Monday, April 15, 2019

Vital Viewing (Living Dolls Edition)





 Ah, yes, who doesn't love a good puppet show?

What's that you say? You'd rather watch a superhero movie? One with lots of special-effects? Now look here, you young whippersnapper, before digital animation, before stop-motion photography, puppets were special-effects, the original special-effects. And just to prove my point, I'll give you a sampling:


 We'll start with the husband-and-wife team Punch and Judy. They first got their start in the middle of the 17th century, and by 1950 were still playing to full houses--or maybe just full daycare centers. Watch:



Nothing like a little domestic violence to keep the young ones occupied.


 Next up is Bullwinkle J. Moose. But wait, isn't he a cartoon character? So he is, but early in his career he occasionally made appearances in puppet form, such as when he guest-starred on Fractured Flickers, a 1963 comedy show hosted by character actor Hans Conried (born on this day in 1917, incidentally) in which silent films from the 1920s and earlier were lip-synched  by the same actors who worked on Bullwinkle's cartoon show (as both were produced by Jay Ward):



 OH, MY GOD! Foul play! Does Rocky the Flying Squirrel have an alibi?


Next up is Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. As a kid in the late 1960s and early '70s, I watched them host the CBS Children's Film Festival that came on right after Saturday morning cartoons. You only saw the trio (and heard puppeteer Burr Tillstrom) for a little bit at the beginning and the end as most of the hour was devoted to a foreign film (no, nothing by Fellini or Ingmar Bergman--these were made for kids.) KFO's real heyday, which I unfortunately missed out on as I hear even Orson Welles was a fan, was about fifteen years earlier, in the 1950s:


In case you haven't figured it out for yourself, Kukla was supposed to be a clown, Ollie a dragon, and Fran Allison a flesh-and-blood human being. Obviously, they came from three very different walks of life. A high-concept show indeed!



Now puppets come in many forms, but the two most common seem to be hand puppet, like Kukla and Ollie, and marionettes, like that freckled-face boy on the left in the above picture. If you don't recognize him, it's Howdy Doody, who, along with his human sidekick Buffalo Bob, starred on a popular children's program in the 1950s. Again, this was before my time, but, fortunately, I was around when Howdy and Bob made an appearance on a 1970s show about the 1950s:


If you're curious as to the identity of Clarabell the Clown, well, in the above clip it was Bob Brunner, who also wrote that particular episode of Happy Days. As for who played him in the 1950s, it was several actors throughout the decade, the most well-known of whom was Bob Keeshan, who later went on to even greater success playing another children's show favorite, Captain Kangaroo. And as to whether Life magazine really would have paid a large sum of money for a picture of Clarabell without makeup, only Henry R. Luce knows for sure, and he ain't talking.


 People don't generally think of ventriloquist acts as puppet shows, but that's pretty much what they are. The only difference is that you see the puppeteer. What's the secret of a successful ventriloquist? That they can throw their voice or talk without moving their lips? Nah. Edgar Bergen was a star on radio, where those abilities hardly mattered. No, a ventriloquist can move his lips all he wants as long as can successfully deflect attention to the doll, dummy, or puppet. And to do that, one needs to make the doll, dummy, or puppet a memorable character, as Wayland Flowers did a generation or so ago when he brought unto this world Madame, a glamorous, aging nymphomaniac, basically a drag queen in the form of a puppet:


 Wayland Flowers died of an AIDS-related illness at the far too young age of 49 in 1988 (when that horrific disease was just beginning to take its toll on the arts. Some day when I'm in the mood to depress everybody, I'll list all the well-known names that were lost.) There were rumors early on that Madame was buried with Flowers, but it turns out he left her and other puppets to his manager, and from time to time Madame is allowed to perform in public with comedians who can successfully mimic her (actually Flowers') voice. My initial response to that was: accept no substitutes. But it may be just what Flowers wanted. His character has outlived him. How's that for memorable?



Finally, we come to perhaps the most successful puppeteer of all time, Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets (Marionette + puppets). There's no shortage of Muppet videos online, thanks to both the continuing popularity of Sesame Street, and fond memories of The Muppet Show, the latter group of characters (now owned by Disney) having appeared in a movie a few years ago, another TV show, and generally still considered a viable commercial property. However, the clip I want to show is from neither Sesame Street nor The Muppet Show (though the star of the clip appeared on both) but a 1971 Dick Cavett Show: 



Well, what did you expect? Cavett had a late night talk show. Of course the humor is going to be a bit more edgy than what you'd see on Sesame Street.

