The idea that puppets were only for kids is in fact a new idea. it starts in the 19th century, and pretty much only in the West. What happened is some other cultural phenomena, which affected theater. The main thing probably was Darwin, who pointed out that humans were products of their heredity and their environment, and suddenly showing real environments and real situations was something you wanted to do in the theater, which meant that nobody cared what kind of furniture Lady Macbeth had, but it did matter what kind of furniture Miss Julie had. And suddenly for the first time in history, theater began to replicate things you found in the real world. And that’s really a bizarre thing to do; music doesn’t restrict itself to sounds you hear in the real world, sculpture doesn’t restrict itself to materials and shapes in the real world, but theater started to do that. And although puppets are superb actors with abilities that I think surpass those of found actors in a lot of ways, realism is one area in which they are not that good, they really can’t compete with live actors. So suddenly puppets were pushed out of the theater market. Fortunately at around the same time, the whole notion of childhood had changed, and suddenly people thought that children were not just half-baked adults, that they had their own special needs, and entertainment for children became its own phenomenon. So puppets slid into that, as an area where they could excel. And then they kind of got ghettoized to that area. In Europe, the ghettoization stopped almost immediately; there was all kids of experimental theater, live action theater that realized that realism had painted theatre into a corner and they had to try to bash their way out of that. But that happened less in America. — Eileen Blumenthal, Professor of Theater Arts at Rutgers University and author of Puppetry: A World History
Tony Sarg (1880-1942): Attributed for the burst in puppet popularity during the 1920s and ’30s, Guatamalan-born Tony Sarg experimented in animatronics, illustrations, marionettes, and balloons.
Bil Baird (1904-1987): Arguably the 20th century’s seminal puppeteer as a performer on Broadway, in film, and on television, as a teacher (of Jim Henson, among many other artists), and as author of the classic The Art of the Puppet (1965), Baird defined a puppet as “an inanimate figure that is made to move by human effort before an audience.” Along with movement, he believed the figure must possess form and sound that communicates its creator’s intentions because a puppet in an extension of the puppeteer. In his more than half-century career, Baird had an estimated 3,000 extensions, as diverse as Slugger Ryan, who actually smoked as he played a honky-tonk piano, Mme. Swanova, the long-legged dancing swan, and the yarn-fringed cowardly lion from his version of the Wizard of Oz. “A puppet must always be more than his live counterpart–simpler, sadder, more wicked, more supple. The puppet is an essence and an emphasis. FOr only in this way does a puppet begin to reflect the truth.”
Edgar Bergen (1903-1978): Edgar Bergen used his talent for ventriloquism to earn tuition at Northwestern University, and soon created the character of Charlie McCarthy. Charlie and McCarthy started on the vaudeville circuit, but gained such a following that their act moved to radio; The Edgar Bergen–Charlie McCarthy Show was a hit for 20 years. The success of a ventriloquist act over the radio bewildered many critics, but listeners loved Charlie’s nonstop jokes and jabs at other puppet characters. Guest stars appeared on the show as well, including Hollywood bombshell Mae West, whose exchange with Charlie became one of the most famous (or infamous) in radio history:
Charlie: Not so loud, Mae, not so loud! All my girlfriends are listening.
Mae: Oh, yeah! You’re all wood and a yard long.
Mae: You weren’t so nervous and backward when you came up to see me at my apartment. In fact, you didn’t need any encouragement to kiss me.
Charlie: Did I do that?
Mae: Why, you certainly did. I got marks to prove it. An’ splinters, too.
Bread and Puppet Theater: First established by Peter Schumann as the New Dance Group in Munich in 1961, then transferring to NYC and finally in 1974 headquartered on a farm in Vermont, the Bread & Puppet Theater protested issues such as governmental bureaucracy and American involvement in the Vietnam War. Employing puppets and masks of varying dimensions, the productions emphasize theatrical mime and movement, rather than dramatic narrative.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie: Burr Tillstrom’s Chicago-produced puppet show premiered on ABC in 1947, the first successful airing of televised puppetry in America. With Fran and Allison poised in front of their curtained booth, the hand-maniuplated Kuklapolitan Players (all played by Tillstrom) ad-libbed, sang (even opera), and commented on their varied lives.
Howdy Doody: Originally called Puppet Playhouse Theater, the Howdy Doody Show aired on NBC from 1946 to 1960. The series laid the groundwork for future children’s programming and was the first program to air five times a week on a regular basis. Buffalo Bob Smith hosted the show along with his friend Howdy Doody, a freckle-faced boy marionette with 48 freckles, one for each state of the union. Howdy Doody and the rest of his puppet gang entertained a live audience of kids in the Peanut Gallery.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Upon its conclusion, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the longest-running series in PBS history (a record eclipsed by Sesame Street in 2003). From 1966 through 2000, Host Fred Rogers used his gentle charm and mannerisms to communicate with his audience of children. Topics centered on nearly every inconceivable matter of concern to children, ranging from everyday fears related to going to sleep, getting immunizations and disappointment about not getting one’s way to losing a loved one to death and physical handicaps. Rogers used simple songs and, on nearly every show, segments from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which consisted of a cast of puppet characters and whose subplot underscored the theme of each episode.
The Muppets: The Muppets were created in the 1950s, beginning with Kermit the Frog. Creator Jim Henson said the word “Muppet” predated Sam and Friends, the first television program featuring the Muppets. Oftentimes, Henson would tell people the term had been created by combining the words “marionette” and “puppet,” but also claimed that it was actually a word he had coined. During the 1960s, the characters (notably Kermit and Rowlf the Dog) appeared on skits in several late night talk shows and advertising commercials. Rowlf became the first Muppet with a regular spot on network television when he began appearing as Jimmy Dean‘s sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show. After the debut of Sesame Street in 1969 (for which Henson designed and performed several characters), Henson decided to pursue the creation of a television program that would be aimed towards adults and children. By 1976, The Muppet Show, a sketch comedy variety series debuted, introducing new characters such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, The Great Gonzo and Animal, as well as showcasing regulars Kermit and Rowlf. The Muppet Showbecame increasingly popular due to its unique brand of humor and prolific roster of guest stars. The show’s success allowed Henson Associates to produce three theatrical features based on the group; The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan that followed in 1979, 1981 and 1984, respectively.