Puppetry has been entertaining us ever since ancient Greece, and the likes of Punch and Judy have carried on the tradition in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the names of the most adept puppeteers from that era may mean little to us now.
TV and movies, however, have made modern puppets, along with those pulling the strings, accessible to millions. The finest puppeteers from the 20th century became stars in their own right and their work has continued to live on. Here are the top five most beloved puppets from that era.
Henson’s first show on television, Sam and friends, introduced the world to a puppet by the name of Kermit. The cute frog would go on to be Henson’s sidekick for the remainder of his life. Kermit, along with other puppets known as the “Muppets” made their debut in national commercials for such clients as Watkins Coffee. Rowlf the Dog shot to fame as a regular “cast member” on The Jimmy Dean Show and the Muppets made appearances on a number of variety shows.
In 1963, Henson hired Franz Oz when Henson’s wife decided to retire in order to focus on raising their children. The new recruit learned puppetry from his parents who were professionals in the art (and who also fought with the Dutch Brigades against the Nazis). He performed alongside his parents and siblings as a child. Oz’s successful partnership with Henson continued until the latter passed away. He voiced such beloved characters as Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, Bert, Grover, Animal, and Fozzy Bear. He later went on to provide the voice of Yoda in numerous Star Wars movies. Oz is the only one on this list who is also a successful 21st-century puppeteer.
Before he became known as the host of the beloved children’s show Mr Rogers Neighbourhood, Fred Rogers was a songwriter and ordained minister who treated puppetry as merely a hobby. He didn’t have a budget for his first television show so he wrote his own scripts, built all his puppets, and even voiced and operated them. A one-man band, indeed!
A ventriloquist is a special kind of puppeteer: he has conversations with his puppets in front of an audience, having them suspend belief just long enough to believe that the puppet is actually speaking for himself. Edgar Bergen was the 20th century’s most famous ventriloquist. He taught himself the art and commissioned a puppet he called Charlie McCarthy, who went on to become his very famous sidekick. Oddly, considering the medium, The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show ran on the radio for 20 years. Edgar is the father of actress Candice Bergen.
While not a puppeteer, a technique from the 1960s productions company AP Films deserves a place on this list. A number of children’s TV shows from the decade featured a particular technique known as Supermarionation. The British productions company developed the technique which involved inserting sensors into marionette puppets that controlled the movement of the puppet’s heads and mouths to match the pre-recorded dialogue. It was employed in such shows as Supercar, Stingray, Fireball XL-5, and Thunderbirds.