16 comments:

  1. Hi, Kirk!

    I remember Punch and Judy shows. Can't believe anybody thought it was a good idea to expose young children to that kind of violence. Did you notice how some of the kids in the audience were "into it" while others appeared traumatized? I don't remember Fractured Flickers, but I do remember Hans Conreid in the role of Uncle Tonoose on Make Room for Daddy (aka The Danny Thomas Show). Here again we had a supposedly lovable and well meaning family member from the old country whom I found to be stern, domineering and unlikable, and whose Stone Age beliefs about the roles of men, women and children in society were repugnant. Happy birthday in heaven to Hans. I read that he died young, at age 64. I was lucky to be a child of the 50s when Kukla, Fran and Ollie were introduced. Notice in that clip how they kissed and sang to each other rather than trying to club each other to death? I know you'll ask what I thought about the constant violence used by The Three Stooges, and I will admit that I watched their shorts and laughed at their antics, but it was "nervous laughter," meaning I was laughing on the outside while my inner child was cringing because I knew what I was seeing was wrong. I was also alive when Howdy Doody first came on the air. It was not a very nurturing show either, in my opinion, because the characters spent too much time verbally abusing each other. I also remember watching Candice's father Edgar Bergen and his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd in appearances on Ed Sullivan and other shows, and Wayland Flowers & Madame on comedy variety shows and on Hollywood Squares. I am well aware that the A.I.D.S. epidemic claimed the lives of many gifted people throughout the arts. The NBC station where I worked in the 70s carried The Muppets and I voiced promos for that show. I have always admired Dick Cavett and, as I told you, I also greatly admired Tom Snyder. Snyder is long gone, but Cavett is still with us and will turn 83 this year.

    To your puppet post I would like to add the elderly ventriloquist Senor Wences (whom I met and with whom I worked), Shari Lewis and her sock puppet Lamb Chop, Paul Winchell and his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, and my former co-worker at that same NBC station, Marijane Landis, who hosted the puppet show Percy Platypus and His Friends (with Cousin Kiwi).

    Great post, good buddy Kirk!

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    2. Shady, I did a little research on Punch and Judy when preparing for this post. For the first couple hundred years, the pair's antics were directed mainly toward adults. Then around the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th centuries, somebody decided puppet shows were basically kid stuff, and thus Punch and Judy were thought to be kid stuff too, without any real change to the material (all non-copyrighted folklore, based entirely on tradition.) The people who made the film I showed probably didn't even notice that one puppet had another in a noose, so focused they were on the kids reactions. Try and understand it this way. Animated cartoons were once thought to be for kids, and kids only. Suppose that mind set returns 30, 40, 50 years in the future. Also suppose that far from today, old reruns of South Park still exist. Is it that difficult imagining some unwitting mother plopping her child in front of the TV with South Park on, thinking it totally innocent? Obviously, that child is going to see a lot of adult-oriented material. But kids are resilient. I imagine that youngster will grow up without their psyche too badly damaged, just as we all survived the Three Stooges.

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  2. Those old time puppets and ventriloquist dolls always scare the deep hell out of me!!!!! Like hyperventilating.......

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    1. In that case, maddie, I suggest you not watch any of the Chucky movies.

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  3. I don't think I've ever seen a real one, just the ones they mock up on TV/movies.

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    1. You mean a "live" puppet show, Adam? I've seen two or three growing up, but, like you, most of my puppet viewing has been from watching TV.

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  4. Like I never associated golliwogs with black people, nor did I associate the violence in Punch and Judy with real life. I am not sure if I remember Fractured Flickers. I can remember Fractured Fairy Tales.

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    1. Andrew, I had never heard of Fractured Flickers either until, as so often happens on the internet, I stumbled upon it while looking for something else. But Fractured Fairy Tales were a segment on Rocky and Bullwinkle, and were narrated by another great old character actor, Edward Everett Horton.

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  5. Generally speaking, I dislike puppets. Especially ventriloquist's dummies. But I adored Wayland Flowers & Madame. And, of course, who doesn't love the muppets? No one, that's who!

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    1. Debra, that's one reason as a kid I preferred Sesame Street to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

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  6. What great memories. And that video with Hans Conreid. I loved him! I also love good puppeteers and quality puppets. MrRogers Neighborhood was NOT on my list.

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  7. Mitchell, Hans Conreid has one other Bullwinkle connection. He was the voice of the villainous Snidely Whiplash in the Dudley Do-Right segment.

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  8. I remember the Glow Worm with Kermit. I miss the Muppet Show, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales, Dudley Do Right did not like any of the puppet shows.

    cheers, parsnip

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    1. parsnip, it's interesting you and Debra liking the Muppets, but not puppet shows in general. I guess it's a testament to Jim Henson's genius that people don't even think of those characters as puppets.

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    2. Excuse me Kirk. . . . . . . . . the Muppets are real !
      What are you babbling about ? puppets have strings and the same look not at all real !

      Not so cheerful, parsnip

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