Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bil Baird's Marionettes

I know she's just a puppet but va-va-va-voom!! This wooden creation is that of the late great Bil Baird - American puppeteer of the mid to late 20th century. Not exactly a household name to most - but some may recall the famous marionette scene in the 1965 movie "The Sound Of Music" - with all that yodeling and the dancing goats - yes, those were Bil Baird puppets.

Anyway - just had a bit of a flashback today remembering how my sister-in-law Joan had brought me as a kid to an actual Bil Baird puppet show. It's a hazy memory - might of been a production of Pinocchio, I'm not sure - and it might've been held at the Bil Baird puppet theater that used to be at 59 Barrow Street in Greenwich Village - - and no, Bubbles (pictured above) wasn't there - but I do recall seeing many of Baird's marionettes after the show, up close and personal, upstairs above the stage - where I also got my first ever glimpse at many friends of Mr Baird's who were also puppeteers... most notably muppeteers from the Jim Henson group!

With some further digging I found out that Bil Baird (along with his wife Cora) lived in that very same six-story building I was in. It housed a theater which held 193 seats - offered children afternoon programs as well as evening revues for adults (probably featuring Bubbles!) and attracted international puppeteering talents - many of whom eventually ended up working with Jim Henson, who was also a huge Bil Baird fan and student! Later, Henson credited the inspiration for his Muppet Show program to Bil and Cora's 1950 TV show "Life With Snarky Parker".

Bil Baird's career spanned over 60 years, he put on puppet shows from New York to The Soviet Union and India. His Marionettes starred in the Ziegfeld Follies, broke box-office records on Broadway, was part of the 1964/65 World's Fair, and danced on early television shows including Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar and Sid Caesar. Scour through YouTube and you'll see he did hundreds of commercials and public service announcements - some of which feature one of his most popular puppet creations, Charlemagne The Lion.

After Bill passed away in 1987 at the age of 82 (his wife Cora had passed away in '67) over 600 of his handcrafted puppets were auctioned off just a few blocks away from where he lived at the Greenwich Auction Room on 13th Street. Some of Baird's more famous puppets were given to the Charles H MacNider Art Museum in Mason City, Iowa where Bill grew up.

An excerpt from Baird's obituary read: "He grew in recent years to look a bit like an elf himself, fey and silver-haired, with twinkling eyes and a little beard, as he labored away in his Barrow Street workshop. A visitor there in the early 1980’s said he alternately resembled a medieval wizard and one of Santa’s helpers in the midst of walls and ceilings dripping with puppets and marionettes."

Funny - it's the little details that sometimes stick out in your head... as I can recall those same walls and ceilings "dripping with puppets and marionettes"... in particular I can recall a donkey marionette - hanging within my reach, and yet I knew I'd better get permission before reaching out to touch it - which I was granted and I did. Very carefully I just sort of took my forefinger and pushed upward from underneath one of it's hoofs - and just as I expected it to, the leg bent amazingly lifelike - the donkey's hide had a surface of smooth, crushed velvet - it's eyes were saucer-like, with big goofy protruding teeth. I may have even let out an involuntary giggle. I had just finished watching a show where many of these creations were dancing, jumping, and creeping about - and now I was studying it's mechanics - I was fascinated.

Before I left the theater I took one last look around. High above my head was a line of can can dancers - the types you'd see at a burlesque show in France. Ingeniously Bil Baird had constructed them so that they would always kick up their legs in perfect unison - they were attached at the hips! The operator would pull one string and all their left legs would kick - they'd pull another and all the right would do the same. Little did I know then that I was looking at something that I'd probably never see the likes of again - a dwindling art form that I'd be looking back at with a bittersweet feeling of nostalgia forty-three years later...

Click here to enjoy some more of Bil Baird's imaginative marionette creations - most of which you will probably never see again in your lifetime!

UPDATE: October 9, 2016
As it turns out, it WAS a production of Pinocchio I saw - seeing this pic (below) reminds me of the very moment I first saw this scene - I was already fixated at that very mysterious chair opening behind Pinocchio's head, and rightfully so... as Pinocchio lied his nose grew more and more (obviously a pole being pushed through the back of his head) until it practically reached the first row in the audience! I must've been one smarmy 12 year old kid to have seen through that magical moment!

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