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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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12 Sharp Facts About Hellraiser
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In 1987, the New World Pictures released Hellraiser, a horror film about a family who opens a puzzle box and invites hell in their lives in the form of pleasure-pain creatures known as Cenobites, who are lead by Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley). Unlike many other horror films at the time, Hellraiser wasn’t a slasher film, and Pinhead wasn’t a boogeyman.

British novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Clive Barker wanted to direct a feature film, so he adapted his 1986 horror novella, The Hellbound Heart, into Hellraiser. Despite the graphic nature of the film, it’s really a love story between Julia Cotton and her demented—and skinless—lover Frank  ... whose relationship just so happens to revolve around sadistic torture.

Hellraiser was produced for around a $1 million and grossed $14 million, making it lucrative enough to spawn nine sequels, including this year’s Hellraiser: Judgment. (Bradley hasn’t starred in a Hellraiser film since 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations, and Barker didn’t direct or write any of the sequels, most of which were direct-to-DVD releases.) As we near the 30th anniversary of its release, let's take a look back at this horror classic.

1. THE ORIGINS OF PINHEAD CAME FROM A 1973 PLAY.

Before Doug Bradley uttered the catchphrase “We’ll tear your soul apart,” Clive Barker directed him in a 1973 play called Hunters in the Snow, in which Bradley played the Dutchman, a torturer who would become the basis for Pinhead.

“The character I played in Hunters, the Dutchman, I can see echoes of later... Pinhead in Hellraiser," Bradley said. "This strange, strange character whose head was kind of empty but who conveyed all kinds of things.”

Barker’s mid-1980s short story “The Forbidden”—which was adapted into Candyman—from his "Books of Blood" series, featured the first incarnation of Pinhead’s nails. “One image I remember very strongly from 'The Forbidden' was that Clive had built what he called his nail-board, which was basically a block of wood which he’d squared off and then he’d banged six-inch nails in at the intersections of the squares,” Bradley said. “Of course, when I saw the first illustrations for [Pinhead], it rang a bell with me that here was Clive putting the ideas that he’d been playing around with the nail-board in 'The Forbidden,' now 10, 15 years later. He’d now put the image all over a human being’s face.”

2. CLIVE BARKER CAST “REAL ACTORS.”

Unlike many other horror movies of the time, which were more concerned with gore than great acting, Barker insisted that they look for real talent in the casting. “I’m not just taking the 12 most beautiful youths in California and murdering them,” Barker told The Washington Post in 1987. “I’ve got real actors, real performers—and then I’m murdering them.” The “real” refers to British theater actors like Bradley, Clare Higgins, and Andrew Robinson.

3. PINHEAD WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE ON THE POSTER.

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Bradley said the filmmakers wanted skinned Frank to be on the poster, but the studio said no to the grotesque imagery, so Pinhead was used on the poster instead. “Maybe that came from Clive, because what we get in that image of Pinhead with the box is the heart of the Hellraiser mythology,” Bradley said. “If you put The Engineer or the skinned man on the poster, it’s an amazing image but it’s just an image, and it could come from any movie.” Bradley thought using Pinhead’s face made more sense. “The big success of Pinhead is because the image is so original, so startling. It is just an incredible image to look at, and that made a big difference in terms of the public's perception of the movie.”

4. NO ONE KNEW THAT DOUG BRADLEY WAS PINHEAD.

Bradley’s Pinhead mug was everywhere—on the cover of magazines and on the movie’s poster—but no one mentioned his name. “It was great to be so heavily featured, but there was no way to prove to anyone that it was actually me,” Bradley said. “Those who were following Hellraiser at the time were wondering where the guy with the pins was! Well I can tell you where I was—I was sitting at home in England, watching it all happen from the sidelines.”

5. THE CENOBITES' DESIGN WAS INSPIRED BY S&M CLUBS.

In the box set’s liner notes, Barker wrote that the Cenobites's “design was influenced amongst other things by punk, by Catholicism, and by the visits I would take to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam.” Costume designer Jane Wildgoose created the costumes, based on Barker’s instruction of “repulsive glamour.”

“The other notes that I made about what he wanted was that they should be ‘magnificent super-butchers,’” Wildgoose said.

