might make it less popular these days. Maybe UK readers can weigh in here.

More from Wikipedia: "The Punch and Judy show has roots in the 16th-century Italian commedia dell'arte. The figure of Punch is derived from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella, which was anglicized to Punchinello.[3] He is a variation on the same themes as the Lord of Misrule and the many Trickster figures found in mythologies across the world. Punch's wife was originally called "Joan."

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The figure who later became Mr. Punch made his first recorded appearance in England on 9 May 1662, which is traditionally reckoned as Punch's UK birthday.[4] There’s a plaque commemorating it on St Paul's in Covent Garden — the performance was witnessed by Samuel Pepys.

In the latter half of the 18th century, marionette companies began to give way to glove-puppet shows, performed from within a narrow, lightweight booth by one puppeteer, usually with an assistant, or "bottler," to gather a crowd and collect money. In today’s modern shows the audience is encouraged to participate, calling out to the characters on the stage to warn them of danger or clue them in to what is going on behind their backs.

As a child, I was fond of puppets — not that I got to see many puppet shows. But I used to make my own puppets, sometimes out of cut-out figures mounted on sticks, but mostly out of odd socks.

Sock puppets are easy to make — you put your thumb into the heel and your fingers in the toe, and tuck the middle bit into the curve of your palm and you have a mouth. Sew a couple of small buttons onto the top of the toe part and you have a face. If you want to get really fancy you might make a tongue out of a bit of felt, and some hair from wool, but really a sock and a couple of buttons is all it takes. This site, shows you how to make one.

Then, of course, we have the Muppets, universally known and beloved of all age groups. We all have our favorite muppet characters, and on Wikipedia it said that, “When interacting with them, children believed that Muppets were living beings, even when the performers were present.” I’m not sure that it only applies to children. <g>

GallicoLoveOf7DollsMy friend Jenny said something similar: “I loved working on these jobs.  The funny thing was that when working with the puppeteers I would often find myself chatting to the puppets!” 

And that reminded me of the old Paul Gallico novel, “The Love of Seven Dolls” which is about a lonely and desperate young French woman who, on the verge of throwing herself into the Seine, is accosted by Foxy, a puppet who calls out from the puppet booth. Over time she develops a relationship with all seven of the puppets, but she doesn’t like or trust the puppet master . . . 

I haven’t read it for years, but it was a favorite of my mothers, and I’m now on the hunt for a copy to reread.  (If the name Paul Gallico doesn’t ring a bell, he also wrote "Mrs Harris goes to Paris,” “The Snow Goose” and others. My mother had them all.)

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The most impressive puppet show I ever saw was as an adult, when I went to see the stage play “War Horse.” Created by the Handspring Puppet Company, the horses were life-sized, and took three puppeteers to operate each horse. But even though you could see the people manipulating the horses, you didn’t really notice them — the horses’ movements were utterly lifelike and I found the the experience quite emotional. 

I know, it sounds odd, doesn’t it — the construction of the horses was clearly visible, and yet they felt utterly real. It was so successful that almost eight million people internationally saw the play (which was based on a book by Michael Morpurgo. )

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If you want to see how effective these brilliant horse puppets were, click on this link and watch a short video of Joey, a puppet horse meeting two real horses. It’s wonderful.

So now, over to you — do you love puppets or find some of them a bit creepy? Do you have a favorite muppet character? And did you ever see the play of War Horse? What did you think of the video?

25 thoughts on “Puppets”

  1. I’ve always liked puppets and marionettes. The way people can make marionettes move in remarkably realistic ways especially impresses me. Muppets not so much. My kids never found them very interesting so I rarely encountered them.
    Then there are ventriloquists’ dummies… I remember a quite terrifying movie with Michael Redgrave that involves one of those dummies.

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  2. Fascinating, Anne! And EEUUU! on the first image–the jaw hinges look like a trickle of blood. Killer puppets, urk! But so many possibilities. I thought of the lion dancers in Chinese celebrations–I think they’d qualify as puppets. Large ones. *G* The only puppets I’ve ever had are stuffed toy one given to me. On a chair in my den I have two: a sizable owl puppet and a pussycat puppet cuddled up together. They are the epitome of not-creepy puppets!

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  3. As a kid, I remember watching a ventriloquist named Paul Winchell and his puppet Jerry Mahoney on TV. And much later I enjoyed the muppets on TV, especially Miss Piggy.
    And way back when Jim Henson’s muppets were just becoming famous I took the kids to see a live show they were giving at an amusement park. The seats that we ended up in were way up front and to the side. Had an up close view of the puppeteers at work and I found that fascinating.
    Interesting blog.

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  4. I kept thinking that what you said about The Love of Seven Dolls reminded me of the Leslie Caron-Mel Ferrar movie Lili, so I looked it up and this is what I found on Wikipedia:
    “Lili’s screenplay, written by Helen Deutsch, was based on a short story and treatment titled “The Seven Souls of Clement O’Reilly” written by Paul Gallico, which in turn was based upon “The Man Who Hated People,” a short story by Gallico that appeared in the October 28, 1950 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.[4] After the film’s success, Gallico expanded his story into a 1954 novella entitled Love of Seven Dolls.”

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  5. Thanks, Lil. Yes, the motion of some marionettes is impressive — the War Horse puppets are so lifelike. But then there were that TV marionette show , the space-age one — Thunderbirds — which wasn’t all that realistic.
    I vaguely recall that movie you mentioned — I wonder whether it was partly responsible for making so many people find puppets creepy. Or maybe it was a chick or egg scenario and the movie was inspired by those reactions.

