Thirteen Great Moments in Puppet History

by Roy Neinast February 2, 2009
Anyone who doubts puppets are kind of creepy should check out the wood and chicken-wire boneyard currently in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. It's part of “The Puppet Show,” and I'm not quite sure what it's supposed to be doing exactly, but it's definitely not cute and cuddly.

The show has a good mix of video, photography and real puppets, including some motorized dancing dudes from Dennis Oppenheim that greet you at the entrance (and just might get a little annoying for the docents over the coming months).

I checked out the show on Saturday and found myself searching YouTube for even more puppet action once I got back home. Unfortunately, a lot of the artists in the show haven’t loaded their stuff on the Internet, maybe because they’re concerned about notions of artistic control. Now I understand the need to make money and one way of doing that is by restricting the distribution of your work, but it still seems like some of these folks are going out of their way to make sure less people give a damn. What’s the harm in giving a little taste?

Anyway, here’s a baker’s dozen of great moments in puppet history.

Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd in Stage Door Canteen

A ventriloquist with a radio show might sound like some kind of joke, but that’s just what Bergen and his wooden pals had for years. They didn’t always hide in the dark, though, as this film demonstrates.

“The Blue Danube,” Muppet Style

Gonzo and his Pitch Perfect Poultry Orchestra reinvigorate a classic from Johann Strauss II.

Painter, by Paul McCarthy

Not to be confused with the bizarre ramblings of a serial killer (seriously, am I the only one who gets a Buffalo Bill vibe from this guy’s work?), this video is included in the CAMH show. How does it count as puppetry? Because that’s what special-effects engineers call the kinds of body modifications used by McCarthy.

Being John Malkovich

I couldn’t find a clip of the marionette monk humping a wall in front a little girl on the street, so this one will have to do.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Come on, now. You just knew the Star Wars cantina scene was going to be on here. The score by John Williams, those weird alien jazz cats, the overt anti-droid prejudice – this is a cinematic treasure.  

Punch and Judy

Going back to at least the seventeenth century, this traditional English puppet show has been presented in untold variations over the years, including this adaption in Monkey Business, the Marx Brothers flick. (Bonus clip: Kermit and Miss Piggy watch a Punch and Judy show.)

Kara Walker

Did somebody say socio-political shadow puppets? Oh, it was you, Kara Walker? Cool. Your stuff is awesome. Nice job on …the angry surface of some grey and thrashing sea, by the way, which is on view at the CAMH right now.

The Neighborhood of Make-Believe

No trip to Fred Roger’s ‘hood is complete without visiting its attendant puppet playground.

Vietnamese Water Puppets

This genre dates back to the tenth century (take that, Punch and Judy!) and requires its practicioners to stand chest deep in water behind a curtain while manipulating the action out front.

Fulgencio Batista

The Cuban dictator (and United States puppet, get it?) was overthrown by Fidel Castro and pals in 1959, and the rest is history. Really complicated, really divisive history…with lots of iconic facial hair.

Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre

Houston’s own avant-garde puppeteers take on El Fenix, part of Suzan Lori-Parks’s “365 Plays/365 Days” project, and respond with a play of their own.

Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog

This stogie-chomping pup has been a mainstay on Late Night with Conan O’Brien since 1997. Here he covers the third Presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. (UPDATE: Yikes, looks like that clip has been removed. Here's another one, complete with poodle-humping action.)

“Master of Puppets,” by Metallica


1 comment

1 comment

Thom Fountain July 16, 2021 - 23:27

Another great puppeteer was Wayland Flowers and Madame. Hugely popular puppeteer/comedian entertainer in the 70’s and 80’s in the cabaret circuit and television. He did make one film,”Norman, Is That You?”


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