As for Pinhead, Barker said he “had seen a book containing photographs of African fetishes: sculptures of human heads crudely carved from wood and then pierced with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of nails and spikes. They were images of rage, the text instructed.”

6. IT'S REALLY A LOVE STORY.

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Julia is forced to bring men back to her house and murder them for Frank so that he can replenish his flesh. Barker looked at Hellraiser as more of a love story, with Julia committing these heinous acts in the name of love, not just to be brutal for no reason.

“She’s not committing murder in the way that Jason in the Friday the 13th films commits murder—just for the sake of blood-letting —she’s doing it for love,” Barker told Samhain. “So there is a sympathetic quality about her, enhanced hugely in my estimation by the fact that Clare Higgins does it so well.”

7. BARKER’S GRANDFATHER INSPIRED THE PUZZLE BOX.

When a person twists the box, known as the Lament Configuration, it summons the Cenobites from the gates of hell into the individual's world. “I wanted to have access to hell in the book and in the first movie, explored by something rather different than drawing a circle on the floor with magical symbols around it,” Barker told WIRED. “That seemed rather stale and rather old.”

Barker explained his grandfather was a cook on ship and brought back a puzzle box from the Far East. “So when I went back to the problem of how to open the doors of hell, the idea of [using] a puzzle box seemed interesting to me. You know, the image of a cube is everywhere in world culture, whether it’s the Rubik’s Cube or the idea of the [Tesseract] in The Avengers movies. There’s a lot of places where the image of a cube as a thing of power is pertinent. I don’t know why that is, I don’t have any mythic explanation for it, but it seems to work for people.”

8. ROGER EBERT WASN'T A FAN OF THE FILM.

Roger Ebert gave Hellraiser just a half star when he reviewed it in 1987. “Who goes to see movies like this? This is a movie without wit, style, or reason,” he wrote, adding that, “I have seen the future of implausible plotting, and his name is Clive Barker.”

9. SOMEONE HAD THE JOB OF MAGGOT AND COCKROACH WRANGLER.

In England, there was a law in which cockroaches of both sexes weren’t allowed on set, because they could have mated and caused an infestation. So Barker had to hire someone to oversee the situation. “The wrangler, this is the honest truth, had to sex the roaches,” Barker told an audience at a Hellraiser screening. “They were all male. And we had a fridge. They move very fast, so the only way to slow them down was to chill them. We chilled the maggots and the roaches. We'd open it up and it was all reassuring. It was fun.”

10. BARKER PREFERS "HELL PRIEST" TO "PINHEAD."

In The Hellbound Heart, the Cenobite with pins sticking out of his head is called The Hell Priest. One of the special effects guys who worked on the movie gave the character his nickname. “I thought it was a rather undignified thing to call the monster, but once it stuck, it stuck,” Barker told Grantland.

In 2015, Barker published a sequel to The Hellbound Heart, The Scarlet Gospels, which features Pinhead getting annoyed when people call him that—as well as Pinhead’s demise. “He will not be coming back, by the way," Barker said. "That I promise you."

11. A HELLRAISER VS. HALLOWEEN MOVIE ALMOST HAPPENED.

In an interview with Game Radar, Bradley said the success of Freddy vs. Jason led Hellraiser distributor Dimension Films to flirt with a Hellraiser vs. Halloween film. “I was actually getting excited by the prospect of this because Clive said he would write it and John Carpenter said he would direct it,” Bradley said. “I actually spoke to Clive about it a couple of times and he was interested in finding the places where the Halloween and Hellraiser worlds intermeshed.” But Moustapha Akkad, who owned the rights to Halloween, extinguished the idea.

12. THE BRITISH BOARD OF FILM CLASSIFICATION HAD TO CHECK THAT NO RATS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THE MOVIE.

While the MPAA requested that a spanking scene be cut for its American release, England's BBFC agreed to release the movie as it was, if they were assured that the rats used in the film weren’t hurt. “I had to bring three remote-control rats into the censor’s office and make them wriggle about on the floor,” producer Christopher Figg told The Telegraph. “They wanted to be sure we hadn’t been cruel to them.”

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When Ric Flair Traveled to North Korea for the Biggest Wrestling Show of All Time
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Whether he was in a dimly lit convention center in front of a few dozen people or headlining packed arenas around the globe, the thrill of a hot crowd was more than enough motivation to keep “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair in the ring decade after decade.

