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History of American Puppetry

A major source for this quick overview is the 700 page book The Puppet Theatre in America by Paul McPharlin and Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin. The McPharlins were not just historians. They were interested in every aspect of the puppetry that was going on around them. Inspired by their example editors of Puppetry Journal continue the chronicle of American puppetry right up to the present day. Another good source is A Timeline of Puppetry in America published by Puppeteers of America 2003, edited by Paul Eide, with Alan Cook and Steve Abrams.

Compiled by Steve Abrams

1900-1915

Before radio, television, videotape, the internet, interstate highways, and airplanes puppeteers entertained audiences around the country. The Royal Marionettes performed at the Centennial celebration in 1876, with George Middleton assisting his family. Middleton performed during the early years of the century and he was an honored speaker at the founding of Puppeteers of America. The Lano family, Nicholas Nelson, Walter Deaves, Jesse and Mae Jewell, Lillian Faulkner, Len Ayres Mantell Manikins of vaudeville fame and George Pinxy Larsen’s Punch and Judy were all active in 1900. In New York, Boston, and San Francisco, small theatres showed Sicilian marionettes. Greek shadow puppets were seen in Chicago and Detroit.  Starting around 1910 in England, Germany, Switzerland, France, Russia, and in the USA puppetry was about to be reborn.

1915-1930

Tony Sarg set up shop in New York City in 1915 and the same year Ellen Van Volkenberg did shows in Chicago and Helen Haiman Joseph did shows in Cleveland. In 1920 Helen Haiman Joseph published the first important American puppetry book. Sarg’s large scale Broadway productions required many puppeteers.  The Sarg shows toured the country stimulating a great interest in puppetry. Sue Hastings studied with Sarg and by 1930 she was a major competitor with 5 companies out on tour. Rufus & Margo Rose met while working for Sarg… By the end of the 1920’s The Yale Puppeteers, The Tattermans, Lou Bunin, Ralph Chesse, Perry Dilley and Remo Bufano were performing. In the 20’s puppets had already made their way into films. Live performances were often classic children’s tales, but other offerings included scenes from Shakespeare, political protest, and experimental work with poetry and cubist design.

THE ‘30s

Paul McPharlin brought together information about all these performers by publishing the Puppetry Yearbook in 1930 and then in 1936 he brought together 170 people for the first American puppet festival. The conference was so successful that there was an immediate demand to form a national puppetry organization. In 1937 the first national festival of the organization, Puppeteers of America, was held in Cincinnati. PofA was founded by an extraordinary roster of artists under the age of 40 including Doug & Gayle Anderson, Marjorie Batchelder, Bil & Cora Baird, Pauline Benton, Meredith Bixby, Forman Brown & Harry Burnett, Lou Bunin, Ralph Chesse, Donald Cordry, Perry Dilley, William Duncan   & Ed Mabley, Carl Harms, Hazelle Hedges (Rollins), Ed Johnson, Bruce Inverarity, Jero Magon, Basil & Georgia Milovsoroff, Vivian Michael, Roy & Harry Patton, Paul McPharlin, Romaine & Ellen Proctor, Helen Reisdorf, Catherine Reighard, Rufus & Margo Rose, Martin & Olga Stevens. Burr Tillstrom, Lea Wallace, Walton & O’Rourke. In addition to many marionette companies, Helen Haiman Joseph and Perry Dilley were using hand puppets. Pauline Benton was performing with shadows, and Marjorie Batchelder was introducing the rod puppet to American audiences. Remo Bufano was creating giant puppets. In 1934 Glenn Hughes began a puppetry department at the University of Washington in Seattle. From 1934-1941 WPA government programs sponsored thousands of puppet shows around the country. In 1937 ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen became a radio star. Puppets were featured at world fairs in Chicago in 1933 and New York in 1939.

THE ‘40s

Before World War II PofA had 6 successful festivals.  In 1941 Forman Brown & Harry Burnett (The Yale Puppeteers) opened the Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles. In 1942 the Kungsholm Restaurant in Chicago began presenting puppet operas. During the war puppeteers were drafted or enlisted and some continued puppeteering in uniform or working for the USO entertaining troops. Five years went by without a national festival and the Puppetry Yearbook reduced production. The 1946 festival at the Studio of Rufus and Margo Rose was a new beginning for Puppeteers of America. In 1948 the PofA lost one of its founding spirits, Paul McPharlin, but the organization was strong enough to continue. By the end of the 40’s Kukla and Ollie and Howdy Doody were fixtures on TV. Paul Winchell, Morey Bunin, and Suzari Marionettes all had national exposure.  Local TV pioneers included Joe Owens, Ruth & Don Gilpin, Bernard & Edith Paul. Festival performers included Basil Milovsoroff, and Alfred & Lea Wallace. The Women’s Jr. League began its long involvement with PofA Festivals. At the end of the 40s the bright young talents emerging included Bob Baker and George Latshaw In 1949 George Latshaw transformed the Grapevine newsletter into Puppetry Journal.

