All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Bil Baird was like a god to me, albeit a minor deity, who took a back seat to the all-powerful omnipotent Walt Disney. I first encountered him in the Hampton School auditorium, when I was in the 5th grade. And my world, since then, was never quite the same. Making puppets, or, at least, attempting to, beginning many, completing few, became my thing. That was, of course, just one of the many pastimes I found to fill my time, which included everything, from creating aliens, with rolling tennis balls for eyes, to tying fishing flies. Not to mention, constructing Rube Goldberg like mousetraps, designed to bring ‘em back alive.
I’ll never forget the day Bil Baird entered my life. I was ten, at the time. At Hampton Elementary school we occasionally saw movies. These were usually educational films. Some, to my delight, were produced by Disney. There was even one, in which The Seven Dwarfs fought malaria mosquitoes. These showings would take place, in shifts, in the auditorium, usually on Fridays. By the end of the day, the entire school would have seen the movies.
One Friday, there was a double bill, two films by Bil Baird! They were made for the telephone company to teach good manners when using a party line. The first was called “Party Lines” and the second “Adventures in Telezonia”.
These films opened my eyes! The marionettes were beautifully made. Their faces were so artfully animated that they, actually, seemed to change expression. And the puppets moved in a unique and agile way, as if they were weightless, and alive. I was mesmerized. So much so, that when the classes changed, I did a brave and brazen thing. On sudden impulse, as my class filed out of the auditorium, I felt compelled to stay behind and hide between the rows of seats. Then, I popped up again, and took a seat, as the next group filed in. I saw the films three times, that day. Nobody in my class, missed me.
After that, at home and camp, I often attempted to make puppets. Later, Bill and Cora Baird and their marionettes appeared regularly on TV. There was a show called “Life with Snarky Parker.” I loved the puppet’s abstract styling. They had a look that was unique, and as distinctive as Disney, but different. And, technically, they were amazing. The shows were often slow and corny, and, in spite of my fascination with the puppets, excruciatingly boring. But I endured these shortcomings, gladly, to gaze in admiration at the exquisitely made puppets. Bil Baird’s marionettes made Howdy Doody look like Doody!
In the early days of television Bil Baird was omnipresent, I saw him nearly every day, enduring Life with Snarky Parker, just to see the puppets. Later on, his pint-sized actors appeared in “specials”, like Peter and The Wolf, starring Art Carney, and they even made some TV ads. One series of these, featured Elsie the Borden Cow. She, along with Elmer, who ended up as glue, and their young calf, Beauregard are hanging around, behind me, now!
These frequent appearances made Bil Baird far more tangible than the elusive, exclusive, Disney, who, in those early days of TV, appeared in only one special, every year. I find it quite surprising, how many people who visit Mouse Heaven, profess to never having seen a Bil Baird Puppet, or recognize his name. Then, I mention that his puppets were in "The Sound of Music," and they say, Oh Yeah! The reason his name comes up is, simply, because nobody enters here, without being drawn to "Bubbles La Rue."
It’s not like Bil Baird is a category of collectibles. In his lifetime, there was little generated, by way of Bil Baird merchandise. Essentially, there was one rubber like puppet of his signature lion, Charlemagne. I played with mine incessantly. One time, my friend, Bucky, and I took turns operating him, as he dramatically lip-synced an entire two hour recording of Aida. The same toy, without his mane, became a regular, “Pookie,” on the Soupy Sales Show. But, apart from that, there was nothing to collect. Until, that is, after Bil’s death, when miraculously, the lion’s share of his puppets and marionettes went up for auction, at the Greenwich Auction Room, in NYC, on September 19, the day after my birthday in 1987! Whatta day!
Alas, with each string pulled, the prices rose. And I came face to face with the reality of not having enough money. Up to this time, the things I had collected, within reason, had been within my means. I wish I had budgeted more carefully, and chose more wisely. Early in the auction, when I had no idea how high the prices were going to go, I thought I could afford to bid on these bugs, of which there are four. As the auction progressed, I might have wished that I had saved that money to bid on things I wanted more. The spider is my favorite of the four. His multiple legs are cleverly rigged to move, in unison.
I was particularly drawn to Elsie the Cow and her Family. In retrospect, I think that desire began when I was ten and saw them all, Elsie, Elmer and Beauregard, beautifully carved out of fresh creamery butter, at the Michigan State Fair. The puppets proved inordinately expensive, and put a serious dent in my resources. As bad luck would have it, I was bidding against the Borden Company. The young man sent to execute their bid was heatedly conferring with his employer on the phone. I can’t believe that I outbid the Borden Company. Not having won the puppets, the Borden bidder got up and left. This made the Elsie load that followed later, a little more affordable. There were two animated busts of Elsie, used for close-ups in the ads, and a bunch of amazing extra heads.