Decked out in his signature fluttering robes, Flair became the face of '80s pro wrestling through his athletic prowess, showmanship, and the machismo-soaked poetry he spewed at the microphone. So when the opportunity arose for him to perform against the most popular wrestler in Japan’s history in front of more than 150,000 fans, Flair couldn’t resist.

There was just one catch: The match would take place in North Korea, in front of a sea of people who didn’t know who Ric Flair was, much less what American professional wrestling was all about. It was the first time an American wrestling company would visit the "Hermit Kingdom," and what followed was a rare glimpse into a notoriously reclusive regime for a star-studded event that has been lost to time.

The show, which took place on April 28 and 29, 1995, was dubbed the International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace by the North Korean government. For a country that is usually intent on keeping outsiders away, inviting 300,000-plus people to cram into Pyongyang's massive May Day Stadium over the course of the two-day event seemed to be an about-face for the notoriously secretive regime.

"American tourists are almost never granted visas," wrote The New York Times's Sheila Melvin in 1996. "Yet less than a year after [Kim Il-sung's] death, North Korea was allowing outsiders to attend an International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Perhaps it was an effort to showcase a North Korea ruled by Kim Jong Il."

The key to uniting communist North Korea with American grapplers was the legendary Japanese wrestler—and embattled politician—Antonio Inoki. With his political career in limbo, Inoki saw participation in this event as a prime opportunity for a diplomatic win in Japan due to his positive relationship with the North Korean government. He was, after all, a protégé of the iconic wrestler Rikidōzan, who had become something of a propaganda symbol in North Korea following his death in 1963.

To make the show the global spectacle that the North Korean government wanted it to be, Inoki, who ran New Japan Pro Wrestling, set out to gather up some of the marquee names in American wrestling. He got in touch with Eric Bischoff, president of America's World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The two had a working relationship, and Inoki wanted Bischoff to bring some of his best talent to North Korea to perform; Bischoff happily agreed. He even got Bischoff to convince Muhammad Ali, a one-time opponent of Inoki's, to join them in greeting the crowd.

Antonio Inoki

By 1995, Bischoff’s WCW was playing a never-ending game of catch-up against Vince McMahon’s WWE (formerly WWF), so an opportunity to see his organization showcased at such a large event—and in such a hostile country—had the potential to be a defining moment for the company. While WWE dominated the U.S. wrestling scene by teaming up with MTV in the '80s, a show in North Korea could potentially get WCW worldwide attention.

The key to the show was Inoki wrestling in the main event against an American star. Originally, he approached Bischoff about getting Hulk Hogan, the biggest name in wrestling at the time. “So I asked Hulk, and I might as well have asked him to row a boat to Pluto," Bischoff told Sports Illustrated. "It was not gonna happen.”

With Hogan out, Bischoff approached Flair. Viewing a match against the legendary Inoki as another coup in an already stellar career, Flair readily agreed. The trip promised two things he lived for: pro wrestling and the type of adventure he could talk about—and embellish upon—for years to come.

“I just thought, number one, it’d be cool to travel with Muhammad Ali," Flair told USA Today in 2014. "Number two, it was a challenge, and I just thought it would be an experience to remember later in life.”

Flair wasn’t the only performer headed to North Korea; he was joined by other ‘90s wrestling mainstays, including Road Warrior Hawk, the Steiner Brothers, Chris Benoit (under the guise of Wild Pegasus), Scott Norton, and 2 Cold Scorpio.

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The trip got off to an ominous start. When WCW consultant Sonny Onoo informed the Japanese embassy of the trip, he was told, “You understand we cannot guarantee your safety.” The warning fell on deaf ears, and a rickety military transport plane soon brought the group from Japan to the heart of North Korea’s communist government.

Upon landing, “almost immediately, they separated us into groups of two and assigned each of us a handler, or 'minder' as they called it,” Bischoff recalled. Everyone was stripped of their passports and subjected to a carefully manicured tour of the country, including paying their respects to the late Kim Il-sung, North Korea's Supreme Leader until his death in 1994.

After being indoctrinated with a speech on their “Great Leader,” the government officials gave Bischoff and his fellow wrestlers flowers to leave in front of a statue of Kim Il-sung.

