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9 Famous Puppeteers of the 20th Century

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Puppetry has been a form of entertainment since at least ancient Greece, carried on through the antics of Punch and Judy in the Middle Ages. Although the names of most of the skilled puppeteers of old are lost to us now, the age of movies and TV opened up these traditional types of entertainment to millions. The puppeteers of the 20th century are not only known to us, but their work can still be enjoyed long after their time.

1. Bil Baird

You are forgiven if you do not know the name Bil Baird, shown above with his sidekick Charlemane the lion. Baird founded the Baird Marionettes in 1934, and they first performed at the Chicago World’s Fair. He was instrumental in puppet productions in traveling shows, movies and TV, and even ran a marionette theater in New York for ten years. Baird’s puppets participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for several years. Even if you’ve never heard his name, you are familiar with at least one of his productions.

Bil Baird and his wife, Cora Eisenberg, were the hands behind “The Lonely Goatherd” scene in the 1965 film The Sound of Music. That was the same year Baird published The Art of the Puppet. Also around that time, the couple opened up their New York theater, but then Cora died in 1967. Baird continued working with his marionettes until he died in 1987.

2. Burr Tillstrom

Puppeteer Burr Tillstrom was the creator of the TV series Kukla, Fran, and Ollie that ran from 1947 to 1957. Kukla and Ollie were puppets (Ollie was a dragon), and Fran was Fran Allison, who interacted with the puppets. There were also other puppets, all controlled by Tillstrom, with no script. Yes, the entire show was ad-libbed! Kukla, Fran, and Ollie was a huge hit among both children and adults. The cast of “Kuklapolitans,” minus Fran, starred in another series, Burr Tillstrom's Kukla and Ollie, in the ’60s. The puppets reappeared in further series in 1970 and 1975, after which Tillstrom began live touring shows. He continued to work with the Kuklapolitans until his death in 1985.

3. Edgar Bergen

A ventriloquist is a puppeteer with a twist: he interacts with his puppets right in front of everyone, creating the illusion that the puppet is doing its own talking. The most famous ventriloquist of the 20th century was Edgar Bergen. Bergen taught himself ventriloquism, and commissioned a puppet (called a “dummy” for ventriloquists) he named Charlie McCarthy. McCarthy became Bergen’s lifelong sidekick. Bergen’s daughter, actress Candice Bergen, was often referred to as "Charlie McCarthy's sister" when she was young. Bergen had several other regular dummies, most notably the hayseed character Mortimer Snerd. Bergen got his start in vaudeville, and also appeared in movie shorts. Strangely, the ventriloquist and puppeteer gained fame on radio! The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show ran for twenty years, and you can listen to them at the Internet Archive. Bergen later became known to new generations through TV.

4. Shari Lewis

Shari Lewis was an accomplished ventriloquist who was so good at what she did that she is remembered more as a puppeteer. The children she performed for often had no idea that she was the one speaking for the puppet Lamb Chop. Lewis was born Phyllis Hurwitz and grew up practicing skills as an all-around entertainer. She danced, played piano and violin, performed magic tricks, juggled, and studied ventriloquism. Lewis hit the big time when she won first prize on the TV show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in 1952. Lewis hosted several local TV programs. She and her puppet Lamb Chop appeared on The Captain Kangaroo Show in 1956, and she got her own network series in 1960, The Shari Lewis Show. Other puppets on the series included Hush Puppy, Charlie Horse, and Wing Ding, although none were more popular than Lamb Chop. The show ran until 1963, after which Lewis kept a full schedule appearing in both British and American TV shows and performing live, as an actress, puppeteer, and musician. Lewis died in 1998, and her daughter Mallory now performs with Lamb Chop.

5. Señor Wences

Señor Wences was born Wenceslao Moreno in Spain, and became an entertainer with a variety of skills. He was mainly remembered as a ventriloquist who sometimes dispensed completely with puppets or dummies and just used his hand as a character foil! Wences drew eyes on the knuckle of his index finger, and wiggled his thumb against his fist to produce mouth movements. The hand was still a puppet, as his skill led the audience to think of it as a character named Johnny. Señor Wences appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 48 times, as well as other TV shows in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He lived to the age of 103.

6. Supermarionation

Although not a puppeteer, the mid-‘60s AP Films marionette productions deserve a mention here. Several children’s television programs of the 1960s featured a puppetry technique called Supermarionation. Developed by the British production company AP Films, it involved fitting marionette puppets with sensors that controlled movement of the heads and mouths to match a pre-recorded soundtrack of dialogue. The signals were sent via the marionette “strings,” which were really fine wires. It was used in the shows Thunderbirds, Fireball XL-5, Stingray, and Supercar, among others. The technique was parodied in the 2004 film Team America: World Police, by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

7. Fred Rogers

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Before he became the host of the classic children’s TV show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Fred Rogers was an ordained minister and songwriter whose hobby was puppetry. His first TV show had no budget, so he wrote the scripts, built the puppets, and operated and voiced them as well.

8. Jim Henson and 9. Frank Oz

All the previous puppeteers had an influence on the man who became the most beloved puppeteer of them all: Jim Henson. Henson’s first TV show, Sam and Friends, introduced the puppet Kermit, who would become Henson’s alter ego and main sidekick for the rest of his life. Kermit and other puppets that Henson called “Muppets” were introduced nationwide in commercial ads for Watkins Coffee and other clients. The Muppet Rowlf the dog became a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show. The Muppets appeared on quite a few variety shows.

Henson hired puppeteer Frank Oz in 1963 when his wife retired to raise their children. Oz learned the art of puppetry from his parents, who were both professional puppeteers (and also fought the Nazis with the Dutch Brigades). As a child, he performed with his parents and siblings as part of the Oznowicz Family Marionettes troupe. His partnership with Henson lasted until Henson’s death. Oz operated and voiced the characters of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Grover, Cookie Monster, and Bert. He later operated the puppet character Yoda in three Star Wars movies, and provided Yoda’s voice in the two movies that used CGI animation. Frank Oz, unlike the others on this list, is also a famous puppeteer of the 21st century.

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The Muppets lineup was expanded to include new characters for the TV show Sesame Street in 1968, since Henson did not want his “regulars” to be associated only with children. Kermit was the exception. The regular Muppet lineup was cast in the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975, but they were deemed not quite right for that series. The Muppet Show was the prime-time outlet for the more adult side of the Muppets, and it ran from 1976 to 1981. The Henson empire expanded to include Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, The Jim Henson Hour, and a series of feature films cast with Muppets. Henson died at the age of 53 in 1990 from a fast-moving bacterial infection.

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
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Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


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By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


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Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


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Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


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Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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