Stories of the American Puppet


Perhaps the most important thing proved by “Stories of the American Puppet” is that its subject is too big and absorbing to cover adequately in an hour. The video rushes through so many artistic developments and personalities; some only barely mentioned in passing, that you realize puppets deserve a multi-part series.

This documentary was first shown on PBS in 2001, when brothers Mark and Tony Mazzarella won an Emmy for writing it. At least that’s what the press release says, which we’ve found surprisingly impossible to confirm at either the Emmy site or IMDB. Stylistically, it’s your basic collection of talking heads and film clips, united by the narration of Dan Lauria, whose avuncular tones seem to boom the phrase “a profound influence on puppetry in America” every few minutes.

The chronological approach begins with re-enactments of basic puppetry ideas as performed by itinerant performers who imported European folk traditions (such as Punch and Judy) into early America. These are hand puppets, of course, but we also see the dancing planchette puppets and we hear about the impact of shadow puppets and European marionette shows in the 19th Century.

A lengthy tribute is given to Tony Sarg, literally a giant name in 20th Century puppetry. He created what we know today as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons; these are marionettes in reverse, controlled from the bottom instead of above. He was a Broadway hit and had many traveling shows. He made short films with silhouette figures and stop-motion animation. Most importantly, he published books explaining his craft and trained a new generation of puppeteers, including Margo Rose, who in turn mentored Jim Henson.

Following parallel tracks, the documentary also discusses pioneering puppeteers who used the form with the serious intent of little theatre, making productions of “The Emperor Jones” or “Joan of Arc”, sometimes with huge figures two or three times the size of humans. Remo Bufano is a big name here, and his large rod puppets are so wonderful that they cry out to be gone over in greater detail. So many names and projects are touched on in passing, illustrated with tantalizing stills and, if we’re lucky, rare footage, that we get a sense of an art in ferment before WWII.

New media toss up new artists. Edgar Bergen became the nation’s most famous ventriloquist through radio. Early TV was a boom time for puppet shows because they were simple, cheap and intimate, and we see clips of “Howdy Doody”, Paul Winchell, “Rootie Kazootie”, “Foodini the Great”, Shari Lewis, Burr Tillstrom’s “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”, and perhaps the most revelatory, Bill & Cora Baird’s delightfully witty “Life with Snarky Parker”, an obvious influence on Henson.

This short-lived marionette show from 1950 is based on verbal wit and character humor, and the story is told or hosted by a lanky piano player with a burning cigarette in his mouth who seems inspired by Hoagy Carmichael. Any remaining footage of this show deserves to be released on DVD. The standard reference book, “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present”, drops the astonishing information that it was produced and directed by Yul Brynner!

Winchell, Tillstrom, the Bairds and Lewis will all deserve their own episodes in our mythical 13-part puppet series of the future, because what we glimpse of their work is wonderful. An archival interview with Lewis, who died in 1998, mentions her debt to “Captain Kangaroo”, (but there are no clips from him). Also interviewed are the aforementioned Margo Rose and several puppetry experts. John Bell of Emerson College gives us a breathless list of women puppeteers, making the gender point. An African-American troupe of the 30s also has a clip to make a similar point about the multicultural opportunities of this field; one photo of Sarg’s earlier troupe indicates it was integrated with at least one black man, but this is not elaborated upon.

Of course, there’s a lengthy tribute to Henson which doesn’t neglect his youngest pre-“Sesame Street” work and also has “Muppet Show” clips. The show mentions that Rowlf the Dog was the earliest Muppet, though it doesn’t specify his regular role on “The Jimmy Dean Show”. Henson’s rude “Saturday Night Live” characters also aren’t mentioned.

Just when you’d think the show was over, the last few minutes manage to shoehorn in footage of Bread and Puppets, a troupe of late ’60s anti-war protest/street-theater artists that lead to several modern performance artists. There are more blink-and-miss-them mentions with intriguing, frustratingly brief clips and the Broadway success of Julie “Lion King” Taymor.

Whew. The DVD throws in a bonus section of some of the footage that was excerpted in the show, but these are in most cases only slightly longer excerpts of one or two minutes rather than complete programs. The only complete items are the 1898 Edison short “Dancing Chinamen”, (a marionette film), and the delightful “Tony Sarg’s Stonehenge Circus” (1921). There is another Sarg cartoon is in the DVD box “Treasures from American Film Archives”.

Another Sarg film has sound and evidently dates from the ’30s or possibly ’40s (early TV?); it’s a proscenium filming of a stage production called “Arabian Nights”. Where does this footage come from? None of the extras are presented in any context, such as year or provenance. Obviously, some are theatrical shorts or TV clips, but that’s not always so.

Ironically, the press release for reviewers has more details and perspective on some of these than the viewer will get. The one-minute Bufano clip is evidently from a UCLA performance. Tillstrom’s striking “Berlin Wall” piece, a pantomime using bare puppet less hands, which also seems incomplete, is from the short-lived but legendary series “That Was the Week That Was” (1964) which won him a Peabody award.

RATING 6 / 10