THE ‘50s

Television made Burr Tillstrom (Kukla, Fran, & Ollie) and Bil Baird into stars with recognition far beyond the world of puppeteers. Shari Lewis, Paul Ashley, Rufus and Margo Rose, Mabel Beaton, Mary Chase Lomabard, Fred Rogers all had national shows. Dozens of local stations provided work for puppeteers including Ralph Chesse in San Francisco and Jim Henson in Washington. In 1951 the feature film “Lili” put puppetry in the Hollywood spotlight.  Nightclubs continued to book puppeteers with such highly esteemed variety acts such as Walton & O’Rourke, Frank Paris, and Bob Bromley. At national festivals Rufus & Margo Rose, Martin & Olga Stevens, and Romain & Ellen Proctor provided high quality marionette productions. 1950 PofA had its first festival on a college campus. In 1956 festivals expanded from 4 days to 6 days. In 1957 the festival finally made it to the West Coast featuring Bob Baker, Tony Urbano, Rene, and Lettie Connell (Schubert). Through the 50’s membership was under 1000. From 1951-1969 Vivian Michael edited Puppetry Journal. Marjorie McPharlin reported on activities in Europe. Canadian festival performers included George Merten, John Conway, and Leo & Dora Velleman. Roberto Lago of Mexico was highly regarded puppeteer. Rod Young, Nick Coppola, and Alan Cook brought great enthusiasm to PofA.

THE ‘60s

In 1961 the Puppeteers of America incorporated and the “council” became the Board of Trustees. Guilds were encouraged and many new guild charters were issued. Regional Directors coordinated Guild activities including the first regional festival in 1960. In 1960 the festival Store became a regular service. Lewis Mahlmann, Fay Ross Coleman, Ron Herrick, George Latshaw, Jay Marshall and Erica Melchoir are names that appeared most frequently at festivals and in the Journal. Rufus Rose, Frank Paris, Ed Johnson, Dorothy Rankin, Tom Harrison, Mollie Falkenstein, Daniel Llords, Nancy H Cole, Jim Menke, and B.Gay Puppets were familiar names. Broadway scale shows by Bil Baird or Bobby Clark were too costly and elaborate for festivals. The unique rod puppets of Dick Myers were a hit. At the end of the ‘60s Paul Vincent-Davis and Carol Fijan, Luman & Arlyn Coad, Bob & Judy Brown, and Jim Gamble were receiving attention. In 1962 the Seattle Worlds Fair presented Bunraku from Japan and Les Poupees de Paris by Sid and Marty Kroft and the same year Bil Baird toured India. In 1963 Americans got to see Russian artist Serge Obraztsov. Bil Baird and the Krofts worked at the 1964 NY World’s fair.  In 1965 Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre first brought large parade puppets to demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. The 1967 festival in Canada featured several important foreign artists.

THE ‘70s

The 1970 festival at Storrs showcases the work of Frank Ballard and the six-year-old puppetry program at the University of Connecticut. The festival director is Carol Spinney who plays Big Bird on the new and highly popular show Sesame Street, featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets. The festival closes with Bread and Puppet Theatre presenting a powerful anti-war drama.  The PofA developed a series of puppetry awards. From 1970-1982 Don Avery was the editor of Puppetry Journal. At the 1976 festival, Virginia Austin Curtis performed with Clippo for an evening of nostalgia.  Styrofoam balls covered in felt and polyfoam (foam rubber) puppets grow in popularity. 1974 saw the start of the UNIMA Citations and the founding of Boston’s Puppet Show Place with Paul Vincent-Davis becoming artistic director in 1976. In 1978 Vincent Anthony opens the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. Wayland Flower’s creation, Madame began her rise to fame. Frequently in the festival spotlight were Dick Myers, The Poppinjays, the Melikins, David Syrotiak, and Kathy Piper. The solo hand puppet shows of Bruce D. Schwartz and Steve Hansen bought vitality to the form, and Burr Tillstrom was featured on Broadway. Lampoon, Nikki Tilroe, Ralph Lee, In the Heart of the Beast, Paul Zaloom, Roman Paska, Larry Reed, Michael Malkin, Bob Hartman, Grey Seal, Mark Levenson, Gary Jones, Larry Engler, Peter Baird, Eric Bass, The Puppetmongers Powell, Mermaid Theatre all began working in the 70’s. Germany’s Albrecht Roser and Australia’s Richard Bradshaw made regular visits which had a lasting impact on American artists.

