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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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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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