“They buy it for you and then charge you," Orville Schell, who reported on the event for the Asia Society, told Sports Illustrated. "You have to put it in front of the statue and then they take videos of you. And then they take the flowers back and sell them to the next guy.”

Scott Steiner
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When it came time for the actual event to start, even the wrestlers—some of whom had been doing this for decades—were at a loss.

“The first time I got on the ropes and looked out there, I looked to the very top of the stadium,” wrestler Scott Steiner told Sports Illustrated. “They were like toothpicks, that’s how small they were. I was like, 'Wow, I can barely see them, how are they seeing me?' It was mind-blowing. But it was a fleeting moment. After that, I locked into the match.”

Despite the size of the crowd (which was rumored to be 150,000 on the first day and 190,000 on day two, though reports vary), the audience remained almost completely silent throughout the event—a far cry from the nonstop chants and cheers the American wrestlers were used to. But there was good reason for that: They likely had no idea what they were even watching.

“I think initially they expected it to be more like amateur wrestling,” Flair said. “[They] would ask me how [these wrestlers] could do this to somebody, you know, a wrestling move. I would say ‘I don’t know, they couldn’t do it to me.’ They probably thought they were getting duped a little bit.”

Even Muhammad Ali, who was “essentially a political prop” for the event, got a positive, albeit unremarkable, reaction from the people when he waved from his seat, according to CNN’s Mike Chinoy, a reporter brought over to cover the show.

Of course, when you want a reaction, there are few in the history of the wrestling industry better than the show’s headliners. Flair/Inoki main-evented the second night, with Inoki getting the win over Flair in about 15 minutes. More impressive than a choreographed melee between two legends was the fact that they had the audience in the palms of their hands. The two had put butts in arena seats all over the globe for decades, and even in an unfamiliar communist country, they hit their marks.

“Those two guys go out there and took that crowd from nothing to pandemonium. It was just amazing,” wrestler Scott Norton, who was the main event during the first night, said.

As with everything on the show, there were motives outside of just a fantastic match. One specific photo from the match—of a battered Flair being slammed around by an enraged Inoki—became part of a deluge of North Korean propaganda leaflets that were dropped over Seoul in late 1995.

After the final bell rang, the fight wasn’t over—at least not for the cadre of weary American wrestlers looking to get back home. Before they were able to return to Japan, then make their way back to the U.S., the North Korean government made one very unsettling request of Flair: They wanted him to read a statement basically saying that after visiting North Korea, he understood that the country could dominate the United States.

Flair refused to recite their requested language, but agreed to make a more diplomatic statement, praising this “beautiful and peaceful country” and saying, “His Excellency, Kim Il-sung, will always be with us.”

Even though it broke the all-time attendance record for a wrestling event, there wasn’t much to celebrate: In the United States, the event hadn't garnered much curiosity, and there were only scattered news reports covering its aftermath. To the wrestlers, it was just another show. Later on that year, WCW released part of the event as a U.S. pay-per-view special titled Collision in Korea; the event drew 30,000 buys—a paltry sum in comparison to the company’s other shows. What should have been a political moment draped in neon spandex soon faded into obscurity.

In 2001, McMahon’s WWE bought WCW and its tape library, yet the company rarely references the event, nor has it ever released Collision in Korea on its expansive WWE Network, which features nearly every other WCW show. There are theories about why the event seemed to disappear: WWE likes to maintain the claim that the company’s WrestleMania III, which drew (a disputed) 93,173 fans to Michigan's Pontiac Silverdome in 1987, holds one of the highest attendances for a wrestling show. Having a rival's event in North Korea basically double that number in just a single day might hurt the prestige of their own accomplishment.

According to wrestling historian Dave Meltzer, “WWE, they want to claim these records, so this kind of hurts that narrative." Bischoff was more blunt, saying the North Korea show is simply “an inconvenient fact for the branding and the positioning that the WWE is so great at.”

Despite feeling like hostages in a foreign country and wrestling to near-silence in front of a confused audience, there’s no denying the significance of the event—even if the world has seemingly forgotten all about it.

“Were they paying customers? I don’t think so,” Bischoff said. “Maybe. But the fact is, over the course of two nights, 350,000 people came to a stadium and watched professional wrestling with some of the biggest stars of the time. I think that’s a phenomenal achievement.”

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