THE ‘80s

1980 was a landmark for puppetry. The Puppeteers of America and UNIMA-USA sponsored the World Puppet Festival in Washington DC with Nancy Staub as director. Fine artists from all over the world got see each other perform. A beautiful puppet exhibit organized by PofA toured 11 cities from 1980-1983.  “Here Come the Puppets” aired on PBS. Sponsoring these events gave Puppeteers of America high visibility and its largest membership along with some inevitable growing pains.  Jim Henson’s Muppet Show in its 5th year had a huge international following. The PofA Endowment fund honoring Rufus Rose began in 1975 and in 1981 the first grants were awarded to assist puppeteers with new projects. After 1981 the summer classes in Charleville, France inspired Allelu Kurten, Barbara Pollitt, Terry Snyder, Paul Mesner, Preston Foerder, John & Carol Farrell, Michael Nelson, Andrew Periale and others. Ronnie Burkett, Phillip Huber, David Simpich and Joe Cashore brought new vitality to the art of the marionette.  Reg & Janet Bradley, Chris and Stephen Carter, The Underground Railroad and Robert Smythe were all doing notable work. The Lenny Suib Playhouse opened in NY. In 1982 the Jim Henson Foundation gives its first grants to puppeteers. New puppet making materials like neoprene were used. All of the film in the AV Archive is transferred to videotape. Videocassettes become a standard way to record and exchange performances. For the first time, the membership has access to 100’s of hours of puppetry on video. In 1983 George and Pat Latshaw became editors of Puppetry Journal. In 1987 the PofA began alternating national festivals with regional festivals. 1988 was a year of six regional festivals.

THE ‘90s

In 1990, the untimely death of Jim Henson at age 54 was a devastating loss to the community of puppeteers. With the leadership of Jane Henson, George Latshaw and Richard Termine in 1991 the first puppetry conference was held at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. Every summer the conference provides a 10-day think tank for the growth of puppetry as an art form. In 1990 Bart Roccoberton headed the program at University of Connecticut. Janie Geiser became director of the puppet program of California Institute of the Arts.   From 1992-2000 The Jim Henson Foundation presented 5 international Festivals of Puppet Theatre in New York City.  Julie Taymor’s “Lion King” on Broadway was recognized with many awards in 1997. Basil Twist and Ronnie Burkett won Obies.  The Puppeteers of America presented 5 national festivals and 33 regional festivals. In 1990 Paul Eide became editor of Playboard.  In 1992 two scholarship funds were created for attending national festivals. In 1993 the PoA offered liability insurance to members.  In 1999 Puppetry Journal reached its 50th year and George and Pat Latshaw retired as editors. Paul Eide became the Journal Editor with Fred Thompson editing Playboard. As the century ended Membership Chair, Gayle Schluter, retired and after 22 years, 5 Cricklewood Path, was no longer the official address of PofA. After 1995 the internet provided a new way for puppeteers to stay in touch. In 1997 PofA went on line with a web site.

21st CENTURY

Blair Thomas, Redmoon Theatre, Andrew Kim, Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers, Dan Hurlin, Alice Wallace, Liz Joyce, Crabgrass Puppet Theatre, Other Hand Productions, Jonathan Cross, Richard Termine, and Stephen Kaplin all joined the ranks of puppeteers doing award winning work. Large cities with established puppet playhouses  include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago,  Denver  Detroit,  Kansas City,  Los Angeles, Minneapolis,  New York City, Oakland, Orlando, Palm Beach, Philadelphia, Phoenix,  San Diego, St Louis,  Seattle, Washington  and about a dozen more locations around the country.  The 2003-2004 season included two shows on Broadway featuring puppets, “Little Shop of Horrors” with plant puppet by Marty Robinson, and  “Avenue Q” with puppets by Rick Lyon, winning the Tony Award for best musical.  Team America (2004) with adult content and politically provocative humor became the most expensive puppet movie ever produced.  Puppetry: A Word History  by Eileen Blumenthal was a lavish new book published in 2005.  Julie Taymor directed Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera and in 2006 premiered a new work called Grendel. Puppetry Slams continue to grow in popularity featuring short works with adult themes. The O’Neill Puppetry Conference, The Center for Puppetry Arts, the University of Connecticut, Unima-USA, Puppetry Journal, and the festivals of Puppeteers of America all continue as major contributors to the art of puppetry in the United States.

PAUL MCPHARLIN’S VISION

This very brief chronicle mentions just a few of the more prominent performers who keep the art of puppetry in front of audiences. Paul McPharlin welcomed college professors, elementary school teachers, museum curators, therapists, recreation leaders, authors, and puppet builders. Anyone who sees the benfit of puppeteers sharing skills and ideas should join PofA.

Passionate volunteers have devoted countless hours to continuing McPharlin’s vision. As you look through this directory you will find their names listed under Trustees, Appointed Officers, Committee Chairs, Consultants, Award Recipients, Regional Directors, Guild Presidents, Newsletter Editors, Puppet Places, Festival Directors, and Past Presidents.


Puppeteers of America
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