When I was an awe struck kid, I really thought it was part Magic, and part my infatuated imagination, that made Bil’s puppets seem to change expression. It wasn’t, until the Bil Baird auction, that I fully realized my childhood memories had been enhanced by the fact that the puppeteers were, simply, changing heads. So, here they are, in a dramatic display of Bil Baird’s Wizardry. This showcase, in the hall, still holds much enchantment for me. It contains the disembodied extra heads of Elsie and her bovine Family, seemingly, suspended in space, against a background of deep black velvet.
Noel Barrett, who is a Baird fan, too, and I were there. All the leading lights of puppetry were there, as well. And Puppeteers, who had spent their lives operating Bil’s puppets, were on hand to put each and every puppet through its paces, one more time, as they came up for bids. It was both a joyous, and a sad occasion, as puppeteers, who had spent their lives with these puppets, knew they were pulling their strings for the last time. Some had tears in their eyes.
The reason these photos of the auction show such disarray, is because Noel and I were there on set up day. The only way one could see some of these puppets was by climbing a ladder. There on the right, very blurry, are my cows to be. And on the left, you can make out a large spectacular Dinosaur. It was made for Baird's production of the Carnival of the Animals. Noel bought this fantastic fossil at the auction, and hung it in his in-house elevator.
Sometime later, he sold the Dinosaur to me. Now it hangs, here, in "The Mouse Heaven Museum of Natural History."
Here is one more photo of the set up, and the blurry Dinosaur is front and center. But the one object that is in focus, peering over his tail bone, is an apparition of beauty, known as, "Bubbles La Rue". She was created in 1942, when I was five years old. And she was the one Puppet in the auction that I was determined to own.
I had been infatuated with her ever since I saw her picture in Bil Baird’s book “The Art of the Puppet.” Of all the images in the book, that one small black and white photo spoke to me. I never dreamed that I would ever have a chance to own her. Now, here she was, in person, hanging from the rafters.
I climbed a precariously tall ladder to behold her. I did so, discreetly, hoping no one else would notice her, hanging up there, so inconspicuously. I knew, whoever beheld her, would want her too!
The bidding was Hot and Heavy. A puppeteer, who knew Bubbles well, was there to operate her. When she appeared, a gasp rose from the audience. My heart was beating wildly. Her every move was magic. I held my paddle in the air, and didn’t put it down. With every string the puppeteer pulled, the bidding rose. Every little bump and grind cost me a hundred dollars. I was suffering. As fascinated as I was to see her perform, I was wishing she would stop, already! Finally, the bidding began to slow down. Bubbles was doing everything she could to keep it going. And just as the bidding came to an end, a few seconds, too late (I got her) she did her special thing!
Thank God, she waited until the bidding was over. Had she done it before, it would have cost me many dollars. So here she is, on a pedestal of her own, in a place of honor in Mouse Heaven. She’s glad to be here, where it’s never cold. The potbellied stove stays alight, all winter.
So what is her special trick, you might be wondering? I won’t, merely, describe it; I’ve arranged for her to do it for you. When Bubbles did her strip tease act, many years ago, she appeared on the stage, fully, and glamorously, clothed. Piece by piece, she removed each article of clothing, slowly, with lots of exotic dancing, in between. Finally, when she had taken off everything, within the bounds of decency, she removed one final thing. Can you guess what it might be? No, it wasn’t her sparkling G string. It was something else, instead. Do you give up? The answer is : her head!
That was the finale of her act, she reached up and took off her head! She could only do it, once. And then, that was the end! But, if you Scroll Down, past this picture, she will do it for you, again and again.
There is a footnote to this story. Six months after the auction ended, I got a call from Jesse Bien, the owner of The Greenwich Auction Room, who I had gotten to know. He was offering me an opportunity to own a famous puppet, one of Baird’s best known, “Heathcliff”, who was Snarky Parker’s Horse, on “Life With Snarky Parker,” as well as co-starring in many other shows. It seems the man, who won him, at the auction, had paid for him, but never came to get him. Now, Bil’s son, Peter Baird, was looking to sell him. The original buyer's payment was put in escarole, in case he should return. But, in the meantime, Peter was offering him to me. Would you believe, for three times the auction price? Snarky Parker’s horse! I bought him, of course!