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  6. How interesting, Lil — I didn’t know that. And I could really imagine Leslie Caron in that role. The novel made a real impression on my — I think I was around 14 or 15 when I read it, and I still remember it so vividly. Thanks for that.

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  7. As a child growing up in Philadelphia, PA USA in the 1950s we had a local TV show called Bertie the Bunyip. From Wikipedia: “Created by Australian born and raised ventriloquist Lee Dexter (1904-1991), Bertie was a bunyip (a mythological Australian creature), described by Dexter as “a cross between a bunny, a collie dog and a duck billed platypus.” Bertie was my first exposure to puppetry and I was not impressed, but later the Muppets were so entertaining and engaging and changed my perspective. I loved the clip on Joey from “War Horse”, his movements are so realistic and I cannot comprehend the time it must have taken for the puppeteers to coordinate that performance. Other favorite puppets are the animals in “Lion King” the opening sequence in that production is just magical. Thanks Anne, another interesting topic.

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  8. What a wonderful post, Anne! Though I’ve heard of the author Michael Morpurgo, I am totally unfamiliar with War Horse. I watched the link you provided … and then several others. What phenomenal puppets and puppet masters.

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  9. A sub-genre of puppets are the ventriloquist’s dolls or “dummies.” I grew up hearing Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the radio!! Yes, the comic character dummie with his friend Mortimer Snerd were a big hit with radio audiences. There were lots of jokes about Edgar Bergen moving his mouth when Charlie spoke. Charlie specialized in insult humor and could get away with insulting the highest of the high class figures. Candice Bergen’s autobiography has a lot to say about growing up with Charlie. There were a number of movies made premised on evil ventriloquist’s dolls becoming evil and wreaking havoc. Something about the genre does lend itself to creepy.

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  10. Thanks so much, Anne – I loved the book War Horse and the movie, and regretted not seeing the play. The video was wonderful – in the truest sense of the word! Watching how both the horses and the onlookers respond to the puppet horse gave me goosebumps and made me quite emotional.
    Ventriloquists’ puppets have always seemed creepy, with the exception of Shari Lewis and her gallery of puppets, especially Lamb Chop, which seemed like a very advanced sock puppet. And the Muppets are always charming. The Muppets Christmas Carol is an annual must-see in our house. And if you’ve never seen Miss Piggy and Martha Stewart build a gingerbread house together, you have really missed something!

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  11. I love the enormous puppets that are used in street theater and protest marches. Bread and Puppet Theater from Vermont was one of the best known troupes.
    And speaking of Paul Gallico, he certainly was versatile. I remember I had a coffee table book of his that was all about cats, with lovely photos.

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  12. I grew up watching Stan Freberg play Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent on LA TV, and I think that’s the last puppet show I liked. Puppets in general give me the creeps too, especially the kind whose eyes move to follow you. Too much Twilight Zone!

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  13. Who remembers ventriloquist Senor Wences and Johnny, his literal “hand” puppet, who used to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show? Coy and snarky, nothing scary at all about Johnny except he’d shred his human with wit and sarcasm. I seem to recall Senor Wences would draw Johnny on his fist as he started his routine. Simpler times, I miss them. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Se%C3%B1or_Wences

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  14. “ts alright” That is a quote from the puppet in the box from Senor Wences. I loved Senor Wences. He was so intelligent and made Johnny intelligent too.
    I like the Muppets. I think it is amazing that things that look like carpet pieces become real – I have my very own Grover, my kids got him for me years ago. They knew I would love him, and I still do.
    Thanks for this post. I have never found any puppets scary. But, I really only like puppets who are funny and smart. I never liked Punch and Judy. Even as a child I found it awful that they were abusing one another.
    Thanks again for this wonderful post and the reminder that in the past entertainment was so very different from what there is today.

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  15. Thanks, Denise — yes the bunyip is a mythological aussie beast. The small town where my sister lives has an annual “bunyip festival” and for years my brother-in-law would sneak out the night before it started and paint mysterious big footprints on the roads in town.
    The movements of the War Horse puppet horses are so wonderfully lifelike, aren’t they? There are several videos of them on youtube.

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  16. Constance, you would have loved the play. As you noted in your comment, just watching those short videos was incredibly moving — I too felt emotional watching them — and the play was even more so.
    We had Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop here, too, and I think you might be right about Lamb Chop being a sock puppet. I wonder whether that’;s what inspired me to make them when I was a child. I only occasionally saw TV, mainly at my grandparents’ home, and that’s the kind of thing Nana would let me watch.
    And yes, I have indeed watched the Muppets Christmas movie — thank to lovely Theo, who sent me the DVD. It’s wonderful.

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  17. Annette, yes, I think when I was young and we didn’t have TV (my dad’s decision) we were thrown back on imagination and ingenuity to entertain ourselves. The time I took making puppets and then painting up a cardboard box to make the puppet booth etc was all good fun, but to kids today it’s probably all too unsophisticated for words.

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  18. Back when I was a child (some 55 – 60 years ago), there was a show on our local CBS affiliate (which just happened to be right down the street from my house!) called “The Howie Olsen and Cowboy Eddie Show”.
    Howard Olsen was a wood worker who had created Cowboy Eddie and learned ventriloquism to animate him, ala Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. It was a local broadcast right before the Disney cartoons daily, and local kids were encouraged to be on the set. (Mr. Olsen’s wife was also the assistant principal double bassist for the Madison Symphony at the time, but that’s another story altogether!)
    Reading this blog just brought back memories that I didn’t realise I still had – thank you!!

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