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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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9 Things You Might Not Know About National Treasure
Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Released in 2004 to mixed critical reviews but a positive audience response, director Jon Turteltaub’s National Treasure has grown into a perfect rainy-day film. Stumble upon it on a streaming service or a cable channel and the fable about historian-slash-codebreaker Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) excavating the truth about a reputed treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence will suck you in. Check out some facts about the movie’s development, its approach to historical accuracy, and why we haven't seen a third film.


Originally planned for a summer 2000 release, National Treasure—based on a concept by Disney marketing head Oren Aviv and DreamWorks television executive Charles Segars—had a Byzantine plot that kept it in a prolonged pre-production period. Nine writers were hired between 1999 and 2003 in an attempt to streamline the story, which sees code-breaker Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) pursuing the stash of riches squirreled away by Benjamin Franklin and his Freemason cohorts. Filming finally began in summer 2003 when Marianne and Cormac Wibberley got the script finalized. Turteltaub, who spent three years in development before finally starting production, told Variety that “getting Cage was worth [the wait].”


Nicolas Cage and Justin Bartha in 'National Treasure' (2004)
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Fact and fiction blur considerably in National Treasure, which uses history as a jumping-off point for some major jumps in logic. While it’s not likely the Declaration of Independence has a secret treasure map written on it, Franklin and other Founding Fathers were actually Freemasons. Of the 55 men who signed the document, nine or more belonged to the society.


It can be tricky to secure permission to film on government property, which is why producers of National Treasure probably considered themselves fortunate when they discovered that Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame had built a perfect replica of Independence Hall on his land in Buena Park, California back in the 1960s. The production used it for a scene requiring Cage to run on the Hall's roof, a stunt that was not likely to have been approved by caretakers of the real thing.


One of Cage’s cryptic clues in the film is reading a time of 2:22 on the clock depicted on the image of Independence Hall on the $100 bill. Bills in circulation at that time really did have an illustration that pointed to that exact hour and minute, although it was changed to 10:30 for the 2009 redesign. There’s no given reason for why those times were picked by the Treasury Department, leaving conspiracy theorists plenty to chew on.


Speaking with The Washington Post in 2012, guards and escorts for the National Archives reported that the National Treasure films have led visitors to ask questions that could only have been motivated by seeing the series. One common query: whether or not there really is a secret map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. “I call it ‘that’ movie,” guard Robert Pringle told the paper. “We get a lot of questions about the filming.”


Both Cage and director Jon Turteltaub attended Beverly Hills High School in the late 1970s and shared a drama class together. While promoting a later film collaboration, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Cage revealed that Turteltaub had actually beat him out for the lead in a stage production of Our Town. Cage was relegated to two lines of dialogue in a bit part.


Nicolas Cage and Diane Kruger in 'National Treasure' (2004)
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On a press tour for the film, Cage told reporters that he and co-star Diane Kruger bonded by going out at night and singing karaoke. “We’d go and karaoke from time to time and sort of blow it out and be completely ridiculous, which helped, I think,” he said. “I think it was some Rage Against the Machine, AC/DC and some Sex Pistols.”


Popular films often have the residual effect of drawing interest to the real-life locations or subject matter incorporated into their plots. Mackinac Island, site of the 1982 romance Somewhere in Time, has become a perennial tourist spot. The same influence was true of National Treasure and its 2007 sequel, both of which apparently contributed to an uptick in attendance at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.


It’s been over a decade since National Treasure: Book of Secrets hit theaters, but Cage is still optimistic fans of the series could see another installment. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2016, the actor said a third film was in development, with the convoluted writing process slowing things down.

“I do know that those scripts are very difficult to write, because there has to be some credibility in terms of the facts and fact-checking, because it was relying on historical events,” Cage said. “And then you have to make it entertaining. I know that it’s been a challenge to get the script where it needs to be. That’s as much as I’ve heard. But they’re still working on it.”

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How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
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Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]


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